When the New York Rangers are healthy, Oscar Lindberg, a 25-year-old center who is strong at the face-off dots, responsible in his own end and who put up 28 points last season while counting just $700,000 against the team’s salary cap becomes a healthy scratch. That’s a strong contrast to a year ago when then 35-year-old Dominic Moore (15 points, $1.5M cap charge) was counted on as a fourth-line center and 31-year-old Tanner Glass along with an odd assortment of Jarret Stoll, Emerson Etem, Daniel Paille, Jayson Megna and Marek Hrivik all took turns filling out the 12th and final roster spot. So how did a 25-year-old cost-controlled center, strong at both ends of the ice, find himself watching from the press box while the entire league has been transitioning towards players exactly like him filling key roster spots on teams with any thoughts of competing for a Stanley Cup?
Because of Rangers second-year General Manager, Jeff Gorton.
Promoted from the Assistant GM position on July 1st, 2015, Gorton stumbled out of the gate. A handful of reclamation projects produced just one of any real value, Viktor Stalberg. The rest of his discount signings, — Stoll, Megna, Raphael Diaz and others — would be cast away or fill roster spots on the Rangers AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. If his 2015 free agency shopping was underwhelming, his first trade deadline day was a disaster. In true Rangers fashion, he targeted the biggest name available, 31-year-old Eric Staal. The problem there was that Staal was coming off his worst statistical season since his rookie year and had been in a steep decline over the past few years. Gorton opened up the draft pick and prospect wallet and paid top dollar. Carolina landed two second-round picks and up-and-coming prospect Aleksi Saarela, a third-round pick from the previous season who was developing nicely in the Finish Elite League. Staal would go on to score just 3 goals and add 3 assists over the final 20 games of the Rangers regular season.
In Jeff Gorton’s rookie postseason atop the Rangers ship, his first big attempt at improving the Rangers’ fortunes by adding Eric Staal for a king’s ransom at the trade deadline would end with a whimper. The Rangers lost in 5 games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, while Staal would put up zero points, registering just seven shots on goal and finishing a minus-seven. Jeff Gorton didn’t meet with the press on the Rangers breakup day the Tuesday that followed the Rangers defeat. Head Coach Alain Vigneault informed reporters that he and Rangers management would take a week off before they met to discuss the team’s future. The offseason would have plenty of hurdles to deal with, but at that time, management decided they needed to take a step back before addressing the media.
While many players suffer from what is termed a Sophomore slump, Jeff Gorton has bounced back from an underwhelming first year at the helm. Faced with the team’s core not just getting older, but having endured hard miles due to recent postseasons that went long, but not long enough, Gorton made it a mandate for the team to get younger, faster and more skilled. The first major decision of the offseason was to part ways with unrestricted free agent defenseman Keith Yandle. Yandle’s rights were traded to the Florida Panthers for a sixth-round pick in 2016 and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2017 if he re-signed there (he did). That move, passing on bringing back an expensive, aging defender who had cost the Rangers quite a bit when he was acquired from Phoenix a year and a half earlier by Gorton’s predecessor, Glen Sather, was a sign of things to come.
Here now is the timeline of Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton’s second swing of the bat:
May 2, 2016 – Re-signed backup goalie Antti Raanta to a two-year deal with a $1M AAV. Raanta’s play was one of the few things that went right in the 2015-16 season, and locking up the 26-year-old for an additional two years should produce good value.
May 13, 2016 – Signed Pavel Buchnevich to an entry-level contract (ELC). There was speculation that the Russian forward, who had been proving himself skating with professionals in the KHL, might not come across the Atlantic without an assurance that he would make the big club out of camp. The highly skilled prospect who didn’t speak English well, if at all was in New York early in the summer to train and get acclimated to life in North America.
June 20, 2016 – As was mentioned, the Rangers decided to pass on re-signing Keith Yandle and traded his rights to the Panthers.
June 25, 2016 – The Rangers sent a fourth-round pick in 2017 to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Nick Holden. Holden, who shoots left, is comfortable playing on either side. He’s a dependable, if not flashy rearguard who regularly played 20 minutes a night for a Colorado team that was poor defensively. Ideally suited for a 4/5/6 assignment on a good defensive club, he’s played well enough when paired with Ryan McDonagh while the Rangers suffered injuries on the right side.
July 1st, 2016 – Signed UFAs Michael Grabner (two years, $1.65M AAV), Adam Clendening (one year, $600K) and Nathan Gerbe (one year, $600K) while promoting Jeff Beukeboom to the assistant coaching vacancy opened by the departure of Ulf Samuelson. Grabner brings top level speed and penalty killing ability, while Clendening offers passing skills and power play experience. Clendening is also an RFA at the conclusion of this year. Gerbe was one of the odd forwards out and mutually parted ways with the Rangers rather than reporting to Hartford after passing through waivers. He signed a deal with Genève-Servette HC, a Swiss professional team.
July 13, 2016 – Re-signed RFA forward J.T. Miller to a two-year, $2.75M AAV bridge deal. Miller, who finally started to break out last season, will still be an RFA at the conclusion of the deal. Some questioned whether a bridge deal was appropriate for Miller, as it could cost the Rangers more money long-term if he continues to improve offensively. This is the one offseason deal which hindsight may not look kindly on. As it turns out, the Rangers would have had enough cap space to lock the young forward up for longer, and they may have gotten more value down the road that way. Still, they didn’t necessarily know what their cap situation would be by the start of this season and there are a few Restricted Free Agents who will need new contracts next year. Near term cap flexibility may still end up being the right call, although Miller is off to an explosive start both on the stat sheets as well as with his play all over the ice.
July 15, 2016 – Signed UFA forward Josh Jooris and re-signed RFA defenseman Dylan McIlrath. As things would work out, July 15th turned out to be the day Gorton would lock up the team’s 14th forward and 8th defender. Jooris provides forward depth. With early season injuries, he was drawn into service and played well enough, then he himself was injured and will likely be out for a while. He’s serviceable should the Rangers need him when he gets healthy, but as of now he’s on the outside of the forward group looking in. McIlrath was given another chance to prove he was capable of being in the top-7, but through the preseason and his one regular season game when both Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein suffered injuries, he was a step behind the play and ended his night pinned to the Rangers’ bench. When the defense was healthy enough, he cleared waivers and was sent down to the Wolf Pack to get playing time.
July 18, 2016 – In a surprise move, the Rangers traded center Derick Brassard and a 2018 seventh-round pick to Ottawa for center Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 second-round draft pick. There had been speculation circling about many Rangers’ players being on the trading block, but there wasn’t a hint that Brassard, coming off a career season while so many Rangers struggled, would be the one going out the door. This was a clear hockey trade where both teams filled needs and the players themselves were very comparable. The Rangers got significantly younger, with Brassard being Zibanejad’s senior by six years. Brassard has been more productive in recent years, but Zibanejad has increased his scoring year after year.
July 22, 2016 – The Rangers re-sign RFA forward Chris Kreider to a four-year, $4.625M AAV contract and RFA forward Kevin Hayes to a two-year, $2.6M AAV contract. Both players struggled last year, producing in spurts and having stretches of ineffective play. Kreider though still managed to put up another 20-goal season and was giving up two years of UFA eligibility with this new deal. He also possesses a combination of size, strength and speed that may be unmatched in the NHL. Hayes was given a bridge deal in the same way Miller was, however, their situations were significantly different. As much as Miller seemed to grow into a complete NHL player, Hayes regressed from his standout rookie season. Here, anything other than a bridge deal would have been a mistake.
August 18, 2016 – Agreed to terms with 23-year-old NCAA UFA John Gilmour on a two-year, $740K AAV ELC. While the entire hockey world waited to see where highly touted Hartford University forward UFA Jimmy Vesey would end up, the Rangers continued to fill their depleted prospect pool with the left shot offensive defender.
August 19, 2016 – And then they got Jimmy Vesey. Rumors had put the Rangers in play but as a long shot in what was then called the Vesey Sweepstakes. A team, lead by Gorton and Chris Drury, met with the young forward and delivered a pitch that Vesey said swayed him to sign with New York. He’s been an early revelation.
August 27, 2016 – Rangers signed 25-year-old UFA forward Brandon Pirri to a one-year, $1.1M contract. Pirri was not qualified by Anaheim, and so became a UFA who will revert back to an RFA when his current contract expires. Pirri was an intriguing fit for a team that scored in the top-10 in the league last year despite a near bottom of the league shot total. Pirri shoots first and asks questions later.
September 2, 2016 – Promoted Chris Drury to Assistant General Manager. A well-deserved promotion for Drury, the former Rangers captain, who had been with the organization as the Director of Player Development. His work with Buchnevich and in luring Vesey show he’s ready for a larger role within the organization.
The 2016/17 New York Rangers have opened the season like a house on fire. They lead the league in scoring and some of the defensive lapses and shaky goaltending that made the first handful of games closer than they should have been are starting to be fixed. That’s bad news for the rest of the league. While it is doubtful they will keep this blistering scoring pace, they likely won’t need to. They could have won their last two games against Tampa Bay and St. Louis, two of the league’s perennial top teams, by scoring just three goals total instead of the eleven they put up between them.
Fans and the hockey media had largely written off the New York Rangers chances this year, saying the window was closing or had even closed already. A combination of chemistry, new blood, the core of the team having more rest this offseason and the coaching staff recognizing and playing to the strengths of the roster has this squad firing on all cylinders through the first 10 games of the season. All of these factors deserve credit, but most of those factors wouldn’t exist without so many smart decisions during an active offseason of trades, re-signing key RFAs, finding bargain-priced UFAs to fill holes and create competition, enticing college free agents and prospects to join the organization and deciding on coaching and management vacancies. The turnaround of this organization falls squarely on the shoulders of its new architect, General Manager Jeff Gorton.