As Sellers, Rangers Must be Patient and Embrace the Rebuild

There’s no longer any minutiae about whether or not the New York Rangers are going to be sellers at this year’s trade deadline. Admittedly, I’m one of the last adopters of the approach since, with a drearily weak Eastern Conference and a position in the playoffs, it was too early to forfeit this year at any point before the emotionless loss to Toronto. The players have packed it in, shown little battle, and decimated any hope of title contention this year. But this year’s trade deadline should be the start of New York’s rebuild, not the denouement.

Through April, assuming their Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs), at the least, are traded off, this is a tank roster, and that should, ultimately, be the goal for the rest of the year. If that’s the case, then Jeff Gorton & Co. must understand that there won’t be an immediate return and embrace a full rebuild next year as well. Tearing it down means not contending until at least 2020, as no return of picks and prospects will immediately bring back the influx of NHL-ready talent this team needs.

A full sell (see also; rebuild) means also trading Ryan McDonagh. The captain is on a team-friendly deal that ends after next season, and will, without a doubt, bring a massive return. Speculating on where he could end up or what the return will be is a bit of a fool’s errand, though there are certainly a handful of teams that make sense. The leader, for now, seems to be Tampa Bay, as general manager Steve Yzerman will likely be bullish with his squad set to enter the playoffs as the Eastern Conference favorite.

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But trading McDonagh won’t be an easy task, and his value will fluctuate around the league. As TSN’s Travis Yost notes, “It’s not easy, and it could make this one of the more complicated trade deadline deals of 2017-18. McDonagh is clearly a strong and capable player off the puck. But how do you weigh shaky team performance and limited individual offensive production against truly brutal deployment – both in terms of teammate quality and the mere fact that so much of his time is spent playing against the opposition’s best in unfavourable situations? It will be fascinating to see what a team does pay if a trade materializes. There’s clearly a market for him. The question now is how high the price will go.”

Regardless of the return, especially since it will be geared towards the future, the Rangers’ defense-corps will be too thin to seriously contend next year. There is a world where Brady Skjei embraces the lead role, Anthony DeAngelo becomes reliable, Kevin Shattenkirk leads a top power play unit, Brendan Smith regains the form he showcased last season to earn his new contract, and where one of Neal Pionk, Ryan Graves, or Alexei Bereglazov turns into a legitimate NHL player to fill out the top six. But, boy, that’s a lot of what-ifs.

The smart bet is to embrace a rebuild next season and add another top pick to the cupboard. There’s a dangerous precedent for teams who think they’re closer than they really are and end up costing themselves in the long run. Short-term thinking can hinder long-term results, and the Blueshirts’ Winter Classic opponent—the Buffalo Sabres—are a prime example.

After tanking 2014-15 and drafting Jack Eichel—who, as an aside, is wildly underrated outside of upstate New York—Buffalo management also made blockbuster moves to acquire Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly. While both are good players, their acquisitions are the embodiment of the “rebuild on the fly” term that Gorton used when Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta were shipped out of New York. To be blunt, it has been an unequivocal failure, and the Sabres are just as far from playoff contention as they were in 2014.

Without getting into too many specifics in the assets the Sabres cost themselves with these acquisitions, let’s ask, simply, how much better would they be right now with Tyler Myers, Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher, and another first- and a second-round pick in their lineup? Plus, as they were marginally better in their first year with Eichel complimented by O’Reilly and Kane, Buffalo missed out on the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.

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A one-two combination of Eichel and Matthews at center could have given Buffalo the most dynamic tandem in the league and, even if forced to take a consolation prize, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, Clayton Keller and Matthew Tkachuk could all have been quality running mates. A top-six in 2018 that features Jason Pominville and Benoit Pouliot is laughable, but Buffalo pushed themselves thereby rushing to contention.

Buffalo provides a case study on how shortcuts to rebuilding don’t make you a contender faster and, for the Sabres, it’s been a dreadful setback. There’s little evidence to suggest that Gorton is committed to bringing in any veteran players who will have an immediate impact next year, but he’d be wise to look north before pushing the Rangers towards contention too quickly.

The antithesis of Buffalo’s approach, of course, is Toronto, who judiciously sold and put themselves in position to draft Matthews. The foundation of the “Shanaplan,” implemented when Brendan Shanahan was named Toronto’s president, was to part ways with expensive veterans and embrace youth, even if it meant short-term losing. This meant trading Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and David Clarkson, amongst others while allowing the core to develop through the draft, rather than free agency or trades. The Maple Leafs’ inverse trajectory of the Sabres should serve as a benchmark for Gorton, moving forward.

Gorton, today, has a head start on the full rebuild as this season, other than a good run of games after Halloween, has been marred by injuries and a lack of compete level needed to compensate for them. There’s been very little for the Rangers to hang their hat on, other than All-Star Henrik Lundqvist’s play, so choosing to sell is easy.

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On top of that, in addition to last year’s two first-round picks (Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil), UFAs Rick Nash and Michael Grabner should net two more, giving the Rangers three opening-round selections this year for a total of five in two years. With a deep 2018 class, this is the foundation to build sustainable success and the depth required to contend consistently without mortgaging the future.

And that’s not all the ammo that Gorton has, as he seems ready to let his team freefall.

“Quite frankly, the word rebuild is finally being used with the Rangers.” Bob McKenzie said. “General Manager Jeff Gorton is going to be listening on everybody, there are no untouchables on the New York Rangers.

Fan-favorite winger Mats Zuccarello, who could bring in a similar haul as Nash, and pending UFA Nick Holden, who probably has more value than Rangers’ fans like to admit, will be likely targets for contenders and could be moved at the deadline to provide further draft ammo. But, certainly, they’re just at the beginning of the list.

McKenzie goes on to specifically mention J.T. Miller, whose performance this year has been as puzzling as it is productive, even if his development has been somewhat stunted by being moved from wing to center and back ad nauseum. In some ways, he is the embodiment of the inconsistency—both in engagement and production—that has driven the Blueshirts’ to this point. With a substantial raise coming and his value still high, he could bring a nice return. Perhaps he could be part of a draft-day package that allows the Rangers to move into the top five of the draft and select a premium player who can single-handedly move the needle.

Until trades are finalized, it won’t be possible to measure the full scale of the Rangers’ rebuild and, more than likely, the deadline will just be the start of a fire sale. But while we won’t be able to measure the full return for two years, at the earliest, New York brass will need to stay patient and understand that, next year, a lottery pick will do more to build a contender than an expensive acquisition will.

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