Even in Hindsight, Bridging J.T. Miller was the Smart Move

With J.T. Miller’s explosive start to the season, my colleague, Phil Kocher has written a very informative and detailed article on why the Rangers management missed the boat when they re-signed the young forward to a two-year, $2.75M AAV bridge contract this past summer. To be fair, Phil and I had a similar discussion on the BlueshirtsBrotherHood.com forum at the time of the signing, so he did not write that recent article benefiting from the hindsight of Miller’s impressive start to the season where he’s scoring at a point per game clip. He’s held that view since the signing — Phil was wrong then, and even in light of Miller’s success through 13 games, he’s wrong now.

There are two vacuums that you could look at J.T. Miller’s re-signing in and come to the conclusion that he should have been extended to something like a five-year, $4.25M-$4.5M AAV contract. You could look at the start he’s had to this season and lament, “if only”. You could also look at the $2.5M or so the Rangers had in available cap space and say, “I sure wish we gave Miller $1.4M of that and locked him up for five years instead of two.”

We don’t exist in a vacuum, though. The first argument assumes he’ll maintain something resembling this pace over the next 69 games and into the playoffs. Yet Miller’s history suggests otherwise. Last season prior to his new contract, he had separate 8 game (February 21 – March 8) and 7 game (November 28 – December 11) point droughts along with another 10 game span (October 13 – November 6) where he put up just two points, along with the final 7 games of the regular season (March 27 – April 9) where he again had just two points. This accounts for 40% of his season when he produced just 4 points. He also produced in streaks as well. He opened the season (October 7 – October 10) with 4 points in his first 3 games. He had 7 points in 8 games (December 12 – December 30), 10 points in 10 games (January 16 – February 8), 4 points in back to back games (February 17 & February 18) and 8 points in 10 games (March 13 – April 2).

None of this is a knock on the young forward or putting a ceiling on his ability to produce, it’s just the nature of the 40-50 point player. They are consistently inconsistent. Yet it does create a context for his hot start. He even put a respectable 3 points in 5 postseason games last season, but they all came in a single game. In the four games in which he did not score, he had a combined plus/minus rating of minus-6. That’s not all on J.T. Miller.  The team was outclassed by the eventual Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. He did contribute to that failure, though. Further, his career playoff production through 28 matches, is just one goal, and 12 assists for 13 points. It can be very damaging in a cap world to pay a player based on a small sample size. Even if we had a time machine and could go back, knowing what we know now about his season start, it still wouldn’t justify a long-term deal rather than a bridge contract.

As I said, Phil wasn’t looking at 12 points in 11 games (now 13 in 13) and assuming that Miller was now a point per game player. Instead, he was looking at the modest point per game gains that Miller had made each season and supposed that he would continue on that path. And look, he’s probably pretty accurate in that assumption. The mistake Phil makes is in how he glosses over the salary cap situation the Rangers found themselves in when it came time to hammer out RFA deals for not just Miller, but also Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. He doubled down on that by bringing up Derek Stepan’s similar situation that occurred a couple of years ago but again neglected the salary cap space the Rangers had available at the time.

This brings us to our second vacuum. It would almost always be a good idea to lock up young players for long-term deals when they prove they can be…let’s say 40-point players at the moment, with 50-60 point upside. If you sign a J.T. Miller or a Kevin Hayes to a 5-6 year deal in the mid $4M AAV range, even if they stop progressing you can probably convince another team that they need a change of scenery. And at the $1M per 10 points average that UFA’s tend to get in their contracts, you’re not far off. The issue is you’re paying that UFA price for some of their RFA years at the same time, so your cap situation plays a vital role in whether these types of bridge deals are good for the team or not.

Essentially, Phil’s argument is that you should overpay in the short-term to then underpay for a couple/few UFA years. Sometimes that’s smart, when you have the cap room or if you’re not really competitive now, but could be when those cheaper UFA years hit. It’s what the Rangers did with Ryan McDonagh when they signed him to a six-year, $4.7M AAV contract. But when you’re right up against the cap and you’re in win-now mode, you simply can’t do that. You need to kick the can because you need flexibility with your roster and that cap space you save over the course of a season, like the couple of million the Rangers had in available cap space to start the season, compounds by the time you reach the trade deadline. If nothing changes, the Rangers will be able to add $12.4M in salary according to CapFriendly to bolster their playoff run if it becomes advantageous to do so. We don’t know what teams may fall off and be willing to move expiring UFAs in April. What we do know is that the Rangers one potential area of weakness is among their top-4 defensemen. Brent Burns ($5.76M AAV) and Kevin Shattenkirk ($5.2M) are among the expiring defensive contracts this season. As it stands, the Rangers could afford the cap hit of both, although finding the assets to move for them would be a different discussion.

Deadline cap space aside, the Rangers, at the time J.T. Miller was re-signed, were up against the cap ceiling. They still hadn’t re-signed Chris Kreider ($4.625M AAV) or Kevin Hayes (2.6M AAV) both of whom were scheduled for arbitration hearings. They had also yet to sign UFA forwards Jimmy Vesey ($925K AAV) and Brandon Pirri ($1.1M AAV). Nor had they traded Derek Brassard ($5M AAV) for Mika Zibanejad ($2.625M AAV). The difference between Brassard’s contract and Zibanejad’s is $2.375M. That makes up just about every dollar the Rangers had to start the season under the Salary Cap. There was no way to know that trade or some other one to free up cap space would become available. There wasn’t a way to know the exact dollar amounts Kreider and Hayes would sign for. There was also no way of knowing who would earn a spot on the final roster. What we do know is that if the Rangers had committed another $2M or so to J.T. Miller at the time they re-signed him, they would have had to make roster decisions to start the season based on how much cap space they had available and not on who best fit in order to field a successful team. That cap flexibility along with the Zibanejad trade are the reason the Rangers can roll four lines that can all score. It’s also the reason that when the trade deadline arrives, they may be able to add valuable pieces for yet another legitimate attempt at a Stanley Cup winning run.

It is probably too early to look at next seasons’ cap allotments, but I do want to mention it. Next year Zibanejad, Brandon Pirri, Jesper Fast, Oscar Linberg, Josh Jooris and Adam Clendening are all RFAs who will need new contracts. Having Miller locked up next season at $2.75M rather than $4.5M will help there as well.

Miller is a good hockey player even if he’s unproven at the moment. In an ideal world, having him locked up for 5 or 6 years at a good cost would likely benefit the Rangers. Yet at the cost he would have likely come in at, the Rangers would have handcuffed themselves to a less effective roster than the one they have today, with little ability to improve it at the deadline should their level of play continue and should they aspire for a long spring.

Why the Rangers Were Wrong to Bridge J.T. Miller

Quick, without looking, can you tell me who is leading the New York Rangers in scoring as of today? I’ll give you a hint – it isn’t Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, or even Jimmy Vesey despite his phenomenal early play. Believe it or not, the answer is J.T. Miller. The 23-year old fifth-year forward is sitting pretty at the top of the Rangers’ points column with twelve points in eleven games, horrendous mustache and all. And he’s doing this despite playing just 15:40 TOI/G, which is good for eighth among all Rangers forwards this season. Miller has outright dominated games this year and is a major contributing factor to the Rangers league-leading offense. They’re first in goals per game with 4.09 and first in goals-for at 5-on-5 with 30. So, how is it Miller is doing this in spite of the lack of “top-six” ice time, from the Rangers “third” line with Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner? Partly because the Rangers have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL (thanks to players like him), and partly because of redefined depth roles in the era he is playing in. Long gone are the days when teams skated two “top-six” lines of scoring forwards, a third, predominantly “checking” line, and a fourth-line filled with barely passable “hockey players” whose talents resided primarily in their fists. Today’s NHL teams, like the Rangers, are dressed top-to-bottom with mostly interchangeable two-way players. This makes the Rangers’ “third” line only third in their line-up in a clinical sense. Colloquially they’re simply an extension of that interchangeable depth.

Fixing things that aren’t broken isn’t just a waste of time, it’s often counter-productive. While there’s certainly an argument to be made that increasing Miller’s ice time or even promoting him due to his surging play would be warranted, it’s not one you’ll see me make here. As far as I’m concerned, until further notice that trio should be left to do what they’re doing, which is playing with authority. The Rangers have out-scored their opponents (Lightning, Blues, and Oilers) in the last three games by a combined score of 16-4. The Grabner-Hayes-Miller line has contributed 18 points in those games alone. Miller himself has six points in that span. Believe it. Your eyes aren’t lying to you. The simple fact is every time that line is on the ice, something good is happening, and the data supports it. Hayes might quietly be the most important player on that line, but it’s Miller who is reaping the rewards that have carried him to the top of the points standings.

So why were the Rangers so wrong to sign him to a bridge contract instead of a long-term deal? Because he’d shown enough in his body of work as a professional heading into last summer to not kick the can down the road again. But kick they did anyway and the consequences will assuredly result in a less favorable AAV than they might have been able to negotiate had they trusted the data—particularly the advanced data—that was telling them the kind of player Miller would become. His first two seasons in the NHL were partial ones in which he played a combined 56 games at the NHL level. They were seasons in which he was shuffled between the Rangers and the Hartford Wolfpack but ones in which he still managed to average 0.15 points-per-game (P/GP) in 2012-13 and 0.20 in 2013-14 while with the Rangers. From 2014-15, when he established himself as a regular NHL player, to 2015-16, his P/GP averages have continued to increase incrementally from 0.40 to 0.52 in each season. Over that same 2014-2016 stretch in which he played the majority of his NHL games, according to Corsica.hockey, he had an aggregate 50.02 CF (Corsi-for) percentage and 50.43 FF (Fenwick-for) percentage. His P/60 (points per 60 minutes) of 2.01 trailed just behind Chris Kreider (2.12) – a then fourth-year player who the Rangers apparently did trust enough to sign to a long-term extension. Even Miller’s time in the AHL (101 games split between 2012-13 and 2014-15) showed him to be a prolific point-producer at that level as well. He was better than a point-per-game in his final two years there and has a league total of 81 points in 101 games played.

Perhaps fueled by salary cap fears given the dollars they expected to dedicate between Kreider, Miller, Hayes, and McIlrath—all of whom elected arbitration—the Rangers re-signed Miller to a two-year bridge deal worth $2.625M per season in early July. In the Rangers defense, at the time they were a team who needed to be frugal with their available cap room. According to Larry Brooks of the NY Post, the day Miller signed his deal the Rangers were left with approximately $9.95M in available salary cap space with which to re-sign the remaining RFAs. That $9.95M was also expected to be tapped into to sign Jimmy Vesey when he became a UFA on August 16th and was also used much later in August to sign Brandon Pirri. Miller’s signing also occurred four days before the Derick Brassard trade to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad on July 18th that opened up around $2.4M more than they had the day Miller signed. However, Miller’s arbitration date had been set for August 2nd, which gave the Rangers plenty of runway. Runway they chose not to take advantage of.

That $2.625M number looks great today given Miller’s level of play and current point production, but it’s also one that will cost them when looking at the bigger picture if and when they are willing to sign him long-term. He has just one year of RFA eligibility left, which means anything more than a one-year deal once this contract expires requires the Rangers to begin buying UFA-eligible years – years that don’t come cheaply. This is a fact that an unnerving percentage of fans tend to forget and begrudgingly re-learn every summer beginning around July 1st.

One would think the Rangers would have learned their lesson given how recently they went through this exact same process with Derek Stepan. He was a player they could have or rather should have signed to a long-term extension earlier in his career when both he and defenseman Ryan McDonagh were up for renewals (and looking for identical contracts), but who the Rangers also opted to go the bridge route with instead. McDonagh, like Kreider, they appeared to trust. Stepan, like Miller, they apparently didn’t. Stepan did eventually sign a long-term 6-year/$39M deal with the Rangers (at the same contract position Miller will be in when this deal is up), but the road to doing so was paved with problems and his deal now more closely resembles one signed by an Unrestricted Free Agent rather than one that’s more strategically designed to trade off a team-friendly AAV for early guaranteed money and years.

It’s really not possible to project what the Rangers roster will look like by the time this becomes a front-burner issue for them, especially with the Las Vegas expansion draft looming next summer. Perhaps enough cap room can or will be cleared between now and then so that none of this matters. Perhaps the Rangers won’t mind signing Miller to a deal with an AAV that’s certain to begin at $5M per season. But perhaps, too, had they had a little more faith in the now-blossoming scoring forward, they wouldn’t need to.

Photo by Justin Yamada

Primed to Nash

I’ve always struggled to watch as a professional athlete who at one time was considered one of his sport’s top talents fade into obscurity. What’s worse is watching that same caliber of player nosedive like a plane that has lost its wings. Enter Rick Nash.

Nash has arguably disappointed in some regard during his entire tenure as a Ranger. Despite scoring 21 goals in 44 games during his first (lockout-shortened) season he all but vanished leading up to, and during the playoffs. Shooting just 2.4% in 12 games did him no favors, nor did shooting 3.6% in 25 the next postseason. Marginal offensive production and weak play in the attacking zone during the 2014-15 playoffs completely derailed his 42-goal comeback season, one in which he was as dominant and dangerous as any skater in the league through the first three months of the year. And of course, there was last years’ 15-goal campaign. He was bad. Really, really, bad. Despite being adept in his own end, by all player accounts a good teammate, and a competent penalty killer, there was no justification for his lack of production once you factored in his price tag ($7.8 million, for anyone unsure). This summer had to have been a low point for him, a man who four years ago demanded a trade to a team that would give him an opportunity to win the cup and further progress his career.

32 Reasons the Rangers Championship Window May Not Close

It’s a young man’s league. That’s the message that has been sent loud and clear to fans, media and players alike. Rather than waiting to lock up experienced players only after they’ve crept up on or reached Unrestricted Free Agency often at age 27 and beyond, teams are offering players in their early 20’s longer term, high-value contracts knowing that they are likely to have their best production during that span. If they don’t or they falter, there will always be another team willing to take a chance on a young player who showed the kind of promise it takes to land one of those deals.  At times, two such players get traded for each other. Tyler Myers signed a seven year, $5.5M AAV contract with the Buffalo Sabres when he was just 22-years-old, but was then traded to the Winnipeg Jets for Evander Kane, himself in the middle of a six-year, $5.25M AAV deal he signed at age 21.

If this is the new normal, and it certainly appears to be, then what of the players who have been grand-fathered into long-term, high dollar contracts in their late twenties and early thirties? More importantly, what is a team to do with these once high-end players, now paid to continue to produce at a high level as they begin their descent? Recently, the solutions have been to buy out these players, to trade them while retaining up to half of their contracted salary or to package draft picks and prospects along with them to a rebuilding team that could afford it.

The Rangers are taking a different track with two of their high priced, 32-year-old veterans. Rather than eating half of Rick Nash’s remaining $7.8M contract in a trade or buying out the four years left on Dan Girardi’s $5.4M deal, creating an unnecessary cap burden for future years, they’ve simply slotted the two older players into roles they are now fit for, contracts be damned.  At least for now.

Nash has found a resurgence so far this season playing third-line minutes. He has five goals and eight points through ten games on the season while averaging just over 16:00 per game. He’s found chemistry with one of the young players on the team, Jimmy Vesey, who’s controlled cap hit and stellar start to the season helps to offset Nash’s bloated salary. By playing Nash down the lineup, Vesey gets to benefit from his experience and skill set, while Nash is no longer looked at to carry the bulk of the offensive load and face other team’s top defensive pairs.

The Rangers’ defense was supposed to be this team’s undoing. The forward core was largely kept together and the players who left were replaced with better alternatives.  Lundqvist, even as he too is aging, was expected to have a couple more top seasons left in the tank.  On the back end, though, Girardi and Marc Staal were coming off their worst seasons with the team. Meanwhile, Keith Yandle’s and to a lesser extent Dan Boyle’s departure created some deep holes to fill. Many hoped Girardi would somehow be dealt or relegated to the seventh spot, only playing when injuries required it. Instead, Girardi has had his minutes and assignments reduced. He, too, is averaging around 16:00 TOI/G and he’s playing less in a top pairing role. That’s when a funny thing happened. He’s now playing better than he has in years. He’s steady in his own zone, while bringing a physical edge that is often missing from the Rangers defense. He’s not getting beaten to the outside or abandoning the front of the net. He’s even contributed offensively, scoring as many goals (2) in seven games as he scored all of the last year.

Make no mistake, neither Nash or Girardi are worth their price tag. They might still regress after strong starts. If the Rangers didn’t have younger players making far less than they’re worth filling more important roles in the lineup, these two contracts would be killing the team and be among the major reasons the Rangers window for a championship would be closed. Instead, a couple of 32-year-olds, slotted properly in the lineup, despite their poor contract values, are part of the reasons this version of the New York Rangers may still yet win the Stanley Cup.

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.