The Rangers find themselves exactly where most people probably expected them to be at the All-Star Break; not among the league’s worst, but not particularly in the playoff race either. Though they do have games in hand on Columbus and Carolina, the two teams currently sitting in the East’s Wild Card slots, they find themselves 11 points back. And that’s without considering the four other teams sandwiched in-between.
The various analytical models don’t look favorably upon the Rangers’ chances of reaching the postseason.
Nonetheless, multiple media reports have indicated that the Rangers have not made any decisions about their trading deadline plans. The most recent dispatch came from The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun.
“My sense is the Rangers want to take as long as they can to see where they are at the deadline. Which is to say they haven’t pulled the plug on the season yet,” wrote Lebrun.
Let’s first acknowledge that Rangers’ executives have numerous reasons to see this out as long as possible. For one, they want to make the playoffs and there is still a plausible chance. We can debate the merits of a first-round wild card appearance versus a lottery pick, but for better or worse management is going to be judged based on tangible success. Making the playoffs means extra money generated via ticket sales, television revenue, merchandise, and so on. Otherwise, it will be a third-straight season of missing the postseason. Nobody expected this to be a quick fix, but there’s an inverse relationship between the length of the rebuild and the amount of patience ownership will allot. A poor start to the 2020-2021 season will mean less-than-guaranteed job security for various people within the organization. Particularly with a still relatively new President in John Davidson.
There are no indications that any heads are on the line. Management is still highly prioritizing a long-term vision over anything else. But all things being equal they’d certainly love to make a playoff appearance and proactively mitigate pressure to deliver any form of success.
Trying to stay competitive also makes business sense in the form of trade negotiations. The trade market this year is pitiful. A contract extension between Kreider and the Rangers would mean that the league’s most eager buyers will be forced to resort to an extremely weak pool of players, with even that group fairly limited in number.
If the market continues to play out in this manner where Kreider is far-and-away the best winger, maybe forward, available, then even feigning a 50/50 possibility of re-signing him might be enough to force a team like Colorado, St. Louis, or Boston into reluctantly parting with a piece that tips the scales and convinces the Rangers to trade him rather than try to re-sign him.
All that aside, the Rangers’ biggest motivation for acting as if they are in the playoff hunt is internal. This is a young, impressionable team. They played a number of meaningless games during the 2017-2018 season, and the team spent at least half of last season playing for reasons other than the playoffs while veterans tensely awaited their fates. Those were ugly but necessary parts of the team’s building ambitions, and if General Manager Jeff Gorton has to do it again this season then he will. Keeping impending veterans past February 24th’s deadline for the sake of staying “competitive” and then getting all but eliminated from playoff contention 10 days later accomplishes nothing except self-sabotage.
Even if those decisions were inarguably the correct ones, they still come with unwanted consequences. There’s only so long that abstract motivations like “being a professional” and “personal growth” will hold motivating power. That’s especially true for more tenured players who have been through this already. Maybe fresh NHLers like Kaapo Kakko and Igor Shesterkin will buy that they have a lot to gain from three months of irrelevant hockey. That’s not going to fly work for almost anyone else. At some point it gets to even the most composed veterans. It creates a bad atmosphere during games, at practice, and in the locker room. You don’t want players to get used to losing every year, and you don’t want important players to get so disillusioned that it affects their development or even pushes them to request a move elsewhere.
Right now the Rangers find themselves in a position where, for the first time since January of 2018, they can sell their players on the idea that they’re playing for something. That means at least 13 games, maybe more, where the reason for ambition speaks for itself. Head Coach David Quinn doesn’t need to convince any players to focus in practice and lay it all out every shift. Every player wants to make the playoffs, and currently that goal is realistic enough.
At some point the team will likely find itself out of the playoff picture, and the trading deadline may force them to part with some players prematurely. Still, the fewer meaningless games on the schedule the better. The team wants to keep spirits up and probably wants to evaluate its players under the conditions of meaningful hockey. Does Pavel Buchnevich step up? Does Tony DeAngelo? Does Filip Chytil? Does Alexandar Georgiev?
The Rangers are longshots to make the playoffs and the organization’s decision-makers need to be honest about what moves they need to make before the trading deadline passes. While they are likely coming to terms with that internally, they have every incentive to stubbornly deny that reality in the public hemisphere. Economics and trade leverage offer good reasons for doing so, but more than anything, they need the players to believe there is something to play for. If the players return from the All-Star break with a prolonged winning streak, then maybe perception even turns into reality.