Did anyone ever really think this might happen? Even if it made good financial sense, was there ever an actual possibility that the Rangers would trade heart-and-soul captain Ryan Callahan? Business is business, yes, but wasn’t this always an unfathomable notion?
Perhaps that’s why now, with Callahan suddenly on the trading block, this all seems to be happening in a dream. Pinch yourself, and you’ll wake up to see him signing a long-term extension. But make no mistake – this is very real.
Callahan is set to become a free agent this summer, and an expensive one at that. The Rangers have other players they must resign too, and thus management has come to realize that the Captain might not fit in the team’s future plans. Instead of letting him walk in July, and getting nothing in return, it seems to make more sense to trade him now while they still can.
The tricky part for GM Glen Sather is that the Rangers are just starting to piece things together. After struggling through the first half of the season, the team has found its stride in January and is climbing quickly up the Eastern Conference standings. Pittsburgh and Boston, of course, are still the odds-on favorites from the East, but the Rangers suddenly have the look of a team that could make a deep run in the playoffs.
And now Sather wants to trade the team’s captain and best all-around player? There couldn’t be a worse time to entertain such an idea, but Sather, as the architect of this team, has a responsibility to do so. The question he must answer is where this team is headed.
If he doesn’t think the Rangers, as currently assembled, can win the Stanley Cup, he should dump Callahan now while he can still get something back. But if Sather, as he’s typically inclined, believes the Rangers have a legitimate shot to win it all this spring, he has to bite the bullet and risk losing his captain for nothing.
Why is Callahan the odd man out? Why, out of all the Rangers’ pending free agents, is their Captain the one they might let go? Well, he’s the most expensive. Callahan is reportedly asking for seven years, $42 million, a reasonable request given his play over the past few years. Meanwhile, the team still has to resign first-pair defenseman Dan Girardi, blossoming superstar Chris Kreider and Norwegian wizard Mats Zuccarello. (Other 2014 expirees include Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot, Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and John Moore.)
According to reports, the Rangers have already offered Girardi a five-year deal worth $5.5 million per season (or six years, at $5.2 per) – terms he’ll probably accept. Kreider will most likely get Sather’s notorious “bridge contract”, while Zuccarello will demand close to $3 million. With raises also in store for Stralman, Moore (John) and Pouliot, it’s just hard to imagine the Rangers squeezing Callahan’s $6 million into the picture next season even with the cap expected to rise to $71 million.
Is a guy with 20 points through 38 games this season worth $6 million, anyways? Oh, you bet, and that’s why the Rangers can say “so long” if they dare Callahan to test the market. The Blueshirts’ captain has made quite the name for himself over the past five years, and there will be plenty of teams willing to reach deep into their pockets for an established goal scorer, natural leader and two-time Olympian.
So Callahan, it appears, is as good as gone. Sather might keep him around for the rest of the season to help chase down a Stanley Cup, but by next season Captain Cally will be wearing the “C” for someone else. It might feel like a nightmare for Rangers fans, but in a cap world it’s simply reality.
Hold on a minute.
Let’s not put this to bed so quietly. There has to be something the team can do, some trick they can pull, to keep Callahan around. If he truly is their best all-around player, Sather and Co. should be bending over backwards to keep him on board.
And thus we arrive at Brad Richards. The Rangers signed Richards in 2011 to a nine-year, $60 million deal – an annual cap hit of $6.67 million. After a horrific 2012-13 season, management was close to buying out his contract last summer. Instead, they decided to stand by their investment, convinced that the former All Star still had some gas left in the tank.
Richards, to his credit, has rewarded Sather’s good faith with a return to form in 2013-14. He is leading the Rangers in scoring with 38 points through 55 games (not a typo), and quarterbacking a power play that, for the first time in years, is actually enjoyable to watch. His best hockey is still behind him, but the veteran center has proven he’s not done yet.
Still, barring some miracle age regression, the Rangers are certain to buy him out within the next two years. Why not expedite that process, then, and get Richards off the books this summer to open up space for Callahan? You might lose a year of solid production one hand, but you’d gain seven more on the other.
It seems clear cut and obvious, but so does the impulse to play Callahan 20 minutes a night and use him on the power play – two things that haven’t happened this year with Alain Vigneault behind the bench. After thriving under former coach John Tortorella, who, by last season, was deploying his Captain for more than 21 minutes a game, Callahan has seen his role diminished under Vigneault. He’s averaging less than 18 minutes of ice time per contest, and is a mere spectator when the power play takes the ice.
Richards, on the other hand, has been one of Vigneault’s favorite weapons. And thus Callahan’s future grows murkier still.
If this does evolve into a simple “choose-one” affair between Callahan and Richards, the Rangers have to think long term and keep their captain. Richards may be producing more, at the moment, but check back a year from now. Heck, check back five years from now and see if Richards still finds himself on an NHL team. If Richie’s best hockey is behind him, Callahan’s may well be in front of him.
Sather’s driving incentive in fielding offers for Callahan is to ensure the Rangers don’t short themselves in the future. Fair enough. But if he’s so intent on planning ahead, then why not cut Richards loose this summer and use that money on Callahan? That serves the Rangers now and later.