The countdown to the National Hockey League’s February 27 trade deadline has begun in earnest.  As expected, rumors are flying in reference to the usual suspects: Peter Forsberg and Keith Tkachuk being the most prominent.  With the Rangers’ struggling to secure a playoff spot, it is only natural for the Blueshirts to be involved in almost every trade rumor.

So far, President/GM Glen Sather has avoided hitting the panic button and relying on past temptations to trade prospects for veterans.  Of course, the salary cap implications make this a risky maneuver for any team – never mind a team like the Rangers who have been preaching moderation.

Expect trade rumors to start between the Blackhawks and the Rangers because Chicago GM Dale Tallon has been scouting the Blueshirts.  According to John Dellapina of the “Daily News”, Tallon scouted the Rangers during their trip to Boston and Philadelphia.  Dellapina says the Rangers targets might be center Bryan Smolinski and defenseman Jassen Cullimore – two players whose names have been linked to the Rangers.

Smolinski would prove to be an improvement over Blair Betts and Jason Krog in the Rangers search for a second-line pivot for Brendan Shanahan. However, Tim Sassone of the “Chicago Daily Herald” reported that the Rangers target might be center Mikael Holmqvist.  Given Holmqvist’s inconsistent play, Smolinski would be a “now solution” while Holmqvist would be a “long-term solution”.

Therein lies the Rangers ultimate conundrum at the 2007 trade deadline.  Do they use their assets to acquire players for a run at the 2007 playoffs or do they go in a different direction and try to take a more long-term view.

Cullimore’s situation is a bit different because, unlike Smolinski, he does not become an Unrestricted Free Agent at the end of the season.  The Rangers would be on the hook for another year at about $2 million – a not-so-tidy sum when you factor in that Darius Kasparaitis still has another year left at about $3.2 million.  Unless the Rangers were able to trade Kasparaitis, the best they could do would be to lose him on waivers and be saddled with a $1.6 million cap hit.  Of course, the Rangers could just let Darius sit in Hartford and keep his full salary off the books, but the prospects of a 35-year-old NHL veteran on their AHL affiliate does nothing but take up a roster spot that would be better served going to a prospect.

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