This was going to be a story about how the New York Rangers were in a rebuild. It was going to be a story about how winning was not going to solve the team's long-term goals.
Well, a funny thing happened along the way: the guys on the ice continue to play well despite some glaring shortcomings. Perhaps the Rangers are following the path of the New York Yankees, who rebuilt quickly over one trade deadline.
The Rangers continued their strong start Monday evening with a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators in front of the MSG faithful. As we are now past the quarter point of the season, the Blueshirts hold a playoff spot with a 13-10-2 record. There are still over 50 games left in the season, but teams in a playoff spot by Thanksgiving have over a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs.
However, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton still has some very important decisions to make. First, the team needs to decide what it wants to do with pending free agents Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. Both would yield a fine return at the trade deadline. Hayes should receive an offer from the Rangers as the center is on pace for a career year. But does he want to test the market, where he will surely command a raise over his current cap hit of $5.1 million? Hayes is a player you want to keep, but at the same time, he can't re-sign in New York for nothing.
Zuccarello presents another interesting dilemma. The 31-year-old winger is not having a strong year but the intangibles he brings to the locker room are invaluable to a young team and a first-year coach. Couple that with Zucc being a fan favorite and this is a harder decision than it may appear on paper.
Secondly, this team should not be buyers at the deadline. They have finally turned a weak farm system into one that's producing some promising young players. The Rangers should not foolishly trade draft picks when they aren't considered to be Stanley Cup contenders despite their strong play. This is what makes the Hayes and Zuccarello contracts so much more important. Both players can fetch a combination of prospects and draft picks that can expedite this "soft" rebuild. While the prospect pool is significantly improved the team lacks that "can't miss" guy. There is no Mathew Barzal or Elias Pettersson in the pipeline, and this team really does need a prospect who projects as a first-line center or top-pairing defenseman.
As of right now the "Lose for Hughes" campaign has been put on the back burner as this team is simply not bad enough to likely get a shot at the projected first overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, Jack Hughes.
This is the caliber of player the Rangers need to go from a mid-level playoff team to Cup contender, but that is a story for later in the year. There is also some tangible help available via free agency, but these are stories for the spring. If we stay in the present, there is a young, hungry club with the chance to make a run in a mediocre division.