Hartnett: It’s Time For Rangers To Flip Switch Fully Toward Youth

Kings left wing Kyle Clifford (left) and Rangers left wing Cody McLeod (8) fight on Oct. 28, 2018, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Photo credit USA TODAY Images

It’s time for the Rangers to be ruthless.

After 11 games, the 3-7-1 Blueshirts sit in the cellar of the Metropolitan Division and rank 15th of 16 Eastern Conference teams.

Everyone knew this was going to be a learning year given the sweeping roster changes and acclimation of first-year head coach David Quinn.

Look, if the Rangers continue playing the way they did in Sunday’s self-inflicted 4-3 defeat to the Los Angeles Kings, their management might as well turn the dial all the way to full-on youth movement.

What’s the point of having offensively limited 34-year-old wing Cody McLeod taking away a lineup spot from a younger forward with higher upside? What’s the point of McLeod engaging in a meaningless scrap with Kyle Clifford?

What’s the point of having McLeod on the ice if he’s going to take undisciplined penalties that feed the opposition precious power-play minutes? That was the case when he took a needless slashing penalty that resulted in a Dustin Brown power-play goal. How exactly is talented rookie Filip Chytil going to play to his strengths with McLeod lumbering down the ice on his wing?

MORE: Hartnett: Rangers Have Many Problems, But Henrik Lundqvist Ain't One

This column isn’t all about McLeod. It’s about the need for the Rangers to identify which pieces will be here for the long haul. At 34, this is in all likelihood McLeod’s final opportunity at the NHL level. Few teams carry aging forwards whose primary abilities are physicality and pugilistic tendencies. McLeod has recorded zero points through six games.

On a team that’s supposed to be firmly building toward the future, the Rangers need to flip the switch fully toward youth.

Brendan Smith should also be on thin ice. I’m sure the Rangers view him as an asset that they could potentially salvage and perhaps flip to a team desperate for blue line reinforcements near the trade deadline. But rival general managers would rather add a low-risk defenseman on an expiring contract. Even if the Rangers were to swallow some of his $4.35 million cap hit (partial no-trade clause), any team interested in committing to Smith would be on the hook through the 2020-21 season.

On Sunday, Smith gave Alec Martinez all the space in the world to score the game-winning goal. Backing off, applying zero pressure and screening out Henrik Lundqvist’s vision? That’s not good enough from a 29-year-old defenseman who’s been around the block. If he’s going to switch off at crucial moments while being part a defense that continually subjects Lundqvist to heavy shot totals, why is he here?

The Rangers had no problem burying an ineffective Smith to Hartford last season. If he’s going to continue making mistakes, his place on the roster is better served by accelerating the development of Libor Hajek or Ryan Lindgren with an NHL call-up.

For that matter, how much longer can the Rangers persist with Marc Staal in the lineup? Few players who’ve pulled on the Rangers’ sweater in the last decade have been more professional and dedicated than Staal. Unfortunately, hard miles and injuries have caught up to the 31-year-old alternate captain. At what point will his diminishing returns force Quinn to sit him in the press box?

Adam McQuaid is probably a short-term stopgap. The 32-year-old defenseman will probably be an attractive target for contending teams near the trade deadline given his $2.75 million expiring contract.

The Rangers can finish near the bottom of the standings with a bunch of familiar faces or with a further infusion of fresh youth. Should they go the latter route, it could yield long-term benefits. The sooner that the Rangers fully realize the future, the sooner their youngsters will be prepared to contribute to this franchise’s turnaround.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey​.