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Blueshirt Banter’s End of 2018 Round Table

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NHL: Nashville Predators at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

With 2018 coming to a close, we at Blueshirt Banter wanted to reflect back on some of the highs and lows of the year for the Rangers and around the NHL.

What was your NYR 2018 highlight?

Mike: Trading up in the 2018 Draft to select K’Andre Miller. I have to admit, at first I was skeptical about general manager Jeff Gorton using the second round pick the Rangers acquired in the Michael Grabner trade to move up four picks from the 1st round pick that came back in the Rick Nash deal. But since the draft, Miller has become the Rangers most enchanting prospect. Moving up to get Miller was also a clear indication that the front office wanted to overhaul the defense and bring in as many quality prospects as possible. It’s still early, but there’s a lot of defensive talent in the pipeline and Miller is right at the top. I haven’t asked myself, “Why not Bokk?” for a few months now.

Tom: Highlights are generally something positive, such as an amazing highlight reel of goals or amazing saves. But for me I am using highlight in the context of being memorable, and for me I think of February 8, 2018. That was the day the New York Rangers announced to the fans the intentions to rebuild, and went into detail on what their plan was going to be. Hockey is a sport in which individuals are more guarded and conservative than other sports, and cards are usually played closed to the chest. When players or executives speak you can usually break out a bingo card and check off the usual cliches and catch phrases that we’ve come to know, love, and loathe.

To the Rangers’ credit, this letter was an act of good faith engaging with an uber loyal and dedicated fan base, and telling them that things were going to change. They didn’t exactly say they were going to trade player X for player Y, but were direct in saying, “As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.” The letter was well received within the hockey community, and the team was applauded for its transparency. I would like to believe that this was a first step in changing how the team operates, and that they have truly taken note on how other teams around the league have gone about building a contender.

Kevin: Trying to find highlights from the last 365 days of the Rangers’ year is like trying to find diamond buried under a mountain of coal. It’s there, but you gotta dig deep and get real dirty trying to find it. Personally, I think being at the Winter Classic in January was super cool, and that image of the team mobbing J.T. Miller after the overtime goal while fire erupted behind them is still etched in my head.

Overall though, I think I’m with Tom on this. February 8th, 2018 is such a watershed moment; the day the Rangers sent out The Letter everything changed. The Rangers waived the white flag on a season and decided to play a long game at the deadline. Then they went out and traded Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, and their captain Ryan McDonagh; three major cornerstones of the last great era of Rangers teams. We’re in the thick of a rather unprecedented era of Rangers hockey, the last vestiges of the last Golden Age of Rangers hockey are either on their way out (Zuccarello, Kreider, Hayes) or are still excellent but seeing the writing on the wall (Hank). The new foundation of the next great era is being built and even more of it is nowhere near Broadway. While the on-ice product might be legitimately bad, there is a new air around the team. For the last few years the team has felt stagnant; same coach, same players, same results, same ending. Now, there is this exciting air of uncertainty and a sense of forward momentum. Every time players like Pavel Buchnevich and Filip Chytil take the ice at MSG or I see a Vitali Kravtsov, Igor Shestyorkin, or K’Andre Miller highlight I get excited. It’s a weirdly fun time to be a Rangers fan and it all started back in February.

Scott: My highlight was the draft. Ever since I first got into hockey I’ve known the Rangers as a playoff team, which is really cool when they’re really successful (like when they went to the Stanley Cup Final). But when they started slipping a bit and you found yourself rooting for them to just make the playoffs and then get bounced quickly, I would look at the Toronto’s and Buffalo’s of the league. I would rather be excited about the future and be working towards acquiring high-end players than hoping for another early playoff exit. This winning mentality caused the Rangers to make a lot of short-sighted moves that sacrificed the long-term outlook of the team. Every year at the draft I would see people get excited about their team’s new top prospect and I would be left with waiting until the third round to finally get to the Rangers first selection.

But this year’s draft was different and so much more fun. The Rangers had three first round picks! Kravtsov’s a beast, Miller’s a stud, and the future is bright for New York, which is something that hasn’t really been said for a long time.

Beth: K’Andre Miller not only coming to the NYR, but also announcing that his hero is Barack Obama, calling out the whiteness of the sport, and declaring that he wants to be a role model for players of color ... suck on that, Dolan. It takes such courage in this sport to acknowledge difference and prejudice. I can’t wait.

Jack: The signs of it were starting to bubble up last year, but Filip Chytil’s continued rise from obscurity to what looks like future stardom was one of, if not the only significant positive the Rangers will be heading into 2019 with. I’ll give an honorable mention to all the smoke surrounding the Rangers and Artemi Panarin. It feels similar to the how the situations with Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017 and Brad Richards in 2011 felt, and if the outcome is the same, the franchise’s rebuild will be nearly complete.

Shayna: What Beth said, again and again and again. K’Andre Miller is a breath of fresh air. The NHL not only needs to become a more diverse league, but a more welcoming league to diverse players that celebrates and highlights them, instead of finding ways to critique them.

Along with Miller, overall the Rangers announcing their rebuild was a highlight. I think had they taken this approach — or at least the approach of a retool instead of buying at deadline a few years ago, maybe in 2015-16 — the Rangers could be in a much different place right now. It’s never easy to admit defeat, but the Rangers not only recognized their flaws, but have actively looked to make changes.

What was your NHL 2018 highlight?

Mike: Ovechkin and Backstrom lifting the Stanley Cup. The rivalry that was once red hot between the Rangers and Capitals has cooled in recent years, but the brilliance of Ovechkin and Backstrom left a lasting impression. For my money, Backstrom is the most underrated superstar of his generation and Ovechkin is so charismatic and so fun, that it was hard not to smile watching him lift the Cup. Washington’s victory should be bittersweet to Rangers fans because they were finally able to do what the Rangers failed to do during the Lundqvist Cup window. But there’s no denying that Ovechkin and Backstrom were and are deserving champions.

Tom: I echo Mike’s thoughts, and agree that seeing Alex Ovechkin winning the Stanley Cup was cool. In many ways he was the forward equivalent of Henrik Lundqvist, an immensely talented player with personal and international team accolades, but ever haunted for not having won “the big one.” It is understandable that fans may not like him when he is playing the Rangers, and he’s a divisional rival so it seems like sacrilege reveling in his success. But Ovechkin is one of the most talented players in NHL history, and he will go down as one of, if not the greatest goal scorers in league history. He is having an incredible season, which is even more impressive when you consider how he spent a good portion of his offseason — deservedly so — celebrating his Cup win. The Vegas Golden Knights making a run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season would be a close second, and it was inspiring to see how the team and community came together in the wake of the senseless and grotesque mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. There was something certainly special about their run, and based on their play thus far it looks like they aren’t a complete fluke

Kevin: How is this answer not Alex Ovechkin finally winning the Stanley Cup with the Capitals? All the years of talking heads calling out and doubting the greatest goalscorer the sport has seen is put to rest. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals went out there and slayed all of their dragons on the way to winning the Cup. They got past the second round, finally got through Crosby and the Penguins, and as a nice finishing touch the Caps beat Marc-Andre Fleury to actually win the damn thing. The only way it could be more fitting was if they had to go through one last seven game set against Hank and the Rangers to do it.

Scott: I have to go with Ovechkin winning the Stanley Cup too. I’ve always like Ovechkin and admired just how good of a goal scorer he is. It gets lost on people just how elite his offensive abilities are and I never understood why he took so much criticism. “But a team can’t win without him! He’s too selfish!” It’s nice that people can’t use those excuses anymore and we can all just enjoy watching one of the all-time greatest goal scorers in history play.

Beth: Another vote for Ovi and the Caps lifting the Cup. On one hand, I’m just glad it wasn’t the Pens again; on the other, I can’t help loving Ovi, the consistency of his excellence, and, yes, his parallels with Lundqvist (“All series, baby. All series.”), although I worry that they won’t end up equivalent in the way that matters most.

Jack: It’s a highlight for all the wrong reasons, but watching the trainwreck the Ottawa Senators have become has been the most entertaining part of the relatively drama-free NHL. After sending a cavalcade of future assets to Colorado upgrade from Kyle Turris to Matt Duchene, the Senators hopes and dreams all came crashing down as the calendar turned to 2018. From the high of being “the team that ‘beat’ analytics” in the spring of 2017, to sitting near the basement of the league for 12 months is bad enough. When you include the Mike Hoffman saga (the off-ice situation and then the trades that saw the Sharks rob Ottawa blind only to flip Hoffman back into the Atlantic Division), the ongoing calamity that their arena situation has become, the laughingstock that Eugene Melnyk and everything about him and his finances is, and handling the Erik Karlsson situation as bad as humanly possible, it’s all just one ongoing clown show. This is an organization that makes the New York Jets look competent. That’s embarrassing, and I feel bad for Senators fans. Just not bad enough for me to not point and laugh.

Shayna: Ovechkin and Backstrom hoisting the Stanley Cup has to win it for me too. We all know Ovechkin is an excellent player that’s faced criticism throughout his career for his shortcomings, and Backstrom will probably forever be on of the most underrated players in the league. Plus, we can’t forget Ovechkin’s reactions to every Capitals’ goal scored and watching them parade around Washington D.C. to do keg stands with the Stanley Cup and swim in public fountains. The joy from Ovechkin and the Capitals was contagious and to see the excitement from the city as well as the team involved the fans in some of their celebrations was really great.

What was the lowest NYR point of 2018?

Mike: When the news broke that Kevin Shattenkirk had been playing on one knee for as long as he had last season, it was alarming. When we remembered that Alain Vigneault took Shattenkirk to task despite having knowledge of that injury, it was infuriating. It was one of the last and most grievous sins of Vigneault’s tenure as the head coach of the Rangers. And, for whatever reason, it has left a lasting impression on me.

Tom: Alain Vigneault taking aim at Henrik Lundqvist in February, a day after the letter to the fans was released was a real what the f*ck moment for me. I think the topic has been discussed at great lengths, and Shayna summed it up here.

I also looked at the situation in this article linked below.

In short though, AV calling out Lundqvist was ill advised, and felt like the wrong thing to do at the time.

Kevin: Mike and Tom both pointed out two examples of it, but my lowest Rangers point of the season was Alain Vigneault’s Sisyphean second half of the season. I understand that coaches are paid to win games and when the organization says “yeah, we don’t really plan on doing that” it could be seen as a hit to your pride, but come on. AV spent the second half of the season belligerently digging in his heels as the boulder came rolling back down the hill time and again on his team to the detriment of everyone around him. While this wasn’t the reason he lost his job (his job was gone probably after the Winter Classic if we’re being honest), that second half of the season definitely drove the final nail in the coffin.

Scott: Even though I knew it had to be done and was excited for the rebuild, it was still a bit disappointing to see Ryan McDonagh traded. Then when I found out the Rangers traded Miller to Tampa Bay too without even getting an elite prospect in return (like Mikhail Sergechev), I was disappointed. With Howden doing so well I don’t feel nearly as disappointed when thinking of the trade but it was still sad to see happen.

Beth: Vigneault’s clear refusal to take responsibility, his insistence on blame and mind games, his unapologetic adherence to an approach that not only wasn’t winning games, but was clearly demoralizing his players, to me represents the worst of hockey culture. Wasted years for so many players, in a sport in which age and mileage make a tremendous difference.

Jack: There’s so much to choose from. The bad contracts to most of the team’s restricted free agents, the McDonagh/Miller trade, and Vigneault being the fall guy for a roster gutted by Gorton are all among the lowest lows the team has experienced since the 2005 lockout ended. If there’s one move that was more groan-inducing than the rest of them, it’d have to be the decision to give up multiple draft picks to bring Adam McQuaid to New York less than two weeks before training camp. Adam McQuaid isn’t a useful player, and signing him to a league minimum deal out of free agency would have been bad. But for a team that’s rebuilding, giving up two draft picks to swap a six figure AHL defender for ... a seven figure AHL defender? The team already had nine defenders who either belonged in the NHL, or deserved a chance to prove themselves since they would’ve had nothing to lose. Instead, the rebuilding Rangers would’ve been trotting out the likes of McQuaid, Marc Staal, and Brendan Smith on a regular basis had McQuaid not gotten injured, although there’s plenty of time for that during the second half of the season. Come on, Jeff. Be better next time.

Shayna: Watching Lundqvist’s frustration build in the second half of the season. It was hard enough to watch last December when was being run into the ground to save their season with 12? 13? consecutive starts. It somehow got worse in the second half when he was blamed for the Rangers’ disappointing results. Yes, he made mistakes as well like when he would overcompensate for their awful defense, but why did he feel he had to? The team in front of him that didn’t adjust their play to support him

But another low point was watching more of the same. Decisions from Gorton, Vigneault, and even the mostly-new coaching staff. Watching veterans get leaned on instead of young players or young players out of the lineup for veterans, to see a rebuilding team have a defense with too defenders on the decline, to see Lundqvist face over 40 shots in a game over and over again. And I’m disappointed in how traditional the Rangers have stayed in their approach. They have had so many opportunities to see a more progressive approach, but with each step forward there’s another back. The New York Rangers hired a coach that saw value in analytics, yet few decisions have reflected that. The New York Islanders and MSG Networks added more women to the their broadcasting team, but the Rangers haven’t. Hockey has always been slow in progressing, but I had hoped with the Rangers rebuilding that they’d take the risk and try to integrate that into their decisions on the ice and off the ice.

Any other reflections and thoughts on the year?

Mike: Blueshirt Banter will forever hold a special place in my heart. I’ve been here for the better part of a decade and have seen this place go through a lot of phases and changes. Recently, it seems that the general unrest of the fan base has led to some fans, including some BSB readers, being less civil with each other and more prone to cynicism, cliquishness, and exclusion. We all know it’s a frustrating time to be a Rangers fan, but that is no excuse to be unkind and unreasonable with people. This place, this community, is and will be what you make it through your choice of language and how you interact with people. Choose to be kind. It matters.

Tom: The last 365 days have been tough because the Rangers have been a bad hockey team. I think some fans are still coming to grips with what a rebuild is. In many ways it is tough because Ranger fans have been spoiled with a really good team. In the 13 years since the NHL emerged from the full-season lockout, the Rangers have been a damn good team. The team accomplished a lot like winning 11 playoff series, an Eastern Conference title, a Presidents Trophy in which the franchise set a record for for wins (53) and points (113) and came within a game of making the Final for a second season in a row before ultimately coming short. All of these accolades are great, but the Rangers failed to win a Stanley Cup, and because of that there is likely some bitterness and angst. I can understand the frustration of coming oh so close and not winning, but it is better that the team decided to tear things town and start over instead of trying to limp along and continuing to add final piece after final piece.

All of that said, I think that things are going to get worse before they get better. That means that the franchise is going to think about what players they keep, and which ones they trade. Those decisions may be influenced by what offers the better return, and example of that could be keeping Hayes because his value is limited as a rental whereas Chris Kreider has term on his deal. This is the situation the team is in, and Blueshirt Banter is going to react accordingly. It may seem like we are constantly trying to trade your favorite players, but that isn’t the case. This is a rebuild, and we are simply trying to project what can/could happen based on what has been said, and what has already been done by the organization. I would simply say, re-read Mike’s thoughts on Banter, and take them to heart. We appreciate having a passionate and vocal readership, and are all hopeful for the team’s eventual return to being a legitimate contender.

Kevin: Adjustments. Whenever I think back on the last year of being a Rangers fan and being in the middle of this new era, the one word that comes to mind is adjustments. On the ice, the team is adjusting to a new, rookie head coach while in the stands and online fans are adjusting to this new era of Rangers hockey. The biggest adjustment, I think, has to be patience all around. The Rangers are good now, and won’t be good for the next year or so and I think we all have had to adjust how we view the team and the moves the team has made over the last 365 days. There’s also been an adjustment on how to view and analyze the team on the day to day basis and these adjustments are something that we are all still getting used to. Personally, I’ve learned that it is a hell of a lot easier to follow a team that has a clear, short term goal in mind but it feels much more exciting to follow a team as it builds from the ground up.

Scott: I don’t mind the Rangers are bad; they’re supposed to be and it’s all part of the plan to be better in the future. Time and time again we’ve seen that the best way to win a Cup is to draft high and you only get there by starting at the bottom. The worst thing you could do is mindlessly wander from season to season without a plan and constantly try to patch a fundamentally flawed foundation with short-term fixes. Every team’s goal should be to win a Stanley Cup, and this is probably the best way to get to that goal. There’ll be plenty of more losing ahead but I’m okay with that, especially as the game’s have still been entertaining and fun to watch.

Beth: A rebuild would be easier if the Rangers just straight out sucked, but they don’t; it’s like they can’t. And Hank is part of that, but not all of it; there are flashes of brilliance from every line every so often, that make every game closer than it should be, and represent the tragedy both of Vigneault’s tenure, and this rebuild. When firing on all cylinders, even during this rebuild, the Rangers can beat anyone. But they aren’t, and statistically, they shouldn’t be. It makes for a grueling experience as a fan.

Jack: No. It sucked, but it’s in the past now. We’re on to 2019.

Shayna: As necessary as a rebuild is, it’s been a tough year for Ranger fans, and it’s probably only going to get tougher, especially come the trade deadline and beyond. Like Mike said, it may lead to some unrest among fans and I think we need to keep that in mind so we can all be better to each other through this process. That extends to those covering the team as well; we all have to be better and have room to improve. It’s going to get stale writing the same stories each and every night about how the team fell short once again, and it’s going to get stale shifting blame around. We owe it to ourselves and our readers to grow and be at our best while covering this team because there’s still a ways to go before this rebuild is done.

What to look forward to in 2019

Mike: The main thing I’m looking forward to is the development (and, dare I say the acquisition) of prospects and bearing witness to the young players who emerge as part of the new core that will inevitably form. With that being said, I am in no way am I looking forward to the Mats Zuccarello trade. Over the years I have become more objective in my relationship with hockey. As a writer, I root for stories more often than players. But you can’t not love Zuccarello, especially if you understand what he’s meant to the team and how close he was to never playing hockey again. It’s going to happen and it’s going to hurt, but, with any luck, the Zuccarello trade will bring back more bricks to build the next competitive Rangers roster.

Tom: Seeing the kids continue to grow is something I am hopeful for in 2019. The kids are the Rangers’ future, and if they develop and are taught well; they can lead the way. It will also be intriguing to see how the organization augments the roster and utilizes cap space to make significant improvements upfront and on defense. In a perfect world the Rangers can follow the model the Toronto Maple Leafs have in terms of having a good balance of talented youngsters and bringing in skilled players to fill in the gaps. The Rangers still lack a an elite gamebreaker like Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner, but a lottery pick in 2019 could be a start. So could Artemi Panarin. Kasperi Kapanen has been a bright spot for the Leafs, and he will be around for the immediate future because the team saw where things were going, and decided to move on from Phil Kessel. James van Riemsdyk left in free agency in July, and Kapanen has stepped up in a huge way.

Kevin: I’m really looking forward to how the deadline shakes out. I firmly believe that there is no right or wrong answer to the Kevin Hayes conundrum and seeing what comes out of the Great Selloff 2: Electric Boogaloo is really enticing. I’m also looking forward to watching Filip Chytil continue to dazzle, Pavel Buchnevich continue to find himself as the top-line winger we all know he is/could be. Finally, I’m also looking forward to Vitali Kravtsov, whether he comes to North America or not. The Rangers past was dazzling, if a tad dented, the present is a tire fire, but the future looks incredibly bright.

Scott: There are plenty of things to look forward. The trade deadline should be just as interesting with plenty of player possibly getting moved. The Rangers might be more active in free agency than you might expect, especially if big names like Artemi Panarin hit the market. And overall just watching the rookies like Filip Chytil, Brett Howden, and Neal Pionk continue to play and (hopefully) get better.

Jack: 2019 free agency will make or break the Rangers’ future. The trade deadline will be what it’s going to be, but there’s not much mystery surrounding who will and won’t be in New York when March comes. If the Rangers can land a player like Artemi Panarin or Mark Stone, there will be plenty of reason for optimism heading into year two of David Quinn’s tenure behind the bench. If all goes well, the Rangers will get a talent infusion featuring the likes of Panarin, Igor Shestyorkin, Vitali Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller, and possibly more. If the team strikes out on big name free agents, and if their non-contracted prospects elect to stay put in their current leagues, there won’t be much reason for hope anytime soon.

Shayna: Mike is totally right — if Zuccarello and other fan favorites are moved, it’ll be great to see them win. Along with that, hopefully, we’ll have the development of prospects to look forward to from the continuing emergence of Filip Chytil, K’Andre Miller’s growth at Wisconsin, to Vitali Kravtsov thriving in the KHL and potentially moving to North America in the spring.

But more than anything, it’s the progression of the rebuild and not the extension of it. As long as the Rangers keep progressing, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the players, Lundqvist, and for fans that are so invested in the team.