The New York Rangers have shown flashes of promise this year of being a team that could perform in the playoffs. And as we have all seen in the past few seasons, once you make the playoffs no one knows what could happen, see the Canadiens last season. They currently sit in eight place in the East, just grasping the final playoff spot with almost a third of the season now played.
One thing the Rangers have been missing all season however, is a legitimate number one center to play with their biggest scoring threat Marian Gaborik. They do have Brandon Dubinsky, who has started the season very well with 12 goals already, but he is more of a two-way second line center and hasn't had a great deal of success playing with Gaborik in the past.
Most recently they've used Erik Christensen in the top line, but he is a rather inconsistent player who was a waiver-wire pickup from the Ducks last season and has never scored more than 33 points in a season.
Also getting stabs in the top line this year have been rookie Derek Stepan, second year center Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle, with no one really securing a position for a longer span of time, and all three of them are younger players still in the midst of their development process so they may not be ready for consistent first line minutes.
In order to balance out their scoring and strengthen their scoring depth heading into the spring, the Rangers may well have to trade for a legitimate, proven first line center to play with Gaborik if they truly have strong playoff aspirations.
Should the Rangers trade their younger talent for a top-line center this year?
It is of course not a certainty that a top-tier center will be coming to the Rangers via trade, but it has been widely reported that Glen Sather has been looking at several talented forwards around the league, and he has a history of being very active at the trade deadline. It is therefore more than possible that some sort of trade will happen involving the team this season.
Here are a few options who may be available for New York to trade for :
Brad Richards, Dallas Stars
Rumors keep heating up bringing Richards to the Blueshirts. The Rangers would not be the only ones fighting to acquire Richards if the Stars decided to make him available for trade. It seems unlikely that he'll be traded prior to the deadline if Dallas continues to play as well as they have, looking very likely qualify for the playoffs.
However, the uncertain ownership situation in Dallas makes it unlikely that they will be able to resign Richards long-term before next summer, so GM Joe Niewendyk has to make the tough decision on whether to trade him now for assets or risk losing his best player next summer for no compensation as a free agent. New York would reportedly very much like to have him as part of the squad already this season.
Rangers coach John Tortorella was Richards' bench boss in Tampa when they won the Stanley Cup and Richards reportedly likes Torts, fueling speculation the Rangers might be an eventual target for the highly talented center. However, right now it seems possible that if he does end up on Broadway, it may just as well be through free agency next summer and not via trade.
Another obstacle for this trade is that Dallas would likely demand some highly valuable young players in return and Rangers GM Glen Sather has generally been reluctant to part with his budding stars. Richards will stay in the trade spotlight the next few months and the Rangers will surely continue to monitor the situation.
Pierre-Marc Bourchard, Minnesota Wild
It's unknown if Minnesota would be willing to part with Bouchard, but reports in the blogosphere last week suggested the Rangers had serious interest in the player. Bouchard has just come back from a serious concussion that kept him out of all but one game last year and he also missed the first two months of the year now. He still has two years on his contract after this so the Wild could be expected to demand a decent return for the skilled center-man.
The Rangers do have a number of young defensemen they may be offering as parts of a trade, and the Wild are in need of improvement in their back-end so these two teams might be able to work something out. Further fueling the speculation for these two teams being involved in a trade is the fact that the Rangers currently employ both former Wild GM Doug Risebrough, who drafted Bouchard, as well as their former assistant GM Tommy Thompson.Both of these men obviously have deep contacts in the Wild organisation.
The fact that Bouchard previously played with Gaborik for several years to great success and they already have proven chemistry would make him an even more attractive target for the Rangers. It's not surprising they would be interested in Bouchard, but in the end it comes to whether or not the Wild would be willing to let him go. If Minnesota continues to struggle in to the new year, it's possible their front office will be willing to make a big trade to shake up their team.
Tim Connolly, Buffalo Sabres
Connolly is in the final year of his contract that pays him $4.5 million annually, and it's uncertain if the Sabres are interested in resigning him beyond this season. Connolly has historically been an injury risk throughout his career, but played close to a full season last year to the tune of a career-best 65 points.
Like the entire Sabres team, he had a tough start to the year but is getting his game back in gear. If the Sabres do fall out of playoff contention for good or decide not to resign Connolly, he might become available for a trade, especially closer to the trade deadline. As a skilled puck distributor and good skater, he might well be a good fit on the Rangers top line. If New York fails to land their number one target, Connolly may well enter the mix on deadline day.
Stephen Weiss, Florida Panthers
Weiss is a legitimate first line center on a rebuilding team that has no playoff aspirations. He is on a long-term contract, but was a subject of trade speculation already last summer, perhaps frustrated by his team's perennial inability to break through to the playoffs and continuing departures of other marquee talents such as Nathan Horton.
It seems unlikely the Panthers would part with their best player in the middle of a rebuilding process, but on the other hand if the return was rich, and New York has a good amount of young players and draft picks to offer, perhaps Dale Tallon would have to consider trading Weiss while his value remains high.
As of now, it is hard to say if Glen Sather is aggressively pursuing a trade to improve his center position. It has however been a team weakness since the start of the year and some sort of move may be coming. With Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal coming off injuries soon, it is however possible that Sather and Tortorella will want to see how the team does with those two players in the lineup before making any bigger moves. If New York is still in playoff position come the trade deadline day though, it's highly likely some sort of move will happen to bring more scoring to the Blueshirts.