Capitals right wing Justin Williams was interested in joining the Blueshirts.
WASHINGTON — The Capitals are “by far the best team in the NHL this year,” as Rangers coach Alain Vigneault called them Friday, in no small part due to GM Brian MacLellan’s signing of free agent Justin Williams last July.
Williams, 34, was the exact kind of player the Rangers needed when he hit the market: A three-time Stanley Cup winner, the 2014 Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, with seven goals and 14 points in seven career postseason Game 7’s.
He is, in other words, the guy who scores the big goal.
Believe it or not, though, Williams’ camp did not receive a phone call from the Rangers regarding his potential interest in joining their team, the Daily News has learned, even though Williams’ agent said this week that the Rangers were “one of five teams he was really interested in.”
Williams, a former Flyers first-round pick whose wife is from Philadelphia, was interested in coming back East after winning the 2012 and 2014 Cups with the L.A. Kings and winning a fourth championship. He won his first Cup with Carolina in 2006, and another championship was more important than his contract’s money and term, which is why the Caps got him for two years and $ 6.5 million.
Rangers management told the Daily News in response, though, that they diligently evaluate every player in the entire NHL, gauging his fit talent-wise and salary cap-wise with their team. And while Williams was an attractive player, maneuvering with limited cap space made even a $ 3.25 million contract difficult to fit.
The priority was re-signing center Derek Stepan to a six-year, $ 39 million contract extension, but cap restrictions forced the Rangers to trade Carl Hagelin because they couldn’t pay his now-$ 4 million salary, and money also resulted in one of the NHL’s most clutch goal-scorers going to one of the Rangers’ biggest rivals.
Washington (47-12-4, 98 points) therefore entered Friday night’s fifth and final meeting with the Rangers (37-21-6, 80 points) at the top of the league standings, leading the second-place Blueshirts by 18 points in the Metropolitan Division. But that’s not the point.
The crux of Williams’ impact has been in the team’s head-to-head series, leading all scorers through four meetings with nine points, six goals, and a Jan. 17 hat trick as the Rangers lost three of the first four (1-2-1).
The Rangers have managed without Williams, of course. They have a 13-5-1 record since that last meeting with the Capitals, acquired Williams’ former Hurricanes Cup teammate Eric Staal from Carolina last Sunday night to beef up at forward, and sent trusted pro scouts to Russia to watch prized prospect Pavel Buchnevich in person.
Henrik Lundqvist is listed as day-to-day after neck spasms cause him to leave Thursday’s game, so Rangers call up minor leaguer Magnus Hellberg as backup.
Buchnevich, who turns 21 in April, and his SKA St. Petersburg club have advanced to the KHL’s quarterfinals against Dynamo MSK Moscow, a series that opens on Monday. Buchnevich, a 2013 third-round pick and the Blueshirts’ top forward prospect, could sign an entry-level contract with the Rangers once he’s eliminated.
It’s unlikely that GM Jeff Gorton and coach Alain Vigneault would try to turn Buchnevich into an NHL playoff savior, though, since playing Buchnevich on the Rangers at all this spring would burn the first season of his three-year deal. He’s more likely to join the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack and crack the NHL next fall.
As for the Rangers’ most pressing problem — Henrik Lundqvist’s neck spasms that have sidelined him — Vigneault reiterated Friday at Verizon Center that the Rangers “don’t think it’s anything serious.” Still, the injury made backup Antti Raanta Friday’s starter and forced the Blueshirts to call up Magnus Hellberg from the AHL simply to back up on an emergency basis.
That’s a major reason why defenseman Marc Staal (flu) was going to take warm-ups and try to play against the Caps despite missing Thursday night’s loss to Pittsburgh.
Staal is the fourth Ranger to contract the flu in the past two weeks. The Rangers actually put him on a commercial flight, separate from their charter out of Pittsburgh, in order to quarantine him from the rest of the team and to get him extra sleep overnight Thursday.
But they were going to need him Friday in D.C. Williams would make sure of it.
RICK KEEPS SKATING
Rick Nash (left leg bone bruise) skated for a second straight day after the Rangers arrived in Washington. That’s good news because Thursday morning’s light skate in Pittsburgh was Nash’s first time on ice in more than a month, since Feb. 2 in Newark. He is hopeful to return to the lineup in mid-March. He missed his 18th straight game Friday night. The Rangers entered an impressive 11-5-1 in that 17-game stretch without him.
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