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Can The Rangers Be Contenders Without a 100% Ryan McDonagh?

Can the Rangers contend with a not 100% Ryan McDonagh?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

What's scarier, the question or the answer?

If you were asked which player would be the hardest to replace in the event of a long-term injury, the answer would be pretty simple: Henrik Lundqvist. But if you expand the scope of that question, the next answer would most likely be Ryan McDonagh (or, as we saw last year, maybe Mats Zuccarello).

Even if McDonagh wouldn't be the top name on your list, you have to admit that any long-term struggles for the captain would be a critical blow to a defense that already looks as though it's been patched together with a glue stick and some scotch tape.

McDonagh sustained a concussion two weeks ago thanks to a sucker punch by Wayne Simmonds. He missed four games with the injury before he was cleared to be returned to action. Now, just two games into that return, he's taken another headshot -- which kept him out of the rest of the win over the Maple Leafs for precautionary reasons.

Let me stress that right now we know nothing about the McDonagh situation. Let's also remember that even if McDonagh feels good today, he could easily relapse and experience concussion symptoms at a later date.

This outcome obviously plays an enormous role in the Rangers current situation. If McDonagh is, in fact, concussed and out long term or if he's not 100% (and two major headshots in as many weeks can do that to a guy), do the Rangers still view themselves as contenders?

To really answer this question we first must visit where the Rangers stand right now.

Coming off a 2014 Stanley Cup Final appearance and a 2015 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, 2016 was the year the Rangers were going to change the ending (again). Seemingly oblivious to the problems that the Dan Girardi and Marc Staal contracts posed (obligatory note that we don't really know what Jeff Gorton is thinking yet), the Rangers boasted about how they had one of the best defenses in the entire league. With Lundqvist behind them, plus growth from the kids and hardened veterans, how could they do anything but atone for 2014?

But in hockey, like any sport, things on paper don't always pan out on the ice. The Rangers defense (as some predicted) struggled mightily at the top, and it trickled down to the rest of the team. Lundqvist needed to have a herculean start to the year to help keep the Rangers afloat -- and when he regressed back down to his norm (note: still amazing) he took the blame.

From there the Rangers have also dealt with the kids not growing up as quickly as expected (J.T. Miller aside) and some questionable lineup decisions from the head coach that continue to plague the team. Youth sitting in the press box (Dylan McIlrath) and youth waiting in the wings (Ryan Bourque) constantly get overlooked for veterans who are chosen simply because they're veterans.

Through all of this, however, the Rangers have maintained -- at least from a brass standpoint -- that they are contenders for the Stanley Cup this year. And with Lundqvist between the pipes (and not getting any younger) it's hard to argue against the "Rangers can do it" theory.

But there's an enormous difference between "can do it" and "should be expected to do it." And this seems to be where the lines have blurred. As I said above, Gorton's final grade will only come after the trade deadline, draft and free agency window is over. We will get a glimpse of his thoughts after February 29th, but even then we won't fully know what his intentions are.

Which brings us back to McDonagh. Even with a fully healthy McDonagh I think there's a pretty heavy case to be made about this team being hopefuls rather than contenders. With a not 100% McDonagh? I think even being hopefuls is an overly optimistic outlook.

In the event that the Rangers need to think about life without McDonagh -- again, speculation -- the hope is the team would be brave enough to admit what they aren't and go from there. The cupboard is dangerously bare. The Rangers will be without a first round pick for either four years in a row or four of the next five years (the Rangers can give Arizona this year's pick or next year's) and the youth the team does have is being buried in some cases by less talented and worse-option veterans.

In yet another selfish plug for the podcast (subscribe on Itunes and listen here), I keep saying the Rangers don't have to re-build but they do need to re-tool. The difference there is enormous, too. Removing some of the dead weight (and getting rid of those contracts as well) and replacing them with cheaper upgrades will help the Rangers get over the hump. Lundqvist's window is closing, and while we don't know how rapidly it's happening, when it shuts the Rangers will be without their saving grace.

Throwing the towel to achieve that goal in a year when the chances to succeed at the highest level are so low anyway is not only the smart thing to do, but also helps prepare the team for the future. This golden age doesn't have to end when this window closes: another window just has to be found somewhere else in the Rangers' house.

McDonagh's long-term situation will play a big role in this, as it should. But how the Rangers see themselves once they know what's going on with him will be telling, too.