LOS ANGELES -- It was one of the strangest days the New York Rangers' players can recall. It was also a day that put them at a crossroads, facing life without their captain in their battle to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Bizarre day," is how center Brad Richards described March 5, NHL Trade Deadline Day.
The Rangers were home to play the Toronto Maple Leafs that night. They went through their morning skate at Madison Square Garden. Ryan Callahan, at this point still the Rangers' captain and only the subject of trade rumors, was on the ice with them.
He went through the skate as usual, but once he left he was nowhere to be found. Then, with some players still milling around in the dressing room, the news broke that Callahan had been traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning and that Martin St. Louis was the return prize.
"Over the years there's always different ways you see guys get traded," Richards said, "but to have it when we're all at the rink, it was a bittersweet day for everybody."
Fast-forward almost three months and the Rangers are in the Stanley Cup Final, preparing to play Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS) without anyone wearing the captain's 'C' on his sweater.
Ironically, that's as big of a reason why they're here as anything or anyone else.
General manager and president Glen Sather said he knew he was taking a chance by trading Callahan in the middle of the playoff race -- New York was third in the Metropolitan Division but a mere two points ahead of the sixth-place New Jersey Devils at the time of the trade.
Sather, though, made the trade knowing that the team Callahan was leaving had enough leaders in the dressing room to compensate for his loss.
He was right.
"Ryan was a good player. He was a great player for us for a long time," Sather said. "I think everyone knows the story, that his contract was up and it was difficult to get anything done. So it was a good chance to get a good player like Marty. We knew that leadership internally on the team was strong. It was a bit of a chance, but it certainly worked out well."
That was evident after the Rangers clinched their trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Richards, Staal and Girardi were called to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, but it was Richards who immediately turned around and waved to all of his teammates to come and join them for the picture.
"If you asked Marc and Dan, the core group of leaders, they'd point to [Richards] as a guy that is our captain and the guy we lean on the most," center Derek Stepan said.
Richards said he knew he had to accept more responsibility the moment Callahan was traded. He also had to be the bridge between St. Louis and the rest of the team. Richards and St. Louis have been close friends since they played together in Tampa Bay.
"Guys that didn't know Marty were probably sad that [Callahan] went, but at least for a few of us we knew who we were getting," Richards said. "If you're going to have to trade him, we knew we were getting a heart-and-soul guy back."
Richards, though, did not accept the leadership responsibilities alone. He said Staal and Girardi, who was given an "A" after the trade, have been involved in every decision every step of the way.
"When you have a captain you help and you defer to your captain," Richards said. "Now it's more by committee."
In return for Callahan, the Rangers got a leader in St. Louis, a 39-year-old veteran who was the captain in Tampa Bay before the trade.
That's the biggest reason Sather made the trade; it was an opportunity to get a player of St. Louis' caliber in return without sacrificing anything from a leadership standpoint.
"It's a testament to the group and a testament to Marty how quickly both sides kind of got acclimated to one another and grew comfortable and were able to move forward," forward Chris Kreider said. "It's obviously a massive departure and we wish [Callahan] a ton of luck going forward because everyone did and does love him, but we have to focus on the here and now. Marty quickly acclimated to the group and became a leader himself."
The leadership core also extends to defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has been pegged by many people around the team as the future captain in New York. He's playing like it in the playoffs.
"His attitude is like a captain," center Derick Brassard said of McDonagh.
"That's one of the biggest reasons why we're here; there's a lot of leadership," Brassard said. "We don't have a captain, but there's a lot of guys that can speak up and a lot of guys, their play speaks for them."
Brassard said he got to understand the strength of the leadership on the team at the end of last season, immediately after the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs in a five-game loss to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"I didn't know anything about playoffs," Brassard said. "It was my first time, and all the leadership guys were like, 'That's not where we want to be, this team has bigger and better expectations.' I was like, 'We won one round, that's pretty good. We got beat by Boston -- they're a pretty good team.' But I remember that speech and I was like, 'OK, this organization wants to win. These players have been here a while and they want to win.'"
The player who delivered the speech was not a captain or an alternate captain.
It was goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
"It's not a coincidence we're here now," Brassard said.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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