One can debate whether trading John Moore, a first-round pick, second-round pick, and most importantly, Anthony Duclair, to acquire Keith Yandle in March of 2015 was the right move for the Rangers. Regardless, what everyone agreed upon at the time is that it was a bold move that should solidify the Rangers' spot as a contender for not only 2015, but 2016 as well.
Things haven't played out quite according to plan. The Rangers were fine in 2015, although falling short. So far the 2016 season has been inconsistent at best. Keith Yandle is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. With the Rangers in a cap crunch, fitting Yandle under the cap will be hard to begin with. Any chance of him accepting a discount has likely been erased by the coaching staff's bizarre insistence on burying him on the third defensive pairing and second power play unit. As things stand, it seems unlikely at best that Yandle will be a Ranger beyond this season. The departures of Doug Weight and Tony Amonte in 1994 are afterthoughts given the fact that the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup. Anthony Duclair lighting it up in Arizona while the Rangers have nothing to show for it is pretty much the worst case scenario.
In other words, the Rangers are under tremendous pressure, when the 2016-2017 season starts in October, to not be caught empty-handed. They'll either need to have some sort of assets in the form of players/prospects/draft picks from a resulting Yandle trade, or, like in 1994, they'll need to have a Stanley Cup.
It's hard to feel confident that the Stanley Cup will return to New York City this summer. The team isn't in serious danger of missing the playoffs, and their play has absolutely been on the rise over the last month. Nonetheless, nobody being realistic would group them with the likes of Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington. In fact, potential series against the likes of Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, the Islanders, and Boston are hardly stacked in the Rangers' favor, either. Quite simply, putting all hope towards winning the Stanley Cup this season is a very optimistic approach.
Maybe, then, it's in the Rangers' best interest to trade Yandle and guarantee some form of tangible asset(s) going forward. But is that truly a much better situation? The Rangers are hanging by a thread to a realistic hope of winning the Stanley Cup this season. Trading the team's best performing defenseman would practically be giving up. And if the Rangers aren't going for it all this season, then when exactly will they be? This is not a team like Chicago or Washington, whose elite players are still in the primes of their careers and for whom 2016 will just be one of many years in the future they'll be looking to contend. Henrik Lundqvist turns 34 in a month. Rick Nash will be 32 by summer. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are both on the downsides of their careers. The Rangers, for better or worse, are invested in winning right now. Trading Yandle at the deadline for a late first-round pick and a decent prospect would be the equivalent of betting 95% of your chips in a single poker hand and then folding on river. You've already come this far, so you might as well see it out. Holding on to those last few chips probably won't get you anywhere, anyway.
No matter how it plays out, the end result appears to almost certainly be Yandle playing elsewhere next season and beyond. Combine that with Dan Boyle presumably retiring, and it puts the Rangers' already questionable defensive group in an alarming spot; where is the offense? Ryan McDonagh has a fair bit of offense in him, but not so much that he can be the go-to guy for it. Dylan McIlrath and Kevin Klein can hammer in a goal once in a while, but that's about it. Brady Skjei is similar to McDonagh, only not as polished. If the Rangers are moving on from Yandle, and presumably are not ready to call it quits on contention, then they'll need to address the complete lack of offensive ability - be it as a scorer or puck mover - on the blue line. The Rangers have put themselves between a rock and a hard place, where no matter the decision both the optics as well as the impact on the team will be very poor.
Perhaps Kevin Shattenkirk could be an answer. The St. Louis Blues defenseman becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017. The Blues have Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester locked up as well as the blossoming Colton Parayko on defense. Add to that a very strong prospect pool on the back-end as well as a need for offense, and perhaps the Blues will feel they should dedicate the cap space elsewhere. It's been pretty public the last 12 months or so that the Blues have, at minimum, felt around for what Shattenkirk's trade market might be. Of course, Shattenkirk also has a say in his fate once his contract expires. In a sense, it puts the Blues in a similar situation as the Rangers are with Yandle; if they can't sign him, then do they want to lose him for nothing?
The native of New Rochelle, New York (about an hour away from The Garden) grew up a Rangers fan, and he makes sense as a speculative target. Shattenkirk isn't a new name to surface in Rangers' trade rumors. The New York Daily News' Pat Leonard has recently speculated about the Blues' defenseman, stating that Shattenkirk's representatives declined comment on the idea. However, Blueshirt Banter has learned, per a well-informed source, that Shattenkirk is not hiding the fact that the idea of being traded to the Rangers is very appealing to him. It's a move he very much would like. This is not to say that Shattenkirk is requesting a trade, or applying pressure for a move, or that he would not and will not sign anywhere else; St. Louis included. To put it simply, there's no fire here yet, but certainly a good amount of smoke.
In a lot of ways, Shattenkirk makes a lot of sense for the Rangers; perhaps even more sense than Yandle. Having just turned 27 a few days ago, he's over 2.5 years younger than Yandle, who will turn 30 in September. It makes him the more viable long-term option who would still be a key contributor immediately. Maybe he isn't quite up to Yandle's standard as a puck distributor, but he makes up for it with superior scoring ability and defensive play. A right-handed shot, Shattenkirk is a natural fit on the Rangers' top-pairing next to McDonagh, whereas Yandle is blocked by him. Plus, with Brady Skjei's permanent promotion coming soon, it makes sense to distribute some of the team's talent away from the left side and towards the right side.
Acquiring Shattenkirk comes with obstacles of its own, but also a few different ways of approaching his potential acquisition. The Rangers could move Yandle in the next month for assets, then go to St. Louis and make a move for Shattenkirk. The problems here are that Shattenkirk, by virtue of being signed for another season, will cost more than what the Rangers could acquire for Yandle. And it assumes the Blues, who are equally trying to win this season, would even want to move Shattenkirk now. The Rangers could go after Shattenkirk in the summer. That would require the Rangers moving assets they're thin on to begin with, or would require trading Yandle now and effectively giving up on 2016. But it would give the Rangers plenty of time to figure out a way to get rid of some dead cap space and make Shattenkirk's long-term extension possible; time they aren't currently afforded with Yandle. They could wait until July 1st, 2017, and sign him as a free agent. It would be a great move for sure, and one that doesn't cost them anything besides cap space. But that doesn't actually address the Yandle problem until two seasons after the fact. And who knows where the Rangers stand then.
Acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk doesn't fully compensate for the Yandle situation that the Rangers have unnecessarily backed themselves into. Trading Yandle and acquiring Shattenkirk will require moving additional pieces they wouldn't have needed to if they had just made signing Yandle a viable option. Waiting until after this season to acquire him won't bring back Anthony Duclair. Waiting to sign him won't solve the dilemma of finding a way to salvage the Yandle/Duclair trade without giving up on this season. But what any of these situations would do, at the very least, is help the Rangers save some face. It would show some plan for continuation. A plan that shows Yandle wasn't the end-game. Otherwise, all the Rangers will have to show for Anthony Duclair-plus is an underwhelming defense and a whole lot of regret.