How a Michael Grabner reunion can work for rebuilding Rangers

How a Michael Grabner reunion can work for rebuilding Rangers

Michael Grabner already went through weeks of high-stress thinking about things he couldn’t control — mainly, where the Rangers were going to trade him.

So now that the speedy winger has landed in New Jersey as part of the first trade between the Devils and Rangers — also becoming one of the rare few to have played for all three New York-area hockey teams — he doesn’t want to start thinking about his pending unrestricted free agency that is likely to come on July 1.

Which is not to say that he’s not interested in reuniting with the Rangers.

“I’m open,” Grabner told The Post before the Devils beat the league-leading Lightning 2-1 on Saturday night in Newark. “I haven’t thought about it, but I’m open to anything. I’m trying to play out my season here, try to have the best possibility of my play here the rest of the year, then see what happens after.”

The Rangers had off Sunday and are playing out the rest of their season in the midst of a rebuild, set to miss the playoffs for the first time in seven years as they prepare for a home-and-home with the Capitals beginning Monday night at the Garden. A reunion with Grabner is a possibility if the price is right — same can be said for Rick Nash — but general manager Jeff Gorton is very unlikely to give out a deal over two years to a veteran, no matter how quickly he wants to turn the ship around.

Michael GrabnerGetty Images

Grabner will be 31 years old when next season starts, and the Austrian Express has fond memories of playing for the Blueshirts, with whom he resurrected his career on what turned out to be a terrifically discounted price of two years at $3.3 million. He had been coming off a season with the Maple Leafs when he scored nine goals in 80 games, and the offers weren’t exactly flooding in. He took the deal from the Rangers, then scored 27 in his first year on Broadway and followed up with 25 more in the 59 games he played for them this season before the Feb. 23 trade across the river.

He certainly earned himself a substantial raise, and this summer is going to be very different for him compared to two years ago.

“Even last time when I was a free agent, it was a different situation back then, coming off a tough year,” he said. “But I didn’t really think about it until my season was over, then you worry about this kind of stuff.”

Grabner shook his head when thinking about his final few weeks with the Rangers, which was a miserable time for the players after management sent out a memo to the fans Feb. 8 declaring their intention to rebuild. Every day Grabner was reminded of what seemed like an inevitable trade, and every day he tried not to think too much about where he was going to end up.

Finally, as he was held out of a game in Montreal on Feb. 22, he found out he had been traded to the Devils in exchange for a second-round pick and 20-year-old defensive prospect Yegor Rykov. His reaction?

“I was glad it was over. That was my first reaction,” Grabner said. “It was a long couple weeks before that, just trying to think about it, plan it out. But obviously you get reminded of it quite a bit with fans, family, friends. But I was just glad it was over. And my first thought was that it was good, it was close, not too far from the family. Didn’t disrupt the life too much.”

Grabner’s young family remains up at his home in Westchester while he rents a place in New Jersey. With the Devils having just completed an epic two-week trip, he had not seen his family in 18 days but planned to go there after Saturday night’s game and spend the day off there Sunday.

Soon enough he will be thinking about his next destination, and it could be a return to the Rangers. But that decision isn’t coming just yet.

“For me, it’s a distraction, same as worrying about where I’m going to end up,” he said. “Finally over that, all the stress that happened, now I’m just trying to focus on hockey.”

Rangers visit Lightning, face familar faces

Rangers visit Lightning, face familar faces

TAMPA — The New York Rangers hit the road on Thursday to visit Rangers South, also known as the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The meeting at Amalie Arena features a matchup between the two teams that made the biggest deal at the trade deadline on Feb. 26

Tampa Bay acquired defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from the Rangers in exchange for Vladislav Namestnikov, two prospects and two picks.

The deal brought the number of former Rangers on the Lightning roster to five with Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, Miller and McDonagh. The five players combined to play 2,277 combined games in a Rangers sweater.

While Callahan, Stralman and Girardi, who signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay this summer after being bought out by the Rangers, have all faced their former team before, Thursday’s meeting will be the first for Miller, who has two goals and five points in four games with Tampa Bay since the trade.

“I’m trying not to think (about facing his former team),” Miller said. “I did not think I would be facing the Rangers so soon. It’s going to be weird for my ex-teammates and my buddies. I don’t even know what to think, to be honest. It’s going to be pretty wild.”

McDonagh will miss the chance to face his former team while he continues to recover from an upper body injury that has kept him out since the first week of February. The 28-year-old former Rangers’ captain has been participating in practice with Tampa Bay while wearing a no-contact jersey. McDonagh is expected to be ready to return by early next week to make his Lightning debut, with the hope he can help improve Tampa Bay’s defensive play, which has slipped in recent weeks.

“D-zone is something we’re continuously trying to work on,” Tampa Bay center Brayden Point said. “We’re watching a lot of video, and I think it’s just finding our guys quicker, maybe a little bit more work ethic. We’re kind of getting sloppy a little bit. We’re losing our checks a little bit too much.”

The Rangers, meanwhile, are starting to see their already slim playoff hopes start to fade away coming off a 3-0 loss at home to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. New York sits seven points out of the second wild card spot with 15 games left to play.

But the Rangers’ blue line could get a boost with the possible return of Kevin Shattenkirk, who has been out since Jan. 22 after surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Shattenkirk took part in the team’s morning skate on Tuesday and is expected to join the team for the two-game trip through Florida, though no time table for his return has been established.

“Obviously we’re looking at the next couple weeks here,” New York head coach Alain Vigneault told the New York Post. “Won’t be a lot of practice time, but he is coming along real well, he’s been skating for a long time, his rehab is right where he is supposed to be.”

Killing The “Golden Age” Might Hurt, But It Was Necessary

Killing The “Golden Age” Might Hurt, But It Was Necessary

The memory should be different.

The first memory once you’ve lost something or moved on should always be a good one right?

It’s not. And it won’t be.

My first memory of Ryan McDonagh should be a good one. It should be him jumping backwards with a small fist pump after scoring the overtime game-winner in Game 5 against Washington back in 2015. It should be him jumping off the bench and mobbing Derek Stepan after the overtime goal in Game 7 a few days later. Him clutching Henrik Lundqvist after they won the Eastern Conference Final against Montreal. The day he first skated out onto the ice as captain. Or maybe it should just be this aurora of hope — which he helped usher in for the first time in a decade. Maybe it should be that.

It isn’t.

My first memory of McDonagh are his arms reaching toward the sky as he jumped in the air. For an instant, there’s an explosion of joy. And then it dies. His hands are back down. The shot he thought went into the back of the net in overtime during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final — a goal that would have sent the series back to New York with the Rangers’ down 3-2 and full of a new life — did not hit the twine. It hit the post. He thought it went in. I thought it went in. In that moment, three thousand miles apart, we both felt the same emotions consecutively: undeniable happiness, followed by a bleak feeling of hopelessness.

You know what happens next. We all do.

That story isn’t an indictment of McDonagh, who was everything and more for a Rangers team that asked so much of him. It’s not an indictment of that core either; that core taught me how to believe in magic again. But it is a reinforcement of the sad reality that close is not good enough. Brushing your fingers onto greatness is not the same as being the best.

The Rangers’ back-to-back runs from 2014-2015 will go down as some of the most fun I’ve had as a Rangers fan. I can think back to those memories fondly. I can close my eyes right now and remember how it felt to walk outside of The Garden in shorts, because it was June and the Rangers were still playing. I remember all of that. I remember looking at my dad when the buzzer sounded after Game 6 against Montreal, that moment between us where he knew what was coming next because of 1994 and the smile of seeing me watch everything with wide eyes. That’s all there.

But so is Lundqvist face down on the ice. So is me being at the first Game 7 the Rangers ever lost as Madison Square Garden. So is watching Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, and Brian Boyle celebrate on my ice when they no longer wore my jersey.

Success in sports is akin to holding water in your hand. If you do it right, you’ll hold the water longer than someone who does it wrong, but it will eventually seep through your fingers no matter what you do. For those two years, the Rangers held the water as much as they could and they came damn close, but close is not good enough.

From there, the success ended up killing the team’s future. The brass refused to stop dancing even though the music had stopped. Lundqvist hid enough flaws that people tricked themselves into thinking everything was okay, but when they finally opened their eyes they saw the rubble we were left with Monday night.

There are two faces to that run: Lundqvist and McDonagh. Lundqvist because he’s an organizational godsend; a generational player that pulled this team from the abyss of failure and into success almost on his own. Right or wrong, his name will be on everything the Rangers do during his tenure, whether it has his fingerprints on it or not.

And McDonagh because he’s the captain. He might not have been in 2014, but he was in 2015 and the years that followed. Like Lundqvist, right or wrong, his face is what you think about when you think back to that group.

The bad taste in your mouth you have from the past two year’s worth of failure aren’t the player’s fault — it lies at the feet of the man who will also have his face plastered to this period of time.

As much as they didn’t get the job done, they weren’t put in a position to. They were over-matched in 2016 (which was on Sather/Gorton), and they were out-coached in 2017 (which was on Alain Vigneault). From that story — which came from me in Prague because I was so fired up after the Rangers lost to Ottawa:

The axe has to fall somewhere and for me it’s target should be the coach. It would be (a little) different if the entire defense fell apart. Vigneault can be blamed for some things, but not for the tools in his toolbox. If his tools had failed him, I’d be more understanding.

But that’s not what happened. Dan Girardi was solid. Skjei and Smith played like a top pair. The power play was stagnant. Guys who did really good things were seldom rewarded for it with bigger roles. He sat quality players for veterans who didn’t perform.

No, I’m sorry, this one is on him. Again. These stories are becoming evergreen.

Vigneault’s extension looks worse now than it did when it happened (and it looked bad when it happened). The Rangers extended a vote of confidence to a guy who routinely turns a blind eye to convention and novel ideas in favor of his own set of rules. The media’s silence has shielded him from a lot of the criticism here, but let’s be clear: he’s the real issue.

Vigneault’s day of judgement is coming this summer. I would be stunned to see him survive, despite my anger at Gorton’s silence the past two years. This blowup, though, seems to signal the Rangers’ acknowledgement that they need a fresh start. Vigneault’s inability to develop players is a reality, and there’s no getting around it now.

But this story isn’t about him. At least, not all about him. In 2014 he was the perfect man for the job, sitting at the helm of a team filled with veterans where he didn’t need to involve himself in roles or player personnel. Veterans weren’t drowning yet. Still, he hit all the right buttons. He had the best fourth line in hockey. Hell, he had the best bottom six in hockey. The best goalie in hockey. It made an enormous difference.

From there, things spiraled down quickly. He got his hands on who he wanted to join the team and Sather seemed to agree. When the veterans he inherited and brought in started failing, he had no way to navigate himself away from the way he had always done things. When the Rangers should have been just beginning to take off into an era of success, they were already beginning to lose altitude. We saw it earlier than most. Some people still don’t see it even now.

The past five years have been the most fun I’ve had as a sports fan. They’ve also been some of the most frustrating. As I said in my recap of all the moves the Rangers made this week:

The charred remains of the Rangers’ 2014 Cup run and an era of success we haven’t seen in decades is the bill for all the failed risks, asset mismanagement, and refusal to see what the team really was. If you’re sitting in the remains of the past, with soot on your face and burns on your hands as you sift through the rubble, remember that this could have been avoided. If even two years ago the Rangers realized they were walking down a very dangerous path, some of this — if not most of this — could have been avoided.

Vigneault is a part of this too, but this also falls on Sather and Gorton. Sather for allowing the key cogs of 2014 to be sent elsewhere, Gorton for making his own “all-in” trades and allowing Vigneault to stay his execution this long.

To give credit where it’s due: the Rangers made the right decision eventually. They could have very easily looked at where they stood this year — despite injuries — and talked themselves into making a run in this mess of an conference. TODAY Boston and Tampa Bay have marked themselves as the favorites, but they did so in part because of moves they made with Gorton. The Rangers saw the truth though, and they moved on it. Whether the directive came from James Dolan himself, as some suggested on deadline day, or not, the Rangers still made the right decision.

Even knowing all of this, it’s sad to see the door finally close. Yes, it’s for the best. Yes, it had to happen. Yes, we all knew this bill was coming — and some (like me) have been asking the team for the check for years. But it’s still hard.

McDonagh was a damn fine captain and a damn fine man. The Rangers anchored his prime to Dan Girardi when he was drowning, and subsequently I don’t think we ever saw the best of him. Nash was a nothing but class, a leader, and he was nearly as underappreciated as Lundqvist is — which nearly impossible. J.T. Miller was one of the young-guns who came in and (along with Chris Kreider) made Rangers’ fans appreciate the farm system again. Michael Grabner was a good soldier. Nick Holden was a victim of poor coaching.

The Rangers aren’t throwing away problem children (although per some reports Miller had work ethic/off ice issues), but they are re-setting. That includes losing players that you fell in love with. We root for laundry (i.e: the name on the front not on the back) and it’s evident right now.

That doesn’t make this any easier.

That also doesn’t change the past. The memory should be better.

It won’t be.

Thanks for the fun, boys, it was a wild ride.

Inside Ryan McDonagh's final hour with the Rangers

Inside Ryan McDonagh's final hour with the Rangers

TAMPA — Ryan McDonagh was done working out, and all the Rangers trainers had left the practice facility in Westchester to catch the team flight to Vancouver. But the captain, who was rehabbing his right-hand/wrist injury, stuck around. He turned on the television and sat there by himself, waiting to hear if he had been traded.

By 2 p.m., an hour before Monday’s deadline, there was nothing. He decided he would take the 15-minute drive to his home in Rye to be with his wife and young daughter, telling The Post on Wednesday that he thought, “If something does happen, I’d rather be around my family to go through that emotion.”

On that drive, his agent, Ben Hankinson, called. He told McDonagh that a deal was done, but he wasn’t sure where just yet. So McDonagh opened the door to his house, and he said, “There was about a 15-minute window where we were waiting to find out and waiting to hear. Then Gorts gave me the call and told me.”

That would be general manager Jeff Gorton, who had shipped McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller to the Lightning in exchange for a 2018 first-round pick, a 2019 conditional second-round pick (that could turn into a first), plus roster player Vladislav Namestnikov and two prospects the Rangers are very high on,  20-year-old defenseman Libor Hajek and two-way center Brett Howden.

It also placed McDonagh and Miller on the team with old pals Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman, and with a club that goes into its game Wednesday night against the Sabres with the best-overall record in the league. For all the winning McDonagh and Miller did in New York, they might have their best chance to win a Cup this season — and that is something that both of them have already thought of.

J.T. MillerGetty Images

“It’s hard not to, right?” McDonagh said. “First place in the league right now. They’re adding to their team. You don’t want to think too far ahead or think it’s gong to happen just because what they did. But there are a lot of proven winners in here, too.”

Despite McDonagh having been the Rangers captain since 2014, he was not too surprised by the move. Gorton and team president Glen Sather had sent a letter to the fans on Feb. 8 and then held a press conference to describe in detail their desire for a full rebuild. At 28 years old and with one more year left on a deal that carries a relatively modest $4.7 million salary-cap hit, McDonagh knew he was likely on the way out.

“I guess the drastic measures or whatever, with the letter being released and Gorts being honest with everybody in the media, saying everything is on the table, so you know you have to be part of the discussions,” McDonagh said. “It wasn’t as much of an ambush or a shock as probably J.T. had, not knowing at all and being on an airplane thinking about going to play Vancouver.”

Miller was about halfway through that cross-continent flight preparing to play against the Canucks on Wednesday night when Sather walked up to him at 3:05 p.m. and broke the news.

“I thought he was kidding,” Miller told The Post before he was set to make his Lightning debut alongside Tyler Johnson and Chris Kunitz on Wednesday night. “He was smiling, and he was like, ‘You’ve been traded to Tampa.’ And I was like, ‘Seriously?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, seriously.’ Then I said, ‘Thanks for all the opportunities.’

“They had given me so much opportunity since I was 18 there,” said the 24-year-old Miller, set to be a restricted free agent after the season. “It was an unbelievable organization, they treat everybody so well. I have nothing but nice things to say about them.”

With Gorton having already traded Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Nick Holden in the days leading up to the deadline, the rebuild already had begun to become a reality. And more deconstruction could certainly happen this summer in the lead-up to June’s draft.

For all of the success the Rangers had with their core group, they never won a Stanley Cup. And at least McDonagh understands that was a key reason all this has happened.

“It sticks with you. That’s exactly why they’re doing this — because we didn’t win,” McDonagh said. “At the end of the day, all of that so-called success, it’s not the top of the mountain, it’s not the No. 1 prize.”

And now McDonagh and Miller might have their best chance at that prize yet. Just not with the Rangers.

Ryan McDonagh doesn't want 'Rangers South' to stick

Ryan McDonagh doesn't want 'Rangers South' to stick

Ryan McDonagh saw a lot of familiar faces when he first walked into the Lightning dressing room with his new teammates.

McDonagh and J.T. Miller joined the Cup-contending Lightning in a blockbuster trade with the Rangers just before the deadline Monday. They joined a club with three other ex-Rangers — defensemen Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman and forward Ryan Callahan.

Having almost a quarter of the roster with a common former team made for an easy nickname: Rangers South. The guy who was wearing the captain’s “C” for the Rangers a few days ago, though, isn’t a fan.

“It is kind of a crazy coincidence, but if you ask me, I hope that [Rangers South] doesn’t stick much longer past today, because I’m proud to be a part of this team,” McDonagh told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. “I’m proud to be a Tampa Bay Lightning, and I want to help add to the success they’ve had this year and do something special.”

The Lightning lead the NHL with 89 points, and could make a second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in four years. Callahan and Stralman were on that 2015 team, one year after Stralman helped the Rangers to the 2014 Cup Final. Girardi joined this past offseason after the Rangers bought out his contract.

Now McDonagh and Miller have joined what was already a high-powered club with sights on winning the Cup for the second time in franchise history.

“It’s awesome to be here, such a fun hockey team to watch around the league,” Miller told the Tampa Bay Times. “And it’s a really good opportunity, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Breaking down why Rangers chose to move McDonagh, Miller

Breaking down why Rangers chose to move McDonagh, Miller

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Regarding the team now identified as Rest of the Rangers, or in the Olympic spirit, ROR:

1. Left unsaid in the decision to trade Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay on Monday is management’s belief the Blueshirts were/are in need of a more inspirational and perhaps even confrontational personality as team captain.

No one would dare dispute McDonagh’s character, commitment, toughness or work ethic. The man played the final three games of the 2015 conference finals on a broken ankle, for goodness sakes. He was a lead-by-example guy since getting the “C” at the start of 2104-15.

But with Alain Vigneault, a coach who believes in leaving the locker room to his player leadership core, there was a sense that the club needed a captain who would get in his teammates’ faces when necessary and that McDonagh was not that kind of leader.

Had such a player emerged, the Rangers might have considered changing captains, as the Sharks did in going from Joe Thornton to Joe Pavelski; as the Kings did in moving from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar; as the Devils once did in going from Patrik Elias (after one year) to Jamie Langenbrunner and, before that, from Bruce Driver (after one season) to Scott Stevens; as the Islanders did in moving from Clark Gillies (after one year) to Denis Potvin in the offseason preceding their first Stanley Cup; and as the Blueshirts themselves did way back when, in going from Harry Howell to Red Sullivan. But no such alternative presented itself.

The next captain more likely than not will come from the outside in the person of a veteran with characteristics similar to, say, Martin St. Louis, who might have inherited the position vacated by Ryan Callahan’s trade if No. 26 had more than one year remaining on his contract when McDonagh was named instead.

Martin St. LouisChristopher Pasatieri

That’s the Type A type of veteran management will be seeking this summer in advance of a 2018-19 in which most of the rebuilding will take place off Broadway.

2. The judgement regarding Vigneault’s fate, and the identity of his successor if management opts to make a change, are obviously management’s most critical twin decisions of the offseason.

Toronto’s rebuilding process accelerated when Mike Babcock took over behind the bench two years ago, just as Boston’s reboot got a charge when the Bruins replaced Claude Julien with Bruce Cassidy during the middle of last season.

If missing on a top-10 first-rounder this June would be deadly, going the wrong way on the coaching decision would set back the program by years.

I would not be surprised if St. Louis is in the mix for an assistant’s job next season regardless of the call on Vigneault.

3. The Rangers had become convinced J.T. Miller’s coachability issues were not linked to Vigneault and they were concerned he had regressed in his work habits and off-ice preparation, according to individuals familiar with the inner dynamic.

As such, they were not going to grant Miller, an upcoming restricted free agent with arbitration rights, the long-term deal for between $5 million and $5.4 million per season that would have been required to keep him off the open market following next season. Had the parties gone to arbitration on a one-year deal, Miller likely would have been in the $4.5 million range during what would have been his walk season. That was the impetus behind the decision to include him in the deal with the Lightning.

Libor HajekAP

4. There is unanimity across the talent-evaluators’ board that Libor Hajek, the 20-year-old defenseman obtained from the Lightning, is the highest-end prospect with the best chance of becoming an impact player obtained by the Blueshirts in this housecleaning.

Defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who came from Boston as part of the Rick Nash deal, is heralded as “a warrior who will always stand up for his teammates” by one individual intimately familiar with the University of Minnesota sophomore’s game.

5. Rangers fan at 3:30 Monday afternoon: “I’m in for the rebuild.”

Rangers fan at 8:30 Monday night: “Maybe we can sign John Tavares as a free agent and trade two first-rounders plus a couple of younger guys to Ottawa for Erik Karlsson and get this rebuilding process moving more quickly.”