Rangers in danger of slipping out of playoff race

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At this rate, the New York Rangers might not even need to debate their possible fate as trade deadline sellers.

Tuesday presented the latest dispiriting loss for the Rangers as they fell 6-3 to the Anaheim Ducks despite generating a 44-31 shots on goal advantage. NHL.com’s Lisa Dillman collected some morose quotes from Henrik Lundqvist – who certainly had a tough night – but Mats Zuccarello most succinctly captured the mood and discomfort.

“It’s hard to be positive in times like this but nothing is going to help by thinking negative,” Zuccarello said. “I think we’ve got to take a lot from this game. A lot of guys stepped up, a lot of guys played good. But we gave up too many easy goals and you’re not going to win hockey games like that.”

Lundqvist didn’t make it through the first period (16:21) before making way for Ondrej Pavelec, but that wasn’t the only telltale sign of struggles for the Rangers.

Alain Vigneault said he “saw enough” after J.T. Miller made a turnover, gluing the young forward to the bench. One can understand sending messages, yet Miller’s been a key scorer for a team that needs any boost it can get.

This was the play in question: Ryan Getzlaf picked off Miller’s pass, leading to Adam Henrique‘s breakaway goal.

No one likes mistakes, but such decisions revved up the latest round of “Fire AV” talks from Rangers fans, who frequently cringe at lineup choices involving younger players such as Pavel Buchnevich.

Trouble ahead

So far, the Rangers have lost the first three games of their road trip (combined score: 13-6) and close the stretch off with a Thursday date against the Sharks in San Jose before getting what might be a much-needed All-Star break.

While this current road trip is nearing an end, the Rangers are going to pay for their home-heavy start to 2017-18 with what could be a blistering month-plus of challenges beginning in February. From Thursday’s game in San Jose to a March 10 contest in Florida against the Panthers, the Rangers play seven games at home versus 13 on the road.

They already trail the Capitals, Devils, Flyers, Penguins, and Blue Jackets at the moment, with very little separation from the Islanders in the Metro races. Such a stretch could really douse any momentum the Rangers have toward making a playoff spot, a possible reality that management seems aware of, as rumors swirl that they’re considering being trade deadline sellers.

And really, a big fall might just convince the Rangers to “pull off the Band-Aid” and retool.

Selling points

You could argue they already dipped their toes in the water by trading away Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta for futures.

Yes, such moves opened up room to sign Kevin Shattenkirk, but the Rangers generally got younger, and there are opportunities to do more of that. Consider some of the trade chips the Rangers boast:

After dealing with some truly puzzling puck luck for much of 2017-18, the goals are really starting to come for Nash. He scored two goals against the Ducks, representing his third multi-goal output in his last five games (six goals, one assist).

Nash has his critics, but he could be a scary weapon if asked to be more of a secondary scoring option after years of being asked to carry much of the offensive burden for the Rangers and previously the Blue Jackets.

  • Would the Rangers part ways with a young, pending RFA like Miller or Kevin Hayes?
  • Also, there are some guys with expiring deals in 2018-19 who would maybe stand as too bold to move, but could fetch quite the price. Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh are justifiably beloved by much of the fanbase, yet their affordable contracts could make them highly desirable. McDonagh is 28 and Zucc is already 30, so if it’s rebuild time, those guys might be beyond their primes by the time a rebound is complete.

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Moving Grabner and Nash makes the most sense, but the Rangers have to do some serious soul-searching.

At least they’ve seen this coming, and the next few weeks could very well provide that final push to sell mode.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.