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Gotham Needs a Hero: Will Jeff Gorton Save the City, and the Rangers?

New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton and New York Rangers Director, European Scouting Nickolai Bobrov  (Getty Images/ Bruce Bennett)

New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton and New York Rangers Director, European Scouting Nickolai Bobrov (Getty Images/ Bruce Bennett)

 

Billy Joel isn’t the only one who has seen the lights go out on Broadway.  This past season, all of Rangertown witnessed the bright lights of the big city dim to darkness as the New York Rangers suffered an early first-round exit from the playoffs.  The last time the Blueshirts missed the postseason was the 2009-10 season where they lost the final game against the Flyers in a do-or-die shootout.

Glenn “Slats” Sather then spent the next few seasons firing John Tortorella, hiring Alain Vigneault, beefing up the roster, and mortgaging the future of the franchise to go all-in, splashing the pot, for the chance to win the Stanley Cup in 2014 and 2015.  He knew Martin St. Louis was bound to retire.  He knew Ryan Callahan wasn’t going to lead them to the promise-land holding a gun to his head asking for more money (yet still signing for less in Tampa Bay).  He knew there was a chance Keith Yandle would sign elsewhere upon becoming a free agent (luckily, Gorton traded him to Florida instead of letting him walk).  But Sather could not have possibly known two things: the first, that Rick Nash would not perform in the postseason the same way he would in the regular season; and the second, that Mats Zuccarello would be almost killed in the first round, essentially killing the Rangers’ chances of making it back to the Finals in 2015 after losing to the Kings in 2014.

The Rangers came out of the gate this past season in a sprint, going 17-6-2 through October and November.  And then the troubles began.  Kevin Klein would sit out of action for just about all of December.  Derek Stepan would miss ten games starting with the last two in November and another eight into December.  Dan Girardi would miss five games in the heart of December.  Rick Nash missed the end of January through mid-March (ironically, the Rangers had their best month in February, going 10-3-1 for 21 points).  Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta could no longer mask the defensive troubles the Rangers faced in the first two months.  Whereas Marc Staal and Dan Girardi were thought of as the Rangers’ best shut-down defensemen, it was turnovers galore.  While Marc Staal picked his game up in the second half, the defensive squad as a whole was largely inconsistent.  Call it injuries.  Call it fatigue from playing so much postseason hockey.  Call it whatever you want.  The bottom line is, it was as if the New York Rangers had forgotten how to play defense.  The transition game was not up to par.  Even when the Rangers gained possession in their own zone, they had too much trouble breaking out of the zone, leading to turnovers and, far too often, subsequent goals.  And although Keith Yandle was a huge help on offense, posting 47 points, he is far from exempt from liability for the defensive breakdowns that occurred all season.  The Rangers just could not get out of their own way this season.

What gives?  Could it be injuries to key defenseman?  Injuries to perhaps the Rangers’ best two-way forward Derek Stepan?  Had time finally caught up to the players who were left over from the Tortorella-style of shot-blocking?  Can you guess what I’m about to say?  Yes, I believe it was a combination of all of the above.  For years, the Rangers defense had prided itself on being amongst the best in the league.  They were blocking shots left and right.  They played a tough game in the back end.  I honestly thought Dan Girardi was a cyborg for a while – there’s no way he was human.  Since 2007-08, his first full season with the Rangers, Girardi had only missed a maximum of two games per season.  This season, he missed eight.  He’s only 32-years old, but time withers down even the tallest of buildings…

Now, Jeff Gorton is tasked with picking up the pieces after this year’s crash and burn.  Gorton is doing his best to not only maintain the Rangers as legitimate playoff contenders, but also prepare for the future while remaining compliant with the salary cap.  While the rest of the NHL scrambled on July 1 to sign all the best available free agents, Gorton stood on top of the hill, watching the battle from above, venturing down intermittently to grab Grabner, clasp onto Clendening, and throw Nathan Gerbe over his shoulders to retreat.  There just wasn’t any cap room to sign any of the big free agents like David Backes, Kyle Okposo, Steven Stamkos, etc.

Then Gorton shocked Rangers fans when he dealt the most consistent Ranger all season in Derek Brassard for a young kid in Mika Zibanejad.  Mika is younger, bigger, better on the draw, cheaper, and has achieved similar point totals to Brassard, all the while trending upwards.  The only downside is his apparent lack of effort and inconsistency at times.  Perhaps Mika will follow the path of JT Miller and let maturity take over.

Michal Grabner will add his speed and penalty killing expertise to a Rangers team that surely misses Carl Hagelin.  Nathan Gerbe will look to reinvigorate his game before he turns 30 next July.  Adam Clendening will look to make a good impression at training camp, battling with Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei, and Nick Holden for the final two defensive spots on the roster.

But through all the shuffling, wheeling, and dealing, perhaps Gorton’s most underrated move went noticed – drafting Robin Kovacs of AIK (Allsvenskan) 62nd overall (3rd round) in the summer of 2015 and subsequently signing Kovacs to an entry-level contract this summer.  No, he’s not Pavel Buchnevich.  But, Kovacs, 19, standing 6’0” and weighing just under 180 lbs., has been awarded AIK’s top prospect award two years in a row.  In 44 games played this past season for AIK, Kovacs buried 21 and had 13 helpers (34 points).  He’ll probably spend some time in Hartford putting on a few pounds and refining his game before he sees any NHL action.  Until then, he’ll spend September at training camp acclimating himself with the Rangers organization.

So yes, Rangers fans, the lights did go out on Broadway.  But where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and I smell something burning.  Time will tell whether that scent is the remnants of the crash or a quiet ignition.  But for now, if the Rangers want to get back to being true playoff contenders, I’ll go ahead and put on my Don Cherry hat:

First and foremost, Rick Nash needs to return or come close to previous regular season form.  I’m not expecting another 40+ goal season, but 25 would be nice.  Nash is on the wrong side of 30 and will inevitably keep declining.  But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a real threat; he can still play defense and kill penalties effectively.  But he must learn to use his size and speed again on offense.  He may not be Alexander Ovechkin, but he’s still Rick Nash.

Chris Kreider needs to finally break into elite status.  He’s got tremendous size and speed that he must utilize.  His Modus Operandi of streaking up the wing into a breakaway will not result in 30 goals this season.  He needs to crash the net, fight for loose pucks, and bury some garbage.  A snipe here and there would be nice too.  Kreider said he is on a “mission” this season.  I believe the Kreidy-man can.

If Pavel Buchnevich cracks the main roster this season, he must net at least 15 goals and 30 assists.  I believe he can hit the 30-assist threshold, but he must utilize his speed to beat defenders to pucks and create chances.

Mats Zuccarello must continue his 60+ point trend.  For a guy his size, it’s truly unbelievable what he has accomplished after coming face-to-face with death in 2015.  But if anyone is up for the task, it’s The Hobbit.

Kevin Hayes suffered what I’ve chalked up to be the Sophomore slump this past season.  The former Screaming Eagle must use his size to his advantage to create a screen for opposing goalies and recover loose pucks on rebounds.  Hayes needs to get dirty.  Perhaps he should watch some old tapes of his older cousin, Keith Tkachuk…

If Brady Skjei makes the main roster, which I’m positive he will, he must play the role of puck-moving defenseman.  It’s sad to say but in the series against the Penguins, he was one of the best defensemen for the Rangers, making sound passes and playing reliable defense (probably because he was the only healthy one). The pool to judge his performance on is still too small, so hopefully it wasn’t just a fluke.  Skjei is a 6’3”, 206-pound defenseman who needs to play a more physical game.  But the kid has some real potential to be a valuable mainstay not only 5-on-5, but especially on the man-advantage as well.

Henrik Lundqvist cannot start more than 65 games next season, which is exactly how many he played in the 2015-16 campaign.  The season is way too long, especially for a goaltender at the ripe age of 34. The Rangers will call on the King to steal a few games here and there, just as he has always done.  But this time, Hank must be provided with support.  A king will not win without an army.

Perhaps an early exit in April was a blessing in disguise for the Rangers blueliners.  Girardi, Staal, McDonagh, and Klein experienced an elongated offseason, at least by their standards.  Ryan McDonagh will be participating in the World Cup in September.  Nevertheless, the added rest and recovery time might do them much good.  The immediate future rests (no pun intended) in the health and well-being of these four.  If, by the trade deadline the Rangers are still far out of a playoff spot, expect to say your last goodbyes to Kevin Klein to a high-powered offensive team looking to upgrade its blue line at a cap-friendly cost to make a run at the Cup (preferably in the Western Conference).  Alternatively, we might see Klein shipped to a young team in desperate need of solid veterans at the point, such as Edmonton or maybe even Calgary, though the Flames already have Dennis Wideman and captain Mark Giordano playing that role.

Yes, this is a lot to expect out of a team.  But this is what it will take to give the Rangers the best chance possible to win the Stanley Cup.  Winning the Cup is the hardest thing to do in sports because once a team is in the playoffs, anything goes.

That was me being optimistic.  Here comes the pessimist (or realist, if you prefer a more neutral term): if most of what I said cannot be accomplished this season, the Rangers are looking at either squeaking into the playoffs with a wild card spot, or missing the playoffs altogether next spring.  Pittsburgh will remain playoff contenders, as well as the Capitals.  The Islanders, Devils, and Flyers are trending upwards.  Tampa Bay will come back stronger with their captain locked up.  The Panthers proved they belong in the postseason, and with the addition of Keith Yandle, they’re ready to make a serious run at the Cup in 2017.

So yes, Rangerstown witnessed the lights going out on Broadway.  For the sake of the Garden Faithful, hopefully it won’t be Panthers 2017.  There’s no way Billy Joel could have predicted this 40 years ago…or did he?

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Evan is the Hockey Editor for DoubleGSports.com. He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.
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