As the New York Rangers stand poised one week away from the NHL’s February 26 trade deadline, it is all but certain that Glen Sather will be a buyer rather than a seller.

In a normal trade deadline setting, a General Manager faces a buyer beware scenario. However, Slats must truly be in a caveat emptor mode as the deadline approaches given the NHL’s salary cap and what lies ahead for the Blueshirts in 2008/2009.

In addition to being mindful of his current cap situation, Sather must be even more wary of trading the franchise into salary cap hell for next season. The Rangers President/GM has drawn some criticism from fans for being so free in re-signing Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist and Fedor Tyutin. If one thinks the heat was on for those signings, watch how the temperature rises if Sather brings in players with financially restrictive contracts beyond this season.

The Rangers are facing a daunting task come July 1. The Blueshirts are faced with the prospect of having the following 11 players become Unrestricted Free Agents: Sean Avery, Andrew Hutchinson, Jaromir Jagr, Darius Kasparaitis, Marek Malik, Paul Mara, Michal Rozsival, Brendan Shanahan, Martin Straka, Jason Strudwick, and Stephen Valiquette. Of course, no one expects (or wants) the Rangers to bring all of these players back, but re-signing them or bringing in replacements will eat up a lot of fishnagels.

Things get even trickier because it is pretty much accepted that Jagr will not hit the targets to trigger his option for 2008/2009 which means his entire salary would count against the Rangers salary cap. Don’t forget that it is possible that the Rangers will have to pay off Shanahan’s 2007/2008 bonuses against next year’s salary cap.

On top of all of those UFAs, the Rangers will have the following six players who will be eligible for Restricted Free Agency: Ivan Baranka, Nigel Dawes, Marcel Hossa, Al Montoya, Greg Moore and P.A. Parenteau. Obviously, the most important names on that list are Dawes and Montoya. While the odds are not that high that another team would make a Kevin Lowe-type offer to Dawes, the same might not be true for Montoya. It is possible that another team will present Montoya with an offer the Rangers might have to refuse – with the Blueshirts settling for draft picks.

As a result, Sather has a difficult decision in Montoya’s case. Does he try and lock up his former first round draft pick and add a couple of million dollars in payroll for a backup goaltender? Does he roll the dice and see what the market will bear with the understanding that he is willing to accept draft picks as compensation> or does Sather take what is behind door number three and trade Montoya?

Trading Montoya is not as crazy as it might have seemed at the beginning of the year. Valiquette has shown that he can step in and give the rangers quality play as a backup. Rookie Miika Wiikman’s play in Hartford has caused many to wonder if Wiikman has moved ahead of Montoya on the organizational depth chart.

Montoya would be a valuable trade asset because he still represents an NHL caliber goaltending prospect whose contract won’t be as restrictive as a veteran NHL netminder. This idea could prove very valuable to an NHL team looking to rebuild with younger and cheaper players. The main roadblock is the Rangers need to be prudent when it comes to adding future salary.

For example, one player who has been linked to the Rangers is defenseman Tomas Kaberle of Toronto. He has three more years left on his contract at $4.25 million per season. If the Rangers were to add Kaberle, it lessens their ability to bring back Rozsival or sign a free agent blue liner in the summer.

Many point to an offensive defenseman like Kaberle as the Rangers main need because of the perceived need for a QB on the power play. However, I don’t believe that is all that necessary. The Montreal Canadiens have been at or near the top of the NHL when it comes to their power play. Their “QB” is Andrei Markov – hardly the next coming of Brian Leetch. The Habs power play works because of the system, not necessarily the players. They work hard at getting traffic in front of the goalie and move the puck and themselves. They are particularly adept at finding the weak side point man as he moves in from the point for a one-timer on goal.

In other words, adding a big-time offensive defenseman is not going to solve the Rangers inconsistency on the power play if they are going to continue to play a perimeter game. Odds are the power play would improve if they changed their style rather than their personnel.

Frankly, if the Rangers were to acquire a defenseman I would go against the tide and look to add a solid defensive defenseman – someone who would be a physical player on the blue line because that is what the Rangers are missing. Our buddy John Davidson has two such players in Barret Jackman and Bryce Salvador. Both players are UFAs making between $1.5 and $2.2 million so they would not be a drag on salary this year or next.

With the Rangers set to lose almost $8 million of salary between Malik, Mara and Rozsival, it is conceivable the Rangers could re-sign a Rozsival and one of the Blues defenseman and still have a little money left over. Of the two Blues blueliners, Jackman would be the better prize given his ability.

While the Blues have some young netminders in their system, they still might be willing to make a deal with the Rangers if the Blueshirts traded some of their organizational depth along with a draft pick or two. The Rangers have an extra third round pick as a result of the Matt Cullen deal, so Sather could add a second round draft pick to sweeten any potential trade.

As the NHL draws closer to the trade deadline, the Ranger rumors are sure to heat up. The one thing that Glen Sather has to be aware of is that he has to be as concerned about next year as he is this year when he makes any trades. One does not always have to make the big blockbuster trade in order to make a difference on a hockey team. Sather’s acquisition of Sean Avery didn’t garner many headlines around the league, but it was the exact tonic the Rangers needed.

UPDATE: It seems that the trade deadline frenzy is under way. The Philadelphia Flyers have reinforced their injury-depleted blue line by acquiring defenseman Jaroslav Modry from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a 2008 third round draft pick.

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