As we sit less than 48 hours away from the NHL’s March 5 trade deadline, the New York Rangers are facing some of their most important decisions since Neil Smith went all in for the Stanley Cup run some 20 years ago.

President/GM Glen Sather biggest decision does not center on what direction his team will take in preparation for its run to a playoff spot in 2014. Rather, Sather has to decide what direction the franchise will take following this season as he contemplates the future of Ryan Callahan.

In a perfect world where salary caps are as real as unicorns, the Rangers would do what they always used to do – throw money at a problem and hope all that is right with the world.

Since we do not live in a perfect world, Sather has to do what is best for the franchise. Slats can’t afford to let Callahan remain unsigned and remain with the Rangers beyond the trade deadline – thus running the risk of losing Callahan for nothing.

For those fans who question how could the Rangers trade their captain, this is the same GM who traded Brian Leetch to Toronto and this is the same franchise that let Mark Messier skate out the door because MSG President Dave Checketts asked “How long do I have to keep paying for the Stanley Cup?”

Ironically enough, today (March 3) is the 10th anniversary of Sather dealing Leetch to the Maple Leafs.

Fans demand to know what happened to loyalty – and they do have a point. However, loyalty is also a two-way street.

Early reports have Callahan and his agent Steve Bartlett looking for a seven-year deal in the neighborhood of $6.5-$7.0 million per season – a figure that Bartlett calls a “discount” compared to what Cally could get on the open market as an UFA.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no harder worker on the Rangers than Ryan Callahan. It is obvious that he squeezes every last bit of talent he can, but if he were to get the deal that Bartlett calls a “discount”, Callahan would be making as much as – and in some cases more than – Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Martin St. Louis, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Thomas Vanek, the Sedin twins, and Claude Giroux.

Put aside that it is Ryan Callahan we are talking about and ask yourself this question. How would you react if the Rangers signed a 29-year-old two-way forward to a seven-year $49 million deal who has a history of injuries because of his style of play – and said forward had never scored 30 goals?

With the Rangers originally looking at a deal in the five-year/$30 million range, the Blueshirts and Team Callahan aren’t even on the same floor of the library, never mind being on the same page.

The first thaw in the nuclear winter arose when the Rangers appeared willing to go to a sixth-year on a package that would total $36 million.

It seems that the Callahan Camp has backed off their “seven-and-seven” stance and is willing to sign a six-year deal in the neighborhood of $37-$39 million according to Kevin Oklobzija of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

For his part Callahan has been saying all the right things.

“[The deadline] has obviously been on my mind, that’s no secret, but I didn’t look at it like that,” Callahan told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “My heart is here.”

Given that Dustin Brown, a similar type player to Callahan, signed an eight-year deal that kicks in next year that represents an annual Salary Cap hit of $5.875 million, it appears that the Rangers offer is more in line with comparable NHL contracts.

There should be enough room to get a six-year deal at an average annual value of $6.25 million per season with a no-trade clause for the first couple of years.

While Callahan might join Girardi in the six-year contract club, I am not so sure he will get a similar no-trade/no-movement deal. Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News has long contended that the first 3-4 years of a multi-year deal with Callahan would be a plus for the Rangers, but the final 3-4 years would be a problem. Odds are the Blueshirts would want some flexibility to move Callahan should his hard-charging ways erode the captain’s skills.

The reactions from Ranger fans vary from person to person. They go from one extreme of trade them both to do anything you can to sign their captain – with all sorts of options in between. One option that is espoused is one that is not really an option – ride out the rest of the season and if he doesn’t sign use the salary savings to bring in replacements. That option also includes the Rangers buying out the remainder of Brad Richards’ contract.

There are two problems with that course of action. The first problem of keeping the status quo and letting the Callahan situation play out is that the Rangers are not strong enough Stanley Cup contenders this year to roll the dice and run the risk of losing a valuable player for nothing. Go ask the New Jersey Devils how easy is to have to continue to rebound from losing players to free agency.

The second problem is that people assume the Rangers will be able to bring in replacements for Callahan and Richards at similar contract figures. Besides, it always seems that the Rangers have to overpay free agents because they are the New York Rangers and they can afford to do so. After all, it only takes one team to make one crazy contract offer (see Toronto and David Clarkson) to wreak havoc with free agency.

Joe Micheletti spoke with WFAN’s Mike Francesa and outlined his take on the general feeling among NHL.

“I think it’s what we are seeing around the NHL. The different GMs I have talked to regarding their free agents, it’s almost become common place that GMs do not want to let players walk, especially top players without getting something in return,” Micheletti explained.

“You look at the Devils, they lose Zach Parise to free agency and get nothing and then David Clarkson. Most of the people I am talking to, unless they feel they can win the Stanley Cup this year, throughout the leagues want to get something in return.”

Of course the question is what would/could the Rangers get in return if they decide to move Callahan. You would have to figure the Rangers would want more than just draft picks and/or prospects. Sather would need NHL proven players in addition to picks and/or prospects because he is not about to punt the rest of the season.

We have all seen the rumors involving a swap of captains with Tampa Bay. While replacing a 28-year-old with a 38-year-old seems akin to trading for Marcel Dionne, there are some differences. St. Louis is still playing a high level of hockey and should have had a bigger part (from the beginning) on the Canadian Olympic Team. Also while Callahan might be 28, he is also an old 28 based on his kamikaze-like style of play.

Quite frankly, the Rangers might be able to steal the Lightning’s thunder and get St. Louis for less than market value. St. Louis, who has a home in Greenwich, has a no-trade clause and pretty much has told Lightning GM Steve Yzerman that he will only accept a deal to the Rangers.

While Yzerman is under no pressure to trade St. Louis at this time, the GM will be in the same position as Sather come next year as St. Louis enters the final year of his contract.

The question then becomes would Sather be willing to move some prospects and/or draft picks to bring in St. Louis? If he does, how deep into the prospect pool does Slats go? Is J.T. Miller’s recall an audition for the Lightning?

If the Rangers and Lightning agreed to a deal, the Blueshirts have enough cap space to take on St. Louis’ contract ($5.625 million), but it does raise the specter of something Ranger fans fear. If Sather does acquire St. Louis does that mean Richards survives the buyout purge for another year?

As much as I would love to add St. Louis, I am not so sure I want to do it at the price of the cap hell the Rangers could face if Richards is not bought out.

Recent rumors out of the Pacific Northwest could factor into the Callahan saga. Conflicting reports out of Vancouver say that Ryan Kesler has asked to be traded – a request that GM Mike Gillis says is false.

Bob McKenzie of TSN said Vancouver is not “aggressively shopping” Kesler, but they are “aggressively listening” to offers. Since Kesler has a no-movement clause, he is in control of where he might go.

A swap of Ryans would solve a lot of problems. Both are similar type of hard-nosed players who do what it takes to win – and suffer injuries as a result. The edge goes to Kesler because of his size (6-2/202), ability to play wing as well as center and he his ability to win faceoffs.

My concern is that if the Rangers don’t look into acquiring Kesler, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins might.

However, it is unlikely Vancouver would want to bring in Callahan – despite what John Tortorella thinks. McKenzie stated that the Canucks want a center in his mid-20s – someone like Columbus’ Ryan Johansson or the Rangers Derek Stepan.

Interestingly enough, any discussion of Kesler might be moot because of conflicting reports that Kesler and Alain Vigneault weren’t on the best of terms. Brooks did write that two sources told him that their differences would not preclude Kesler from agreeing to a deal with the Rangers. The biggest hurdle is the possible two broken fingers Kesler received as a souvenir from his time in Sochi.

Glen Sather has no one to blame but himself for the predicament he is in. He was correct in getting Henrik Lundqvist’s deal done first because The King is the face and the backbone of the franchise.

The problem is that he wasted too much time getting that deal done. As a result, he delayed settling the contract talks with Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi. Toss in the uncertainty over future salary caps and the looming decision on Brad Richards and you have a New York Rangers team in flux as we re-start the NHL season.

Rather than trying to capitalize on the team’s strong finish prior to the Olympic break, the post-Olympic Rangers are faced with an unsettling situation of the unknown. It is also a situation that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later because the Rangers run the risk of having any potential deal for Callahan blow up in their faces if either player gets hurt – and knowing the Blueshirts luck – you know that would be the case.

It made sense for the Rangers to get Girardi’s deal done first because finding right-handed shooting defensemen, especially those who can play Girardi-like minutes, are harder to find than solid two-way second line RWs.

Sather needs to make a decision on Callahan sooner rather than later. The contract talks can’t linger on until Wednesday because Slats will need that time to focus on making deals to strengthen the Rangers potential playoff run.

The lost weekend shows that the Blueshirts could still use some players who have what Tortorella referred to as “jam”. The Rangers don’t have to make a splash and bring in St. Louis. Rather, Sather might be better off following Smith’s example in 1994 and bring “foot soldiers” like Craig MacTavish, Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan.

The main difference is that Sather can’t gamble like Smith did twenty years ago because the Rangers are not as close to a Cup now as they were then and to mortgage the future would be insane.

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