Nearing the final stretch, the New York Rangers are dominating the Eastern Conference standings, currently sitting seven points above the second place Boston Bruins and third in the overall league standings.
Winners of seven of their past 10 games, the Rangers are as strong at home (19-7-2) as they are on the road (19-8-3).
The Blueshirts rank amongst the top defensive teams in the league, sitting second in goals-against average (1.97) and fourth on the penalty kill, with the eighth fewest shots-against per game.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist currently leads the league in save percentage (.940) and shutouts (seven), is second in GAA (1.78) and fifth in wins (28).
Some observers are suggesting Lundqvist’s performance is worthy of not just a Vezina Trophy, but also a Hart Trophy nomination.
Despite the Rangers’ obvious defensive strength and lofty position in the standings, there is some concern about their offensive production.
Though they’re currently 12th in goals per game, the Rangers are 21st in shots per game, while their power play is a woeful 27th.
Only two players – right wingers Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan – have 20 goals or more. Centers Brad Richards and Derek Stepan have 18 and 12 respectively, while left winger Artem Anisimov has 11.
Callahan and Stepan are both on pace for career-best seasons, but the same cannot be said for the others.
Gaborik is on pace for 38 goals and 70 points, an improvement over last season’s 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games, but still down from his 42-goal, 86-point effort two years ago.
Richards, an expensive free agent signing who had 77 points in 72 games last season with Dallas, is on pace for only 56 points, which would be his lowest output in 60-or-more games in his career.
Anisimov’s production (on pace for 15 goals, 40 points) seems to have flatlined, compared to last season’s 18 goals and 44 points, though of late he’s rediscovered his offensive touch (seven points in his past nine games) after being reunited with Gaborik and Stepan.
Left winger Brandon Dubinsky, who had a career-best performance (24 goals, 30 assists, 54 points) in 2010-11, has struggled, on pace for only 35 points.
The Rangers offensive game had generated media speculation GM Glen Sather will look for some scoring punch before the trade deadline. It went into overdrive early last week when it was reported Sather had contacted the Columbus Blue Jackets about right winger Rick Nash.
Nash would unquestionably provide a significant boost to the Rangers offense and could play on either the first or second line.
It’s not a guarantee the Rangers will land Nash, as he’d have to agree to waive his no-movement clause, but there are some observers who consider them front-runners for his services.
One would assume the possibility of the Rangers landing a star such as Nash by the trade deadline would be greeted with enthusiasm by the New York media, yet the reaction has been noticeably cool.
Foremost among those expressing concern was Larry Brooks of the New York Post, who worried about the unintended consequences the acquisition could have upon the Rangers’ team chemistry, as well as the impact his long-term $7.8 million per season cap hit would have on efforts to re-sign Lundqvist, Callahan and Gaborik before their contracts expire.
Brooks also warned it could remove the Rangers from bidding in 2013 for potential UFAs such as Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
Taking on Nash’s salary would significantly limit cap space for a club that has already invested more than $36.8 million per season in Gaborik, Richards, Lundqvist, Callahan, Dubinsky, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.
Even if Dubinsky, who’s been mentioned as part of a possible return for Nash, were taken out of the equation, that only reduces the annual average cap hit down to around $32.6 million. Adding Nash’s annual cap hit pushes it to $40.4 million.
If Sather passes on Nash, that doesn’t mean he’s not shopping around for offensive help, as he could pursue more affordable options, such as Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky or Montreal’s Andrei Kostitsyn.
Still, there’s concern among some Rangers followers Sather will throw caution to the wind and roll the dice on Nash, as he did in the past with high-salaried stars Pavel Bure, Alex Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr.
Back then, of course, the Rangers were struggling to reach the playoffs, plus there wasn’t a pesky salary cap to worry about.
Given his team’s current position in the standings, plus the potential salary cap and team chemistry issues, Sather might be more inclined to find a more affordable deal (in both salary and return) that won’t shake up his already solid lineup.
We’ll know for certain Monday afternoon.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.