Let’s Play The Blame Game

USA Today

There is something deeply engrained within the sports fan. Past passion, past excitement, past memories, past the ability to get oh so high from a trade that seems to go in your favor, right where irrationality meets frustration lays that dirty ugly five letter word, blame. The Rangers lose: polls run, who’s to blame? Beat writers search for the scapegoat, irrational fans go to their old favorites “That was definitely Girardi’s fault on defense and Stepan never put home that puck on the goal line.” But wait, it’s 2017. Those names are long gone, but still, the instinct is to blame and blame who or what’s comfortable.

The Rangers are seven games into the 2017-18 campaign, just a smidge under 10% of the season, and have to dig themselves out of a 1-5-1 hole that puts them dead last in the Eastern Conference. Let’s call a spade a spade here; it’s time to be concerned. The Rangers have upcoming matches against the Islanders, the Western Conference champion Nashville Predators and the San Jose Sharks, before finishing out their homestand that will see it’s finale introduce a new character, Derek Stepan the Coyote. Can you see the script writing itself going forward like I can?

In seven games, the New York Rangers have done everything they can do wrong. They’ve gotten off to poor starts and played extremely well in their comeback attempts only to fall short. They’ve let go of leads in games they’ve commanded, and they’ve commanded games to hit a brick wall disguised as a goalie. Bad penalties and bad giveaways have become the norm. Whereas in years past, if one thing went wrong, the team would shake it off and get back to work, things seem to have gone wrong and gotten worse, not better.

Going around, where’s the blame lay? Well, here’s some we’ve seen so far; AV has lost the room, Staal is still on the team, McDonagh isn’t playing well, or the personal favorite, the irrelevant Corsi statistic blaming a player.

No matter which way you split it, everyone is to blame, and that is a fact at this point. Recently, there have been whispers of unsettlement as far as Head Coach Alain Vigneault goes. Questions have justifiably been raised: “Has he lost the room?” (I can answer this simply: yes he absolutely has but that’s not really the problem.) However, there’s one sneaky character flying under the radar here that needs to be held accountable. I’m going to call him out, show you why, and then proceed to explain why he is absolutely comfortable with how things stand.

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Enter Jeff Gorton, the disciplined negotiator who bent Kevin Shattenkirk to his will in negotiations. The shrewd man at the helm who dealt an aging center the team didn’t need and could replace for a #7 overall pick and a defensive prospect. The stern navigator of the ship who refused to overpay for Shattenkirk at last year’s deadline and instead paid less for Brendan Smith, a move I like by the way. Jeff Gorton has gotten the biggest room for error of any GM in any major professional sports team in New York. He’s been able to operate to the herald of beat writers, while in essence stripping the team bit by bit, piece by piece with the greatest built-in reason, the salary cap.” Let’s take a look back at the three-year track record of Jeff Gorton though.

Gorton officially replaced Glen Sather as Rangers GM on July 1, 2015, a mere few weeks after the Rangers coming a game shy of a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. That team was made up of players like; Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis (was heading into retirement), Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, JT Miller, and Jesper Fast as team’s wings. Up the middle, the roster had Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes and Dominic Moore, and the blue line contained Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Dan Boyle, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Keith Yandle. Not to leave out a superb back up goaltender in Cam Talbot.

Carl Hagelin will be “Asset #1” and Cam Talbot will be “Asset #2” in this explanation. Now, it’s no mystery that sometimes teams need to make difficult decisions with their personnel. However, in Jeff Gorton’s first test as New York Rangers General Manager, he was tasked with converting those two assets into assets that fit the team’s financial needs. Asset #1 was a proven commodity, yet he was traded to Anaheim for Emerson Etem, a completely unknown and unproven asset. The Rangers traded the 59th and 179th picks in that year’s draft to Anaheim in the same trade in return for the 41st pick; essentially valuing the drop-off between Hagelin and Etem to be equal with the addition of the commensurate draft picks. With the 41st Overall pick of the 2015 draft, the New York Rangers selected LW Ryan Gropp. Now to make matters worse, it was rumored that Hagelin was willing to re-sign with the Rangers for the $3.5 million they were budgeted for, but the organization still chose to move on from the fastest guy in the league. Okay…

Now onto Asset #2, Cam Talbot. Let’s dispose of the “we should’ve kept Cam” talk immediately. It wasn’t possible. Rumors were flying around that the Rangers may have a top 20 overall pick returning for him. Florida offered Jimmy Hayes, but Jeff Gorton made the move to Edmonton, where Cam has gone on to be a Vezina candidate. Looking back, Gorton should have pulled a Sakic and known what he had in Talbot, who had another year under contract to boot and held out for what the team needed. A team that was a win away from back to back Cup Final appearances did not need was draft picks. The Rangers traded Cam Talbot to the Edmonton Oilers for the 57th, 79th and 184th pick in that year’s draft. Draft picks are awesome if they work, and I applaud the strategy but let’s take a look at what those picks became.

Pick 57: Rangers traded away to Buffalo for Pick #62 and #113

Pick 62: Robin Kovacs

Pick 79: Sergei Zborovsky

Pick 113: Brad Morrison

Pick 184: Adam Huska

So in his first test, Jeff Gorton turned a “could’ve re-signed, missed him for a year and replaced him with a lesser version Michael Grabner” Carl Hagelin and a soon to be Vezina Trophy candidate with one year left on his contract Cam Talbot for Ryan Gropp (just cracked the Wolf Pack roster), Robin Kovacs (left Hartford for SHL), Sergey Zborovskiy (playing with Rangers ECHL affiliate Greenville), Brad Morrison (playing his 20 year old season in the WHL) and Adam Huska (UConn). As a result of trading off those assets, the team got worse. As the 2015-16 season got underway, the Rangers struggled with an up and down season, noticeably missing speed in the lineup just at the same time as Carl Hagelin was sent off to Pittsburgh to be a key component of a team making and winning a Stanley Cup final. As the season concluded, more “Assets” came into Jeff Gorton’s hands, namely Keith Yandle.

Yandle, an offensive minded 45 point scoring defenseman in his prime who would be commanding a $6 million per year contract. Knowing that Yandle wouldn’t be re-signed, Gorton could have moved him at the deadline for players and pieces that benefitted the team immediately and in the future. Instead, he let him play the season out and taking “Asset #3” and flipping him down to Florida for a 2016 6th rounder and a conditional 2017 4th rounder. This is the same Keith Yandle that cost the Rangers a first round pick, a top 6 defenseman, and a top prospect in Anthony Duclair. Gorton did make some good pickups in the offseason that year such as Jimmy Vesey and Michael Grabner but my point is in his handling of assets, not signing players.

Fast forward to 2017, an offseason in which the Rangers blue-line came under question. Dan Girardi or Marc Staal were due for greener pastures and as such Dan Girardi was bought out despite the fact that Girardi had a much better year and playoffs than Staal had. Girardi was also more of a tradeable asset than Staal, as Tampa Bay had no problem paying the man to come and play. The defense needed to be revamped like the offense had been the year before. They brought back Brendan Smith as their 3rd defenseman and with Brady Skjei emerging as an elite scoring defenseman, a top three of McDonagh, Skjei, Smith looked pretty solid.

That’s when Gorton fumbled the ball yet again on Asset #4, Derek Stepan. The Stepan trade was one that was heralded by many as a shrewd move that had to be done. But the common theme I’m finding here is that when there’s a move that has to be done, Gorton is going to screw it up. The Rangers traded a luxury they had in a solid backup goaltender Antti Raanta alongside the team’s first line center Derek Stepan to Arizona for Anthony DeAngelo and the 7th overall pick. While on its face the deal seemed great, the actions following the trade make it look like a giveaway.

Anthony DeAngelo is an offensive defenseman that needs a lot of work in his own zone. Add in Brady Skjei, and it’s pretty rare to have two potential 40 point defensemen on your blue line as is. Now, the 7th overall pick got fans very excited and it should, but the team opted to go with Lias Andersson. Andersson, a very talented player, was a reach at #7 however and the rationale behind it was this: “we may not have gotten the highest ceiling guy available, but we got the guy with the best chance to crack the roster this season and help the team.” With that explanation, I was all for it. Now as we move forward through the offseason, Gorton goes out and signs Kevin Shattenkirk, an admirable acquisition, but one that came with a few flags, primarily his less than average defensive zone play. This was a 40+ point defenseman who never in his career played top pairing minutes and could essentially be considered as Keith Yandle with less defensive ability. So why is it one year you don’t need that player and then the next you do? The money freed up from the Stepan trade was used on this signing, but did it strengthen the roster with the addition more than it weakened it with the subtraction? No.

To add to the cluster, the sole reasoning of drafting Andersson over a player that the organization has been searching for like Casey Middlestadt, who will need a year or two of college hockey before being an impact first line center in the NHL, was his year one availability. The Rangers didn’t even choose to give him the nine games to prove himself in the NHL before sending him back, so despite what their scouts said, the team felt he was not ready for the NHL.

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When Jeff Gorton has assets and has a competitive team, his objective should be that of Glen Sather. Ryan Callahan was an asset under Sather, and he leveraged that asset to improve the roster at that moment. Sather didn’t trade assets for picks, he traded assets and picks for more assets.

Now, I understand that Jeff Gorton is also tasked with restocking the cubbard with prospects, but he’s done so at the cost of the Rangers roster and at the cost of robbing his coach of the personnel he needs. His trades have not worked out yet by any stretch of the imagination; and n the three drafts Gorton has been at the helm, where he’s acquired pick after pick, not one player has cracked the NHL roster or gotten close to sniffing it yet.

Right now all the anger and vitriol is pointed at Alain Vigneault for this team’s horrible play so far, and in many cases, rightfully so. However, here is where it get’s worse. Nobody is pointing their finger up at Gorton yet, and nobody will as long as there is a scapegoat in place. AV has lost the room, that’s a given at this point. However, AV is a good coach so with the right pieces and support he would be successful. Gorton thus far has botched the job. If or when Gorton chooses to say sayonara to AV and the next coach has the same issues with the misgivings of the team’s personnel, the next head to roll will be Gorton’s. And it’s with that knowledge that Jeff Gorton will continue to “stay out” of the AV issue and do nothing until he is absolutely forced to. AV, while with plenty fault of his own, is Jeff Gorton’s scapegoat for his mistakes thus far and will remain so.

Year after year, Gorton has taken away key components from AV’s machine and leveraged them into picks, only to replace those same components with lesser quality. The revolving door of “core player” replacement parts has eaten away at the dynamic of this once strong-willed and close-knit group. A top six winger, two top four defensemen, and your first line center; find me a team in the league that’s had a similar overhaul in their core in a three year period and come out stronger on the other end. This game of robbing Peter to pay Paul has finally caught up to the core of this team and organization … but hey, they got draft picks.