The plot thickens for Zuccarello and Hayes

A day after losing streak home to Minnesota 4-1, the Rangers are gearing up to trade two of their best players. With Monday’s trade deadline at 3 PM fast approaching, it could happen anytime between now and then. That leaves a window of less than 72 hours for GM Jeff Gorton to finalize deals for Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes.

With Columbus deciding to acquire former Senator Matt Duchene for a package of two top prospects along with two conditional first round picks, that’s one less big name available for contenders. Here is the breakdown of the blockbuster trade between the Blue Jackets and the Senators.

It’s hard to believe Ottawa gave up so much last year for Duchene, who either could re-sign with Columbus, or go to unrestricted free agency on July 1. With the league’s fewest points, the Senators didn’t protect the lottery pick they gave up to Colorado. That means the Avalanche are poised to potentially win the lottery and possibly get either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko this June. Yikes. At least the Senators got a good return for Duchene.

What it could mean for Mark Stone nobody knows. If the Sens are truly committed to a full rebuild, then expect Stone to go next. However, he’s interested in staying. For what price and term I have no idea. He would be a great addition to any playoff contender. We’ll see what happens.

As far as the latest news with Zuccarello and Hayes, they both played last night along with Adam McQuaid, who left the game with an “upper body” injury. Though coach David Quinn said it was precautionary and he could’ve returned. That’s the risk you take by playing rumored players who are expected to be moved.

In all likelihood, they played their final game as Rangers. Even with Quinn continuing to tell reporters that he’ll play a full lineup if the players are still around, he can now use extras Boo Nieves, Brendan Smith and Fredrik Claesson as replacements for Hayes, Zuccarello and McQuaid. Nieves was a healthy scratch due to 2017 number seven overall pick Lias Andersson coming back up from Hartford to play yesterday. Quinn was pleased with his game, which is more than you can say for most of the roster that didn’t do enough against the struggling Wild.

Only a power play goal from the resurgent Pavel Buchnevich (sixth PPG) prevented Devan Dubnyk from a shutout. Quinn even broke up the top line by flipping Jimmy Vesey with a slumping Chris Kreider, who is without a goal in eight straight entering Saturday’s match against the Devils. He took turns with Hayes and Buchnevich while Vesey worked with Zuccarello and Mika Zibanejad the final period. It didn’t matter. They were unable to help Henrik Lundqvist get a second consecutive win.

When the Devils visit the Garden tomorrow afternoon, it’ll be Alexandar Georgiev in net. The only question is what happens with Zuccarello, Hayes and McQuaid. It sure sounds like Zucc could be the first to go.

Zuccarello is attracting a lot of interest. Who knows where he will wind up? It could be Calgary or Nashville. The best case scenario rather than seeing him play for a team in the Eastern Conference. With Boston deciding to risk the future by parting with Ryan Donato in a trade for Charlie Coyle from the Wild, they probably are out on both Zuccarello and Hayes. The Bruins decided to give up a good prospect and only a fifth round pick to rent a good player in Coyle, who’s underperformed. He should help them in a secondary role.

It’s also worth noting that McQuaid did practice. So, it looks like he’s okay. Regarding Zuccarello not speaking to the press following his on ice chat with Quinn, I don’t blame him. How would you feel? He’s given his heart and soul to this team the past six years.

Don’t forget how hard the journey has been. He went from an afterthought under former coach John Tortorella due to an injury in 2012, to a key piece who became an emotional leader for those teams in ’14 and ’15. The 2015 run still stings. Not just for how bitterly it ended. But for nearly seeing the end of Zuccarello’s career following taking a Ryan McDonagh shot off the helmet that caused a skull fracture and a brain contusion, leaving him unable to speak for several days. It’s still amazing that he made a full recovery, making a successful return to the sport. What if they had him against Tampa? Do they win Game Seven and then defeat the Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup? I still believe they could have. We will never definitely know the answer.

When the trade comes down either this weekend or Monday, it won’t be easy for Blueshirt fans. It never is when you come to love a player, who’s played with so much emotion, grit and determination. Not much different from former captain Ryan Callahan, who MSG vilified for wanting his and getting it with Tampa.

The only difference is Callahan was traded for Martin St. Louis. A Hockey Hall of Famer who in his brief time, became an inspirational leader following the tragic death of Mom France during the 2014 NHL Playoffs. The team rallied around St. Louis to come back and beat the Penguins in seven during the second round. They defeated the Canadiens in six before losing to the hated Kings for the Cup.

If only then GM Glen Sather hadn’t parted with so many first round picks. He did similar when he traded for Keith Yandle, who was underused by Alain Vigneault. The same coach who didn’t know what to do with Eric Staal.

The glory days are over. It’s been over for a while ever since that agonizing Game Six loss to Ottawa two years ago. It started with the trade of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Coyotes for Tony DeAngelo (extended point streak to five) and that 2017 first round pick that became Andersson. They waited a year too long to fire Vigneault. But that’s all in the past.

Now, here we are 60 games into a rebuilding season knowing the end is near for Zuccarello and Hayes. Two good players who should fetch nice returns. A combination of prospects and high draft picks is expected. But that’ll be for the future.

No matter what you feel, it’s the end of an era. We’ve seen Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller go along with Michael Grabner and now retired Rick Nash. Once Zuccarello and Hayes go, only Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Jesper Fast and Chris Kreider will remain from those runs. That’s if they don’t unload Kreider too which would probably not be wise unless it’s overwhelming.

The only player they got back who performed well in the 2017 Playoffs is top center Mika Zibanejad. Stolen from Ottawa for Derick Brassard, Zibanejad is now the best player they have left. Already with 26 goals and career bests in assists (32) and points (58), he continues to be on pace for over 30 goals and 70 points. He’ll remain the top pivot they build around hopefully with Kreider extended and named the new captain.

Young prospects Filip Chytil, Andersson, Brett Howden, Vitali Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller, Igor Shestyorkin, Ryan Lindgren and hopefully Libor Hajek are some of the players that should be a big part of the club moving forward.

Who will be added over the next three days? The answer will be filled in.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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