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Rangers look to be deadline sellers following All-Star break

New Yorkers are some of the most knowledgeable, yet impatient sports fans in the world. Their passion and loyalty for the teams they root for every single day, week, month, and year is unparalleled and something to marvel at. It is the city that never sleeps, and that translates directly towards the passion for the professional sports franchises that call this city their home. For a successful, large-scale metropolis like the Big Apple, there should logically be very successful sports teams. Teams like the New York Yankees and New York Giants have exemplified what it means to be successful, championship franchises over the decades. But teams like the New York Knicks and New York Jets have seen their fans accept mediocrity and futility, knowing that a rebuilding process will ultimately lead to a winning culture in the future. It is usually obvious which direction a team goes in, but if there is one team that has confused and puzzled fans over the years, look no further than the New York Rangers. As one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises, the team has seen over 90 years of historic moments, while maintaining one of the most loyal and passionate fanbases in sports. They are, however, the least successful of the Original Six teams with just four Stanley Cups, one Stanley Cup in the last 78 years, and none in the last quarter-century.

After the 2004-05 full season lockout, the Rangers have been a postseason staple, giving their fans hope that Lord Stanley will bring his cherished Cup back to the greatest city in the world. But all these runs ended in heartbreak and disappointment, and it all came to an ugly end last season, when the Rangers missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign. They traded some household names, such as Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, and J.T. Miller, and gradually began a rebuilding process, something this franchise rarely went through in its nearly century-long history.

After firing head coach Alain Vigneault at the end of the season, New York brought in a new, inexperienced coach in David Quinn. Quinn had tons of success at the collegiate level with Boston University, and had the expectation of developing the young talent that the Rangers piled up for the future.

Currently, the Rangers sit at a 21-20-7 record with 49 points and are on the outside looking in. They are well behind several teams for a wild-card spot and have long ways to go if they want to secure a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.

At this point, fans have reluctantly accepted that this team will most likely miss the postseason for the second consecutive year, something that hasn’t happened since the Rangers missed the playoffs in seven straight seasons from 1997-2004. But with over a week off after their last game, a 3-2 road victory against the playoff-bound Boston Bruins on Saturday, Jan 19, the Blueshirts once again entered the All-Star break as an enigma. But this one is a little bit different than last season. Last year, the Rangers entered the All-Star break with a 25-20-5 record, and in reasonable position for the postseason. But a putrid start to the second half, specifically losing eight of their first 10 games, resulted in Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton having to pull the plug. This season, the Rangers entered with no postseason aspirations and had the goal of further developing their young core, while most likely continuing to sell when the trade deadline approaches. Throughout the season, the Rangers have been the definition of inconsistency. They lost eight of their first 11 games, followed by a stretch of nine wins in their next 11 games. Just when things started to look optimistic, the Rangers proceeded to lose 10 of their next 13 games. However, they closed out the 2018 calendar year with two strong road wins against the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues. Their 2019 year did not get off to a great start as they lost five straight games in regulation, the first three by five goals each – a 7-2 home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a 6-1 road loss to the Colorado Avalanche, and an embarrassing 5-0 road loss to the lowly Arizona Coyotes. After their fifth straight loss, a 4-3 home defeat to their crosstown rival New York Islanders, coach Quinn called out his team for their lack of effort and consistently poor play. That sparked the team to win four of their next five games, which is where the Rangers currently stand.

As far as the All-Star Game is concerned, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was the lone Rangers representative. This was his fifth All-Star Game appearance, though players such as Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Kevin Hayes deserved more consideration. Lundqvist’s 15-12-7 record is not exactly flattering, and his 3.01 goals-against-average and .908 save percentage are well below his career marks. However, the Rangers netminder has made his way up the ladder on the all-time wins list. The victory against the Bruins was his 446th, passing Terry Sawchuk for sixth all-time in NHL wins. Lundqvist is one of three active goaltenders in the top-10, along with Roberto Luongo, who is fourth, and Marc-Andre Fleury, who is ninth.

Zibanejad leads the Rangers with 27 assists and 44 points this season, while Kreider leads the team with 22 goals and is well on track for his first career 30-goal season. Hayes has been the most consistent Ranger, with 33 points and an excellent two-way game at the center position. His value has certainly increased, which is why he will likely be the main dealt at the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

Longtime fan favorite Mats Zuccarello is also among the players that may be dealt. Zuccarello struggled mightily throughout the season but has appeared to pick things up, playing on a line with Kreider and Zibanejad. He has scored 10 points in his last seven games, including three multi-point games. The Kreider-Zibanejad-Zuccarello line has been on a scoring tear, registering 23 points with 11 goals, 12 assists in New York’s past five games, in which the Rangers are 4-1-0. All three forwards could end up being on the market within the next few weeks, as New York is still miles away from contending for a playoff berth, let alone a Stanley Cup.

The Rangers’ special teams have been up-and-down, as they are 14th on the power play with a 20.6 percent clip, but 25th on the penalty kill at just 77.0 percent. Their defense has been very porous, as they give up the fourth-most shots per game at 33.3, the sixth-most goals per game at 3.38, and have the second-worst faceoff percentage at 47.4 percent. The team’s defensive core, led by Neal Pionk, Brady Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Marc Staal, has underperformed tremendously. Skjei, who signed a six-year, $31.5 million extension this offseason, and Shattenkirk, who signed a four-year, $27 million contract as a free agent, have not lived up to expectations, as both have just 14 points and plus/minus ratings of -7 and -9, respectively. Pionk and Tony DeAngelo have given the Rangers some hope for the defensive core, as both have stepped up in their increased roles.

Young forwards such as Filip Chytil and Brett Howden have seen much more playing time and are cornerstones for this team’s future.

Backup goaltender Alexandar Georgiev has been subpar this season, after a stellar stretch of games to close out last season. The Rangers do have an excellent goalie prospect playing for the Kontinental Hockey League’s SKA Saint Petersburg named Igor Shestyorkin, the tenth-best overall prospect in the NHL.

New York’s ninth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Vitali Kravtsov, is the league’s top-rated prospect and recently helped lead the Russian junior national team to a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships.

Clearly, the Rangers have shifted their focus towards rebuilding, which means any of their veteran players and potential free agents are up for grabs. Hayes and Zuccarello are free agents after this season, and it appears that they will not be in the Rangers’ long-term plans. Trading Zibanejad will require a king’s ransom in return, as he has been the team’s most productive forward.

There is a very likely chance that the players that Ranger fans have become synonymous with over the past decade will no longer be donning the New York blue, white, and red.

Everything will be much clearer as to who stays and goes once the second half of the season commences, and the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches closer and closer. Despite winning three straight games to close out the first half, Ranger fans should not be fooled into thinking about the playoffs. This team is rebuilding and will most likely be major sellers at the trade deadline, ultimately leading to a second straight campaign with no postseason hockey. However, the future is bright and that is something that continues to give fans optimism and passion for the team they love.

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