By Barry M. Bloom
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Rangers will finally retire Jean Ratelle's No. 19 on Feb. 25 at Madison Square Garden. It only took 43 years. The National Hockey League trade deadline is the next day.
The juxtaposition of the two dates couldn't be more interesting. Ratelle was the center of New York's "Goal a Game" (GAG) line between Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield. It's undoubtedly the top line in Rangers' history.
Like the current Rangers, that team of the 1970s just couldn't get over the hump. They lost the '72 Stanley Cup Final in six games to the big, bad Boston Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.
When it became clear that the window had closed on that particular group, Ratelle and defenseman Brad Park were traded to Boston on Nov. 7, 1975, in exchange for Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais. Goaltender Eddie Giacomin was also waived and picked up by Detroit. Hadfield, a 50-goal scorer in 1971-72, already had been dealt to Pittsburgh. Only Gilbert finished his 16-year career with the team.
The carnage on 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue was complete. Ratelle is only now earning recognition for his accomplishments.
The current Rangers have lost three in a row on this West Coast trip and are facing a similar set of circumstances. Built around the splendid goaltending of Henrik Lundquist, they lost the 2014 Cup Final to Los Angeles in five games. They haven't been close again since. Facing the Ratelle number retirement and the trade deadline, the window is closing quickly on this edition of the Broadway Blue Shirts.
They are vying for a playoff berth for the eighth consecutive season, but they can't climb over that nasty Stanley Cup hump. A lot of key decisions have to be made.
"I try not to focus too much on a window. Obviously, I'm aware I'm getting older," Lundqvist told Sports on Earth on Tuesday before the Ducks knocked him from the net in the first period of what turned out to be a 6-3 New York loss at the Honda Center. "You're not going to play forever. You just try to make the most of every year here. It's this year that I try to focus on right now and see how far it takes us."
The question is just how far Lundqvist can take the Rangers. He's the heart and soul and superstar of a team that has no sustained offense and no reliable goal-scoring presence.
When asked how he viewed the state of the team, Lundqvist responded with: "Good question. It's hard to say where we're at."
When asked if the team as constructed could win the Stanley Cup, Lundqvist said: "I want to believe so. There are a lot of good teams out there. I think right now the focus is just getting into the playoffs. That's going to be a tough challenge, but once you're in it's pretty open this year, which team can win it all."
There's Tampa, Las Vegas and Nashville, and the Penguins are always tough and a rough matchup for the Rangers. With the All-Star break ahead, the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Penguins and Islanders are vying for the wild card berths in the Eastern Conference.
Unlike Ratelle's Rangers, which were splintered in an instant, this squad already has been broken up in bits and pieces over time because of the vagaries of keeping a team together in the NHL's salary cap era.
Captain Ryan Callahan was dispatched to the Lightning late in the 2013-14 season for the fading Martin St. Louis in an early stunning move. More recently, this past offseason the Rangers bought out the contract of defenseman Dan Girardi and traded center Derek Stepan to the Coyotes. Neither has really been replaced.
Now the question is whether to finish the job. Buy or sell at the deadline? The spotlight is on forward Rick Nash, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and fan favorite forward Mats Zuccarello. Nash only recently came out of hibernation with a trio of two-goal games in the last five, including a pair in the first period against the Ducks on Tuesday night. He has 15. Zuccarello had an assist on the first Nash goal and leads the team in scoring with a modest eight goals and 35 points.
Like the trading of Ratelle and the Orr-like Park with his booming slap shot and end-to-end mobility, the banishment of Nash and Zuccarello could put Rangers fans over the edge. Although there's nothing comparable to dressing the hated Esposito in a Rangers jersey after years of taunts and irreparable losses.
You can't worry about all that, Nash said: "That's part of the business. For me, I don't look into it. I worry about playing games here. You can't control the business side of it."
Of course, injuries will have a big role in all the decisions. Forward Chris Kreider and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk are out indefinitely. Kreider had a blood clot in his right arm and then underwent rib resection surgery. Shattenkirk had torn meniscus in a knee and also just underwent surgery.
But major injuries are always a part of the Rangers' equation. In 1972, Ratelle and the GAG line were on their way to tallying a total of 139 goals and 312 points. Ratelle took a shot off his ankle on March 1, breaking it, and didn't return until the finals. He had a bit role and one assist in the six games, still finishing with 46 goals and a career-high 109 points despite missing the final 15 regular-season games.
It may have been the most devastating injury in Rangers lore. For those who witnessed that season, there's still the nagging feeling that a healthy Ratelle might have made a difference that postseason against the Bruins. Then again, the Bruins always manhandled the Rangers, who still only fell short by two wins of capturing the Cup.
For those of us watching now, there's that nagging feeling that these Rangers are wasting the performance of the greatest goalie in the club's history. He'll hold all the team's records, in the end, and his No. 30 will go up in the Garden rafters to join Ratelle, Giacomin's No. 1 and Mike Richter's No. 35.
There's a reason Lundqvist is known as "The King," but right now, only Richter has won the Cup. In 1994. The Rangers' only championship since 1940. Like Nash, Lundqvist just shrugged his shoulders.
"I still think there's a chance we'll win the Cup. But you don't focus on the things you can't control," Lundqvist said. "We'll have to see what happens."
It should be an interesting month.
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Barry M. Bloom has covered professional sports since 1976 and is a national reporter for MLB.com. He grew up as an Original Six Rangers fan in New York and has been fortunate to interview all of their epic goalies: Eddie Giacomin, John Davidson, Mike Richter and the King. Follow him on Twitter @boomskie. His blog is Boomskie on Baseball.