The trade deadline is Wednesday and one cog that has been listed as an area of need for the Tampa Bay Lightning is on defense. A puck-moving defenseman, a guy with the ability to move the puck up ice, out of their own zone, with speed and accuracy.
One scenario that has been brought up a few times over the course of the season is just waiting for defenseman Paul Ranger to return from his extended and enigmatic leave-of-absence from the team. Once he returns, the role would be filled.
The problem is, it's too late in the game now to expect anything from Ranger. Even if he returned tomorrow, he becomes more of a liability than an asset on ice.
With little explanation to the fans, the Lightning announced that Ranger had left the team in October for personal reasons. He's not suspended, he is not AWOL. This has been blessed and approved by the powers-that-be.
Why he left, we don't know. Out of respect of privacy, even publicly wondering what the story is just seems wrong. Give him his space and respect his privacy as you'd want for yourself.
But multiple times over the past two months, we had been given casual encouragement from beat-reports that Ranger was nearing his return to the Lightning. Good news for him personally and professionally. We'll all be glad when he can move forward with his life and his career.
But nothing has happened. Nothing has transpired. No announcement from the team, no press conference with Paul appearing to announce his return. The status-quo has remained the status-quo on the Ranger front.
And when the roster freeze went into effect, when the Olympic break started and news had not broken that Ranger was returning to pro-hockey, time officially expired on believing Ranger would be the answer when addressing the team's need on the blue-line.
This is not doubting Paul Ranger's abilities. This is trying to address the situation realistically: Ranger has not played professional hockey for four months now. Before that, he had not played for months on end and was rehabbing from shoulder surgery. The Lightning's need is too absolute to bestow it on a player who needs to recondition and get back in game shape on the job. There's too little season left to afford it and still make a push for the playoffs.
If Ranger had announced his return before the break, he could have been sent by the team to the Norfolk Admirals on a conditioning stint to help get his head and body back into the game. The break would have bought both the team and Ranger time to assess if he's up for the challenge of returning to NHL action this season.
As was said already, though, time has expired. At 12:01 AM Monday morning, the NHL officially springs back to life, and the Lightning have a mere 63 hours until the NHL trade deadline to obtain a puck-moving defenseman from another team.
With only 21 games left until the end of the season, if the playoffs are the destination this team is aiming for, Ranger is no longer a potential answer for a missing role player on the roster.
He remains the enigmatic question, though, of what happened and when will he return to the game.