Rangers announce roster overhaul following shocking collapse

The New York Rangers have been the definition of an enigma this season. One week, they play complete hockey, string together a couple of wins and look like legitimate playoff contenders.

The following week, they cannot seem to do anything right, suffer a key injury and find new ways to lose games. This particular kind of stretch has been never-ending for the Rangers, in recent memory.

They have had to deal with several long-term injuries to key players like Chris Kreider, Kevin Shattenkirk and Pavel Buchnevich. This has had a drastic impact on the team’s performance on the ice.

The offense has taken a major step back and the defense remains a huge question mark. Even reliable goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been inconsistent as of late, finding himself unable to finish games more frequently than expected. One game, he plays out of his mind, giving his team a chance to win. The next game, he plays terribly and finds himself on the bench not even halfway through the game.

With all these inconsistencies, it is no wonder why there have been trade rumors and speculations swirling around the Rangers after every game.

After two painful losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Nashville Predators in the same week, the Rangers looked to rebound and stay alive in the playoff race with a much busier week.

The Rangers’ first matchup was a difficult road test against the Dallas Stars on Monday, Feb. 5. The Stars have one of the most potent offenses in the NHL, led by their top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, along with an excellent supporting cast of forwards, defensemen and goaltenders.

The Rangers were already missing Kreider, Shattenkirk and Buchnevich, but they were also without defenseman Marc Staal and forward Jimmy Vesey due to injuries suffered against the Predators. The story of the game, surprisingly, was the goaltending, as Lundqvist and Stars' goaltender Ben Bishop were outstanding. The Rangers also made the initial score late in the first period, a rarity for them.

The goal was scored by David Desharnais, and Lundqvist made plenty of big saves to keep the Rangers up 1-0. But that was all the offense the team would get, as the Stars got a goal in the second period, thanks to Seguin, and a goal in the third period, thanks to Martin Hanzal.

Lundqvist made 39 saves, but as was the case in many games this season, the saves were not enough to prevent defeat. The Rangers ultimately fell to the Stars 2-1 and dropped their third straight game in regulation.

Up next, the Rangers returned home for a matchup against the red-hot Boston Bruins on Wednesday, Feb. 7.

Before that game, the team asked forward Rick Nash to give in his no-trade list, as his name had been in numerous trade rumors all week.

Nash has a clause in his contract that allows him to veto any trade to 18 specific teams. That means there are 12 teams that he is willing to accept a trade to. Because the contract was made a few seasons ago, the Vegas Golden Knights, who are in their inaugural season, are not included on either list.

That was not the only drama surrounding the Rangers, as they still had a game to play. It would have been better if they did not show up because their effort against the Bruins was as invisible as could be.

The team had no fight, no spirit and no energy to its game. Nash scored the game’s first goal in the first period, but that was the only positive thing that came out of that game.

The Bruins answered with two goals of their own in that period, courtesy of Riley Nash and Zdeno Chára. They added three more in the second period, courtesy of Patrice Bergeron and Tim Schaller, scoring twice and once respectively.

Lundqvist was pulled after the fourth Bruins goal, the third time in five starts that this has happened. Sean Kuraly added a sixth goal for Boston in the third period. The Bruins ended winning 6-1 in what was one of the most pathetic performances by the Rangers this season.

They consistently turned the puck over and made countless defensive mistakes.

They suffered their fourth consecutive regulation loss, something that has not happened to them since February 2011. Head coach Alain Vigneault called out Lundqvist for his poor play after the game, but that was not the end of it.

A letter addressed to the fans was written by team president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton, and it gave an inclination of a focus toward the future.

The team also waived defenseman Brendan Smith, not even a full year after signing him to a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension.

He has been nothing short of a disappointment and a liability this season. The fans expected this to be the first of many moves the front office would make, as the team was heading toward a complete overhaul of the roster.

With injuries and underachievers crippling the team, the Rangers called up several players from their AHL affiliate, Hartford Wolf Pack.

The team recalled forward Vinni Lettieri, as well as defensemen Neal Pionk and John Gilmour to inject some youth into its roster. The players were suited up for the Rangers’ next game on Friday, Feb. 9, against the Calgary Flames. The game was tied at 1 at the end of the first period, with goals coming from Kevin Hayes for the Rangers on the power play and Brett Kulak for the Flames.

But the Rangers, who were already very shorthanded, suffered yet another injury, as goaltender Ondrej Pavelec suffered a sprained MCL at the end of the first period. Lundqvist came in to replace him at the start of the second period.

The Flames had a 3-2 lead at the end of the period. Michael Grabner scored for the Rangers to give them a 2-1 lead, but the Flames responded with goals by Curtis Lazar and Matthew Tkachuk. It appeared that the Rangers were headed toward another loss, but they found a spark in the third period. Nash tied the game, making the score 3-3 with less than seven minutes into the frame, and Mika Zibanejad gave the Rangers a 4-3 lead on the power play exactly six minutes after Nash’s tally.

Lundqvist made 28 saves in relief to help the Rangers get a much-needed 4-3 victory, ending their losing streak. Pavelec will be sidelined two to three weeks with a sprained MCL, leaving the Rangers shorthanded in the goaltending department.

The Rangers then headed on the road to face one of the league’s elite teams, the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the contest with the best home winning percentage in the NHL and had a dynamic offensive core led by Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers.

The Jets took a 1-0 lead thanks to Ehlers just over a minute into the game, but the Rangers responded in the last minute of the period, courtesy of Mats Zuccarello. The game stayed 1-1 up until the third period, mainly because of the fine play of the goaltenders.

Lundqvist and Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck made big saves and showed why they were both All-Stars this season.

However, with less than four minutes to go, the Rangers grabbed a 2-1 lead, after Vesey, who returned to the lineup after missing three games with a concussion, deflected a Brady Skjei shot past Hellebuyck’s glove.

Grabner added an empty-netter with 43 seconds remaining, his team-leading 23rd goal of the season, and his league-leading seventh empty-net goal this season. Lundqvist made 37 saves and the Rangers hung on for a 3-1 victory.

After four embarrassing losses, the Rangers bounced back with consecutive wins against two of the league’s best teams.

They currently remain in last place in the Metropolitan Division with a 27-24-5 record and 59 points.

The division race remains tight, and several other teams have found themselves struggling during the season’s most crucial time. Consistent division leaders this season, the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets, have both lost seven of their last 10 games.

The New York Islanders have also struggled, finding themselves on the outside looking in. The Carolina Hurricanes have surprisingly found themselves in playoff contention.

The Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers have been red-hot and are all top-three division teams. Despite all this, nothing is decided, but that does not mean the Rangers are not looking to sell.

Gorton will still inquire about potential offers from various teams, as he would prefer to trade veteran players with expiring contracts at the deadline rather than wait for free agency.

The trade deadline is at the end of the month, and there is still plenty of hockey to be played before that happens, or seven games within 10 days to be exact. The Rangers have not missed the playoffs since the 2009-2010 season, and it still remains a possibility.

This is really make-or-break time for the Rangers, and by Feb. 26, it will be more obvious what the Rangers’ focus will be — the present or the future.

SportsFelix MalamudComment