Rebuilding on the Fly Means the End of an Era

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor & Cofounder at ClearedForContact.com
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, the Oxford comma, and the value of white space.
Phil Kocher
@ me

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 ♫

27 comments

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  1. Giacomin
    I think the attempted trade (to #3 or #4) for Calle Makar, was mgmt taking a shot at getting the next Karlsson. They would have needed one of the top two picks to find that star center. We had some assets to get Makar and it still didn't work out.
    Zucs, Tanking to try and get a prospective superstar is not a solid strategy for all but a few teams in a few select circumstances. The lottery now requires even more luck. Given the Ranger's roster we are not in a position to completely tank for the foreseeable future.

    Two words: Rasmus Dahlin
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    Slobberknocker
    main problem with us is we don't have that elite guy. however we have a lot of youth right now that you can feel good about. I like what's been done so far. I'm looking forward to free agency. I just hope Gorton play's it smart and doesn't fall into the trap of trying to force anything.
    One thing that really stands out is how bereft of talent our lower clubs have been. Nice to see he is quietly trying to stockpile some youth for down the road.

    I think the attempted trade (to #3 or #4) for Calle Makar, was mgmt taking a shot at getting the next Karlsson. They would have needed one of the top two picks to find that star center. We had some assets to get Makar and it still didn't work out.
    Zucs, Tanking to try and get a prospective superstar is not a solid strategy for all but a few teams in a few select circumstances. The lottery now requires even more luck. Given the Ranger's roster we are not in a position to completely tank for the foreseeable future.
    main problem with us is we don't have that elite guy. however we have a lot of youth right now that you can feel good about. I like what's been done so far. I'm looking forward to free agency. I just hope Gorton play's it smart and doesn't fall into the trap of trying to force anything.
    One thing that really stands out is how bereft of talent our lower clubs have been. Nice to see he is quietly trying to stockpile some youth for down the road.
    I hope we can mark the end of this era with more like-minded moves and sell on some of these players while they still have value. I'm looking at Kreider and Miller who will demand a King's ransom on the market. For me, the book is out on those two and they're basically just basket cases who can't figure out how to put a professional game of hockey together, but have all the right tools to do it. Perfect candidates for the high sell, like how the Coyotes are now stuck with Stepan's NMC and we got infinitely younger because of it.
    Respecttheblue
    Sometimes you gotta zigzag -- 1994 was the end of Gartner, Amonte, Turcotte, Janssens, Broten, era. but other seeds were in place or about to arrive. They blew a 1992 president's trophy team up, but kept enough of the right stuff. Looks harder now, but
    I don't think it's necessarily a massive step backward, rather a course adjustment in an age where youth must be Better developed, cultivated and injected more regularly.
    Going from the shoulder of the mountain to the peak is harder, IMO, than the rest of the long journey, but I can find some optimism. As much as it looks like a train wreck.
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    What the cap does is make going out and getting talent way more expensive than developing it. High end players do not move until they are well past their primes spare some exceptions. And signing expensive free agents to fill holes opens up other holes. Puts a premium on draft picks and player development that simply while always important has become way more important under the cap.
    This season in this division is going to be very tough. Flyers, Isles and Devils have all improved, and Pens, Caps and CBJ are all still solid. Can't afford sleepwalking away points.
    ThirtyONE
    Rebuild isn't a step back, it's a step forward. This has needed to happen for two years. I can almost guarantee this team won't suck next season. They'll make moves and bring new people in here but the most important thing is that they get younger. Getting Two first round picks was a brilliant move. The "Rebuild" however, will only be completed when Hank is no longer the starter.

    Great post
    Agree 100 percent
    The "one player away" thinking is the surest road to future failure
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    Cash or Czech?
    Does rebuilding on the fly really work? Toronto did a "quick rebuild" that included three top draft picks that they all hit on, including a generational talent first overall.
    If we rebuild on the fly without truly tanking, we're accumulate good but not great talent. Then we'll probably end up back where we were three years ago. Close, but not enough talent to win it all.
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    This is what Im afraid of. We eventually will end up with the exact same team. We will have some 1st round talent, but not any top 5OA talent. Will be some Kreider's and Miller's and we will try again with almost the same shit in 5 years or so.
    If not suck so bad we end up a lottery team, we should try and make a huge trade and get a top 3 pick. Hayes, Zuc, Day, our 1st(+) and get our "go-to guy". I've been trying to say this for a while now, and it gets even more and more true with all the amazing talent coming through the last years, but you NEED a 1C leader on your team to win a Stanley Cup. Last 5-6 cup winners got it and Im pretty sure the next 5 will aswell (Penguins, Oilers, Hawks, Tampa as favorites)
    Another thought, if we start the season badly and we most likely won't make the playoffs (which could be realistic considering how good the Metropolitan is now) will we try and sell some players at the deadline? Nash as a rental could fetch a 1st rounder (especially if the Rangers are the buyers lol), maybe someone want Staal? or even Zucc(god no)?
    "oh if we tank, the fanbase won't tolerate it" Oh yea, WHICH FANBASE!?!?!? The ones who have suffered for how many years with only one Cup to show for it. Or are we talking about the "suits, yuppies & rich kunts" that could give a flying fokk about the Rangers much less hockey.
    Does rebuilding on the fly really work? Toronto did a "quick rebuild" that included three top draft picks that they all hit on, including a generational talent first overall.
    If we rebuild on the fly without truly tanking, we're accumulate good but not great talent. Then we'll probably end up back where we were three years ago. Close, but not enough talent to win it all.
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    Let's not get carried away here. You can also hear AV in an interview during the 21st pick stating something along the lines of "we made a change and free agency is right around the corner". Paraphrasing of course, but he pretty much says Stepan will be replaced through free agency.
    ThirtyONE
    On the fly means never finishing last. And I think that's as best we'll ever do -- which I'm okay with. I just mean the last of the "old guard" will probably be Hank. Once the Russian kid is here, I anticipate having a fuck load of cap space to play with.

    That's not what on the fly means IMO. It means rebuilding a team while remaining competitive. Teams that do this often still make the playoffs and compete for the Cup as best they can every season while the turnover, to whatever degree, is completed.
    Hank, I agree, is the linchpin to all of this. Once he's done playing, the Rangers have nothing standing in their way of rebuilding in any way they see fit.
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    Phil in Absentia
    The fact it happened in two separate seasons, albeit back-to-back, dispels the notion that it was obvious. It's not like the Rangers couldn't have bought out Girardi last summer and traded Stepan at last year's draft. They clearly wanted to give this core one more shot.
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    Okay but it doesn't mean it wasn't obvious. We talked about it here for how long already?
    #MakeBSBHGreatAgain
    Phil in Absentia
    That depends on the degree to the rebuild. The idea behind an "on the fly" attempt is to save time by remaining competitive as the turnover occurs. But it doesn't always work out that way.

    On the fly means never finishing last. And I think that's as best we'll ever do -- which I'm okay with. I just mean the last of the "old guard" will probably be Hank. Once the Russian kid is here, I anticipate having a fuck load of cap space to play with.