Yesterday, in advance of this afternoon’s NHL trade deadline, the Rangers acquired four-time All-Star Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for two draft picks and a prospect. It’s the sort of move the Rangers have made several times in the past few seasons — a splashy trade designed to improve the team in the short-term at the expense of the future — and it’s been working. After years of mediocre records, the Rangers have finally learned how to smartly build their roster with a mix of homegrown talent, trades, and free-agent signings. Doing so has transformed them into one of the league’s most competitive teams: They’ve reached the Eastern Conference Final three times in the past four seasons and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. But with a roster built around superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who turns 34 on Wednesday, their window of opportunity to win with their current core of players won’t be open forever, and the team has again turned to a deadline trade to bolster their lineup for the stretch run.
It’s the third year in a row the Rangers have brought in a big name at the trade deadline: Two years ago, they swapped captains with the Tampa Bay Lightning and acquired Martin St. Louis, who has since retired. Last season, they picked up Keith Yandle, an offensively gifted defenseman, from Arizona. And yesterday they added Staal, formerly the Hurricanes’ captain, whose brother Marc has been a Ranger since 2007. In all three moves, the Rangers parted with prospects, future draft picks, or both. (The price for Staal was well-regarded prospect Aleksi Saarela, as well as second-round picks in 2016 and 2017.)
Bringing in big-name players at the expense of the future is a risky strategy that doesn’t always pay off. The NBA’s Brooklyn Nets have foolishly been doing it for years in an ill-conceived attempt to chase a title; the Yankees spent the eighties trying the same gambit. The Rangers, unlike the Nets, have been in a real position to contend in the past few seasons. They’ve consistently been one of the conference’s best teams since 2012, winning eight postseason series in the past four seasons. But as Lundqvist gets older and the team faces a salary-cap crunch, there’s more urgency than ever to go for it now.
Just a few weeks ago, there were questions about whether the Rangers would be aggressive at the deadline this year. After getting off to the best start in franchise history with a 16-3-2 record through 21 games, the Rangers played poorly in December, then alternated wins and losses for nearly the entire month of January. Since then, though, they’ve gotten back on track, going 9-3-1 since the All-Star break. If there had been any doubt that they considered themselves legitimate contenders this season, it likely disappeared over that stretch.
The Rangers currently sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division, behind the Washington Capitals, who are running away with the league. And so the hope is that Eric Staal will provide a spark to an offense that’s historically failed to sufficiently support Lundqvist. (His presence is especially welcome considering the status of Rick Nash, the Rangers’ skilled but inconsistent winger, who’s been out since January 22 with a severe bone bruise in his left leg.)
Staal, whose contract expires at the end of the season, is almost definitely a short-term rental who will sign elsewhere as a free agent this summer. But the Rangers right now aren’t looking ahead that far, focusing instead on making another run at a Stanley Cup this spring.