One of the hardest parts of being a general manager, I would imagine, is acknowledging when a team has hit its limit. Or at least being able to acknowledge when veteran players have reached theirs.
Tell me if you've seen this scenario on a TV show before: the detective or superhero who is a brilliant investigator suddenly refuses to give credence to blatant evidence that points to a close family member or friend doing something horrible. The main character can figure out who committed a violent crime by hacking into computer databases and running elaborate tests, but show him footage of his daughter assassinating the president and he'll start irrationally yelling at his assistant saying it's not possibly true.
Once it becomes emotionally driven and personal, even the most brilliant people can become slaves to denial and mental gymnastics. We've seen it happen to the best executives and teams in sports. We watched Lou Lamoriello, three-time Stanley Cup champion and arguably the best general manager from 1994 through 2004, let Martin Brodeur tank the Devils' entire 2013-2014 season with a paltry .901 save percentage while a frustrated Cory Schneider received only 45 games. We watched Stan Bowman, arguably the best GM in the NHL right now, hand Bryan Bickell top-six money after a fluke run of goal scoring in their 2013 Stanley Cup victory. It was move that two years later would force the trade of Patrick Sharp to the Stars.
A bit over six months into the job, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton has a laundry list of realities that he must grapple with.
The Rangers are the third-oldest team in the NHL.
The team's most important player, Henrik Lundqvist, will be 34 in March. Goaltenders typically begin a sharp decline at 35.
The Rangers are up against the salary cap, with numerous aging players committed to long-term contracts.
The team's best defenseman this season, Keith Yandle, is an unrestricted free agent in six months.
Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, Dylan McIlrath, and Jesper Fast all will require raises within the next two seasons.
The prospect pool is barren as a consequence of trading three first-round picks, three second-round picks, and Anthony Duclair over the last four-and-a-half years. The team also owes the Coyotes either its 2016 or 2017 first-round pick.
All of these are understandable burdens that building a Stanley Cup contender produces. And the Rangers absolutely did contend the past four seasons. But where do the Rangers stand now? It's hard to say. The team is comfortably in playoff position, but largely can thank absurd goaltending to start the season for that -- as can be seen by the fact they currently sit 24th in the NHL in possession. Their play certainly has been better over the last few weeks, for what it's worth.
On a bigger scale, this is a team that has accumulated two division titles, one Presidents' Trophy, three Eastern Conference Final appearances, and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final in the previous four seasons. To what extent do you give the current group the benefit of the doubt that, with just three months until the playoffs, they have the ability to right the ship?
The Rangers are at a crossroads. The organization, with an older roster tying up much of the salary cap and a depleted prospect pool, is built to win now and deal with the consequences later. Which is fine in theory, but uncertain at best with the actual players on the roster. The next six months will be the most important the franchise has had in a long time. Gorton needs to not fall into the trap that others before him have. He needs to take an honest look at his roster and recognize NOT which players have important ties to previously successful seasons, but instead which players and contracts help his team both now and into the future. And then he needs to figure out a way to get rid of the excess while keeping the positive contributors going forward.
Otherwise the Rangers could end up in the extremely dangerous territory of having a mediocre team with little salary cap leverage and few reinforcements coming through from the prospect pool. It's a situation that Ron Hextall found himself inheriting two years ago in Philadelphia. Now the Flyers are still nowhere close to contending, instead wasting the primes of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek while trying to clear out all the dead weight and build up a respectable prospect pool.
If the Rangers don't prioritize right first at February's trading deadline and then during the offseason, they seem destined to end up in the same kind of purgatory.