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February 23, 2017 | 3:55pm ET
Rangers must think defense first with deadline near

BY PATRICK KEARNS | TheFourthPeriod.com

NEW YORK, NY -- The trade deadline is drawing near, which means that about a dozen teams that have been tricked into thinking they're contenders, because of the NHL's silly points system, will make a panic trade.

Somebody will trade a first-round pick for a bad player, and plenty of teenagers will change affiliates while the club that owns their rights decides the 35-year-old defenseman is the way to go.

For fans, it's fun though. There's always that obsession with another team's players, coveting the unknown over the known quantity. The New York Rangers are what they are this point: a top tier offensive team and a bottom tier defensive team and the latter is where they should be looking for help.

First, let's ignore goaltending for obvious reasons. Henrik Lundqvist looks great again; Rangers fans can breathe a sigh of relief, blow out the match and wash the kerosene out of their No. 30 jerseys.

Offensively, some have advocated for addressing the fourth line, which would be foolish. The Rangers already have a bevvy of forwards that populate the bottom-six and adding another would be at the cost of the development of a player like Pavel Buchnevich, who is currently making up the line with Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg.

"Depending on the flow of the game, when I can roll four lines and get that line out there, we usually have pretty good pace," Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said. "That line, with [Fast] who is such a hard worker, and [Oscar Lindberg] has been playing better, so they're getting some offensive zone time and they're getting some looks."

Vigneault then admitted that the flow of the game sometimes hampers his ability to roll that fourth line consistently, which makes it even sillier that they would give up assets to address the fourth line.

"But sometimes the flow of the game, when there are special teams on either side you lose that flow of four lines and they don't play as much as I would like to get them out there," he said.

It really is a perfectly efficient fourth line that brings a swarming skill set that most other teams don't have. There's probably not a better passer on an NHL fourth line than Buchnevich.

The most obvious name connected to the New York Rangers, for what seems like longer than he's even been in the league, is Kevin Shattenkirk. Any Rangers fan who's watched a home broadcast can tell you Shattenkirk grew up idolizing Brian Leetch. The New Rochelle native is seemingly a perfect antidote to the gripe afflicting the team defensively.

Sure, Shattenkirk will be a free agent at the end of the year and all signs point to him joining the Rangers, but the time to get him is now.

"I think right now, what I'm trying to focus on is right here and now, and it's tough for me to think about that," Shattenkirk told Arch City Sports about the rumors. "That's something that you have to think about once you're done playing for the season, and we'll cross that bridge when it comes. There's obviously other situations that are presenting themselves now and that's one that you kind of forget about sometimes."

This season, the Rangers are already halfway to the Stanley Cup. They're in the playoffs, barring a historic collapse, and will likely have an easy route through the Atlantic Division. You basically now get to bypass the mucky march of a regular season schedule, because it's in the rearview.

Lundqvist, tomorrow, will be that much older and one day closer to retirement and abandonment of the skills that make him one of the best talents of a generation. He will not be good forever and may not be good in 2018.

The Rangers defense has struggled mightily, it's no secret. Especially the right side. And Ryan McDonagh is having arguably his best year a pro, which makes it all the more enticing to pair him with a legitimate, top-two defenseman. Anyone that thinks Shattenkirk isn't that has not watched him play.

Plus, you can recoup assets in the offseason. To re-sign Shattenkirk, you likely trade Rick Nash and get that first-round pick back. And if you move Michael Grabner -- which probably won't happen, but you could if he's not taken in the expansion draft -- that likely gets you back whatever you gave up for Shattenkirk.

You don't know what next year holds. Even if -- and let's be real, it's a big if, anyone speculating otherwise is lying -- Shattenkirk comes to the Rangers, things could go horribly wrong. Lundqvist could get hurt or regress, guys could have tough shooting years. Then the bridge of cards the team built with short-term deals could collapse the year after. This is likely as deep as this team will be offensively for a long time.

It's hard to tell what Shattenkirk will command in terms of a trade. If the price is a first-round pick and a non-roster player, the Rangers should be all over it. Even top prospects like Ryan Gropp and Ryan Graves should be on the table.

If it's not Shattenkirk, the Rangers cannot go into the playoffs with their defense as constituted. It's asking for a first-round exit and wasting another year of Lundqvist.

Josh Manson in Anaheim is a name a lot of people have thrown out there and he would fit very well with this defensive corps. He's still relatively young, cheap, and the definition of a steady, stable player. Anaheim has too many defensemen anyways. The Rangers should shoot for Sami Vatanen, but that likely takes one of J.T. Miller or Kevin Hayes, as would trades for other young studs like Jacob Trouba or Dougie Hamilton. Those are offseason trades.

Cody Franson is likely an upgrade over Kevin Klein and Dan Girardi on the right side, but still, not an acquisition that would put them over the top. He could help a powerplay that has been struggling and in need of simplification.

With that trade deadline less than a week away at this point, we'll get a real sense of what the New York Rangers brass thinks of this team. If past years are any indication, the Rangers will make a splash.

Patrick Kearns is the New York Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.

 
 
 

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