Hayes, Zuccarello part of Rangers’ ‘retool’ or saying goodbye to Broadway?

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There’s a 10-point hill to climb for the New York Rangers to try and get back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But even a run over the next month won’t mean much if the teams ahead of them continue picking up points.

On that note, it’ll be an interesting few weeks for general manager Jeff Gorton, who a year ago raised the white flag on the 2018-19 NHL season and signaled that the team was heading in a new direction. Changes came and will continue to come, especially with three key players set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Forwards Kevin Hayes (10-23–33,  40GP) and Mats Zuccarello (8-16–24, 35GP), along with defenseman Adam McQuaid find themselves dubbed as trade bait with the Feb. 25 3 p.m. ET deadline approaching. Hayes, whose name has been linked with the Colorado Avalanche for some time, is back in the lineup after missing nine games with an upper-body injury. Zuccarello missed time last month with a groin injury and has been dealing with an infected foot but should be back Thursday versus New Jersey. McQuaid was acquired in September from the Boston Bruins, but it seemed clear at the time he would eventually be flipped for future assets.

The Rangers want to continue to get younger and faster in preparation for an off-season where they can use cap space to their advantage with a free agent market that could be littlered with big names like Artemi Panarin, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Jeff Skinner. Moving the 26-year-old Hayes, whose agent has spoke with Gorton but no negotiations have taken place yet about an extension, would free up future room and bring back assets in return. Same for the 31-year-old Zuccarello. Draft picks brought back can either restock the prospect cupboard or used in future trades to get immediate help.

Both have expressed their desire to stay, but Hayes and Zuccarello understand the nature of the business.

“At the same time, everybody knows how I feel about wanting to stay. I’ve loved my five years here,” Hayes told the New York Post over the weekend. “I love the organization, the guys, the staff, the city, the fans. I really can’t see myself anywhere else. But it’s also kind of out of my hands.”

“You know what, I think everyone knows my opinion about everything. I love it here,” Zuccarello earlier this season about the trade talk. “This is my ninth season. This is where I grew up to become — hopefully — an adult. Maybe half [an adult]. But this is home for me, my second home.”

In Hayes’ case, when he settled with the team on a one-year deal and avoided arbitration last summer, it set up this exact scenario. Gorton was given a period of time to take a look at the Rangers’ youth down the middle — Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden — and decide whether keeping the 26-year-old center fit his plans. A long-term extension is in the player’s plans, but the GM will have to weigh if locking him up for five years or beyond at somewhere between $5-6M a season is ideal, or if there’s another plan of attack to strengthed the position in the off-season.

Henrik Lundqvist is still playing at an elite level, and with two more years left on his contract after this season, this “retool” by Gorton shouldn’t continue into next season. Two down years and plenty of roster reshaping should have the Rangers back to playoff contenders for the 2019-20 season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.