With just under 72 hours remaining before the NHL Trade Deadline - Monday February 29th - 3:00pm Eastern, the New York Rangers find themselves in familiar territory. With a nine point lead and a game in hand on the 9th ranked New Jersey Devils, it would take a monumental collapse for them to miss out on a sixth straight playoff season, and tenth in eleven seasons.
As has been typical in recent years, the Rangers are hard up against the NHL Salary Cap with just $180,000 of projected annualized Cap Room per NHLNumbers.com projections. Unless there is a move to put someone on Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR), send someone down to the minors, or someone is traded, the Rangers are projected to only be able to add another $180,000 equivalent annial salary, or about one third the minimum NHL contract.
That's not to say GM Jeff Gorton has no choices...
In the latest incarnation of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), a team can retain up to 50% of salary and equivalent cap space for up to three players - source. That is to say, that if a player was earning say $1M of salary (the actual amount due to the player in the current year) and had a $1M of equivalent salary cap (the value of the total annual salary for each year of the contract divided by the term of the contract), then the team trading the player could retain up to half of that.
So now we're up to a potential $360,000 of contract value.
Additionally, a team can place players on LTIR and receive up to the equivalent value of the player's cap value minus the amount of Cap room the team has remaining. So if the Rangers have that $180,000 left, and the were to put Rick Nash on LTIR, then they would receive an equivalent of $7.8M - $180K or $7.52M of annualized Cap Room to add a player to the roster.
The downside of LTIR is that it commits the player to being off the roster for a minimum of 10 games and 24 days. That is to say that if Nash was put on LTIR on Monday, the soonest he'd be able to come back is the March 23rd game against the Boston Bruins.
But of course if the Rangers were to add another contract, they wouldn't have the Cap room to bring Nash back because they would have used their entire Cap quota for the 2015-16 season by tapping into the LTIR clause to exceeed the Cap number.
So going this route would basically sideline Rick Nash for the remainder of the regular season regardless of when he became healthy.
On the positive side, he would be able to return for the playoffs, which are not governed by the Salary Cap, a fact that was exploited by the Chicago Blackhawks last year who acquired Antoine Vermette at the deadline by putting star forward Patrick Kane on LTIR for the rest of the regular season.
The Los Angeles Kings are also likely to take advantage of this clause this year, with Marian Gaborik likely to be out for an extended time, so there is precedence and support for the Rangers to also utilize it.
If Gorton wants to think smaller, then the only options he really has are to trade a higher value contract for a lesser one, or send someone down. This is where a couple of other things come into play, no movement/no trade clauses and the limit of four recalls for the remaining 20 or so games.
With respect to recalls, each NHL team is allowed up to four recalls from the North American professional leagues for the remainder of the season. If the Rangers were to drop below 20 healthy players, they could call up an additional "emergency" player for the duration of the injury/illness, but they couldn't for instance travel with an extra player in case of a last minute injury. Players who complete their junior, college or European commitments however could be added without counting - e.g. Ryan Haggerty a couple of seasons ago.
As for trading players, Dan Boyle, Henrik Lundqivst and Marc Staal cannot be traded nor sent down without the player's approval. None appears very likely of suffering that fate anyway, least of all Lundqvist.
Derick Brassard, Dan Girardi, Dominic Moore, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello all have no-trade clauses, so while they could be potentially put on waivers and sent down, these seems very unlikely too.
That's 8 of the 22 players currently on the roster covered, leaving - in order of Cap Space:
$6,500,000 Derek Stepan
$4,700,000 Ryan McDonagh
$2,900,000 Kevin Klein
$2,625,000 Keith Yandle
$2,475,000 Chris Kreider
$1,450,000 Tanner Glass
$1,100,000 Viktor Stalberg
$950,000 Jesper Fast
$900,000 Kevin Hayes
$874,000 J.T. Miller
$750,000 Antti Raanta
$650,000 Oscar Lindberg
$600,000 Dylan McIlrath
$575,000 Marek Hrivik
If you figure no one under $2M is going to make enough of a difference in terms of adding an impact player, then you're really looking at Stepan, McDonagh, Klein, Yandle and Kreider. Best case scenario would be team retaining half the cap they send, so maybe you can fit a $3-4M contract by trading one of Klein, Yandle or Kreider.
Alternatively putting Nash on LTIR would allow more flexibility, although would almost certainly guarantee Nash would have no game time for the remainder of the regular season.
If we further apply this to the possibility of getting Eric Staal and his $8.25M salary cap into the Rangers, they could either put Nash on LTIR and have the Hurricanes retain a small portion of salary - which they have the room to do with only two of their three contract quota taken up to date, or they could trade Derek Stepan and have Carolina retain around $2M of Staal's salary.
You'd also have to factor in the cost of a trade, either Stepan and possible other assets, or maybe someone like Chris Kreider, a first round pick and maybe a prospect - along with Nash on LTIR, and you've probably got the price the Rangers would have to pay to make this work.
With guys like Lundqvist - 34 (next week), Moore - 35, Glass - 32, Girardi - 31, Klein - 31 all on the wrong side of 30, then Gorton will be under pressure to deliver. There won't be a lot of second chances here, and it may be the last roll of the dice.
Conversely, only one team wins the Cup, and very few, if any, high-priced acquisitions even come close to offsetting the cost.
The probability of making a Cup winning trade is probably in the single digits percentage wise. Not doing anything is probably a couple of percentage points lower, but nonetheless lower.
We'll know by around 4pm Monday which choice Gorton makes