By Sean Hartnett
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Following the completion of their five-day bye week, the Rangers will return to action on Saturday afternoon against a familiar foe in the rival Islanders.
Although there are still 40 games left in the regular season, the ensuing weeks will define the Blueshirts’ thinking as the Feb. 26 trade deadline nears.
For a team that has annually followed a win-now direction, this is the first season of the Henrik Lundqvist era in which the Rangers’ deadline stance is unclear. With every season that passes, Lundqvist edges closer to retirement. Once he exits the Madison Square Garden stage for good, his successor will be tasked with replacing the highest-performing goaltender this franchise has employed.
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Even if 22-year-old Russian prospect Igor Shesterkin eventually rises as the heir to the throne, it would take a very rare goaltender to emulate the remarkable consistency and game-stealing heroics that have been synonymous with Lundqvist’s name.
Lundqvist, who will turn 36 on March 2, is the midst of an exceptional season and was named to the Metropolitan Division All-Star roster on Wednesday. His .924 save percentage is four points above his career average and his .897 short-handed save percentage is the third-highest of his 13 NHL seasons.
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There’s a shrinking number of opportunities left for the Blueshirts to take advantage of Lundqvist’s dominance, even if he extends his peak years into his late 30s. When he’s gone, he’s gone, and there will be no guarantee that his successor will come close to his brilliance.
The enduring philosophy of win-now will be weighed against the merits of a wide-ranging rebuild. Would a one-year, possibly playoff-less tear-down and summer shakeup better position Lundqvist for future, legitimate runs at the Stanley Cup? Or do the Rangers press ahead with their Stanley Cup-0r-best modus operandi despite a worrying regularity of poor starts, bad puck management and territorial battle losses?
If the Rangers are to press ahead in win-now mode, they’re going to need to fend off the hunting pack of division rivals looking to take advantage of any slip-up. As things…