Joe Thornton by Sarah A.

Jumbo Solutions to Fill Stepan's Shoes

I recently wrote about how Derek Stepan’s trade to the Arizona Coyotes unequivocally signals the end of an era of Rangers hockey that will likely be remembered for its failure to win a Stanley Cup—a title not undeserved—but that still deserves praise for their efforts nonetheless. You can read that article here, but a deeper dive into the now Stepan-less Rangers, a little more than 72 hours removed from the news, has the future of the Blueshirts’ center depth in a haze of uncertainty. The biggest question being—who do they envision backfilling the crater that Stepan’s departure has created?

Make no mistake about it, whether you loved him or hated him, and though his last season in New York left much to be desired, Stepan played a vital role for multiple Rangers’ squads that went deep into the playoffs despite falling short of the finish line. His production over that time was synonymous—albeit on the lower-third of the spectrum—with first-line centers in today’s NHL. Comparisons to elite talents like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid might paint him in a poor light, but they’re also disingenuous, as he compared quite favorably with many of the NHL’s first-line center talents. He wasn’t a generational center, but he was a reliable player, whose ability to go up against the toughest competition in the NHL won’t easily be replaced.

In the last six seasons among NHL centers who averaged at least 18:00 TOI/GP, Stepan’s 315 points in 433 games (0.73 P/GP) are 17th league-wide, just behind Patrice Bergeron (334 in 443), and just ahead of Ryan O’Reilly (309 in 415). But beyond steady offensive production, Stepan was heavily relied on to skate against the NHL’s top competition and his defensive game truly justified him as a first-line player. In fact, no Rangers forward has played more minutes short-handed (634:33) in the last six seasons than Stepan.

Derek Stepan v. First-Line Center Archetype courtesy of Ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Derek Stepan v. First-Line Center Archetype courtesy of ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Matters were complicated after the Vegas Golden Knights selected the Blueshirts’ fourth-line center, Oscar Lindberg, in their expansion draft. That selection, in addition to the Stepan trade, has left the Rangers down two regular centers — one with sizable shoes to fill (Stepan) and the other not quite unimportant, but easier to mitigate. To replace Lindberg, the Rangers will probably look within the organization to someone like Boo Nieves, who is arguably the only logical internal solution now that Marek Hrivik is off to free agency. Finding Stepan’s replacement is a much more difficult task, though. So let’s look at what options they do have to choose from.

Looking Inward

Nieves, 23, could very well step in to fill the void left by Lindberg’s departure to the desert. He received a long look in training camp/preseason this past year and was one of the final Rangers cuts before the season began. Though the Wolfpack’s season was a record worst for the franchise, Nieves still managed to put together 18 points in 40 games for an unremarkable team who are themselves expected to see significant overhaul heading into 2017-18.

But Nieves is a fourth-line option at this point in his career which means if the Rangers want to look internally to find Stepan’s replacement, they’re going to be expecting Mika Zibanejad to step up to the task. It’s a job that Zibanejad should arguably have little problem handling from a production perspective. He has improved every season he’s completed in the NHL between his time with the Ottawa Senators and his first season as a Ranger, but there are question marks in his defensive game that there weren’t with Stepan which might limit his impact. Zibanejad played just 39:46 short-handed for the Rangers last season, averaging just 0:42 SH TOI/GP, matching the same short-handed TOI average he had with the Senators, who also opted for better defensive forwards for both their PK groups.

The ability to kill penalties isn’t, in and of itself, a measure of a player’s defensive ability, but it is often indicative of a coaching staff’s trust in playing that player in high-pressure situations. In this regard, it’s unlikely Zibanejad would buck the trend of his early career by becoming a penalty-killing staple, and that might give a little insight into how he might be deployed in similar high-pressure situations — a problem the Rangers never had with Stepan.

Still, Gorton has said he thinks a combination of Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes could pick up the slack when asked about the trade and whether or not it put the Rangers in the market for another top-six center. He also didn’t rule it out, which brings us to free agency.

Jumbo Joe to Broadway?

This summer’s free agent class is a weak one. There are only a handful of high-impact players available, should they make it to July 1st, but there are a few options at center who might be of particular interest to the Rangers. At the top of that list has to be long-time San Jose Sharks former captain Joe Thornton.

The 38-year old has spent the last 12 years topping the NHL’s scoring charts as a member of the Sharks, but is coming off a significant knee injury (torn ACL and MCL) suffered during the Sharks opening round playoff loss to the Oilers this past spring. Despite the injury and his age, Thornton has shown considerable longevity well into this late thirties. He’s just a year removed from a point-per-game 82-point season in 2015-16, and his 0.63 P/GP this past season was comparable to Derek Stepan’s 0.68 P/GP that resulted in a 55-point season.

The real kicker with Thornton is the news that he’s looking for another three-year contract — a deal the Rangers would not be wise to agree to. At 38, Thornton, coming off a serious knee injury, and subject to the NHL’s over-35 clause that threatens to punish team’s who sign players 35 or older, should they retire with time remaining on their contracts, by forcing them to carry the salary cap charge regardless of the inactive status of the player. It’s a clause that, to my knowledge, no one has had to face yet, and I’m hard-pressed to think that someone of Thornton’s character would walk away in active retirement knowing the damage it would do to the team he signs with. Still, three years is one too many. In an ideal world, the Rangers and Thornton would agree to a one-year deal to allow him to stop-gap the loss of Stepan with a capable veteran who can alleviate some of the pressure bound for Zibanejad’s shoulders. But a two-year deal wouldn’t kill them. Three might, however. It would take Jumbo through to his 41st birthday.

Thornton has flirted with free agency before but chose to remain a Shark. Given the state of the team and his stature as a legacy member, it’s hard to imagine him walking away at this point in his career, but a stint with the Rangers isn’t without merit. Many of the game’s greats have used Broadway as a curtain call on their storied careers, and the Rangers still have Rick Nash to woo him with. Thornton has played with Nash internationally during lockouts, and in the Olympics for Team Canada.

So Hot Right Now, Hanzal

If not Thornton, perhaps the Rangers look to another player they’ve been linked to for years in 30-year old Czech center, Martin Hanzal. Hanzal has been remarkably consistent playing for a slew of especially poor Arizona Coyotes clubs over the last five years. Since 2013-14, he’s posted a P/GP pace of at least 0.62 in three straight years. Though Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold publicly regretted GM Chuck Fletcher’s decision to bring Hanzal in at the deadline given the heavy cost it came at, Hanzal paid immediate dividends posting 13 points in 20 regular season games and one point in five playoff games.

Like Stepan, Hanzal isn’t particularly gifted offensively. Though he finds his points just fine, he’s not the type to wow you in games through blazing speed (he doesn’t have it) or exceptional offensive flare. Also like Stepan, Hanzal is as defensively responsibleeee as they come. He’s an ace-in-the-hole at the dot and boasts some of the NHL’s best faceoff winning percentages of the last five seasons.

Martin Hanzal v. Second-Line Center Archetype courtesy of ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Martin Hanzal v. Second-Line Center Archetype courtesy of ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Among centers who played in at least 60 games last season, Hanzal was ninth in the league with a 56.4% face-off winning percentage (FOW%), and he’s second only to Boyd Gordon (57.9) over the last five years with an average FOW% of 56.1. Given face-offs were a particular weakness, at least perceived, for Stepan, this specific facet of Hanzal’s game would likely interest the Rangers should they choose to pursue him.

Hanzal would presumably slot in behind Zibanejad, allowing Kevin Hayes another year to develop in a moderately protected third-line center spot. He’d also give the Rangers an insurance card to play late in games when protecting a lead that they haven’t had since Dominic Moore was a member of the team. Late in a game, up by a goal, Hanzal’s about as good as it gets for a final draw to close out a close victory.

All Things Considered

While it’s admirable that Gorton appears to have as much faith in a Zibanejad/Hayes duo spearheading his top-six next season, the ancillary loss of Lindberg has a once deep Rangers center group at half its strength. No matter the level of confidence Gorton exudes, the Rangers would be wise to add at least a third-line center to their group to mitigate their losses. Contrary to popular belief, J.T. Miller is not a center, and shifting him back to the middle after years developing on the wing in which he just posted a career year could derail his progress. With $20-23M available to spend (Kevin Klein “retirement” to Europe pending), there’s little stopping the Rangers from at least exploring the market on free agent centers this summer. Though centers, like defensemen, are premiums every July, a short-term deal for Thornton or a mid-range deal for Hanzal shouldn’t break the bank, and given the sudden cavernous hole left in the wake of the losses of Stepan and Lindberg, the Rangers may not have much of a choice in the matter.

Brooks: Rangers and Brendan Smith are trying to get this done

While the NHL’s general managers are now free and clear to begin speaking to pending Unrestricted Free Agents to ascertain their levels of interest, the Rangers haven’t yet given up on the idea of bringing back defenseman Brendan Smith, who is just five days away from reaching free agency for the first time in his career.

According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Smith remains engaged with Jeff Gorton in “working toward a resolution that would allow Brendan to return to the Rangers”:

“Nothing has changed as far as Brendan is concerned in terms of his desire to sign a new contract with them. Obviously there’s a marketplace both sides are aware of that includes upcoming free agency and possible trades, but I think we’re trying to achieve the same objective.”

Smith, acquired from the Red Wings for a couple of draft picks at the trade deadline, played effective, physical hockey for the Rangers down the stretch, and really demonstrated his value to the depleted Blueshirts defensive group in the playoffs while paired with first-year breakout rookie, Brady Skjei.

The Rangers, who project to have more than $20M available to spend in free agency, have plenty of cap room to accommodate Smith’s asking price, having recently traded Derek Stepan and his $6.5M cap hit to the Arizona Coyotes. The only question is how willing are they to pay market value—a term Brooks reports is four- or five-year contract north of $4 million per year—to keep the former Wisconsin Badger in New York through to his early thirties? With just four days until the market opens, there’s not much time left for Gorton to negotiate.

Smith brings a quality as far as toughness that is lacking among the rest of the Rangers’ defense, which added a welcomed nuance to their most recent postseason run. The concern is that he may wear down and become another poor value contract to deal with in the final years of his contract.

New York Rangers by Karan Bawa

Rebuilding on the Fly Means the End of an Era

In an on-air interview during day one of the two-day NHL Entry Draft, New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton let slip, perhaps intentionally, that his Blueshirts are officially “rebuilding on the fly”. This “slip of the tongue” occurred just minutes after TSN’s Bob McKenzie uttered the same words following the Rangers selection of Lias Andersson with the 7th overall pick — a pick that they’d acquired from the Arizona Coyotes along with defenseman Anthony Deangelo early Friday afternoon in exchange for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta. If those words haven’t been ringing loudly in your head since surely you’ve missed their significance as signaling the end of an era. An era of wildly successful yet Championship-less hockey, that saw Broadway’s Blueshirts advance to their first Stanley Cup Final in twenty years amidst two other Eastern Conference Final appearances over the last six years.

While it’s not quite the promise of a full rebuild—something that generally entails a firesale of nearly every valuable veteran player for future assets, as well as at least one full season of tanking for a lottery pick—an “on the fly” version still promises significant overhaul. That process began when the Rangers bought out the contract of long-time defenseman Dan Girardi, and it continues in the aftermath of dealing Stepan to the West.

Though the lack of a championship will no doubt mar the optics of just how successful this collection of players was, the fact remains they are one of the winningest teams in the NHL in the postseason in the last seven years. That’s not an arbitrary range, either. It precisely overlaps a span of time in which Stepan, from his rookie season, and Girardi, from his fifth NHL season, overlap as New York Rangers.

Since the 2010-11 season, in the playoffs, the Rangers have the third most victories (47) of any team in the NHL locking them behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (53) and the Blackhawks (51) respectively. Additionally, they had the fourth-fewest goals against per game played (2.39) in the postseason during those years. They’ve also played the most playoff games of any team in that span (98). That makes for a losing overall record (they are 47-51 in that span), especially compared to the Penguins (53-42) and Hawks (51-38), but it still helps to illustrate just how close they’ve come to a Stanley Cup parade.

Stepan and Girardi were critical components to that postseason success (though to offsetting degrees due to age). And now they’re gone. Because, unfortunately for the Rangers, this is the way things work in today’s NHL, especially for the league’s more successful teams. The salary cap only ever seems to increase thanks to the NHLPA-agreed upon decision to activate an artificial inflator clause each year. Because of this, it gives successful clubs like the Rangers only a little bit of extra room to work with to retain their most important players, but rarely enough to do so comfortably. This upcoming season will be no different. As we’ve seen with a similarly successful team like the Chicago Blackhawks, the never-ending need to find more room to fit young impact players routinely forces these clubs to shed valuable players to remain cap compliant. Niklas Hjalmarsson, a staple of the Hawks’ defense who helped them win three Stanley Cups, is their latest victim of this. He was shipped to the Arizona Coyotes in a deal they unequivocally lost all because the Hawks need more room to breathe under the cap. Hjalmarsson actually follows in a long line of premiere talent the Hawks have had to begrudgingly say goodbye to that includes Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Scott Darling, Brandon Saad (who they just re-acquired), and others.

The Rangers have likewise had to cut into their core and waive goodbye to productive players and fan favorites just to maintain cap compliance without derailing the progress they’ve built. The only real difference in this regard between the Rangers and Hawks is that the Rangers don’t have multiple Stanley Cup championships (let alone one) to rest their heads on. Instead, they’re simply left with the dull pain of having to sell off valuable pieces of their successful-yet-unsuccessful group while hoping that the end result will make this the year.

Remember—it wasn’t too long ago now that players like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Artem Anisimov were spearheading a promising Rangers core that seemed poised for a Stanley Cup victory. Yet the traction wasn’t there, and despite their best efforts, all three men were moved in deals thought to help the Rangers bridge the gap between playoffs and Stanley Cup victory. So, too, eventually, were players like Carl Hagelin and Derick Brassard. Stepan simply tops that growing list of core components who’ve been turned over in the chase for a seemingly elusive championship in a Salary Cap league.

It’s hard to imagine what would change things from a league-level that might prevent future teams from having to dismantle successful groups, especially ones that fall just short of a championship. It would probably require a top-down overhaul of league operations, combined with a new CBA, and a consistent influx of dollars that the NHL could tap into to increase HRR as a means to push the salary cap to loftier growth rates. But in the here and now, little can be done except to hope that whatever plan Gorton has will result in minimal short-term pain and long-term gain. This early into a summer poised to reinvent the Blueshirts yet again, it’s too soon to make a snap judgment call, but in the meantime, we can surely be thankful for the body of work this last era of the Rangers core put in. Though it failed to bear the tastiest fruit, there was value in the trail they blazed. Their dedication and the groundwork they’ve laid can hopefully plot a course for a succeeding core, arguably made up of Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei, Ryan McDonagh, and Mika Zibanejad to finally bring Lord Stanley’s Cup down the Canyon of Heroes for the first time in more than twenty years, and for just the second time in more than seventy-five years.

♫ The end of an era
One starts anew ♫

Rangers Announce Development Camp Roster

The Rangers have announced their 2017 development camp roster. All of the 2017 selections will be in attendance as well as recent free agent signings such as Neal Pionk and Alexei Beregelazov.

A notable omission from the roster is Russian left wing Vladimir Tkachyov who was reported to have agreed to attend the camp back in late April. Tkachyov is a talented playmaker for Admiral Vladivostok of the KHL who spent some time in North America playing in the QMJHL.

Invites to the camp include Colt Conrad, a talented center for Western Michigan University that has struggled to produce, Joseph Snively, an undersized but talented winger that has produced at all levels of play thus far, and Andrew Oglevie, who is coming off of a breakout season for Notre Dame.

Rangers Go Over-Age in Rounds 2-7

After making two reach selections in the first round with Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, the Rangers continued their string of odd choices by first moving back in the fourth round from pick 102 to acquire the 123rd and 174th picks from San Jose.

With that, the Rangers made their first selection of Day Two with Brandon Crawley of the OHL’s London Knights. The Glen Rock, New Jersey native was a strange selection for the fourth round given that this was his third time eligible for the draft. He brings grit and a heavy slapshot but offers little in the way of offense. His skating should be of moderate concern as he goes on to play at higher levels. If anything, Crawley was a huge reach by the Rangers to try and add a large defenseman that doesn’t really fit the current NHL.

Following Crawley, the Rangers selected yet another defenseman, this time from Division I in Sweden. Calle Själin, the 145th pick, is a puck-moving defenseman who spent most of 2016-17 with his local club, Östersunds IK. He’s a smart player who knows how to consistently distribute the puck well. He doesn’t offer any type of flash to his game and would benefit from adjusting his game to use his size to his advantage. Själin might find his way to the NHL if he can bring more of a two-way game and take his skating to another level.

Using the 157th pick, the Rangers selected yet another over-ager with winger Dominik Lakatos of the Czech Extraliga. The 20-year-old Czech plays for Bili Tygri Liberec, the team coach by development camp coaching invite Filip Pesan.

Morgan Barron of St. Andrew’s College, part of the Canadian High School system, would be the 174th pick. The speedy forward is committed to Cornell and will likely develop his game for the full years while there. He offers much in the way of physical tools between his skating and strength but needs to develop his actual skills if he wants to make it professionally.

With their final pick, the New York Rangers selected Patrik Virta of TPS in the Finnish Liiga. A 21-year-old over-ager who produced 26 points in 49 games during the 2016-17 season. Virta is a teammate of Tarmo Reunanen, the Rangers fourth round selection in 2016.

Report: Rangers Hiring Lindy Ruff as Assistant Coach

Early in the afternoon during Day Two of the NHL Entry Draft, the New York Rangers have made news again. This time, according to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, it’s the expected announcement that Lindy Ruff will join Alain Vigneault’s coaching staff where he’s set to take over “in charge of defense, plus”.

Ruff spent the last four seasons coaching the Dallas Stars but failed to qualify twice in that span, leading to his eventual departure as his contract expired at the end of this past season.

Entering his twentieth year coaching behind an NHL bench, Ruff has amassed 736 wins in 1493 games. He is fifth all-time in wins behind Ken Hitchcock, Al Arbour, Joel Quenneville, and Scotty Bowman.

There are a number of interesting aspects to this hire. Among them:

  1. The 2018 Winter Classic, where the Rangers are slated to play the Sabres at Citi Field, would see Ruff pit against the club he coached for fifteen years prior to joining the Stars.
  2. Chris Drury, who was recently promoted to Assistant General Manger with the New York Rangers, and General Manager of their AHL Affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack, co-captained Ruff’s Sabres in 2006 and 2007. One has to think he had quite a bit of influence on this decision.
  3. Upon the initial rumors that the Rangers had an interest in Ruff, fans theorized that this hire may put pressure on Alain Vigneault. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman poured a bit of cold water on that, though, while reporting from the floor of the Draft noting that he did not believe that was a factor in the situation.

Meanwhile, Beaukeboom, as Brooks reported, is expected to join the Rangers scouting staff where he’ll work alongside Steve Eminger, Rick Kehoe, Gilles Leger, and Justin Sather.

Rangers Select [F] Filip Chytil with 21st Overall Pick

With the 21st overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Rangers select Filip Chytil from HC Zlin of the Czech Extraliga.

Chytil is a talented two-way winger with high offensive potential. One of the youngest players available in the draft, he brings an exceptionally speedy game that sees him using him making offensive plays on the go. His combination of both his speed and hands make him an offensive threat anytime he’s on the move. The young Czech’s stickwork absolutely makes him a threat. Despite being more a team first player, Chytil possesses the ability to release a hard wrist shot that is also relatively accurate.

Chytil doesn’t have the highest ceiling, but his offensive skills are certainly intriguing. He projects largely as a middle-six player.

Rangers Select [F] Lias Andersson with 7th Overall Pick

With the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Rangers select Lias Andersson from HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League.

Andersson is known as being a strong two-way forward with offensive potential. While not being a very large player at 6’0″ and 200 lbs, he uses his body to his advantage to control puck possession. His skating is improving though it does not impede his overall play. Andersson sees the ice very well and is very good at distributing the puck. He has a shot that isn’t overtly deadly, but very much capable of beating goaltenders. He’s more capable of producing offense by working his way into the dirty areas.

The Swede is a very low-risk pick for the New York Rangers given his style of play. He’s very disciplined and his two-way game will allow him to transition very nicely to NHL play. He projects as a middle six forward that can play in all situations and his likelihood of playing in the NHL is higher than some of the other players eligible. Andersson would be eligible to play in Hartford during the 2017-18 season should he choose to.

Dreger: "Hearing the NYR may also trade up..."

The Rangers continue to make news hours before the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, this time with the rumor that they might be looking to move up in the draft.

As it stands, the Rangers hold the 7th and 21st overall picks in the first round of the draft.

Despite the fact that this draft lacks a massive amount of top-end talent, the Rangers are looking to inject any amount of skill into their system. A potential target could be smooth skating defenseman Cale Makar, the Calgary, Alberta native who scored 24 goals and 51 assists in 54 games with the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL in 2017. He is committed to University of Massachusetts – Amherst next season.

Another possible target could be Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen who scored 5 goals and 5 assists in 37 games in Finland’s top league, Liiga.

One other thing to note is that Dreger said the Rangers are looking to move up, but he didn’t say where they’re looking to move up from. Keep in mind they also have the 21st pick in the draft, so the Rangers might be also looking to get between 7th and 21st to get a player they have their eye on. As Dreger states in his Tweet, there are a lot of moving parts. Stay tuned. We’re two hours from the draft at this point and the action is sure to pick up.

Rangers Trade Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona for 2017 7th Overall Pick and Anthony DeAngelo

The rumors of Derek Stepan being on the trading block have dominated the Rangers’ off-season thus far. On Friday, the day of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, those rumors came to fruition as Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta were traded to the Arizona Coyotes for the 7th overall pick in the the draft and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.

There’s a lot to process with this trade what with two fan and locker room favorites in Stepan and Raanta leaving the team.

First and foremost, assuming the Rangers don’t trade the 7th overall draft pick, they will be picking the highest they have since 2004 when they drafted Al Montoya 6th overall. Also, they now have two draft picks (the other being 21st overall) in the first round, which is pretty significant since they haven’t drafted in the first round at all since 2012.

Second, Anthony DeAngelo is a right-handed defenseman who was originally drafted 19th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning. In his 39 game rookie campaign with the Arizona Coyotes, he had 5 goals and 9 assists. He possesses the ability to produce offense on the back end through his superior vision and passing. He will be a boon to the Rangers powerplay.

Finally, losing Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta gives the Rangers $20 million in cap space right now with another $3 million becoming available if Kevin Klein retires. In addition, the loss of Stepan puts more holes in the Rangers’ center depth as this latest development compounds on the loss of Oscar Lindberg to the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. The Rangers will look to utilize their newfound cap space to fill the holes at center, shore up their defense, and find a suitable backup goaltender for the upcoming 2017-2018 season.