Could the Rangers trade Ryan Callahan?

NEW YORK -- It sounds crazy, doesn't it?

The possibility of trading heart-and-soul captain Ryan Callahan would have been downright unfathomable and, quite frankly, utterly laughable prior to this season.

The 28-year-old winger has been the embodiment of the team's blue-collar ethos, the type of player who will throw himself in front of a shot without a thought of incurring any pain or bodily harm, the type of teammate who sets the tone and leads by example.

But yes, the Rangers are exploring the trade market for the pending unrestricted free agent, according to rumblings that ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun wrote about Tuesday. Additionally, it is believed that the Rangers would not restrict themselves simply to suitors in the Western Conference.

Considering that premise, the Rangers could have an abundance of potential trade partners ringing up general manager Glen Sather in the near future.

Contract discussions between Sather and Callahan's camp up to this point can best be described as intermittent -- sometimes with lengthy gaps between talks -- though the expectation is that the two sides will touch base again before the Olympic break.

Callahan, who is playing out the last of a three-year deal that pays him $4.275 million annually, is seeking a long-term commitment reportedly worth upward of $6 million per year. There is little doubt he could command that on the open market should he choose to test free agency. But with the Rangers' cap constraints and other UFAs to lock up (right-handed defensemen Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman, for example), Callahan may be the gut-wrenching decision that Sather is forced to make.

One NHL GM predicted the Rangers will still end up re-signing Callahan. Another suggested that dealing him might be more difficult than expected with so many teams up hard against the cap.

As a player, Callahan's production can be minimized from a numbers standpoint (9 goals, 20 points in 37 games), but never his value. He has the sort of relentless work ethic and coveted intangibles that every contender will be looking to add as the March 5 trade deadline approaches. Beyond the rental market, he could be a keen target for a franchise in transition, such as Buffalo, to build around.

Here's where it gets sticky for the Rangers. If the trade deadline approaches and contract negotiations remain at a standstill, can Sather really run the risk of losing Callahan for nothing? If the Rangers do not foresee a deal getting done, they can't let him just walk as a free agent.

Callahan's return would be high as a rental, garnering a high pick, a prospect or both, and even higher for a team that thinks it has the chance to re-sign him long term. The decision might be a tad easier if it weren't for the mediocrity in the Eastern Conference, where any team in the top eight has to feel it has a legitimate chance to make a deep playoff run.

But Callahan's rugged style of play doesn't lend itself to durability -- he has been hampered by three injuries already this season -- nor does it seem to command the same value in new coach Alain Vigneault's system.

The team's identity has certainly shifted since John Tortorella left. From a gritty, hard-nosed, black-and-blue type club, an atmosphere in which Callahan thrived, the Rangers have embraced a new style of play -- one that aims to exploit speed and skill.

Where does Callahan fit in that picture?

There's little debate about Callahan's inherent value on the ice, and there's no shortage of recognition for what he has done for the franchise. No player other than Henrik Lundqvist has done more for the club since he has been with the team, and losing him could be a debilitating blow.

That said, losing Callahan for nothing would be even more devastating. That's a worst-case scenario that the Rangers do not appear to be willing to face.