DALLAS — St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday that his most challenging task is keeping his players focused on hockey and not on the “debris” floating around Monday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline.
Rumors are more “distracting” and frequent due to Twitter, compared to the only option for information that Hitchcock had as recently as the fall of 2006 while coaching the Philadelphia Flyers.
“We had to buy newspapers, and that was expensive, especially buying the New York papers living in Philadelphia,” Hitchcock said with a smile.
Rumors are unavoidable minute-to-minute in 2016, though, so when Keith Yandle looked extremely upset after last Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the Devils in Newark, it was natural to wonder whether the Rangers’ defenseman was feeling the pressure of being the team’s most frequently rumored trade bait.
Why was Yandle so upset?
“We lost,” Yandle said Friday in St. Louis. “Anytime you lose this late in the season it’s frustrating, especially a game you know you can win… (As for the trade deadline), I’ve been around long enough where I don’t let it affect my day. People are gonna talk, but all I can focus on is playing the game.”
Trade a puck mover with that win-now attitude? No, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton can’t trade Yandle and make his team better short-term at the same time.
Plus, Yandle’s popularity and tightness with teammates despite only arriving last spring via trade from Arizona should not be overlooked. He wants to win in New York.
“The confidence of this team, I haven’t seen anything like it before,” Yandle said. “When we’re down a goal in the third, we know we can win, probably because we’ve been able to do it before. But there’s a calmness about our team. We know if we’re down that we can come back. It’s fun to be a part of a team where you’re never out of it.”
Yandle’s sentiment is important to understand because it reflects how the Rangers’ players are thinking and mirrors how Gorton must think at this deadline: We can win. Now. The GM’s dilemma is how to upgrade while being handcuffed by minimal cap flexibility and a reluctance to trade any key roster players (that help them win now) or first-round picks and top prospects (which Glen Sather did too often).
The Boston Bruins and pending unrestricted free agent Loui Eriksson, however, reportedly are still facing a significant gap in preferred terms on a contract extension. And Eriksson, 30, would be a great fit for the Rangers since he kills penalties, plays power play and is Henrik Lundqvist’s former teammate from Frolunda.
Gorton, a former Bruins interim GM, would have to fit in Eriksson’s $4.25 million salary, but that acquisition would address the Rangers’ top three items on their wish list: goal scorer, penalty killer, good skater.
Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal is an especially intriguing talent likely to be traded to a contender, too. However, an $8.25 million cap hit accompanies “Uncle” Eric, 31, the brother of Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, whose wife just had their second daughter.
That would force Gorton to send back a package including something like Chris Kreider ($2.475 million) and Oscar Lindberg ($650,000) and require Carolina to eat half of Staal’s salary. Plus, Gorton would need Staal to agree on a discounted extension because otherwise he’d be trading Kreider for a rental, which is prohibitive.
Around the NHL, though, this trade deadline is heating up because there are big-name young talents on the market alongside those attractive veterans.
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman should get premium return for 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Drouin, 20, who publicly requested a trade in January.
Undrafted Moose Jaw Warriors forward Dryden Hunt, 20, reportedly has teams competing to sign him due to his explosive 49-goal, 99-point WHL season.
Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli has threatened to blow up parts of his roster, which could put a big name like Taylor Hall on the move. Contenders such as the L.A. Kings and Rangers may try to answer this week’s major acquisitions by the Chicago Blackhawks (Winnipeg forward Andrew Ladd and Montreal forwards Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann) and the Florida Panthers (acquiring Calgary forward Jiri Hudler and Edmonton forward Teddy Purcell).
Gorton’s decision, though, may be to stay in-house. He will count on Rick Nash (broken left leg) getting healthy by mid-March, and don’t be surprised if right wing Nicklas Jensen gets a call-up from the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack to audition for a late role on the NHL roster.
Jensen, who turns 23 on March 6, has blown away management since coming over from Vancouver in January’s trade of Emerson Etem. One NHL source said Jensen scored a goal in last week’s 7-2 win in Springfield that opened a lot of eyes, coming off the wall in the corner to snap a shot top shelf, short side.
Alain Vigneault did not deny Saturday that Jensen is on the Rangers’ minds, either. He simply pointed out that Gorton is busy at the moment with his first NHL trade deadline as the Blueshirts’ first-year GM.
“(Jensen) is playing well down there,” Vigneault said. “I would say now our focus is not on that, and I know what you’re getting at with that, too, but there are a lot of moving parts now. So once we figure out the other moving parts, we’ll be able to sort that out.”