When it comes to the New York Rangers, the writing isn’t on the wall, it’s on team-branded letterhead and it was released to their entire fanbase about this time last year.
There’s an overhaul happening in New York, one that has been underway since last off-season, when the Rangers started the process of retooling or rebuilding — whichever you prefer — by shipping out Derek Stepan. It continued as players such as Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and captain Ryan McDonagh were sent packing by last season’s trade deadline. And the process of shedding more weight, of shuffling the deck further and saying goodbye to more familiar faces, is nearing its second wave.
With the trade deadline approaching, the Rangers front office knows what they are and what they aren’t. That’s the first step, and an important one, in this process. So, as they come out of the all-star break nine points out of the second wild-card spot with a minus-25 goal differential and only a slim likelihood of being able to sneak into the post-season, New York GM Jeff Gorton and Co. understand that this is going to be another year in which the Rangers, one of the league’s biggest budget teams, falls on the side of seller instead of buyer come deadline day. Henrik Lundqvist knows it, too.
Asked about Mats Zuccarello over all-star weekend, Lundqvist admitted that he didn’t want to see his fellow longtime Ranger moved at the deadline. There are emotional reasons for that, Lundqvist said, noting that he appreciates Zuccarello as a person and a teammate. There are performance-related reasons, too. The 31-year-old winger has led New York in scoring in each of the past three seasons, he’s played an important top-line role this season and his eight-goal, 24-point output in 35 games puts him fourth in scoring. “But at the same time, we all understand how this world works,” Lundqvist said, according to NHL.com’s Pete Jensen. “It’s a business, and [there’s] a lot of planning going into trading with teams. We’re in a unique position right now, so we’ll see what happens, but obviously I hope he’ll stick around for many reasons.”
No doubt, Lundqvist isn’t alone in that. There will be more than a few Rangers faithful who fall into the same camp, who understand this is a business but will want to see Zuccarello remain a Blueshirt beyond the deadline and for the foreseeable future. Here’s a spoiler, though: he won’t. And it’s likely that neither will Kevin Hayes. Nor Adam McQuaid. Nor a handful of other tradable assets that opposing GMs could come calling about with the deadline in the offing. This is where the New York Rangers are right now. They’re in a teardown situation where the untouchables — the type of player whose name would come up in trade talks only for Gorton to chuckle before slamming down the phone — are few and far between.
As painful as it might be, though, it’s the right thing for the Rangers. Far too often teams can let sentimentality or the desire to maintain some sort of post-season relevance get in the way of building for the future. It doesn’t appear New York is going to be one of those teams. The proof is in the pudding that it’s the right way forward, too.
Look already at what New York has accumulated in two summers of reconstructing their group. The 2017 draft brought the Rangers Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson, the latter of which was acquired using the first-round selection received in the Stepan trade. The 2018 draft saw a flurry of potential blue-chippers land in the prospect pool, too, as moving out Nash, Miller and McDonagh brought in two additional first-round picks. New York used their three first-round selections to nab Vitali Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. That’s not to mention that sending Miller and McDonagh to the Tampa Bay Lightning also helped the Rangers net Brett Howden and Libor Hajek. All told, New York has added six prospects who have either already made an impact or project to have an impact in the not-too-distant future through the difficult decisions made in the past two seasons alone.
It stands to reason that the positive results New York’s front office has seen in trading existing pieces on expiring contracts for picks and prospects around which they can build a base for future success will continue, as well. And that’s where players such as Zuccarello come in. He’s a prime tradable asset that can net more picks, more proverbial darts to throw at the proverbial board, and maybe even a decent project prospect if Gorton can find a serious enough buyer.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s any easier not to feel for someone like Lundqvist, who has given everything anyone could ever ask of him to the Rangers since his arrival with the organization more than a dozen years ago. One understands his emotional reasons, surely. And it’s not hard to see his competitive reasons, as well. In watching these longtime players move along, he’s watching his chances of ending his career on anything that will even remotely resemble a high note slowly disappear. The 36-year-old, who is nearing his 37th birthday, has two years remaining on his contract after this season and it’s likely the time required to rebuild this thing in New York is going to take longer than that.
As Lundqvist said, though, this is a business. That’s the unfortunate reality of this situation, one that he — most commendably — wanted to continue to be a part of despite being given an out. And when it comes to the business of winning, the only way forward is for the Rangers to take some steps back. Inevitably, that means some painful goodbyes.