Back to Front, Gorton Must Fix Blue Line From Strength

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

In the coming days and weeks, even months, you can expect to read countless articles that will speak directly to the Rangers need for change following their disappointing second round exit in six games to an inferior Senators club (who they arguably should have toppled in five). Most of these will unsurprisingly gravitate around the speculative futures of players like Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan, and Rick Nash. Along with team captain Ryan McDonagh, they’ve rounded out the leadership group for the Rangers by and large since 2010, which in today’s hockey world is a long time. Even if you bump the time frame up to 2012, the year Nash was acquired, we’re still talking about a stretch of six seasons in which various Blueshirts groups have been lead by this collection of veteran players.

The Rangers have inarguably been one of the most successful franchises in the NHL over that span. Though they failed to win a Stanley Cup, they’ve come closer than most to accomplishing this, with three Conference Final appearances and a Cup Final appearance in that time. The fact they came up short of the ultimate goal is a burden the leadership group should shoulder, no doubt, but critical flaws on the roster, particularly the blue line, are much more to blame.

Surely some of their forwards fell short of the bar, notably Derek Stepan, who was particularly harsh on himself, calling his individual effort disappointing and embarrassing, but a supremely underwhelming defensive group are the real culprit behind this particular playoff exit, and have been directly responsible for the fact the Rangers have won just one playoff series in the last two years.

Remedying this will be no easy feat for Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton this summer. Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei are going nowhere. Marc Staal, 30, has four years remaining with an AAV of $5.7M and a No Movement Clause. Dan Girardi, 33, has three years remaining with an AAV of $5.5M and a No Movement Clause, though beginning on July 1st, 2017 a modified No Trade Clause will kick into effect that requires him to supply the Rangers with a list of 15 teams he cannot be traded to. Kevin Klein, 32, has another year left on his deal at $2.9M, and Nick Holden, 29, also has one year let at $1.65M. Beyond them in terms of important regulars is pending UFA Brendan Smith, 28, who despite playing one of his worst games as a Ranger in that game six loss to Ottawa, showed plenty of promise that the Rangers would be wise to tap into by keeping him around for a few more years (at the right price and term).

One of Klein or Holden can potentially be subtracted through the Vegas expansion draft this June, likely by way of enticing Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee with a draft pick or prospect contingent on his promise to select one of the two rearguards in place of Oscar Lindberg or Jesper Fast. Whichever defender isn’t selected can likely then be traded given the short duration left on their contracts. Between them, the Rangers would free up $4.55M of valuable cap room heading into a summer in which the salary cap could remain flat.

The toughest nut to crack will be what to do about Staal and/or Girardi. My colleague, Dave Rogers, recently suggested the Rangers should buy out both. It’s a bold suggestion, and part of me wants to agree with it, but the long-term implications given the significance of their combined dead cap charges are too much to stomach. Buying out one of them, however, is feasible, with the older Girardi being the most likely candidate. With one less year to buy out, the Rangers would be looking at a six-year penalty instead of eight in the case of Staal.

But addition by subtraction will only take the Rangers so far. Despite a slew of promising free agent signings in recent weeks, including 21-year old University of Minnesota Duluth standout Neal Pionk and Alexei Bereglazov, 23, formerly of Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL, there simply isn’t much in the Rangers prospect pipeline to improve on many of these roles. Besides Pionk and Bereglazov, the Blueshirts’ most promising defensive prospects are Sergey Zborovskiy, 20, who is expected to make the jump from the WHL to the AHL next season, and 21-year old Ryan Graves, who spent the last two seasons with the Hartford Wolfpack where he quietly put together respectable seasons despite the Wolfpack themselves suffering their worst season in franchise history this past year. Graves should challenge for a roster spot in training camp, but penciling him in now would be premature. Lastly, Sean Day, 19, and Vince Pedrie, 23, are also expected to make the jump to the professional ranks and join Hartford next season.

While Kevin Shattenkirk, the supremely gifted power play specialist, remains a hopeful target in free agency this summer, the Rangers’ best hopes for making immediate improvements to an ailing blue line is the trade market. Thanks to the looming Vegas expansion draft, an unusual amount of movement is expected this summer, and the Rangers are in a unique position to directly address their most glaring problem thanks to it.

I covered this a bit a few months ago when I suggested the Rangers could potentially trade a forward to the Ducks for one of their defensemen, killing two birds with one stone:

The Rangers forward depth is so deep this season they may realistically have to allow Michael Grabner, the club’s leading goal-scorer, to be exposed to Vegas. Specifically, because they are also required to protect their two most expensive defensemen, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, who both own full No-Movement Clauses (NMC). The Ducks, on the other hand, not only have too many defensemen to protect but are also having trouble scoring this season. Their 2.59 G/GP is ranked 20th in the NHL. If the Rangers deal a scoring forward to Anaheim for one of their defensemen, the two clubs could theoretically solve each other’s Vegas problem while also improving their respective rosters in the process.

If the Rangers opt to buyout Dan Girardi this summer, they could easily protect the same group of forwards they are likely intent on keeping while opening an additional protection slot for the defenseman they acquire from Anaheim. Instead of being forced to expose a quality defenseman, the Ducks could trade one in exchange for a scoring forward, granting them a more favorable protection configuration.

The Ducks are embroiled in a heated playoff series that will conclude in tonight’s game seven match with the up-and-coming Oilers, but the optics of the trade shouldn’t change regardless of the outcome. The Ducks still face the same protection configuration issue, as do the Rangers, which makes them ideal trading partners to solve one another’s problems.

Anaheim, however, like the Rangers, are a cap team with a lot of money locked up in their core of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, and Cam Fowler. Trying to pull a deal off that sends someone like Nash, who I originally suggested, in exchange for Vatanen may not be all that palatable an idea from their perspective. Instead, perhaps a swap of younger players is in order. My suggestion – 24-year old J.T. Miller for one of Josh Manson (25) or Brandon Montour (23).

The framework behind this is the same as it was back when I first wrote about it in February. Miller, who was second in team scoring with 56 points in 82 games, should prove valuable to the Ducks desire to add scoring to their top-six, while one of Montour or Manson, both of whom are right-handed, would immediately improve the right side of the Rangers’ blue line. The difference here is Miller will be entering the second year of a two-year bridge deal worth $2.75M per season, and Manson and Montour each have one year remaining on their entry-level contracts and make less than $1M against the cap currently.

Miller, more than any other forward, suffered a sizable P/GP differential drop this postseason and has just one goal in 40 games, but a change of scenery where he’d see an opportunity to play alongside monstrous playoff performers like Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg might be all that’s needed to course correct his postseason shortcomings.

As an added bonus, should the Rangers acquire Montour, he could also quarterback their power play and would give them a valuable point shot they don’t otherwise own at the moment. Manson, on the other hand, could arguably immediately step in beside Ryan McDonagh on the team’s top pairing where he could help to stabilize the pairing that would see the toughest quality of competition thanks to his defensive prowess. Meanwhile, up front, Pavel Buchnevich, often scratched these playoffs, could backfill Miller’s role on the Rangers third line where he’d be facing one less body of competition for consistent playing time and a more fleshed out role next season.

If not the Ducks, there are other teams in similar predicaments. The Rangers could potentially call the Minnesota Wild, San José Sharks, or the Nashville Predators, all of whom face similar expansion-fueled roster issues with especially deep blue lines. But regardless of the club that they dance with, and regardless of the outcome of this summer’s impending Shattenkirk sweepstakes, the trade market remains the most logical course of action to fixing this Achilles’ heel. A failure to address it will surely continue to rob the Rangers of a limited window of promise so long as Lundqvist is in net and this group of defensemen is relied on to pull off a job they are clearly incapable of.

Gorton has a lot of heavy lifting ahead of him this summer, but no singular issue will be more important than this one. For now, he, like his team and coaching staff, can mourn another year fallen short of the goal, but it’s soon time to roll up his sleeves and get to work. There’s plenty to fix here and not a lot of time to accomplish it.

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