Now that Jeff Gorton, Alain Vigneault, and the rest if New York’s decision makers have a had a few weeks to process the season, the time for action is quickly approaching. With the annual buyout window opening in less than approximately three weeks, the first of many questions about what the 2017-2018 Rangers will look like will be answered. Rumors have been swirling about possible buyouts for Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, but those same rumors persisted through the early portion of last spring without ever coming to fruition. Another year of shoddy play from the dynamic duo might have been enough to convince Jeff Gorton to step up, do his job, and move on from the longtime franchise pillars, but the Rangers’ general manager has not yet shown that he is willing to do whatever it takes to make the Rangers great again.
Fortunately, the writing seems to be on the wall for at least one of the two defenseman to be skating elsewhere next fall. With Kevin Shattenkirk set to hit the market without much of an effort by the Washington Capitals to retain him, the path seems clear for the Blueshirts to land the biggest fish in the free agency pond on July 1st. The only thing Jeff Gorton needs to do is clear enough cap space and welcome the New Rochelle native with open arms. And unlike what most of the talking heads around the hockey world are suggesting, there isn’t much else that New York needs to do to re-establish themselves as a top tier Stanley Cup contender. Swapping out a borderline-NHL caliber defenseman for a bona fide #1 defenseman goes a long way towards vaulting Alain Vigneault’s team back into the upper echelon of the league.
Kevin Shattenkirk is a top-pair defender, both with personal offence and team impacts on offence and defence. Power-play scoring unreal. pic.twitter.com/nff4gEBkxT— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 28, 2017
While adding an all-star to the blueline may seem to be the simplest and most practical way to solve the team’s woes, it hasn’t stopped the annual flood of calls to blow up the team’s core, tear everything down and go for a full-scale rebuild, and begin again. In addition to that, talks fester of shipping out one (or more depending on who you ask) of New York’s elite forwards for the sake of acquiring a name brand player. Skaters like Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes, Sami Vatanen of the Anaheim Ducks, and Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild have all been named at various points to be possibilities to remedy the Rangers’ defensive woes. While those three aren’t the only names brought up, they have emerged as three of the most common players rumored to pique Jeff Gorton’s interest, and they each of their own cons to bringing them aboard.
To begin with, Faulk has the reputation of being an elite offensive defenseman, and players of that magnitude cost a pretty penny to pry away in trades. Talks with Ron Francis and the Hurricanes would begin with Derek Stepan, and if New York’s decision makers of an iota of brainpower between all of them, that’s where the conversation should end. Justin Faulk is a talented defenseman, but a one for one exchange of him and Stepan would be a coup for Carolina. Not only that, but Faulk isn’t even as good as someone New York could acquire for “free” like Shattenkirk. If the options are Stepan and Shattenkirk or Justin Faulk and a gaping hole in the Blueshirts Top 6, the choice is obvious. Nobody on the current roster is capable of replacing what Stepan brings to the Rangers, and it’s quite possible no one on the roster will develop into an adequate replacement. Despite the uninformed claims that players like Oscar Lindberg or Boo Nieves could fill his shoes, the numbers don’t lie. Derek Stepan is a top 30 center in the Natonal Hockey League, and #1 centers don’t grow on trees.
As for the other two, Vatanen and Brodin are defenseman that Jeff Gorton would be best served not even taking a seat at the negotiation table for. Jonas Brodin has been a marginally effective player on a defense corps full of stars in Minnesota. Like we’ve seen in the past, trading away highly talented forwards for OK-ish Swedish defenseman who went in the first round of the 2011 Draft for the sake of “filling a need” is not a good idea. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so hopefully Rangers’ management has been paying attention to what their counterparts around the league have been up to.
Vatanen’s situation in Anaheim is similar to Brodin’s in that he’s been a decent defenseman surrounded by elite players like Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson. (Notice the absence of Cam Fowler among those names. He seems to be off the market for now, but if his name comes up in talks, add him to the list of players to avoid like the plague.) Although Derek Stepan wouldn’t be the player heading towards either Minnesota or Anaheim, a winger like Chris Kreider or J.T. Miller is likely to be the apple of Chuck Fletcher’s or Bob Murray’s eye. There are situations where trading a player like Stepan, or Kreider, or Miller is something to consider, but nobody on the market fits the bill.
All it’s going to take for Gorton to bring the Rangers back among the elite teams of the league is a mixture of common sense and business savvy. Swapping out Girardi for Shattenkirk is the most obvious step. From there, Gorton must find a way to move on from Marc Staal if possible. While buying out two contracts could prove cumbersome into the future, it stands as a better option than watching the final years of Henrik Lundqvist’s career go by without a Stanley Cup. Ideally, he can find some mark who still finds value in a player of Staal’s ilk, but between Staal’s eroding skills and cumbersome no-movement clause, it could be too difficult to find a suitor.
From there, a couple of depth moves can vault the Blueshirts back into the conversation for the Stanley Cup. If the team is looking for someone to solidify the right side, then Cody Franson and Paul Postma could be viable options. Franson would have the ability to play anywhere from the 1st Pair in a pinch to the 3rd Pair, while Postma could serve as a useful depth player for only six figures. A revamped defense corps of McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Skjei, Franson, and some combo of Postma, Nick Holden, Ryan Graves, Neal Pionk, and Alexei Bereglazov could emerge as a dependable group that can move the puck to forwards with consistency and let them do their thing.
Despite all the talk of major changes being needed in New York, people with keen eyes for the game of hockey can examine the Rangers’ roster and see what needs to be done. One big move, and a couple of smaller ones, and Alain Vigneault’s team transforms from early rounder fodder into a Stanley Cup contender. Now it’s up to Jeff Gorton to see that vision, and make it a reality.