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

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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.

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.