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Rangers, Jackets swing four-player deal

by Dan Rosen
In the midst of all the free-agent signings going on around the NHL, the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets managed to find the time to swing a blockbuster trade Wednesday. 

The Rangers sent defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman to Columbus in exchange for talented winger Nikolai Zherdev and energy-line center Dan Fritsche.

Of the four players, only Tyutin is signed for the long term; his deal takes him through 2012. Backman could become an unrestricted free agent next summer, when Zherdev could become a restricted free agent. Fritsche, the first Ohio native to play for the Blue Jackets, became a restricted free agent on Tuesday.

It was the second deal in two days for the Blue Jackets, who acquired forward Raffi Torres from Edmonton on Tuesday in a deal that sent former first-round pick Gilbert Brule to the Oilers.

The key components of this trade are Tyutin and Zherdev, who was the fourth overall selection in the 2003 Entry Draft. Zherdev, 23, was second behind only Rick Nash on the Blue Jackets in scoring this past season. He posted a career-high 35 assists and 61 points while playing in all 82 games for the first time in his four-year career.

Seven of Zherdev's 26 goals came on the power play, and his minus-9 rating was much improved from his minus-19 in 2006-07.

"Zherdev is a talented player — a shifty talented winger with nothing but upside written all over him," Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather said. "We're trying to get younger and faster. There's a certain chemistry we've been trying to build here for the past five years. We were looking to make a deal [for Zherdev and Fritsche] before the management change there last year. This deal sort of fell into our laps, but it's something we were thinking about for a while — though we never talked about who would go the other way."

Tyutin, 25, developed into one of the Rangers' most physical defenseman, one who can also provide some offense. Tyutin had five goals, 15 assists and a plus-5 rating this past season. A knee injury diminished some of his production in 2006-07, but he had 25 points in 2005-06, his first full NHL season.

NEW YORK RANGERS
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 97
(5TH eAst/9TH NHL)
Change from 2006-07 -3
Home Points 53
(2ND eAst/6TH NHL)
Away Points 44
(9TH eAst/13TH NHL)

Backman, 28, came to the Rangers from St. Louis via a trade at the deadline last season and played on their third defensive pair, mostly with unrestricted free agent Paul Mara. Backman, who is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, combined for three goals and 15 assists in 63 games with the Blues and Rangers.

"We knew we might have to move some defensemen," said Sather, who re-signed Michal Rozsival and added free agent Wade Redden on Tuesday. "They can both log a lot of ice time. We want to have people who can move with the puck, skate with the puck."

Fritsche, 22, joins an already-deep group of centers in the Big Apple — a list that includes Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Brandon Dubinsky and Blair Betts. However, Fritsche, who had 10 goals and 22 points in 69 games this past season, can also play wing.

While the trade appears to leave a pair of holes in the Blue Jackets' offense — ones they may plan on filling with first-round draft pick Nikita Filatov, if they feel he's ready, and newly acquired center R.J. Umberger -- the Jackets' defense has gotten much tougher over the last two days.

In addition to landing Tyutin and Backman, GM Scott Howson signed physical blueliner Mike Commodore on Monday. As presently constituted, Tyutin and Backman will join Commodore and holdovers Rostislav Klesla, Jan Hejda, Kris Russell and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen on the Jackets' blue line. Aaron Rome and Marc Methot will be given looks in training camp.

"The addition of Fedor and Christian to our lineup has really improved our puck-moving ability from the blue line," Howson said. "All strong teams are built from the back end out and we feel like we made significant strides in that area." Columbus lost puck-moving defenseman Ron Hainsey to Atlanta at roughly the same time Howson was finalizing the trade with Sather.

The Rangers, who felt they upgraded their defense Tuesday by signing free agent Wade Redden and re-upping with Michal Rozsival, lose some toughness on their back end, but add a top-six winger in Zherdev and a solid role player in Fritsche.

It's possible that Zherdev could replace Jaromir Jagr, who remains an unrestricted free agent, on the right side of the Rangers' top line. The Rangers may be hoping Fritsche will provide some of the offense they lost when Sean Avery signed with Dallas earlier Wednesday.

"I’m not saying that," Sather replied when asked if the deal might mean that the Rangers would be willing to let Jagr walk away. "It might be a reality. I still think it's necessary to have some experienced players in our lineup… I'm not ready to say goodbye to him. He may be ready to say goodbye to us. I can't say for sure."

This trade could also open the door for defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, the Rangers' No. 1 pick in 2006, to step in. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi give the Rangers two solid youngsters to go along with Redden and Rozsival, but the Rangers still need to add some defensemen.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.

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