The Off-Season New York Has Been Waiting For

For the last decade, the New York Rangers have been a premiere team in the NHL, making deep playoff runs and garnering respect from the entire league. But as the years went by, and teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago casting bigger and bigger shadows, the Rangers found themselves lost in the “win now” world for desperate teams, accompanied only by the Capitals. With Glen Sather at the helm, the Rangers brought in big name players, while slowly depleting their cap, chiseling away at their core, and giving out 1st round picks like candy on Halloween.

But when Jeff Gorton took over as general manager in 2015, the Rangers started steering away from that “win now” philosophy and began heading towards a much brighter future. Last year, he wowed the Ranger faithful by making small, but savvy signings (Grabner, Vesey, Clendening), along with making a very bold move in trading away fan-favorite Derek Brassard for Mika Zibanejad. Already, he was making the team younger, faster and cheaper, something that should’ve been done years ago. As good of an off-season that was, it was this off-season that really showed off Gorton’s brilliance and how well he understands the team. These are some of the key moves he made this off-season.

June 14th, 2017: Buying Out Dan Girardi

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Dan Girardi has been nothing short of a warrior for the New York Rangers for the last 11 years. He has been a consummate professional and a terrific teammate. But because he put his body on the line game in and game out, the wear and tear became very noticeable on the ice, and as he got older and slower, the game got younger and faster. In 2014, Sather gave him a 6-year contract, with a cap hit of $5.5M yearly, along with a NMC throughout. This was crippling the Rangers financially and that NMC hindered any sort of escape plan. Gorton didn’t have a real choice at this point and cut ties with the veteran. As tough as it was to hear for Girardi, signing a cool $6M contract in Tampa Bay for two years should ease the sting a bit, as he will have a great opportunity to catch that elusive Cup this year.

June 23rd, 2017: Traded Derek Stepan & Antti Raanta for Anthony Deangelo and 7th Overall Pick in 2017 Draft

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game One

Derek Stepan was receiving a lot of heat from Ranger fans and the New York media for not giving a strong showing this year’s playoffs, and has been ridiculed for his mediocre play over the years. What’s unfortunate about the whole Derek Stepan conundrum was that the Rangers were expecting way more than what he can do. They signed him to a 6-year, $39M contract at age 25, solidifying him as the true #1 center of the team. But Derek Stepan wasn’t meant to be a #1 center. He is a solid #2 center who gives you 35+ assists and 55+ points yearly. He never could reach the standard of a true top center, so after another quick post-season exit, Gorton traded Stepan and back-up goalie Antti Raanta for prospect defenseman Anthony Deangelo and the #7 overall pick in the draft. Though probably rushed by Stepan’s approaching NMC in July, Gorton made a very strong move in shedding a heavy cap hit, adding a young prospect (right-handed shooting defenseman) and grabbing a top-ten draft pick, which was something the Rangers haven’t had since drafting Dylan McIlrath #10 overall back in 2010. With Girardi bought out, the 21-year old Anthony Deangelo was a smart move to try and strengthen a depleted blue-line. This was a difficult trade to make, especially having to part ways with Raanta as well, but it was a transitional moment for this team, and essential for their move forward.

June 23rd, 2017: A Successful 1st Round Draft Day

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Not only did the Rangers have their first 1st round pick since 2012, but they had two first round picks (7th and 21st) in the 2017 draft. Although this draft wasn’t filled with generational talents, it was rich with prospects that could be big time contributors in a couple years. With the 7th overall pick, the Rangers picked center Lias Andersson. At 5-11, 201 lbs, Andersson is arguably the closest player to be “NHL ready”. He is a relentless attacker of the puck, gifted at the face-off circle, and though he won’t dazzle audiences every night, he will play a 200 ft game, while netting some important goals. With the 21st pick, the Rangers grabbed 17-year old Filip Chytil. He could be a real sleeper pick because though his numbers weren’t dazzling, he was on one of the worst teams in the Czech Republic’s top league, and playing against older players. He shows signs of incredible skill, and he could potentially be a huge talent for this team. In just one quick motion, Gorton upgraded the Ranger youth tremendously, targeting their weakness down the middle and making highly thought-out decisions in the process.

June 29th, 2017: Contract Extension for Brendan Smith

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The Ranger blue line has been a work in progress, so losing Smith in free-agency just couldn’t happen on Gorton’s watch. He inked him to a 4-year, $17.4M contract, which at 28 years old, is the perfect term to give him. A lot of people felt this was overpaying for mediocrity, but Smith brings a certain physicality on the back end that has been absent for many years. He stands up for his teammates, can defend extremely well, and can even bring some offense when need be. He is a key component for the Rangers to be successful, and it was a great call to ensure he stayed before hitting the open market.

July 1st, 2017: Signing Kevin Shattenkirk

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 The Rangers once again signed the big fish in free agency, but there was a big difference between this year and past years. They didn’t overpay a superstar to play for them, Shattenkirk took a discount to play for them. That’s always a great feeling. Shattenkirk wanted desperately to live out his dream of being a Blueshirt. He left $12M on the table to come play for this team, which is something you don’t see often in sports. A New York native, Shattenkirk will be crucial in resurrecting a dying powerplay, strengthening the right side on defense and inserting offense from the back end. He will help elevate captain Ryan McDonagh’s game, while simultaneously have his game elevate from playing with his fellow American. Accepting the four-year term gives Gorton some breathing room financially and really helps the Rangers for the future. This was a move almost destined to happen, and when both parties are extremely excited to work together, you get a much better result in the end.

July 1st, 4th and 5th, 2017: Sign Ondrej Pavelec, David Desharnais, and Re-sign Jesper Fast

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These signings were smart, cap-friendly moves that addressed some serious needs for the Rangers. Ondrej Pavelec was a monumental signing after losing Antti Raanta in the deal with Arizona. Pavelec has been ridiculed for his inconsistency in net over in Winnipeg. Never really considered a true #1 goaltender, he should fill in admirably behind Henrik Lundqvist. Benoit Allaire, arguably the best goaltending coach in the NHL, can work wonders on his game. He’s also riding a 1-year deal which should really boost his effort in becoming a real difference maker in net. David Desharnais was a depth pick that fills in a real need down the middle. With losing Oscar Linberg through the expansion draft, Desharnais will fill in as his replacement probably on the 4th line. He is a veteran presence who can skate, score some goals and will help in the face-off circle, which has been a real thorn in the Rangers’ side for years now. And of course, re-signing Jesper Fast was essential. Every team wants a player like him. He is so reliable in every zone, he is a great penalty-killer, and you won’t find a guy working harder on the ice. The 3-year, $5.55M contract is also cap friendly, especially for someone as valuable as him. These moves really make the current roster more complete, and are key pieces in moving forward with the team.

Jeff Gorton isn’t finished yet (re-signing Mika Zibanejad and adding another offensive piece), but he’s clearly showing us which direction he’s headed. They are getting younger, faster and cheaper by the year. Rick Nash’s $7.8M cap hit will be gone after next year, creating more cap room to bring in more young talent. The Rangers have a deep minor league system now, developing young talent and looking ahead towards the future. Adding Lindy Ruff as assistant coach doesn’t hurt either. The future is bright in New York, they just need to stay the course, have patience, and trust Gorton to deliver a team capable of winning that Cup. And with that being said, the future isn’t as far as many may think.

Rangers/Canadiens Collide Round 1

Season Series:    

New York: 0-2-1    7 Goals For, 12 Goals Against   90 Shots, 95 Shots Against

Montreal: 3-0-0     12 Goals For, 7 Goals Against   95 Shots, 90 Shots Against

The Montreal Canadiens:

Montreal Canadiens

Overview:

The Montreal Canadiens, after a real disappointing season last year, came back strong this year and clinched the Atlantic Division, solidifying home-ice advantage for at least two rounds. They made the big trade during the off-season, giving up fan favorite P.K. Subban for veteran star defenseman Shea Weber. They also added Alexander Radulov, who ended up having a stellar season for the Habs. Montreal found early success, but then started to fizzle out at the end of December through February, which was scarily reminiscent of their pace last season, which ultimately led to missing the post-season. Before repeating history, they made a bold move and fired head coach Michel Therrien and hired Claude Julien, returning to Montreal after coaching the Bruins for nine and a half seasons. They also added rugged defenseman Jordie Benn, strengthening their blue line. The Canadiens found their stride and played very good hockey down the stretch, heading into the post-season with real confidence.

Strength:

Carey Price

The Price Is Right

It is pretty obvious the strength behind this team is their goaltending. Carey Price is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL. He posted an impressive 37-20-5 record with a 2.23 GAA and a .923 SV%. And scary enough, he has a whole other level he hasn’t tapped into yet. Not only is he healthy (which has been a concern over the years), but Claude Julien has implemented a system that has been very beneficial to his play. The Montreal defense have been extremely aggressive in their own zone, and with the acquisition of Shea Weber and Jordie Benn, Price has been able to see all pucks coming his way, which has been something he hasn’t been used to. He hasn’t been overworked this season, playing a reasonable 62 games, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. If he’s on, the Canadiens can be a real challenge going down the stretch.

Weakness:

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The Scoring Woes Continue

Though Montreal boasts an impressive goaltender and defense, they have a lot of trouble getting pucks in the net. Montreal is 15th in the league in goal-scoring, managing 2.72 goals a game. Captain Max Pacioretty has led the way with an impressive 35 goals, but no one else besides Paul Byron (22) has eclipsed the 20-goal mark this season, which simply is astonishing to say the least. Brendan Gallagher, who is their net-front finisher, has only 10 goals in 64 games, when last year had 19 goals in 53 games. Tomas Plekanec has an abysmal 10 goals and 18 assists in 78 games played. Their future star Alex Galchenyuk also has seen his stats dip, having only 17 goals and 44 points in 61 games. With a great defensive system in place and Carey Price, the Canadiens may not need as many goals a game as most teams, but that being said, they are going to need some of their more offensively gifted players to step up to keep up with the New York Ranger offensive depth they boast.

X-Factor:

Montreal Canadiens v Colorado Avalanche

Small Stature, Biggest Heart

There are many players down this roster that are keys for success (Price, Pacioretty, Byron, Weber) and all of them would be fine choices, but there is only one guy that can set the tone for this team, and that man is Brendan Gallagher. Though not the biggest guy on the team, he plays with heart, passion, grit and tenacity. He doesn’t mind getting into the dirty areas, and come post-season, dirty goals are the goals that win a series. As previously stated, Gallagher has had a tough season not alone on that stat sheet, but suffered a broken hand thanks to his own teammate Shea Weber back in January. Similar to Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello, he uses his height to his advantage, sneaking behind the defense and creating plays around the blue paint, where he makes his living. With a porous Ranger defense, Gallagher could be a deadly weapon the Canadiens desperately need, in an offense mired with inconsistency. If he catches fire, Montreal will have a great chance in winning this series.

The New York Rangers:

Rangerstown

Overview:

This has been a very strange season for the New York Rangers. For a team that has over 45 wins and 100 points, there is still a considerable amount of concern in the Big Apple. The team made little moves over the off-season, though made one very bold trade in sending fan favorite Derick Brassard over to Ottawa for young center Mika Zibanejad. They brought in Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri cheap, and added Nick Holden from Colorado to fill in defensive depth after losing Yandle to Florida and Boyle to retirement. They were also fortunate enough to land Hobey Baker award-winner Jimmy Vesey, after becoming a free agent after refusing to sign with the Nashville Predators. The Rangers exploded out of the gate, scoring at will and even went on a stretch of games where they scored 5 or more goals in 5 straight games. After a strong start, the Rangers showed inconsistency for pretty much the rest of the season. Losing Zibanejad for 2 months due to injury was tough, but most of their struggles have been in the backend, resulting in long stretches in their own zone and quality chances for the opponent. With that being said however, the Rangers are the definition of a Wild Card team.

Strength:

Ranger Depth

Deep, deep and deeper

The New York Rangers are deep with talent on all four lines for the first time in a long time. They are 4th in the league in GF/GP, averaging over 3 a game, and have found scoring throughout the line-up. Chris Kreider (28), Michael Grabner (27), Rick Nash (23), and J.T. Miller (22) led the way in goal-scoring while Mats Zuccarello (15 G, 44 A), Kevin Hayes (17 G, 32 A) and Derek Stepan (17 G, 38A) led the way in playmaking. Captain Ryan McDonagh emerged with fire from the backend (6 G, 36 A), while rookie Brady Skjei surprised us all and anchored the blue line offensively on a consistent basis (5 G, 34 A). New-comer Mika Zibanejad suffered a horrific leg injury early in the season and missed about 2 months of play, however still was able to post an impressive season in only 55 games (14 G, 21 A). With the Rangers’ speed and transition, they are a very dangerous team to trade goals with and they will have to rely on their core to continue pushing them offensively against a very good defensive team.

Weakness:

Defensive Woes

Defensive Holes And Giveaways 

The Blueshirts are one of the best transition teams in the game, but their intense focus on transition has also foiled their defensive capabilities. There are too many times during a game where opponents are left wide open in the slot, or spend minutes upon minutes in the defensive end. With Lundqvist on the decline, the Rangers are unable to rely on him game in and game out to bail them out. There are times where the Rangers play up too high looking for the odd-man rush from the defensive end, leaving large gaps in the slot areas. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are playing hard every night, but they always seem a step behind and many times they are to blame for sustained sequences of pressure in the defensive end. The Rangers are also notorious for being too complacent in front of their own net. Lundqvist is always under siege and screened and the Ranger defense needs to do a better job clearing the area, something their opponent does masterfully.

X-Factor:

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Zibby’s Back

Ranger fans have only seen a small sample of Mika Zibanejad’s brilliance. At 22 years old, Mika was brought in for his speed, creativity and face-off abilities. He has missed a good chunk of games for the Rangers and it took a while for him to get back into the swing of things. But now he’s starting to heat up and the Rangers desperately need him to be one of the best players on the ice, which he is fully capable of being. Here’s a little reminder of what he’s capable of –

One thing that has killed the Rangers in recent years has been their face-off percentage, and even though as a team they are 22nd, Zibanejad has been stellar, so look for Vigneault to put him out there in big time situations, like Keenan did with MacTavish. He is a deadly weapon with both his shot and passing skill, which could really be a huge factor in this series.

Closing Thoughts:

This will be one of the toughest series to try and pick a winner. When these two Original Six teams get together fans are always treated to some great hockey. It can go either way, whether Price is a stone-wall or the Rangers clog up the holes and continue their scoring prowess. I think the Rangers are definitely going to be the underdog, even if they’re road record has been stellar. There are just too many gaps in the defensive zone, and the Canadiens do much of their damage around the net. No matter the winner, it’s going to go to 7 games, I can already feel it.

Nothing beats post-season hockey, let’s get the show on the road.

Will the Real Jeff Gorton Please Stand Up?

The first step to solving any problem is admitting there is one. Putting Band-Aids on an open, flowing wound will only get you so far. The New York Rangers have been treading very dangerous waters over the past four years. We’ve chipped away at our core nucleus and overpaid aging stars for the hopes of immediate success.

Not to say there wasn’t any success. The Rangers won a President’s Trophy, fought hard to make a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and earned the respect of the entire National Hockey League. Not too shabby. But there is a harsh reality to this: not once did we hoist that 34 1/2 lb cup of history around the streets of New York City.

Our core has slimmed exponentially. As we sliced away players like Carl Hagelin and Anthony Duclair, the Rangers faded away into bubble team territory (i.e. Vancouver Canucks), that dreaded zone that all major league teams hate to be in. We are too good for the lottery, and we are not good enough for the Cup. So, almost on cue, this year’s big name right before the trade deadline (Kevin Shattenkirk) is directly attached to the Blueshirts, leaving fans to wonder once again, which valuable asset (watch out Miller) will we send away for another sexy name to stitch on that prestigious blue jersey? This is all too familiar to Ranger fans, however this year there is a catch, and that catch is Jeff Gorton.

The rookie GM has already showed off his prowess a year and half into his tenure. With a depleted salary cap (thanks Glen!), he brought in cheap free agents who paid him off twice over in Michael Grabner (22 goals)  and Brandon Pirri (5 PPG and 16 points). He made a bold move in trading fan favorite Derick Brassard (29) for Mika Zibanejad (23), a move that correlates with the move the NHL made in recent years, sporting a “younger, faster” product.

So now, presented to him is Kevin Shattenkirk (28), a right-handed offensive defenseman with a big body and high hockey I.Q. This will be his biggest test so far. Rangers’ defense has a mixture of young and old. We have two aging, contract heavy liabilities in Dan Girardi and Marc Staal (thanks Glen!), an up-and-coming youngster in Brady Skjei, an inconsistent Kevin Klein and a great find in Nick Holden. Ryan McDonagh has been trying to keep that defense on the same page all year, but with Staal and Girardi not being able to keep up with the speed, Skjei going through growing pains, Klein looking frazzled and Henrik Lundqvist no longer capable of bailing them out, disaster has ensued.

One can argue that Jeff Gorton needs to do this trade no matter the cost because this will make us better. Which is true, it will make us better, but is Kevin Shattenkirk the key to winning our first Cup in 23 years? I’m going to say no, and I want Jeff Gorton to channel that inner boldness and say no. We are no longer “one piece away”, we are several pieces away from being a Cup contender. The quicker we come to that conclusion, the better off we will be.

We need to stop pretending Derek Stepan (26) is a legitimate #1 center, even though we paid him like one. Let’s stop expecting Lundqvist to bail us out. He’s 34 years old, carried the team for 11 years, and people still want to blame him for our inconsistency. We lack size, we lack skill down the middle from puck possession to face-offs, and our defense is one bad contract away from crippling us for years to come. There have been games this year when the team has looked lost and unmotivated, something that Alain Vigneault needs to work on as a coach.

The time is now to embark on a 3 to 4 year rebuild. We have so much young talent to still build around. Mika Zibanejad (23), Jimmy Vesey (23), Pavel Buchnevich (21), J.T. Miller (23), Brady Skjei (22) are all great pieces to work with. Players like Derek Stepan (26), Mats Zuccarello (29), Rick Nash (32), and Kevin Klein (32) would have to be the trimming of the fat so to speak, as we go after picks and more picks for drafting.

Glen Sather was the GM that excited us. He was the guy we praised when we got Eric Lindros, Marcus Naslund, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, and Martin St. Louis. He reached down into his deep pockets and made that big splash we fans craved. We need Jeff Gorton to be the GM we need. The man who has the discipline to walk away from these alluring deals and focus on structuring a team built to win a Cup. The decision will show us exactly which direction we are headed. Will Jeff Gorton continue down the dirty, beaten path laid before him by his predecessor? Or, will Jeff Gorton pave the way for a new beginning, and in time, bring the Cup back home? Let’s hope for the latter.

Girardi/Staal Slowing Rangers Down

Dan Girardi and Marc Staal were the cornerstones of a stingy New York Ranger defense a few years back. Under the tutelage of head coach John Tortorella, the two defensemen thrived as stay-at-home, shot-blocking defensemen, establishing the Rangers as a perennial defensive team in front of Henrik Lundqvist. In 2014 and 2015, the Rangers felt compelled to sign them to long-term, lucrative contracts to keep their defensive core strong for years to come. However, this decision has actually handicapped the Rangers from adapting to a new era of NHL hockey.

The NHL has become a much faster game in recent years. The current Stanley Cup champions can vouch for that. The Rangers were ousted in five games in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it wasn’t even a competitive series. The Rangers had no answer for the speedy Penguins, a term once coined for the Blueshirts not too long ago.

Parting ways with John Tortorella’s defensive style and buying in to Alain Vigneault’s up-tempo, offensive style paid huge dividends for the Rangers almost immediately back in 2013. This occurred roughly around the time Staal and Girardi signed their contracts, and now the Rangers are paying the price. Due to the heavy contracts Staal and Girardi possess, the Rangers saw both Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle, two very gifted puck moving defensemen who thrived under the Vigneault system, depart.

Staal and Girardi have no offensive up-side whatsoever, and their defensive game has diminished considerably. Marc Staal has become a shell of himself since dealing with his injuries, and Girardi is no more reliable than any 2nd line defenseman. They aren’t strong skaters and haven’t been that “shutdown” pair Ranger fans have become accustomed to. With Staal’s yearly cap hit of $5.7 million through 2020-21 and Girardi’s yearly cap hit of $5.5 million through 2019-20, the Rangers are suffocating to keep players in.

Jeff Gorton knows this, and he was actively trying to move Girardi’s contract this past draft, being unsuccessful in doing so. And to be fair to him, this won’t be an easy task. The best chance they had was the upcoming expansion draft but they each have clauses in their contracts which exempts them from being chosen, unless Gorton can convince one of them to lift said clause. But no one really wants to take on those contracts for two aging defensemen who have seen their best years come and go.

The Rangers don’t need them to be offensively gifted defensemen in terms of point production (although 2 goals each last year isn’t helping anyone), but they need to be better at transition. They need to be able to make those difficult breakout passes on a consistent basis, not once every 7 or 8 games. Transition separates the good teams from the bad in this league. The Tampa Bay Lightning has flourished the last couple years with their transition. The Chicago Blackhawks have made a living by moving the puck from defense to offense incredibly fast the past 7 years, grabbing 3 Cups in that span.

Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have been loyal soldiers for the New York Rangers their entire careers. They have been loved by Ranger fans everywhere. It’s unfortunate, but the team is trying to move forward quickly, while Staal and Girardi are trying desperately to keep up. The Rangers are going to have to make do for now, but Gorton will have to try his best to move one of them out in order for the Rangers to fully advance on the defensive end.