After a directionless, nihilistic 2015-2016 season, it was imperative that the Rangers show a sense of direction during this offseason. Any reasonable direction. One that indicated the team had a plan beyond, “lean on Lundqvist and cross our fingers.” It took quite a while for a plan of any kind to manifest physically, but as the Rangers approach training camp in a few weeks, it does appear one exists. One favoring youth.
The headlining move was trading Derick Brassard, soon to be 29 years old, for Mika Zibanejad, who is 23. Pushing out Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg were curious decisions, as neither were by any means problematic. But in the context of subsequent events (the Brassard trade being one) their departures fit. Moore (36) and Stalberg (30) - one can hope Tanner Glass (32) soon joins - made way for a much younger crop of forwards; Nathan Gerbe (29), Michael Grabner (28), Josh Jooris (26), and Brandon Pirri (25). Almost all of these signings were one-year deals, making them a virtual non-risk for beyond this season. In the cases of Jooris and Pirri, both will be restricted free agents beyond this season. Should either prove to be productive, the Rangers will be able to retain them in subsequent seasons at a cost-controlled rate.
Pavel Buchnevich (22) and Jimmy Vesey (23) are almost surely playing at the NHL level this upcoming season. Add in Nicklas Jensen (23) and Marek Hrivik (25) fighting for roster spots. However the roster shakes out, it’s clear that the forward group will be infused with youth in all areas. In fact, here is what is perhaps the most likely opening night roster of forwards at this time.
To compare, according to Quant Hockey the weighted average age of forwards on the Rangers’ roster last season was 27.784, which was the 14th-oldest group in the NHL last season. Only three teams (Flames, Hurricanes, and Jets) had a forward group that was younger than the Rangers’ projected 25.57. I am taking the liberty of assuming Glass won’t make the roster, but at the same time Jensen or Hrivik could very well beat a Gerbe or Jooris to a roster spot. Given where the team was last season, it’s almost unfathomable that the Rangers will go into next with one of the youngest forward groups in the NHL, if not the youngest. This is undoubtedly a change for the better.
It’s a similar theme in the AHL, by the way. Gone are Jayson Megna/Brian Gibbons tweeners. The forwards in Hartford, as of now, will be made up of prospects. Players like Adam Tambellini, Ryan Gropp, Robin Kovacs, and Malte Stromwall will be leading the charge, and should the Rangers need a call-up later in the season they’ll be in a position to grab it.
The youth movement is not exclusive to the roster. Jeff Gorton (48) was promoted to General Manager in July of last year, but it takes time for him to build his “cabinet.” Steve Greeley (then 34) and Nick Bobrov (then 39) were hired in major scouting and development roles. More recently Chris Drury (40) was promoted to Assistant General Manager, while the team is also reportedly hiring Benoit Allaire’s former pupil Eric Raymond (44) in a coaching/development role for goaltending. The Rangers were previously just one of three NHL teams without goaltending coaches within the organization. Jeff Beukeboom (51), promoted from the AHL to assistant coach for the Rangers, isn’t quite young. He isn’t old, either, though. More importantly, with just a few years of coaching in the AHL and no time spent in the NHL, he isn’t the usual retread who is a slave to the system and doing things the same way they always have.
This youth doesn’t have quite the tangible impact that young hockey players have, but it still is meaningful. In most aspects of life, younger people tend to be more open to new ideas. They’re not, as previously mentioned, slaves to conventionality and tradition. They can relate to younger players and what they go through as hockey players in the 21st century. It’s not a coincidence that so many sports management revolutionaries, like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein in baseball, Ralf Rangnick and Jurgen Klopp in soccer, and Daryl Morey and Bob Myers in basketball, were young and new on the scene at the time of changing how teams go about building a roster and playing the game. Youth in itself does not guarantee progressiveness and success (see Patrick Roy’s coaching tenure in Colorado), but the Rangers have, at least optically, made positive steps in embracing the modern NHL.
Clearly, the defense is still shambolic. The good news is that nothing was done to further the issues. Nick Holden for a fourth-round pick was a curious move, but ultimately a negligible one. Staal and Girardi continue to be the elephant in the room. However, if we continue operating under the assumption that the Rangers have adjusted their priority to the future instead of winning right now, then the presence of those two is, while annoying and inconvenient, not something that has to be dealt with immediately.
There’s still significant work to be done, both tangible and allegorical, to win over the confidence of the fanbase and put forth a healthy, competitive team. The defense still needs a complete overhaul, which could take some Littlefinger levels of manipulation. The prospect pool needs serious reinforcements. Alain Vigneault needs to prove he is willing to swallow his pride and learn from his errors the past couple of seasons; both in terms of tactics and lineups. The organization needs to show even a faint interest in investing in analytics.
These were all not going to be addressed completely in one offseason. The fresh, youthful changes to personnel on and off the ice are a step in the right direction. The Rangers put themselves in the impossible spot last season of having a “Cup or Bust” mandate without a roster capable of justifying it. While the expectations for 2016-2017 are unclear, evaluating success versus failure will be much more abstract and open to interpretation this time around. Jeff Gorton and company have paved an alternate path for a new era of Rangers hockey. If the young group of forwards at both the NHL and AHL level take big steps forward and show they are ready to be the future of the team, and the front office shows signs of integrating into modern hockey, then in many ways 2016-2017 will be a massive success regardless of where the team finishes in the standings and playoffs. The Rangers can’t change the past, but they can show they’re no longer living in it.