Jeff Gorton and the Summer of Twenty Sixteen

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.

 

 

 

How the Rangers Gave Up the Farm Yet Still Got the Milk for Free

When the Rangers announced they’d signed Harvard standout and former Nashville Predators third-round draft pick Jimmy Vesey this summer, media pundits and fans alike were genuinely surprised. At least eight teams had their sights set on him, but the Rangers were the team Vesey chose to sign with despite a cavalcade of suitors, many of whom were considered “smarter” choices by some of the NHL’s media talking heads and insiders. On some level, even the Rangers themselves might have been surprised they’d won the Sweepstakes. They were by all accounts a longshot team to land him given the stiff competition they faced with his hometown Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He grew up in Boston and played four years of college hockey at Harvard University while the Leafs employ his father and drafted his brother Nolan in the 6th round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Both teams topped the list of likely front-runners. Not to mention the Buffalo Sabres who traded a 2016 third-round pick to the Predators to have Vesey’s exclusive negotiating rights prior to him becoming a free agent — rights they were unable to translate into a contract agreement.

Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton was reportedly elated on the Friday Vesey made his decision when he saw the Boston exchange on his caller ID, and for good reason. Vesey has been a revelation and fans have been salivating to see him play this season since his dominant performance at the 2016 Traverse City tournament where he lead the Rangers squad with five goals and two assists in four games.

Fast forward to the end of October and through his first ten games, Vesey’s six goals have him in a multi-player tie for second in goals in the NHL. His name sits beside ones like Patrick Laine, Alex Killorn, and Auston Matthews. But Vesey’s production thus far represents only a portion of his value given the nature in which he was acquired. For the Rangers, he cost them nothing but money, and due to CBA restrictions on just how much he is permitted to make, even with his contract pumped to the maximum allowable bonus structure, that money fits comfortably under the cap of a team that routinely spends to the ceiling. According to CapFriendly.com, Vesey’s two-year deal carries a base salary of $925,000, which is the maximum allowed for an entry-level contract, and upwards of $2.85M in performance bonuses, making his maximum AAV $3.775M (provided he meets his performance conditions). Given what he’s shown the Rangers thus far, it’s safe to assume he’s going to be worth every penny, and could potentially trigger some of even the hardest to attain bonus thresholds.

Targeting low-risk, high-reward NCAA free agents is a strategy the Rangers are quite good at and considering the wealth of draft picks—the traditional building tool by which teams acquire cost-controlled talent—they’ve sacrificed in pursuit of an as-of-yet elusive Stanley Cup over the last four seasons, it’s that much more important they find quality players in this manner. Vesey is only the most recent win in that regard. Dating back to 2013, he follows a group that includes a resurgent Kevin Hayes (a former Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick from 2010), Ryan Haggerty (who was traded to Chicago for Antti Raanta), Mat Bodie, John Gilmour (who had a raw but promising training camp), former Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy (who despite not panning out for the Rangers still played in 225 NHL games), and of course now starting goaltender for the Oilers, Cam Talbot. The Rangers also unsuccessfully courted both University of Minnesota free agent defenseman Mike Reilly, who ended up signing with the Wild in 2015, as well as University of Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz, who signed with the Oilers in 2012.

For all intents and purposes, the Rangers have been in “go for it now” mode since 2013 when they began their first all-in attempt dealing a 2013 second-round pick, a 2013 third-round pick (originally owned by Florida), and a conditional second-round pick for Ryane Clowe. That team ultimately lost to the Bruins in the second round of the playoffs that season. Since then the Rangers have only doubled and tripled down on their go-for-broke efforts in trades for players like Martin St. Louis, Keith Yandle, and Eric Staal in successive seasons. The end-of-night bill of draft picks sacrificed in their quest since 2013 reads as follows:

2013 1st (Kerby Rychel), 2nd, 3rd, 5th
2014 1st (Josh Ho-Sang)
2015 1st (Anthony Beauvillier), 2nd, 5th
2016 1st (Dennis Cholowski), 2nd, 4th
2017  2nd

It’s for this reason that Jimmy Vesey and players like him have truly helped to mitigate the pain the Rangers should be feeling right now, given just how much they’ve sacrificed in their losing efforts to hoist the Stanely Cup. Especially because those picks weren’t all that the Rangers gave up along the way. Promising young goal-scorer Anthony Duclair, a projected first-round talent who fell to the third-round of the 2013 draft where the Rangers took him, went to Arizona in the Keith Yandle trade, while Aleksi Saarela, the Rangers’ 2015 third-round pick, went to Carolina in the Eric Staal deal. Duclair has gone on to find early success with Arizona playing alongside Max Domi while Aleksi Saarela recently signed his entry-level contract with Carolina and is currently playing with Lukko of Liiga (Finnish elite league). St. Louis has since retired, Yandle’s rights were eventually traded for a paltry sixth-round pick to the Florida Panthers who re-signed him to a seven-year/$44.45M extension and Eric Staal signed a three-year/$10.5M contract with the Minnesota Wild this past summer. In case you’ve lost count, that’s four consecutive first-round picks, four second-round picks, one third-round pick, and a slew of fourth and fifth-round picks over the span of five years. Later selections were moved in smaller deals in various years, but this collection represents the glut of the most valuable picks the Rangers dealt away with nothing to show for it but two Conference Final appearances and a losing Stanley Cup Final berth. Given the cost it took to get there, those appearances aren’t enough, and the Rangers know it.

Generally speaking, I try to steer clear of terms like “steal” given its hyperbolic overuse in describing almost anything positive regardless of cost. The Rangers continually courting and signing Unrestricted Free Agent college players have likely found another one of them in Jimmy Vesey. At just 23-years old, the future is incredibly bright not only for him but the Rangers as well, in spite of the farm they sold for a Cup they’ve yet to win.

Brandon Pirri – Big Money Play, Little Money Pay

In a league with a hard salary cap, few things are as valuable as scoring contributions from a player a team is paying very little money to. Historically this role is most often played out by rookies and young players on entry-level contracts. Yet sometimes deft clubs like the Rangers find the right player at the right time under the right circumstances in an effort to replicate the kind of bang-for-buck normally reserved for young, cost-controlled players. That’s a situation the now 25-year old Brandon Pirri found himself in this past summer after the Ducks, who acquired him from the Panthers at the trade deadline for a paltry sixth-round draft pick, balked at extending him his $975,000 qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent in the process.

Originally a second-round draft selection by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, Pirri signed a one-year deal worth just $1.1M with the Rangers late in the offseason. That deal made the Rangers his fourth team in six years, an aspect of his playing career that might cause one to question his value as an NHL player from the outside. But a deeper look into his production thus far tells a different story — a story the Rangers seem to have done their homework on. A story that began with his time in Junior A (94 points in 44 games) and continued through his NCAA Division I draft year (42 points in 39 games), as well as his time in the American Hockey League (200 points in 238 games). His story is one that might have just bought the Rangers one of the best bang-for-buck players in the NHL this season at an incredibly discounted price.

Pirri’s NHL experience is the definition of small sample size. He’s played in just 173 NHL games to date due to a combination of injuries and a lack of trust, never playing in more than 61 games in a single season. That season was split between Florida and Anaheim last year in which he scored a combined 14 goals and 29 points over that span. But if you pull back on the picture a bit there’s untapped promise in his game that the Rangers seem to have successfully struck oil on.

Most of his games came after the start of the 2013-14 season and among players who have played at least 40 games since then, Pirri ranks 11th in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes with 1.37. His closest peers during this span are Jamie Benn (12th at 1.36), Wayne Simmonds (13th at 1.34), and Max Pacioretty (11th at 1.41). More interestingly, Pirri’s scoring numbers are predominantly registered 5-on-5, not on the power play as one might expect. Still, a larger sample size is needed to completely trust that data. Over the same 2013-2016 stretch, only 15 of his 53 goals (28%) were scored on the man advantage. Compared to that same peer group Pirri really stands out as the untapped goal-scorer he is. 61% of Benn’s goals and 48% of Simmonds’ were scored on the power play. Only Pacioretty has a better even strength percentage, having scored just 23% of his totals on the man advantage over that time.

Through ten games this year, Pirri has four goals and six points. He’s shooting at an astounding 36.4% (a number that will surely come back to earth over the duration of this season considering his career shooting percentage prior to joining the Rangers was 13.6%), but this temporary production inflation shouldn’t stop him from continuing to find consistent success with the Rangers. There’s enough evidence in his body of work at the NHL level to believe he can score at least 20 goals this season, probably more. For the $1.1M the Rangers invested in him, that’s incredible bang-for-buck when it comes to cost per goal. It would equal around $55K per goal scored. Discounting NHL rookies on entry-level deals, only a handful of players offered that kind of value to a team last season. According to CapFriendly, among them were players like then 32-year old P.A. Parenteau, who scored 20 goals for the Leafs on a one-year, $1.5M contract, 33-year old Lee Stempniak, who scored 19 goals between the Devils and Bruins on a one-year, $850,000 deal, and 26-year old Joe Colborne, who scored 19 goals for Calgary in the second year of a two-year deal with a $1.275M AAV.

When the Rangers get healthy at the forward position, they will no doubt have a tough decision to make. One decision that shouldn’t be difficult is keeping Pirri in the lineup so long as his stick remains hot. He likely has pushed one of Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast or Michael Grabner to the press box with his offensive production that earned him a roster spot out of training camp in the first place.