Over the next few days Alain Vigneault and General Manager Jeff Gorton will meet to discuss what they expect to happen this offseason.
This should be the beginning of the end of the old regime. That’s not to say Gorton is being shadowed or controlled by Glen Sather and company (Gorton is highly sought after, and could easily leave for another GM position if he felt he was being undermined in his role) but it is to say that he allowed his predecessor’s past decisions to run the ship in the two years after he’d taken things over.
That’s not necessarily a knock on him. When Gorton came into the picture the Rangers were fresh off a second-straight Eastern Conference Final berth, and were a year removed from their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years. To come in and shake the foundation too hard could have been disastrous.
As it was, in those two years the Rangers saw significant regression. Two years ago they were blown out of the water against Pittsburgh, and this year the coaching staff got in their own way in a loss to Ottawa when it seemed as though the Hockey Gods paved a golden road to the Stanley Cup for them.
It’s a fair assumption to say Vigneault is safe as things stand right now. If Gorton was going to make a move he probably would have done it already — and certainly wouldn’t be soliciting Vigneault’s advice on offseason plans. But is keeping Vigneault around a vote of confidence for the coach who seems to step on his own feet as much as move forward?
If Gorton is going to start making his mark on this team, then it doesn’t really matter if Vigneault is at the helm or if it’s a replacement. Removing the coach’s favorite toys should do a lion’s share of the deployment fixes on its own, and if Vigneault knows his seat is red-hot it will go a long way to forcing him to adjust. (I will say, I doubt Vigneault has all that much leash next season, although whether that translates into ten games of struggles or fifty I obviously can’t say.)
The point is that Gorton has no more free passes. He’s had two years to watch the way things had been going to prove they’re not working. Now it’s time for him to start shaping this team into what he wants it to be.
This summer is going to give him as close to a blank slate as a general manager can get. Expansion will remove a player (although navigating those waters will take priority), the Rangers have a first round pick for the first time in five years, they have big decisions to make with key RFAs, and you’d expect there to be a buyout on the horizon as well. Throw in potentially re-shuffling problem contracts as teams try to ready themselves for expansion, and you have a chance to make big swings across the board.
I am of the mind the Rangers are dangerous close to contention. With some defensive additions (keeping Brendan Smith needs to be a priority, and bringing in Kevin Shattenkirk should be next) and one or two removals (Dan Girardi simply needs to be moved or bought out, Kevin Klein needs to be jettisoned anywhere but Broadway, Nick Holden needs to be left to the market, and if Gorton can find a way to move Marc Staal he has to do it) totally re-vamps the entire defense. Brady Skjei’s growth into a potential top-pairing defenseman helps. As does optimistic expectations about the likes of Ryan Graves, Neal Pionk, or Alexei Bereglazov being able to make the team out of camp. Bereglazov, specifically, is exciting simply because of his pro experience in the KHL.
This is the exciting part: The Rangers still boast one of the most lethal offensive units in the NHL. Rick Nash and Derek Stepan are both the yearly “we need to trade him because we think he sucks even though he doesn’t” players, but even if one of them is moved the Rangers have a slew of talent in the wings. Losing Michael Grabner, Jesper Fast, or Oscar Lindberg to expansion would hurt, but a permanent role for Pavel Buchnevich would be nice and Joe Thornton is a free agent this summer who might be worth a really long, hard look. Brandon Pirri or Matt Puempel can be kept around if they need a 13th forward and there’s a few other enticing options the Rangers might be able to find on the market or via trade.
There’s options. Tons of them. Gorton simply needs to finally make his presence felt. This is him team, now. There’s no more excuses for sitting in the shadows.