Here are the 10 most pertinent questions the New York Rangers will answer (one way or another) as the second half of the year kicks in:
1: What are the Rangers going to do with Keith Yandle?
This question hinges on a few other things, but it's a pretty big issue we've already discussed. This move will most likely be a pretty good indication of what the Rangers plan on doing, or maybe more appropriately, what risks they're willing to take this year.
Are they willing to risk losing Yandle for nothing this summer to try and make another run at the Cup without fixing their current problems? Are they willing to risk losing Yandle FOR the Cup run in order to make sure they get future assets for him to help the team? Are they willing to move Yandle for another rental? This will be interesting.
2: So that will tell us what the Rangers are going to do about the defense, right?
Yes and no. Vigneault and the front office might have wildly different views on the problems of this team. Obviously the group elected to fix a penalty killing problem they might not have had over prioritizing the defense. Unless they're actually trying to fix the defense and just can't find a taker.
What we do know is Vigneault's top six is set and it hasn't deviated at all barring an injury. I could argue that's a show -- why would the Rangers want to let other teams know they're desperately trying to shop two enormous contracts -- but the Rangers consulted with Dan Girardi before the Daniel Paille signing, so you can draw your own conclusion.
3: Well, do we know what Alain Vigneault thinks his best lineup actually is?
Not yet, but the answer to this question could potentially come as soon as the entire roster is healthy. Does Vigneault actually value Paille as one of the top 12 players on this team? If so, does he do it at the expense of Tanner Glass or does he do it as the expense of a younger roster player?
Made Up Call made a very convincing argument that Paille is the worst forward on the team by a pretty wide margin (not that she had to, since I'm assuming the eye test agrees). As of right now he's in a fourth line/penalty kill specialist role that's hurting the team because the fourth line can't handle their assignments. That is something that good teams exploit in the playoffs. (Remember Tampa Bay throwing the triplets out against Girardi and the fourth line as much as possible? Yeah ...)
4: Does that answer the question of what the Rangers will do leading up to or at the trade deadline?
Probably, but maybe not.
The problem from a public perspective is we don't really know what's going on behind closed doors. The Rangers might be looking at making a move or two (read: Girardi or Marc Staal) without being able to. Or, maybe they don't want to move those two and are looking for another swap for a rental to help for the run.
Based on the answer to the lineup question, Vigneault is going to show part of his hand when it comes to what he expects out of his team. If Paille and/or Glass are alternating a roster spot for one another, then that tells you all you need to know about Vigneault's comfort level with the youth on the team. If both Paille and Glass are in the lineup at the same time, well, that's a bigger problem. You can't sit growing youth, especially when they're already out-performing the player or players they're sitting for.
5: Like Dylan McIlrath!
Right. Although that wasn't a question.
5B: Sorry I got excited. Hey, what's going on with him anyway?
No one really knows. When the entire defense is healthy McIlrath is the healthy scratch outside of the rare occasions he plays for Dan Boyle. That's become an increasingly maddening decision, especially when McIlrath outplays half the defense after sitting for 20+ days without playing in a competitive game. There doesn't seem to be much logic behind it. Especially when he's a positive possession player who takes care of his own end -- something the Rangers need badly.
6: Isn't Dan Boyle pretty good?
Yes! It's another confusing aspect of the "who dresses tonight" Russian roulette Vigneault is playing. Boyle hasn't been spectacular, but he certainly hasn't been the worst defenseman on the team by any stretch. There is something to be said with keeping him fresh as we go down the home stretch, but he shouldn't be the only defenseman in that rotation.
And, quite frankly, McIlrath needs to be playing every night. If Vigneault needs to put Staal, Girardi and Boyle in a rotation to accommodate it that's fine, but that has to happen.
7: Do you think the Rangers are going to try and "go for it" again?
This is probably the scariest question you've asked yet. I already made a case the Rangers can't afford to be buyers this year when I said this:
If the Rangers need to go to war with this group as is and then sift through the wreckage come this summer, then so be it. The cupboard is already dangerously bare. Outside of Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei, the Rangers have no other Grade-A prospects. They have a few "potential to be Grade-A" guys. Aleksi Saarela and Robin Kovacs headline that group (sorry Ryan Gropp but I'm not THAT high on you), but that's about it.
Moving any of those players in a short-term move hurts far more than it helps. This group was originally constructed because the brass though THIS group could get the job done. Obviously that hasn't been the case. Trying to fix it might do more harm than good, so it might be better to just leave things be.
The point? If the Rangers want to dip into their already very shallow well of prospects and picks it has to be for a player who can help now and in the future. More often than not those players aren't available from teams who are selling at the trade deadline.
8: But what about this Cup window?
Back to back terrifying questions. I think the Rangers need to be very honest with themselves about realistic expectations for this team. Can this team lean on Henrik Lundqvist to drag them to a Stanley Cup Final showing and potentially win the whole thing? Absolutely.
Should the Rangers push all their chips into the middle of the table for a second year in a row -- future be dammed -- on that chance alone? Absolutely not.
9: So you're saying they should blow this thing up?
Not exactly, and sadly Lundqvist is a big part of that. He's 34, so his window of elite play can close at any time. The hope is it lasts for another few years, but that might be a very optimistic look at the situation. I think rather than blowing things up the Rangers need to look at re-tooling what they currently have. There is a good amount of youth on this team that's growing and can make a difference. Outside of the Girardi and Staal contracts, there really isn't anything egregious that would hold the Rangers back from keeping all their RFAs and UFAs they want to keep (cough, Yandle, cough) and trying to fix this.
10: OK, tough question time. What do you think they do?
I think the Rangers will take a long, hard look at what they currently have. I would be shocked if they were honest with themselves about this team's bigger problems and decided to re-tool. I do think the Rangers brass realizes that they need to fix something, although I think it's going to be the addition of a top six forward rather than fixing the defense. And you know how expensive those can be.
The temptation to win has to be very high, but it needs to be looked at through the lens of the big picture. The Rangers have to realize that they have big questions to answer this summer and they need the cap space to do it. Maybe there's not a trade to be made before the deadline, but moving assets that hurts the future isn't an answer then, either.