by Mark Owens
Acquiring Christian Backman for a fourth-round pick helps offset the loss of Paul Mara and the addition of Fredrik Sjostrom adds skill to the fourth line.
Adding Backman to the mix creates competition among Backman, Marek Malik (who is playing very well right now), Mara, and Jason Strudwick for the last two slots among the top six defensemen. Apparently, Backman is even less physical than Malik but has the skating ability to keep up with speedy teams like the Hurricanes, Canadiens and Senators, possible first-round opponents. It will be interesting to see if the Rangers can tolerate having both Backman and Malik in the same lineup.
Marcel Hossa for Sjostrom, at worst, is a wash. Obtaining two minor leaguers for former #6 draft choice Al Montoya is a bit depressing. Since Henrik Lundqvist emerged as the franchise goalie in the 2005-2006 season, Ranger fans had hoped to package Montoya for an impact player, but Sather probably held on to Montoya for far too long. Montoya’s trade value completely evaporated once Miika Wiikman surpassed him as the Wolf Pack’s starting goalie several weeks ago. Hopefully, this trade closes the chapter on a series of regrettable, wasted first-round draft picks. (Hey, at least it only took Garth Murray to obtain Hossa.)
Josh Gratton adds another enforcer to the organization (not a bad idea) and David LeNeveu will probably compete with Steve Valiquette and Wiikman next season for the role of Henrik’s backup.
On paper, Sjostrom and Hossa appear to be almost identical, underachieving players. Both were first-round draft picks (Sjostrom 11th overall in 2001, Hossa 16th in 2000), are similar in size (Sjostrom 6’1, 217; Hossa 6’3, 220), and both have averaged .27 points per game in their career.
However, unlike Hossa, who has struggled all season with just one goal, Sjostrom’s career appears to be on the upswing. His 10 goals this season are a career high. At the very least, the Rangers are adding a player who is more physical and can actually finish around the net once in a while. Sjostrom is two years younger, faster and does not have a superstar brother in the league. He is also a threat on the penalty kill, with two shorthanded goals this season.
With Colton Orr currently out with a bruised sternum, Sjostrom is expected to skate on the fourth line with Blair Betts and Ryan Hollweg tonight. The fourth line will welcome his ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone, a skill the HBO line does not possess.
What happens when Orr returns and the Rangers play teams like the Flyers, Sabres and Canadiens, who have all taken liberties (cheap shots?) with Ranger players in the past few weeks? Might Renney keep Orr and Hollweg in the lineup and scratch someone like Ryan Callahan or Nigel Dawes? I doubt it, because for the first time all season the Rangers seem to have three balanced, productive lines. My guess is Sjostrom replaces Orr from here on, except against some of the dirtier teams. Orr’s skills are not required in the playoffs, when fighting all but vanishes.
Let’s just hope Renney doesn’t misuse Sjostrom on a top-three line, like he did Hossa, and keep the HBO line intact. It’s ironic that Hossa played his last game as a Ranger on the fourth line, something that should have happened at least 20 games sooner.
Ranger fans should be happy that Sather did not mortgage the team’s future by trading prospects and high draft picks for rental players and overpaid veterans, although adding one mean defenseman instead of another high-priced softie would have been nice. Perhaps Sather will address that need in the offseason.