It’s scary to stare mediocrity in the face. Once you realize you inhabit a grey space between success and failure, you can’t block it out.
Imagine feeling that in the pit of your stomach as a GM in the winter of 2018, when the blueprint for winning in the NHL was to be astoundingly bad, then astoundingly good. Eight of the previous nine Stanley Cups belonged to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings. They tanked, loaded up on top-notch draft picks and constructed towering championship squads, riding top-heavy rosters of highly paid stars. And the cycle was continuing. The Buffalo Sabres were in the process of rappelling down the standings to eventually draft breathtakingly talented defenseman Rasmus Dahlin first overall, while two former laughingstocks, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, had been bad enough long enough to accumulate critical masses of talent. They’d ascended to take their turns as juggernauts-to-be.
Any team caught between the polar-opposite identities of great and terrible was dead. That icy bucket of truth splashed across the faces of New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, president Glen Sather and owner James Dolan in the weeks leading up to the 2018 trade deadline. The franchise had enjoyed an extended run as a powerhouse, reaching the 2014 Stanley Cup final, winning the 2015 Presidents’ Trophy and coming within a victory of reaching a second straight Cup final in 2015. But 2016 and 2017 yielded third- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, in the Metropolitan Division, with playoff exits in the first and second round. By the middle of 2017-18, the Rangers’ grip on a post-season rung was buttery at best.
This team had no stars, let alone superstars, a future Hall of Fame goalie in his mid-30s and a malnourished prospect tree after trading so many draft picks in the name of win-now strategizing. The Rangers’ farm system regularly ranked among the league’s weakest according to The Hockey News’ panel of NHL executives and scouts in Future Watch. The long-term forecast looked tempestuous. “As the season was evolving, it was becoming clearer and clearer that we were going to fight for eighth, and how good were we, really?” Gorton said. “How legitimate were we? Did we think our team was as good as we were in the past?
“We kept coming back to: ‘No.’ ”
The hard part was over. Denial became acceptance. It was time for Gorton, Sather and Dolan to pen The Letter.
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Dolan, who also owns the soap opera that is the NBA’s New York Knicks, had written publicly to his fan base many times before. But few teams had done it in hockey before Dolan, Gorton and Sather put their heads together. They published the 341-word pledge on Feb. 8, 2018, with the Rangers grinding out a .509 points percentage at the time, their lowest since 2003-04. “As a member of the Blueshirt Faithful, we consider you a part of the New York Rangers family and always want to ensure we share important news about the organization directly with you,” the letter began. “Today, we want to talk to you about the future.”
The mini-manifesto’s most important takeaway was that, with the trade deadline approaching, the Rangers announced a commitment to “adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character.” It was a progressive statement from a franchise long known for hurling briefcases of cash at the priciest veteran free agents available, from Theo Fleury to Bobby Holik to Scott Gomez to Chris Drury to Kevin Shattenkirk. From 2013 through 2016, the Rangers had gone four drafts without a first-round pick. They were finally ready to adopt the modern game plan for success in the NHL.
The letter was, by most accounts, well received by the fans. “When you try to fool fans, and people are paying big money for season tickets, they’re disappointed,” said one NHL team executive, “but if you’re up front and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ fans feel they’re part of the rebuild, they’re part of the process. So I really liked the letter.”
The Rangers are an Original Six team, armed with a knowledgeable fan base more likely to digest a rebuild than fair-weather, non-traditional markets would. Another old-school fan base that gladly accepted a scorched-earth makeover a few years back: Toronto’s. President Brendan Shanahan gutted every corner of the Maple Leafs organization to build the team in a manner rarely if ever done before in its century-long history: the slow-burn, pick-and-prospect route. Gorton paid attention to templates like that when deciding how to reconstruct the Rangers. “There’s no question we looked at other teams around the league and how they were doing it,” Gorton said. “I don’t think it’s a big secret here if you look back at how the Stanley Cup winners over the last 20 years have done it. Almost all of them have been lottery teams. It’s a hard thing to win the Cup without going down to the bottom. We’re studying all these teams. We’re trying to get as many assets as we can without necessarily going to the bottom. If you look through, you’ll find many teams that had at least a first or a third overall pick, that got lucky and turned it around with a player of that caliber.”
The plan was clear, then: nuke the roster, ship out veteran assets and stockpile young talent. But where to start?
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Truth: the rebuild didn’t begin with The Letter. It’s just more romantic to pretend it did. By Gorton’s estimation, the Rangers’ philosophical shift began June 23, 2017, a.k.a. NHL draft day. Gorton dealt scoring center Derek Stepan, a veteran of 515 regular-season games and 97 playoff games, and goalie Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes for post-hype prospect defenseman Tony DeAngelo and Arizona’s first-round pick. With that, The Team That Never Has Draft Picks got to pick twice in Round 1, using the Coyotes’ selection and its own first-rounder to take centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil seventh and 21st overall. “When you go four years with no first-round pick, you’re not getting to walk up on stage, and now you’re getting that adrenaline rush of getting a player in the first round,” Gorton said. “It’s a coveted thing.”
After one day – heck, one hour – the Rangers forged a high-end prospect pipeline up the middle. Factoring in the 2016 acquisition of center Mika Zibanejad in the Derick Brassard trade with Ottawa, too, New York suddenly owned a modest cluster of legitimate young forward talent.
Eight months after the 2017 draft came The Letter, and Gorton wasted no time backing it up. Less than three weeks after publishing it, he sent pending UFA left winger Rick Nash to the Boston Bruins for a package including a 2018 first-rounder plus two-way defense prospect Ryan Lindgren. On deadline day came arguably the most significant trade of this team’s rebirth: captain Ryan McDonagh, long the Rangers’ best defenseman, and big, scoring left winger J.T. Miller went to the Tampa Bay Lightning, netting New York another 2018 first-rounder, prospect blueliner Libor Hajek, prospect pivot Brett Howden and an established NHL forward in Vladislav Namestnikov.
So New York’s three first-round picks in 2018 accompanied the two in 2017. This time, the Rangers nabbed tantalizing Russian right winger Vitali Kravtsov, hulking ‘D’ specimen K’Andre Miller and smooth, puck-moving blueliner Nils Lundkvist. That’s five first-round picks in a two-year stretch. Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ director of player personnel and head scout, was giddy. “We all know picking in the first, second and third round is usually where you make your hay, and we just hadn’t been there and had nothing to show for it,” Clark said. “We lucked out with Pavel Buchnevich and Anthony Duclair in the (2013) third round who were able to play, but we had no firsts and sometimes no seconds or thirds.”
Clark isn’t exaggerating. From 2013 through 2016, the Rangers had two picks in the first two rounds across four drafts. From 2017 through the upcoming 2019 draft: 11 picks in the first two rounds across three drafts.
Trading UFA center Kevin Hayes at the 2019 deadline yielded a second 2019 first-round pick plus NHL-ready agitator Brendan Lemieux, so the Rangers will have, at minimum, seven first-round picks in a three-draft stretch. Two of their recently acquired second-rounders carry conditions that could morph them into first-round picks. Tampa Bay would have to win the 2019 Stanley Cup, and Dallas would have to make the 2019 Western Conference final with Mats Zuccarello playing 50 percent of the games in Rounds 1 and 2. That means New York could have as many as four first-rounders in 2019 and nine over a span of three drafts.
The Future Watch grades, understandably, had not been kind in recent seasons to a Rangers organization perpetually in go-for-it mode. Its rankings from 2013 to 2017: 23rd, 30th, 24th, 30th and 29th. Last season saw a spike back to 24th. But in 2019: try 11th. That’s the highest finish for the Rangers’ 21-and-younger prospect crop since 2010, when their harvest included Stepan, McDonagh and Chris Kreider. Of New York’s top 10 prospects not in the NHL by March 2019, eight have been acquired since the 2017 draft, and that doesn’t include Chytil, Howden or Lemieux at the NHL level. This is how you rebuild in a hurry. “They’ve made good choices,” said another NHL team executive. “That’s really improved their standing as far as teams and their prospects coming up and the grade that they would be given.”
So is it that easy? Line up all the kids, give them a shove, and watch them do what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar did? No way. The Rangers have the right plan, but executing it properly is the next challenge. While they’ve done a great job hoarding youth, they haven’t scored one of those can’t-miss, top-three draft slots Gorton referred to. That has put more pressure on Gorton to acquire and for Clark to pick the right players.
So who are the Rangers’ long-term pillars, and what will this team’s identity be a few years from now?
Zibanejad, 25, has exploded into point-per-game production and strengthened his grip on the No. 1 center job for the foreseeable future. The presence of Andersson, Chytil and Howden gives New York the potential to become beastly down the middle, which Clark says is a new mandate from the top of the organization. Chosen 14 picks apart, Andersson and Chytil often get compared to one another, but Clark sees them as very different players. “Lias is leadership,” said Clark, noting that wherever Andersson has played, from the Swedish world junior squad (yes, despite the medal toss. Get over it, people) to HV71 of the Swedish League to AHL Hartford, he’s looked like a rally-the-troops type with heady two-way skills. Chytil is the flashier, more dynamic offensive talent, capable of jaw-dropping dangles. He managed to stick with the Rangers this season, notching double-digits in goals as a rookie.
The Rangers’ crown jewel, however, is Kravtsov. Though he’s a winger, Clark compares him to Evgeny Kuznetsov in skill and no-nonsense personality. “He’s going to be a top-line player,” Clark said. “Everybody’s got all their analytics over here, and in leagues over there, this guy was basically next to Evgeni Malkin as far as what he was doing at his age in the KHL. You match up the guys, and Kuznetsov is the closest I can come to the type of person Kravtsov is. Kuznetsov was a great kid to talk to back then in the draft year with him. Sort of the way that he plays…it’s high-skilled.”
The difference with Kravtsov, Clark says, is being drafted into a rebuild whereas Kuznetsov was adopted by a perennial contender. There was less of an onus for Washington to bring him over from the KHL quickly. He had a lot of weight to gain. It makes sense to bring Kravtsov, on the other hand, to the AHL to develop with the other Rangers kids sooner. If you wonder, “He’s like Kuznetsov, so does that mean he’ll re-sign in the KHL for several more seasons?” Don’t. The Rangers are confident they’ll have their prized youngster in North America by 2019-20 – maybe even sooner depending on how deep his KHL club, Traktor Chelyabinsk, goes in the 2019 playoffs.
There’s obviously reason for the ‘Blueshirt Faithful’ to feel excited about the seasons to come. That doesn’t guarantee success, though. For every Pittsburgh or Chicago, there’s an Arizona, a team that piles up exciting on-paper prospect lists year after year yet struggles to sculpt an NHL contender. Even a rebuild loaded with plum draft slots and prospect trades has pitfalls. “What happened in Arizona and could happen to Ottawa, you have an influx of all good young players, but the issue you have is they’re not staggered,” said an NHL team exec. “They’re roughly the same age group, and the problem with that is everybody’s contracts are turning up at the same time, and you have no leadership, because you have so many good (young) players that they outnumber the older players, and the older players you get aren’t very good. And the problem with that is, it’s almost like…you’re good (on paper), but you suck, and because you suck, there’s that bad karma floating around. You’re getting hammered every night. You’re going through coaches.”
That’s what makes Gorton’s mission much more complicated than it may appear. It’s not as simple as asking all his most valuable veteran players to stand on the X while he readies his finger on the trap-door button. Even rebuilding teams need some greybeards or prime-year contributors to mentor the next generation. That’s why, despite cashing in UFAs Hayes and Zuccarello at the 2019 deadline, dealing highly coveted left winger Kreider was no foregone conclusion. If Kreider, scheduled to become a UFA in 2020, doesn’t sign an extension this summer, he’ll be a talked-up rental next year, too. It’ll be tempting to deal him for a glorious pick-and-prospect buffet, but Gorton will have to find a balance on his roster, surrounding the kids with seasoned help. “I look up to older guys, asking them how they recover after games, and they’ve helped me a lot,” Chytil said. “This is the best league in the world. It depends on every detail on the ice. I’m still learning, and it’s great that the older guys help me.”
So maybe that means the Rangers hold on to Kreider or blueliner Shattenkirk or, of course, Henrik Lundqvist. Their legendary No. 1 goalie has had opportunities to waive his no-movement clause but prefers to be part of the transition in Manhattan. The organization does have a netminding succession plan in place. Clark is particularly excited about Igor Shestyorkin, who routinely tosses up video-game numbers in the KHL, and Adam Huska, a standout with the University of Connecticut. We should see one or both in the AHL soon, and the Rangers also believe they snagged a future No. 1 NHL netminder in Olof Lindbom at 39th overall in 2018. Clark and the scouting staff insist they can never have enough goalies in the system. With such a big group of high-ceiling goalie prospects, there’s a strong chance one takes the torch from Lundqvist someday. He’s 37 but has two seasons left on his contract after this one. The Rangers see him as a classy elder statesman comfortable tutoring up-and-comers. Clark points out that Cam Talbot, Raanta and, now, Alexandar Georgiev have all posted strong numbers as Lundqvist’s understudies.
The Rangers, then, think they have the right mix of blue-chip youngsters and sage wisdom going forward. The next key piece of Gorton’s rebuild: adding a coach suited to this phase. Alain Vigneault was an accomplished bench boss, ranking 12th all-time with 648 victories, but he was at the stage of his career in which he was chasing that elusive first championship. The team’s window had closed for the time being. David Quinn, hired in the off-season from a massively successful Boston University program, was a replacement fit to shepherd a greener flock. “We wanted a guy that had a lot of experience with young players, with real good young players, with today’s athlete and how they think and how they work and what makes them go,” Gorton said. “With his communication skills dealing with those players and his background working in the U.S. program and BU and having the pro experience of assistant coach and head coach in the minors, we felt he was really well rounded and checked all the boxes we needed to check. It’s been a really good fit for us.”
Gorton likes the idea of Quinn growing with the team, and there’s still a lot of that left to do, as Quinn’s honest post-game pressers suggest. It’s entirely possible the franchise hasn’t bottomed out in the standings quite yet. There will be more “seller” trades to come, the Rangers will sow more prospect seeds this June, and we may see the team earn a top-five grade in Future Watch 2020. It also might take multiple seasons to get playoff hockey back at Madison Square Garden.
But with the Crosby and Alex Ovechkin eras not done yet in Pittsburgh and Washington, and the two superstars combining for the past three Stanley Cups, it would be the wrong time for New York to rise up in the Metro Division anyway. This group is better off peaking just as the division’s other alphas fade in a few years. By then, we might see the Rangers rewarded for swallowing their pride and accepting that mediocrity was unacceptable.