Gorton’s Dream Summer: The Biggest Moves during the 2016 NYR Offseason
Sometimes all someone needs is a chance to show what they can do. New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton had a plan this summer and he executed it spectacularly.
The Need to Make Changes
The Rangers GM knew something had to be done with his team and that they needed a shot in the arm. That shot in the arm has come in the form of some key free agent signings, locking up his RFA’s, and a trade that shocked Blueshirt fans and of course the signing of the best player in college hockey.
The Rangers had an extremely up and down year. The team struggled to find consistency with their forward group and defense corps. Scoring goals came at a premium once again this postseason. It was also clear that this team’s defense was not like that of prior Rangers’ teams of the past few years.
The Rangers ran into the red hot Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs and were obliterated in five games. They looked a touch too slow and they just could not stop the Penguins forechecking attack and mobile defense. Something needed to be done. The Rangers needed to get younger and they needed to get faster.
Enter the offseason
Gorton performs his first great move of the summer when he signs prize prospect Pavel Buchnevich to a three year entry level deal. It was absolutely crucial that the Rangers get Buchnevich to New York for this upcoming year as his skill set has fans salivating at what he could become. The quicker he gets acclimated to North American style of play, the better for he and the Rangers.
Buchnevich is young, fast, and his ceiling is sky high. Now even with the Buchnevich signing, Gorton still had a lot of ground to make up after the atrocious Eric Staal deal and the questionable trade of Keith Yandle’s rights to the Florida Panthers.
At the NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, New York reports came out that Gorton was extremely active on the floor and was trying to get some major deals done. Gorton did complete one trade that night when he acquired defenseman Nick Holden from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a 4th round pick in 2017, but the gears were beginning turn on bigger things and events were set in motion for a trade with the Ottawa Senators. I will touch on that later but for information on the draft choices the Rangers made that day click here.
NHL free agent frenzy begins and we see Gorton make some smart moves. In order to bring an injection of speed back into the bottom six forward group, Gorton signs Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe. He also acquired another depth defensemen in Adam Clendening.
Grabner, previously played for the New York Islanders, Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs, while Gerbe, played for the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes. Both should replace Tanner Glass (who has no business being on the opening night roster anymore) and the now departed Viktor Stalberg.
Gerbe and Grabner will be much more effective players in that spot and both have proven that they have some goal scoring ability. Let’s not forget that there was a time when Grabner was a 34 goal scorer and while he might not reach that level again it’s clear he can score.
These were not flashy signings but the signings of Gerbe and Grabner were ultimately great moves that give the bottom six forward group a much needed shot in the arm. Gerbe has scored 58 goals and assisted on 80 others (138 points) during his 394-game career. Grabner has scored 104 goals and assisted on 69 others (173 points) during the course of his 397-game NHL career.
On July 5, while slightly under the radar, Gorton re-signed two restricted free agents in Mat Bodie and Nicklas Jensen. Bodie still needs some time to develop and it is unclear if he could challenge for a roster spot, Jensen is looked at as someone who could possibly challenge for a roster spot this season on the 4th line.
After the Rangers acquired him in a trade involving the disappointing Emerson Etem, Jensen scored 15 goals for the Hartford Wolfpack in their final 41 games and at the World Championships this past year he absolutely tore it up for the Danish national team and showed that he can be an offensive weapon. His development will be closely watched by management and even if he doesn’t make the team he will be looked at to be called up in case of an injury. Getting Jensen locked up was a great move for the future by Gorton.
July 13 signaled the first of the Rangers key RFA’s getting resigned. Gorton signed J.T. Miller to a new two year deal and with that he locked up one of the most promising and improved forwards on the Rangers roster. Miller had a great season and at time he looked like the Rangers best forward on the ice. It was imperative that that Rangers got him under contract because of his still rising ceiling and the fact that he is still very young at 23 years of age.
July 15th rolled around and Gorton made another great signing to give the Rangers forward corps even more depth when he added Josh Jooris to the team. Jooris previously spent time with the Calgary Flames and was one of their energy guys off the bench. He played his bottom six role extremely well and scored the occasional goal when needed.
Over the course of his 119-game career, Jooris has scored 16 goals and assisted on 21 others (37 points). Fun fact: He will be the first Ranger to wear number 86 since Wojtek Wolski. Also on July 15 Gorton agreed to a new contract with RFA Dylan McIlrath; another key RFA. McIlrath took awhile to come along in his development but now looks like he can be a solid NHL defensemen who can use his size to terrorize opponents.
July 18th is the day Ranger fans truly realized Gorton meant business. On that day Gorton traded fan favorite and the 2015-16 Rangers leading goal scorer, Derick Brassard, along with a 7th round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to the Ottawa Senators for young and promising center, Mika Zibanejad along with a 2nd round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
This move came as a shock to the fan base as well as beat writers and even the players. Brassard was one of the most talented members of the team and had had some absolutely huge moments during his tenure on Broadway. He was the key component of the Marian Gaborik deal way back in 2013. So why did Gorton pull the trigger on this trade?
Simple: money, age and potential. Zibanejad is the cheaper option this season (though he is an RFA next season and will want a lot more money), he is six years younger than Brassard (23 as opposed to 29) and Zibanejad has not hit his ceiling yet and still has room to grow and possibly become the Rangers number one center of the future. He has size (6’2” and 222 pounds) on his side as well. When you look at it from just about any standpoint, the Rangers won this trade by a long shot.
Faster and younger was the name of the game this summer for Gorton and this trade proved that he was dedicated to that mantra and the Rangers are the better team for it. Gorton also signed forward Robin Kovacs to an entry level deal on July 18. This went slightly under the radar due to what happened that day as well but Kovacs is a solid prospect who has been named the top junior player in Allsvenskan (the second highest hockey league in Sweden) the past two seasons.
Mika Zibanejad’s goals, assists, and points totals have increased in every season during his career (2011-12 – 2015-16).
— NYR Stats & Info (@NYRStatsInfo) July 18, 2016
Locking up CK20 and Kevin Hayes
July 22nd, saw Gorton locking up the third and fourth key RFA’s in Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes with a new four year deal and two year deal respectively. Kreider has the size, speed and skill to be one of the best young forwards in the NHL but he has yet to truly breakout. By the time it takes him to complete this new deal, Gorton is hoping that he will fulfill his 30+ goal potential. Kreider’s continued development will go a long way in determining just how good the Rangers can be in the upcoming seasons as he will be counted on to score big goals at important moments.
Hayes had a sophomore slump last season after having a very promising rookie campaign. If Hayes bounces back and becomes the reliable center the Rangers want him to be, then they will be that much better for it. This new deal gives him and the Rangers time to see exactly what he can do.
The Big College Prize
We now fast forward to August 19th. After the Zibanejad trade many thought Gorton was done for the summer. After all, he had re-signed all the Rangers key RFA’s, traded for a possible number one center and made some good veteran depth signings. Well as it turns out a certain Hobey Baker winner decided he wanted to test free agency and the Rangers knew they had to act on a player with his potential. The player I’m talking about of course is Jimmy Vesey and he was the best collegiate hockey player over the past few years.
Vesey, 23, a Harvard University graduate, was a third round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2012 and in his four seasons at Harvard, Vesey scored 80 goals and assisted on 64 others for a total of 144 points in 128 games. He captured the gold medal with the United States during the 2013 World Junior Championships where he played on a line with now teammate J.T. Miller and Calgary Flames young star Johnny Gaudreau.
He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award twice and won this past season. Vesey informed the Predators that he wouldn’t be signing with them earlier in the year and wanted to test the free agent market. That didn’t stop the Buffalo Sabres from acquiring his rights in exchange for a third round pick to attempt to get him to sign with them. Ultimately, Vesey still stuck with the free agent route and waited until August 15th so he could have meetings with what turned out to be eight different NHL teams.
Over the course of four days from August 16th through the 19th, Vesey met with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Each team attempted to sell Vesey on why their franchise would be the right choice for him and why he should sign with them. Every team busted out all the stops with Chicago bringing in Patrick Kane, the Penguins bringing in Sidney Crosby and the Sabres bringing in their young star in Jack Eichel to speak to him.
The Rangers were looked at originally as a dark horse in the race to sign Vesey. However, his connection with his childhood friend and fellow Bostonian Kevin Hayes, a strong pitch from management including Gorton, Head Coach Alain Vigneault and Chris Drury, who is now the Rangers’ Director of Player Development, and the chance to win a Cup in New York ultimately swayed Vesey to choose the Blueshirts.
Extremely happy to be part of @NYRangers organization. Thank you for all of the support, can't wait to get started!
— Jimmy Vesey (@19Vesey) August 20, 2016
Vesey is a highly skilled forward who knows how to use his size (6’1”, 194 pounds) to get to the net and score goals. He will be a welcome addition to the New York Rangers roster and he was one of the most dominant athletes in collegE hockey during his time there.
The fact that Gorton swayed Vesey to come to the Rangers speaks volumes to how effective he has been as a general manager this summer. The signing of Vesey was basically the cherry on top of how good a summer this has been for the Rangers and Gorton. Faster, younger and in Vesey’s case, stronger. Gorton once again followed the mantra in acquiring this player.
— Kevin Hayes (@KevinPHayes12) August 19, 2016
With Vesey now in tow let’s take a quick look at what the New York Rangers lineup could look like opening night.
NEW YORK RANGERS 2016-17 OPENING NIGHT ROSTER PROJECTION
Rick Nash – Derek Stepan – Mats Zuccarello
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – J.T. Miller
Jimmy Vesey – Kevin Hayes – Pavel Buchnevich
Michael Grabner – Nathan Gerbe – Jesper Fast
Michael Grabner – Josh Jooris -Jesper Fast
Extra: Oscar Lindberg (injured)
Ryan McDonagh – Brady Skjei
Kevin Klein – Dylan McIlrath
Marc Staal – Dan Girardi
Extras: Nick Holden/Adam Clendening
Now that is basically what we can expect come opening night. That team is better, deeper and has the potential to be really good next year. A lot will hinge on the performances of the new arrivals especially Zibanejad, Vesey and Buchnevich but if they can produce at a consistent level this team will surprise some people. Realistically I would say to expect a combined 60-65 goals from Zibanejad, Vesey and Buchnevich. Could they produce more? Absolutely, but time will tell.
Looking at the Rangers top nine forwards once again you can see each line now feels threatening. Nash and Stepan have worked well together in the past and Zuccarello is a masterful playmaker and has exceptional hands. Zibanejad and Kreider are both big skilled forward who I feel will work well together and with the improving J.T Miller on the other wing that line has the potential to be really, really good. The third line is where we have our question marks.
As I noted above, if Vesey and Buchnevich get it together, we’re looking a potentially dangerous third line. With Hayes in the middle, who management is hoping will have a bounce back year, that line has the potential to really scare opponents with their size, speed and skill. The fourth line will do its job and be the energy guys they need to be. The Rangers top nine has been injected with speed, skill, strength and youth and the fourth line looks great. Gorton has retooled marvelously.
This roster could change of course if the arrival of Vesey means the end of Rick Nash as a Blueshirt. Hear me out…It’s clear that Nash hasn’t been the gamebreaker the Rangers were hoping for and yes, he had that year where he scored 42 goals but come playoff time he hasn’t scored the big goals the Rangers have needed him to.
The next part of the team Gorton has to worry about is the defense as he has not found a replacement for the departed Keith Yandle as of yet. With Vesey and Buchnevich in the system now, the Rangers can afford to take a gamble by trading Nash for a solid offensive defensemen.
The popular rumor here is Kevin Shattenkirk and I still think Gorton and management should pursue him. It’s been heavily rumored that Shattenkirk wants to come to New York and would even be willing to sign here for a discount. If the Rangers can somehow trade Nash to the St. Louis Blues for Kevin Shattenkirk, Gorton should pull the trigger. Nash’s immense salary would be off the books (or some of it) and it’s not crazy to think that Buchnevich or Vesey could hit 20 goals this year which is essentially what Nash did last season.
The team would get younger, the defense would immediately get better and it would push either Marc Staal or Dan Girardi out of the main rotation. Now of course, the trade most likely wouldn’t be a one for one deal and management is hoping Girardi and Staal have bounce back years but keep this in mind: the door is open for a Nash trade and Gorton should keep his options open. Gorton needs to continue tweaking the defense.
The moves Jeff Gorton made this summer to improve the Rangers and retain key players just proves one thing:
Sometimes all someone needs is a chance and some time to show what they can do.