Rebuilding on the Fly Means the End of an Era

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
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 ♫

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