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Rangers have options at trade deadline

Gage Skidmore | Flickr

With the second half of the season underway and the Feb. 25 trade deadline quickly approaching, the New York Rangers have serious work to do.

They have pending free agents that will almost certainly be dealt by the deadline, most notably Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes, two longtime fan favorites.

Both Hayes and Zuccarello, along with many other players on the roster, know that their Ranger days are numbered.

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Rangers’ plan was to ensure that their top players continued to excel and increase their trade value.

The Rangers’ first game after the break, a 1-0 home loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 29, had some positive aspects despite the final result.

They outshot Philadelphia 38-19 and played solid defense throughout, after giving up a goal 100 seconds into the game.

The Rangers regrouped a 4-3 road victory against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 31, led by their top line. Mika Zibanejad recorded a hat trick and an assist, Zuccarello registered three assists and Chris Kreider scored a third-period goal. Hayes, who led the second line, also scored a power-play goal.

In their next game, a 3-2 home loss against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 2, that top line was at it again.

Trailing 3-0 midway through the second period, Zuccarello scored with just under four minutes remaining, while Zibanejad and Kreider picked up assists.

Hayes also scored for the Rangers, while Zibanejad picked up another assist. Despite the loss, the Rangers’ four best forwards all had at least one point in the game, adding more optimism as the trade deadline slowly approaches.

Two nights later at Madison Square Garden, New York suffered a disappointing 4-3 overtime defeat against the Los Angeles Kings. Kreider and Zibanejad each had a goal and an assist, while Zuccarello picked up another assist. Defenseman Adam McQuaid also scored his first goal as a Ranger to put his team ahead 3-2.

But the Rangers gave up a game-tying goal with less than a minute to go and the game-winning goal 25 seconds into overtime. New York had three leads and had the Kings on the ropes but could not close the deal.

Despite the early second-half struggles, the Rangers had a lot of positive signs.

Zibanejad has been on a scoring tear as of late and he even set a franchise record by registering a point on 10 consecutive Ranger goals.

Zibanejad now has at least one point in nine of the past 11 games, with 10 goals and eight assists during that streak. He also set career highs with his team-leading 31 assists and 52 points after the Kings game.

Zuccarello, in particular, has revived his game this season, with 14 points in his last eight games, and has given Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton some hope that he can get more high-quality assets than expected in a potential trade.

The Norwegian forward has struggled mightily this season, but found his game just before the All-Star break.

His excellent play could snag the Rangers a second-round pick plus a prospect or even a first-round pick in exchange for the winger, who can play on any contender’s power play and top six unit.

Kreider leads the Rangers with 24 goals and is well on pace to shatter his career-high of 28 goals that he scored back in the 2016-2017 season.

These three forwards have carried all of the offensive load, with 39 points in the last eight games playing on the same line.

Defensively, Brady Skjei has seen his game improve, but he still lives with uncertainty about his Rangers future.

The 24-year-old defenseman has not fully played up to expectations after signing a six-year, $31.5 million deal this summer.

As an offensive-minded defenseman, Skjei has struggled to adjust his game defensively. What has helped Skjei settle in was the Dec. 16 return of McQuaid after a two-month absence due to a lower-body injury.

When Skjei plays with McQuaid, who excels defensively, it enables him to use his skating ability and contribute offensively. But McQuaid may not be with the Rangers for long, as he is also a likely trade candidate.

Young defenseman Tony DeAngelo has gotten himself back into form after some struggles and what head coach David Quinn called “maturity issues.”

The other forwards need to step their game up as well, as guys like Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich have massively disappointed and been frequently demoted and scratched from the lineup.

Every game is crucial, as the focus is on making sure the top forwards keep producing and increasing in value as the trade deadline approaches.

Rebuilding is difficult and the Rangers are taking the right steps in the process.

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