An unfortunate inevitability in sports - particularly a league with constant turnover and a constricting salary cap - is the departure of popular players. Rangers fans should be used to it by now. Over the past four seasons, the Rangers have lost a number of players who have been a part of three emotional runs to the Eastern Conference Final and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final. For the most part, those departures, while sad, were understandable. In the case of Martin St. Louis, it's clear that there was no longer a fit. In the cases of Cam Talbot and Brian Boyle, both had done everything they could with this team; they needed to move on to a bigger challenge.
Carl Hagelin's story doesn't have that same kind of feeling. For Hagelin, it was not necessarily his time to move on. He's not leaving at a time with a fitting climax to his story. It was he, Derick Brassard, and Mats Zuccarello who were solidifying themselves as the ultimate bromance on the Rangers, if not in all of hockey. The go-to example of how much this team has been through together and how tight the locker room is. Hagelin spent three years with the Rangers in a depth role, but the 2014-2015 season is when he really started to push himself to a higher level. Coinciding with Martin St. Louis' decline, it was Hagelin who took advantage of the available ice time and proved to be a quality two-way forward. This was the beginning of Hagelin's assent to becoming a pretty important figure on this team. And yet, just a few weeks removed from the end of the season he is a member of the Anaheim Ducks. No climactic ending to his Rangers' career. No sense of closure. Not even much of an advanced warning to mentally prepare for his departure. One could put together an essay for every reason trading Hagelin made zero sense from an emotional standpoint.
But despite all that, the move is absolutely and unquestionably justified. The harsh reality of the National Hockey League – with a salary cap that would make any claustrophobic person nervous – is that does not care for your feelings. It doesn't care how long a player has been with your team and what he's accomplished in that time. It doesn't care about who is friends with whom, or which players a fan base has felt a connection with. It care about the $71.4 million salary cap, and whether your team is underneath that threshold or not. That's it.
It's an added obstacle that successful teams are stuck with. It's easier for a struggling team to remove itself of suboptimal players because their emotional attachment is to an era of hardship and failure. But successful teams aren't just letting go of of hockey player, but also a chapter of their history. It's how Lou Lamoriello ends up allowing Martin Brodeur to sink the Devils into mediocrity while Corey Schneider waits idle on the bench. It's how Dean Lombardi, arguably the smartest hockey mind in the world today, makes the absurd decision to keep Mike Richards and his remaining (insert contract here) instead of using an amnesty buyout on him. From ESPN's Katie Strang in her profile of Lombardi:
"'It could be the worst decision I ever made,' Lombardi said. 'But for all the right reasons.'
Lombardi thought Richards deserved loyalty. But he doesn't expect everyone to understand that.
'In a cap world, you can't have any heart and soul," he said. "I struggle with that.'"
New England Patriots' Head Coach Bill Belichick gets lambasted for coming off as soulless and unsympathetic, and he clearly does not do himself many favors with the bland press conferences or cheating scandals. But when it comes to making roster decisions, he is the king of compartmentalizing emotions and instead making decisions based on what will lead to sustainable success going forward. His resume speaks for itself in how that has worked out. The Chicago Blackhawks aren't too far off, though signing Bryan Bickell might cost them Patrick Sharp. But for the most part, they've figured out the formula for such sustained success in the NHL, and it requires paying whatever is necessary to your few elite players while replacing everyone else over time with cheaper, often younger talent. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nick Hjalmarsson are the only players who have been on all three of Chicago's recent Stanley Cup wins. Those are all high-end players.
Remove all emotional attachment to Carl Hagelin. Wipe your mind clear of his history with the Rangers, and just look at him for what he is as a hockey player. Right now, Hagelin is a very good third liner who can hold his own in the top-six, and he is justifiably asking to be paid as such. For the Rangers, that's just not a frugal investment. They just recently had to lock up some key players like Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello. Both Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider are going to be on that list in the next 12 months, and perhaps Keith Yandle as well. Hagelin is a good hockey player and was a fantastic servant to the organization and city, but dedicating $3.25M-$3.75M to a third-liner with other more important players to sign would be shooting themselves in the foot.
Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton did what they had to do, even if they had to pinch their noses while doing so. They moved Hagelin to Anaheim and got a pretty sizable haul back. Emerson Etem is a surefire NHLer who should be able to step into a bottom-six role now, and while he's not at Hagelin's level, he is only 23. Etem was buried in Anaheim, but with the Rangers the potential is there for him to perhaps even exceed what Hagelin has become. Etem is a restricted free agent, so there's no exact pricetag on him yet, but it surely will be significantly less than what Hagelin will command. And they also moved from 59th overall in the draft from 41st, to grab a high-upside forward in Ryan Gropp.
So begins the grooming of a new core of Rangers forwards. Etem, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, and probably Oscar Lindberg will be the glut of young forwards relied on to fill in the cracks of departures of players such as Hagelin. To be the new crop of cheap depth. And in four or five years we'll be experiencing the situation all over again, with one or two of them having to depart as a consequence of the salary cap. It's a constant cycling in and out of talent. Rewarding players who served your organization well by unceremoniously shipping them elsewhere. It sucks. But it's a necessary evil for any team that hopes to steadily contend in the NHL.