New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton has had all eyes on him since he boldly announced plans for a rebuild last spring, As many of you already know, the NHL has a roster freeze that just went into effect that lifts on Dec. 28 at 12:01 a.m. Today, we are going to look at what Gorton has done (and not done) between last year’s deadline and the NHL’s holiday roster freeze.
In free agency Gorton made a few encouraging moves and a few vexing moves. He signed young European wingers Michael Lindqvist and Ville Meskanen in the spring. And when the free agency period began on July 1, Gorton signed UFAs Cody McLeod, Fredrik Claesson, and Dustin Tokarski in addition to re-signing RFAs Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Spooner, Brady Skjei, Jimmy Vesey, and Kevin Hayes.
Lindqvist is back in the SHL with Färjestad BK after his contract was mutually terminated on Nov. 14 — despite the fact that Lindqvist’s contract had a European assignment clause. Since returning to SHL, Lindqvist has four goals and three assists in nine games. Meanwhile, Meskanen is fourth on the Hartford Wolf Pack in points with 16 in 28 games.
The McLeod signing looks as ill-advised today as it did on July 1, but the Claesson signing stands out as the best low-risk, all-upside signing Gorton made in July. So, in regards to free agents signed since last spring, the Rangers have had somewhat mixed results.
It’s still early, but the big Skjei extension hasn’t exactly aged well in the last five months. The same could be said of the Spooner contract and Gorton’s failure to sign Hayes to a contract with term. The Namestnikov contract has definitely aged better than the Spooner deal did. The Russian forward is on pace for 37 points this year and is expected to attract some interest on or before deadline day.
Gorton has also made two trades this year. On Sept. 11, the Rangers sent Steven Kampfer, a 2019 4th round pick, and a conditional 7th round pick to Boston for Adam McQuaid. Two months later, on Nov. 16, the Rangers dealt Ryan Spooner to the Edmonton Oilers for Ryan Strome — while also retaining some of Spooner’s contract.
The McQuaid trade still has a lot of people scratching their heads. It was hard to justify at the time and three weeks later it looked even worse because of the play of Claesson. McQuaid has looked like a spare part even with Kevin Shattenkirk injured and out of the lineup.
The Strome trade made the Spooner extension on Jul. 31 and Gorton’s failure to trade him before it look like costly mistakes. The fact that Spooner wasn’t dealt to bring in prospects or picks is disappointing, even if it’s uncertain what kind of package the Rangers could have received for him before the season began. This isn’t a case of debating which team “won” this trade, it’s about if this trade will help the Rangers rebuild.
So, what are we to make of all of these moves and decisions by Gorton? The bottom line is that it’s far too early to judge Gorton’s progress on the Rangers rebuild, but we can still question the decisions he’s made — especially those decisions that were earmarked as problematic when the Rangers’ GM first made them. For the most part, Gorton’s track record since the 2018 trade deadline has been somewhat underwhelming, but he and the Rangers don’t appear to be in any rush to move their assets.
When the NHL’s roster freeze lifts on Dec. 28 there will be just 60 days until the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 25. Sometime between now and then Gorton has to either extend Hayes or move him in a blockbuster deal, move Mats Zuccarello and bring back as many picks and prospects as possible, and find a way to deal McQuaid for more than the Rangers gave up to acquire him three months ago. In addition to all of that, he has to listen for potential suitors on Namestnikov, Vesey, and Chris Kreider. Given the amount of Rangers that can and should be in play; Gorton will have to act quickly or risk missing a window to make a deal.
One way or another, the events of the next two months are going to shape the Rangers’ rebuild. Gorton has a lot of big decisions to make. So, which piece will be the first to fall?