With just three wins in their last thirteen, and just three weeks or so to the trade deadline, it looks as if the Rangers are about to embark on something they've never really done in modern times: cash in now in order to help rebuild for the future.
A slow start to the season, followed by a period of prosperity has been capped off with a dismal period of non-competitiveness, compounded by injuries to five starters and a drop off in the play of Henrik Lundqvist. The latter probably was the only reason the Rangers managed to be competitive at all this year, with the veteran netminder covering up the mistakes for a team which has struggled in their own end going back a couple of seasons at least.
In past years the team management might have clung to the hope of an improbable turnaround, and become buyers instead of sellers at the deadline. Such was the case in the late 1990s under Neil Smith, and then in the follow-on period leading up to the 2004-05 lockout with Glen Sather in charge, but this time things will be different.'
Of course General Manager Jim Gorton has the advantage of recent success to lessen the blow. Those team from 1997-98 through to 2003-04 saw the team fail to qualify for the playoffs for their longest stretch in franchise history. There was trememndous pressure to do something now, couple that with poor drafting and perhaps some bad luck with guys like Stefan Cherneski and Dan Blackburn - both of whom suffered career ending injuries after showing some promise - meant that making the playoffs would have been a big success.
Having made the playoffs in 10 of 11 seasons since the 2004-05 lost season, the Rangers of today are much better positioned to make a more measured adjustment, and that appears to be the plan based on recent reports and the announcements today.
For some time we've heard rumors suggesting that impending UFAs Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Nick Holden were available for the right deal. That seemed somewhat confirmed with the announcement from Nash himself, that he had been asked for, and provided a list of teams he'd be willing to accept a trade to.
Today the news continued with the placement of 2017 re-signing Brendan Smith being placed on waivers, no doubt hoping that someone might take him off the Rangers hands, but at the very least consigning him to Hartford where he'll likely play out a good portion of his remaining 3+ years, assuming he isn't able to regain his form.
Finally the Rangers management - Gorton and Sather both signatories - released a letter to fans, forecasting changes . The letter of course does not provide specifics, but does provide a window into the thinking as the team approaches the February 26th trade deadline, and the best chance to cash in on aging assets that might otherwise depart for nothing or warrant significant commitments simply to keep them on the roster.
At this point the team has just 29 contracts committed for next year, and a largish batch of 15 RFAs, though only J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei and Jimmy Vesey are currently on the Rangers roster. A further four players have just one year remaining before they become UFAs - Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, Peter Holland and Steven Kampfer. It means the team will have a projected 25-28 million to spend next season, barring any additional moves, and perhaps greater flexibility in the 2019-20 season.
It would seem likely that a change behind the bench is also likely, and the comments today from Gorton saying that Alain Vigneault was a good coach, but refusing to commit to him coming back next season, suggests that we're likely to see new staff next season.
What this means for veterans like Lundqvist, Zuccarello, Staal and McDonagh remains to be seen. Lundqvist for his part says he wants to play for just one team, and with 3+ years remaining on his contract, it would seem that he's likely to get that wish...as painful as it might be at times.
Staal too has three plus years remaining, and with $3.1M of Girardi's buy-out hitting the books next season, ti seems unlikely the Rangers will be able to afford a buy-out of either he or Smith.
This will be a new experience for many more recent fans, but there have been periods like this for the Rangers as the team naturally cycles. We can hope that this time will not be as bad as the last, and making changes now will at least give the team an opportuntiy to make some choices that wouldn't be available if they were to chase the dream one more time.