Get Used to This Feeling; There's More Pain Coming

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 span of about 72 hours, the New York Rangers traded away three of their longest-tenured players in Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, and Ryan McDonagh – mostly for long-term futures. The cuts were deep, but necessary components of what could be a multiple-year rebuild designed to return the club to contention.

The knife cut particularly deep when the Rangers agreed to deal away McDonagh, who has another year remaining at a team-friendly $4.7M, marking the second time in five years the club has traded its captain – coincidentally enough, to the Lightning.

Yet, as painful as these moments were—and there could be more on the immediate horizon, like agonizingly watching McDonagh win a Stanley Cup alongside a bevy of ex-Rangers, or trading Mats Zuccarello at the draft—the real pain is still to come.

The fact of the matter is, Jeff Gorton’s work has only just begun. This skeleton crew of a roster—truly devoid of high-end impact players now that Nash and McDonagh are off to run at the Cup—still has 19 relatively meaningless games left to suffer through. And when those games are up, a watershed draft awaits this June. One that, much like these deals, Gorton can’t afford to screw up.

With three draft picks in the first round, including their own, the Rangers would be best off winning as few games as possible to close out this lost season. This won’t make for easy watching for fans or the front office, who will also be evaluating newly acquired bodies due contracts this summer in Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov. Yet, with the playoffs a highly unlikely destination, losing most of their remaining games could bring the Rangers’ own first-round pick into a premiere lottery position – one they desperately need to acquire the kind of game-breaking talent they weren’t able to acquire in any of their deals prior to the deadline.

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Don’t get me wrong – the cupboards, once bare, are now stocked with quality, B+ prospects to complement the developing and soon-to-be relied on Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson. But even with Brett Howden, Ryan Lindgren, Yegor Rykov, and Libor Hajek, it’s unknown if not unlikely there’s a Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, or Evgeni Malkin among them. That’s important here. Critical, even, assuming they truly wish to mimic the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and perhaps Toronto Maple Leafs – all of whom suffered for years to earn the right to draft the generational talents that have transformed their fortunes (Toronto pending).

It’s here that Gorton’s plan will truly sink or swim. Not only does his club have three first-round choices, one of which could be a lottery pick, but he also has two second-round picks, and two third-rounders to boot, giving him seven picks in the first three rounds and ten picks total for what is believed to be a deep draft. At least one of those first-round selections needs to deliver the Rangers the kind of game-breaking talent that tends to be acquired exclusively in the draft’s first five selections.

Assuming they don’t win the lottery for the chance to draft Rasmus Dahlin—improbable though not impossible—one of Filip Zadina, Andrei Svechnikov, Quintin Hughes, or Oliver Wahlstrom will no doubt be targeted. Brady Tkachuk, the brother of Calgary Flames’ pest Matthew Tkachuk, could also make for a nice selection but could fall short of the benchmark of being built around. Later picks might also be used to try and snag late-round talents with high upsides like Ryan Merkley or Grigori Denisenko, assuming they fall to wherever the Bruins’ and Lightning’s picks land once the dust of the playoffs settles.

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But the plan, and the pain isn’t likely to end there. Even with the marketing promise of a rebuild “on the fly”, given what we know the Rangers have (and don’t have) today, there’s a significant chance they won’t be very good next season, either. Especially if they also use the draft as a second opportunity to collect futures in exchange for names like Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, and/or Jimmy Vesey.

The Leafs, who are the latest club to embrace the practice of strategically losing for the opportunity to select at the top of the draft, won the right to draft Auston Matthews just a few years ago after selling off Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, among others. All the while understanding that the makeover wouldn’t occur overnight.

In fact, prior to drafting Matthews that June, Mike Babcock, who signed an eight-year, $50 million dollar contract to coach the rebuilding Leafs that same summer, ominously warned the Toronto media that “there’s pain coming”.

“This is going to be a massive, massive challenge,” he said.

Perhaps the Rangers aren’t as bad as the 2014-15 Leafs were. Or maybe they are. Regardless, for the Blueshirts, following up a lost season with another poor one would certainly qualify as additional pain. And, like the pain the Leafs suffered, it would also give them another opportunity to pick at the top of the 2019 draft (this time with an opportunity to claim budding American superstar Jack Hughes). However, it would also require the team to tiptoe around bringing along youngsters in a losing environment while not poisoning their development – an issue the Leafs also faced and appear to have successfully traversed. That’s no easy task, though, even if it’s designed to deliver more top talent. Just look at the difficulties being suffered in Edmonton, Buffalo, and Arizona – prime examples of why the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

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Regardless, positive experience is going to be a key ingredient in the development mix to come. Because even in a losing environment, growth needs to occur, and that’s best accomplished by layering in success as the Rangers’ prospects come along during their formative years. We’re already seeing the value of this as Chytil and Andersson are helping to lead the Hartford Wolf Pack back to playoff contention this season. A formula arguably perfected by the Leafs, whose AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, has helped to usher in a wave of young NHL players who will become household names in the Big Smoke in the years to come. In fact, it may even behoove Gorton, who already declared his intention not to burn the first year of either Chyil or Andersson’s entry-level deals, to leave them in the AHL for the remainder of the season instead of calling them up at the end of this lost season to skate them in a handful of games that would still maintain their entry-level slide status. With the Rangers needing to lose as many games as possible, not only would adding the talented youngsters possibly take them out of the draft lottery window but surely there’s little to be learned by being thrown into that environment when the alternative might be competing for a Calder Cup.

This is precisely why Gorton needs to use this coming draft, in which he’ll again have more than one first-round pick, to hit a proverbial home run (or two) designed to deliver his Blueshirts the kind of top talent they can bank on for years to come. A lottery pick would certainly improve his odds, but any trades or late-round picks should also aim to dramatically improve the Rangers’ on-ice product as quickly as possible.

Suffice it to say, the task ahead for Gorton and the Rangers front office is not going to be easy. If anything, the real work begins now. There are 19 games left to evaluate who will stay and who will go, with hard questions in need of answers as the draft approaches. Will Zuccarello be a part of this? Will Henrik Lundqvist still be viable when they’re ready to contend again? What of the futures of young veterans like Hayes, Vesey, Spooner, and Namestnikov? Yet in a sea of questions, one thing is certain – there’s pain coming. It’s Gorton’s job to make sure it’s worth suffering for.

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