The Rangers are back from the eight-day All-Star break and back to carrying the maximum 23 players on their roster.
In addition to re-summoning Will Cuylle from Hartford, the conclusion of Sammy Blais’ two-week conditioning assignment in the American Hockey League has now restricted the Rangers’ salary cap accrual in preparation for the trade deadline. The decision to return from the layoff with a 23-man roster makes little to no sense, unless there’s another move in the works or the Rangers don’t believe they’ll need as much cap space as possible to accomplish what they want to before the clock strikes 3 p.m. on March 3.
“We’re allowed 23, why not?” head coach Gerard Gallant said after the Rangers returned to practice Sunday afternoon at MSG Training Center in Tarrytown. “The kid came up here and played well and he deserved another call-up.”
The kid Gallant is referring to is Cuylle. It appears as though the Rangers either liked what they saw from Cuylle or are just intrigued and want to see more. Otherwise, the organization would be prioritizing cap space instead of bringing the big-bodied winger back up to the varsity squad after a solid two-game audition before the break.
Cuylle, who went back down to Hartford during the Rangers’ hiatus from game action and scored a goal in one of the three games he played, clearly made an impression in the fourth-line role the club has clearly envisioned him.
“Honestly, you want guys playing,” Gallant said. “We always talk about young guys, if they’re not going to play they should play in the minor leagues, obviously, when they don’t have to clear waivers. That’s a big part of it. The kid came up and he played two real good games. He did his job and we want to give him another look and he deserves that.
“Sammy went down there and played some games [as part of a conditioning assignment], which was part of the plan and it worked out real well. Sammy is back up and he’s going to be back with our team.”
On Sunday Blais and Vitali Kravtsov skated as the extras on the third and fourth lines, respectively, which indicates they could be trade bait. While it’s unlikely the Rangers would risk losing Kravtsov for nothing on the waiver wire, Blais could still be subjected to waivers en route to the Wolf Pack at some point.
If the Rangers want to maximize their options before the trade deadline, the club will have to do something — presumably involving either of those two, or defenseman Libor Hajek.
President and general manager Chris Drury might be more concerned with the team’s durability ahead of the Rangers’ final 33 games of the regular season, with tough competition every week and eight sets of back-to-back games. The safety net of depth could be the priority.
Or, perhaps Drury doesn’t plan on swinging for the fences with any trade-deadline acquisitions. If that’s the case, operating for the sake of readiness against unexpected injuries instead of creating the most cap space would be understandable. It’s possible Drury is comfortable with the group that’s already in place and he’s planning to target cheaper acquisitions.
If the Rangers stick with this current roster, they’ll have approximately $5.439 million in space at the deadline. Blais accounts for about $8,243 per day, while Cuylle equals roughly $4,477.50 per day.
Either way, the Rangers’ next moves will say a lot about their thinking with 25 days until the trade deadline.