This generation’s New York Rangers have been poster children for the before-and-after of contending for a Stanley Cup for several years and mortgaging the future for the sake of the chase. Under previous GM Glen Sather, before Jeff Gorton took over, the Blueshirts shipped out their first round pick four straight years in the pursuit of Rick Nash, Martin St-Louis (he cost them two first-rounders) and Keith Yandle. They haven't picked in the first round since 2012, when they nabbed defenseman Brady Skjei.
There’s nothing wrong with what the Rangers brass decided to do. This team reached the Stanley Cup final in 2013-14 and won the Presidents' Trophy in 2014-15. New York was obviously close to winning it all, and it was important to take its big swing while Henrik Lundqvist remained an elite goaltender.
Still, the degree to which the Rangers plundered their farm system reached almost comical proportions in recent seasons. They didn’t pick until 81st at this year's draft in Buffalo. Their first selection in the draft has been, on average, 61.5 over the past four years. Our panel of NHL team executives and scouts ranked the Rangers’ prospect crop 30th among 30th teams in 2016, with just one youngster, Pavel Buchnevich, cracking the individual top 75 rankings.
When we hammered out our prognostications for the 2016-17 season a few weeks ago, we agreed the Rangers not only had a bare pantry, but that their window to contend was shrinking. Lundqvist is 34. Star scorer Rick Nash is 32 and has lost major time to injuries in two of his past three seasons. Dan Girardi, once a stalwart on defense, has regressed into one of the league’s worst regulars according to his advanced statistics. Dan Boyle is a Ranger no more. There were even whispers early this summer that Gorton might move stud blueliner Ryan McDonagh. Surely that would've signalled the end of these particular Rangers’ Cup-contending years.
But Gorton has stealthily started to change things over the past month. A team criticized for looking old and creaky has started to make itself over. None of Gorton’s moves felt epic when viewed individually, but lay them out on a table together, and you’ll find a pattern. He’s made his team younger and significantly raised its ceiling at the forward position.
For starters, we learned Buchnevich would leave the KHL and play in North America this season. Does he make the Rangers? It’s no guarantee, but he’s favored to. He’s a relatively mature rookie as a 21-year-old with four years of pro experience in Russia, and he’s praised for his playmaking ability and hockey sense.
Then came the Derick-Brassard-forMika Zibanejad trade. Brassard outplayed Derek Stepan and became the Blueshirts’ de facto No. 1 center over the past two seasons, but Brassard wasn’t going to get any better. He's 28. He’s a solid player, but he’s as good as he’ll ever be. Zibanejad, acquired straight up from the Ottawa Senators, isn’t done ascending. He brings good size, speed, skill and two-way acumen to the pivot position. He hasn’t taken off as a scorer the way many scouts thought he would when Ottawa picked him sixth overall in 2011, but his climb has been steady, from 1 to 20 to 33 to 46 to 51 points. He’s at worst a desirable No. 2 NHL center already, and he’s just 23, so he may become the Rangers’ long-term answer on the top line.
Then the Rangers, not the long-rumored Bruins or Maple Leafs or Blackhawks or Sabres, swooped in and nabbed Jimmy Vesey, the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner as hockey’s top college player. Vesey has become overhyped, no doubt, but he’s an intriguing prospect nonetheless. He’s a gifted scorer who climbed higher year to year than any other player in Future Watch 2016, going from unranked to 14th overall. He’s no guarantee to flourish, but there’s no debating his upside. He has two good mentors to learn from in Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, two of the NHL’s best NCAA imports over the past several seasons. Even if Vesey takes time to learn the pro game, he’s set up well to succeed.
Then Gorton struck Thursday with the sneakiest move of all, adding Brandon Pirri. He’s best known for his eye-popping “Cy Young” stat line of 22 goals and two assists in 2014-15 with the Florida Panthers, but he’s more than an answer to a trivia question. Pirri can score. He rarely gets enough ice time and opportunity to show his skills, but he’s one of the league’s more productive players on a per-minute basis. Think Kyle Palmieri before the Devils acquired him last season. He was always a 30-goal scorer but only needed top-six minutes to show everyone. Pirri may not get a plum assignment on a jammed Rangers depth chart, but he’s still a handy addition.
New York still has one of the league’s most barren prospect crops, and it has very few promising blueliners in the system, but Gorton deserves credit for recognizing that he needed to inject the franchise with some youth and upside. The Rangers suddenly look like one of the Metro Division’s more interesting teams to watch in 2016-17 rather than a tired group of veteran retreads.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin