By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers made a far-reaching mistake by undervaluing the impact of Carl Hagelin, a speedy winger who ideally fit Alain Vigneault's uptempo system and continually raised his game under the playoff spotlight.
Hagelin was more than a productive forward during his four seasons in blue, red and white. He comfortably slid into a larger role when necessary and served as an expert penalty killer, a possession driver and a speedster who tormented the opposition.
In other words, he was a glue player.
"With his speed, I believe he scares the opposition," Vigneault said in October 2014. "Two strides – and boom. He's in the hole. He is on a loose puck, first on the puck. That speed obviously backs off the opposition."
The Rangers had their chance to keep Hagelin on Broadway for at least an additional season, given the opportunity to negotiate during the month that followed last season's Game 7 Eastern Conference finals elimination. Instead of focusing on a solution to retain their integral winger, negotiations were met with a collective yawn from the front office. Hagelin was shipped to Anaheim along with two picks on draft day for raw winger Emerson Etem and the 41st overall pick, which the Blueshirts used to select highly thought of 19-year-old forward Ryan Gropp.
"It came as a surprise; it really did," Hagelin said when he returned to the Garden for the first time in the Ducks' colors on Dec. 22. "I thought I was going to be a Ranger this year, I really did. They never talked to me about a new contract. Maybe they did with my agent, but it was only small talk. They called me after the trade and said it was a business decision, all about the cap."
This was an all too familiar scenario for Rangers fans -- having previously seen high-performing Swede Anton Stralman undervalued by the organization and allowed to slip out the door to join the Cup-chasing rival Tampa Bay Lightning. Like Hagelin, Stralman was given the silent treatment.
"Honestly, all I wanted was to come back," Stralman said of his desire to remain a Ranger during last season's conference finals. "I don't think a cap issue was an issue. Definitely not. I think they wanted to move in another direction, and that's fine with me. The only disappointment I had was that they should have told me.
"I think when a player puts in his heart and soul for a team, if they don't want to keep you, you should have the respect to tell the player. It had not been handled nicely and (the Rangers are) a really professional organization," Stralman added.
But now, it's another worse-case scenario for the Garden faithful as Hagelin has since been traded to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. And with the playoff race heating up, Hagelin stands a solid chance of emulating Stralman in Tampa by becoming a core player for the Pens.
Reunited with former Rangers assistant and now-Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan, there's a lot of familiarity there and Hagelin has given the Pens a shot in the arm with his speed game. Through four games with his new club, Hagelin has contributed three assists and owns a plus-5 rating.
Granted, navigating the salary cap world isn't easy for contending teams like the Rangers. Sustained success means more and more core players are going to want a bigger slice of the pie. But there's only so much pie to go around and it's up to the front office power brokers to correctly decide which players are truly worth long-term investments.
How much better would the Rangers look with the efficient Stralman on the right side of captain Ryan McDonagh instead of Dan Girardi? The Rangers opted to reward the rugged, shot-blocking defenseman with a six-year, $33 million extension, while low-balling Stralman in the same spring ahead of their 2014 charge to the Stanley Cup Final. This season, the 31-year-old Girardi has labored through injuries and has continued to be a culprit in gifting opposition goals through frequent turnovers and repeated positional gaffes.
In the case of keeping Hagelin in Manhattan, sticking Tanner Glass in the minors and passing on free agents Viktor Stalberg and Jarret Stoll (who they have since released) could have freed up precious cap space. Heck, the Rangers could have recouped $2.9 million in cap room by dealing away Kevin Klein and allowing right-handed prospect Dylan McIlrath to assume a full-time role.
Without Hagelin, the cracks are starting to appear. The Rangers have lurched as a .500 team since Thanksgiving, often lacking jump and energy. Their penalty-killing proficiency has fallen to 22nd overall at 79.3 percent, after finishing sixth in the NHL at 84.3 percent last season. Such was Vigneault's desperation to find a remedy, the Rangers pulled 31-year-old Daniel Paille off the AHL scrap heap last week.
Sunday's lethargic 3-0 defeat in Ottawa caused a steaming Vigneault to storm out on the media in John Tortorella fashion. Boy, these Blueshirts sure are missing Hagelin -- a forward Vigneault clearly relied on to set the tone with his speed and constantly churning legs. His presence in a Penguins' sweater is going to make the Rangers' playoff chase all the more difficult.
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