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2018 Report Card: Jeff Gorton Part I

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Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Disclaimers: For last season’s Jeff Gorton report card, Shayna focused on his decisions from the offseason following the 2015-16 season through the Rangers’ playoff elimination in 2016-17. As such, this report card will be based on the decisions he’s made since last season’s playoff elimination through the conclusion of the 2017-18 regular season. In addition to that, this report card ended up being over 3,100 words, and that’s too much for one article. Today’s piece will be covering the moves Gorton made over the offseason of 2017.

Following last season’s abomination of a playoff exit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, Jeff Gorton had his work cut out for him. The right side of New York’s blue line corps was a mess, with the likes of Dan Girardi, Brendan Smith, Nick Holden, and Kevin Klein all playing over their heads and/or out of position. Mika Zibanejad, Matt Puempel, and Jesper Fast needed to be brought back at reasonable prices, and the specters of buyouts for Girardi and Marc Staal loomed over the team’s future salary cap situation. With the draft and free agency coming shortly after the closing of the buyout window, Gorton needed to be on his toes in order to shore up whatever holes his roster had following the season.

Unlike players where you can wade through dozens upon dozens of statistics to get a tangible result of their on-ice performance, there isn’t much to grade a general manager on. The team’s statistics can be attributed to the general manager the same way as I applied them to Alain Vigneault, but that would just turn into the same argument against Vigneault only on a less specific level.

For Gorton, (and general managers in general) I feel the best way to grade his season is on the moves he made and how they impacted the Rangers’ outlook going forward. The past 12 months have been odd, as the Rangers made moves that indicated looking towards the future one moment before turning around and making “win-now” moves shortly afterwards. Without passing judgement on whether the more strategic plan is to keep trying to win in the Lundqvist era or tear it down and begin again, the moves will be graded strictly on the quality assets the franchise got in return for what they gave away, whether it be money, draft picks, or players and prospects. This is going to be a long one, so be ready.

Trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta for Tony DeAngelo and the 7th Overall Selection: D

Seemingly since the ink dried on the six year, $39 million contract he signed following the 14-15 season, rumors were swirling that the Rangers wanted to move on from their top line center before his No-Movement Clause kicked in on July 1st, 2017. The Minnesota Wild were reportedly hot and heavy for Stepan over the summer of 2016, but Gorton elected to hold onto him until the Arizona Coyotes came calling the following year. With eyes on defensive prospect Cale Makar and forward prospect Elias Pettersson, Gorton took a leap of faith by sending his #1 center of the present (along with Raanta, who at that point was a borderline starter) to the desert for a chance at landing an impact player of the future, with DeAngelo being something of a throw-in.

This trade was questionable at best the day it was made, and eleven months later that still holds true. DeAngelo was/is a major question mark with mediocre on-ice results, and his debut season on Broadway left plenty to be desired. Raanta was most likely a goner via trade during the offseason anyway, but it’s hard to imagine the Rangers couldn’t have gotten more value for him than Arizona gave.

Derek Stepan put up 56 points for a dreadful Coyotes team, his fifth consecutive season scoring in the range of 53-57 points, and was more or less the same player he always was in New York based on his shot metrics. Andersson had a respectable D+1 season that should leave Rangers’ fans optimistic, but trading a known commodity for a mystery box when you don’t need to do so is never ideal. The trade could still end up working out for New York, but it doesn’t look much better now than it did eleven months ago.

Despite concerns about age related decline prior to his NMC kicking in, Derek Stepan was the same consistent player in Arizona he always was in New York
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

2017 NHL Entry Draft: B+

When the Rangers walked onto the draft floor following the Stepan trade, they were slated to make six selections: 7th, 21st, 102nd, 145th, 157th, and 207th. They ended up picking players in five of those six positions, trading the 102nd pick to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for the 123rd and 174th picks. Trading down and picking up extra picks is always the optimal strategy given the nature of the crapshoot that the draft is.

With their seven selections, the Rangers added Andersson at 7, Filip Chytil at 21, Brandon Crawley at 123, Calle Sjalin at 145, Dominik Lakatos at 157, Morgan Barron at 174, and Patrik Virta at 207. Andersson and Chytil appear on track to become solid NHL players, with both making their NHL debuts this season. Selecting Crawley appeared questionable on draft day, and a 2-3-5 stat line in 64 AHL games didn’t do much to change his bleak NHL outlook. Lakatos and Virta had solid seasons in the Czech Republic and Finland respectively, while Sjalin and Barron had quiet years in Sweden and the ECAC respectively. If Andersson and Chytil continue trending up, than the 2017 draft will go down as a success.

Pre-July 1st Player Transactions: D+

There’s four moves that fit into this category: Extending Matt Puempel, losing Oscar Lindberg in the Expansion Draft, buying out Dan Girardi, and extending Brendan Smith. The Puempel signing was only made to meet the requirements of the expansion draft and had zero impact on New York’s future plans. Lindberg was a solid but replaceable player, and with the following week’s drafting of Chytil and Andersson (alongside later additions), Lindberg’s spot on the Rangers’ roster was in jeopardy anyway, so his loss doesn’t move the needle much either.

The bulk of this grade comes from Gorton’s handling of Girardi and Smith. Buying out Girardi was the obvious move, and it’s one that should have been made in the previous offseason. The fact that Gorton even entertained the notion of extending Smith was a major red flag, and with a plethora of better players available for a fraction of Smith’s price, his extension became all the more mind-boggling when the ink dried on his contract. His performance didn’t merit a demotion to the AHL this season, but the whole saga could have been avoided had Gorton been a bit more shrewd over the summer.

Handling Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agency: A-

When the madness of free agency’s first wave came and went, the Rangers’ organization saw 12 players move on. Headlined by depth UFA’s Brandon Pirri, Adam Clendening, Marek Hrivik, and Tanner Glass, along with RFA Nicklas Jensen, the Rangers didn’t lose any players of consequence. Keeping Jensen in the fold would have been preferable, but he likely didn’t see a path into the NHL within the Blueshirts’ organization and opted to take his talents overseas. None of the players New York let go made much impact in the NHL this season, as the former Rangers combined for 26 games played, (led by Glass’ 16 with the Calgary Flames) three goals, (all by Pirri with the Vegas Golden Knights) and two assists (both by Clendening with the Arizona Coyotes).

Gorton was busy during the first wave of free agency, as he signed five players to NHL contracts from July 1st through the 4th. Kevin Shattenkirk courted the Rangers, rather than the other way around, and Gorton agreed to the four year contract Shattenkirk brought to him. Paul Carey, Ondrej Pavelec, Cole Schneider, and David Desharnais also joined the organization in the early days of the league year, but Shattenkirk’s signing was the headline.

The team’s second biggest signing came two weeks later, when they inked Alexandar Georgiev to an entry-level deal out of Finland. Nothing was expected out of Georgiev in his first North American season, but injuries above him and strong play after his recall allowed him to displace Pavelec for the top spot behind Henrik Lundqvist on the depth chart, and cement himself as the backup for next season.

Alexandar Georgiev went from an organizational afterthought in mid-July to one of the team’s few bright spots in 2018
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

After signing Puempel, the Rangers had three restricted free agents to bring back into the fold. Daniel Catenacci agreed to a one year deal and spent all but one game of the season in Hartford, so he doesn’t factor in here. After finishing a two year, $950,000 AAV contract, Gorton brought back Jesper Fast for three years with a cap hit of $1.85 million. The price and term were reasonable for the versatility Fast brought to the bottom six, and Fast took on a larger role this season. Setting career highs on TOI/games played, points, and points per 60, Fast saw more time in the top nine and even wore an “A” after the trade deadline fire sale.

As for the final RFA, Gorton inked Mika Zibanejad to a five year, $5.35 million AAV contract to be the team’s top line center going forward. The move appears to have paid dividends one season later, as Zibanejad set career highs in goals and points per game while skating on the team’s 1st line. Aside from acquiring more depth on the right side of the defense, Gorton couldn’t have done a better job navigating the minefield that free agency has become in today’s NHL.

Final Thoughts

The summer of 2017 was a mixed bag for Jeff Gorton. Trading Derek Stepan left the team without a definite top line center, and resulted in the team banking on some combination of Andersson, Mika Zibanejad, and Kevin Hayes filling his shoes. In addition to that, signing Brendan Smith to an extension was a bad move from the get-go and played a role in what would become a nightmare campaign for the Blueshirts.

On the other hand, the Rangers didn’t get victimized by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, as Gorton opted against overthinking the situation and handing Vegas assets in favor of just letting them select one of New York’s bottom six forwards. Gorton also managed to bring back all of his RFA’s at reasonable prices, and landed the best right-handed defenseman to skate on the team’s blue line in decades via free agency, while avoiding any bad contracts.

The second part of this report card will cover the moves Gorton made during the course of the 2017-18 season, so stay tuned for that tomorrow morning.

2018 Report Cards: Marc Staal / Mats Zuccarello / Ryan Spooner / Rob O’Gara / Jimmy Vesey/ Brendan Smith / Vladislav Namestnikov / Brady Skjei / Steven Kampfer / Jesper Fast /Alexandar Georgiev / Pavel Buchnevich/ Ondrej Pavelec / Kevin Hayes / Mika Zibanejad /Alain Vigneault / John Gilmour / Ryan McDonagh / Neal Pionk / Ryan Sproul / Kevin Shattenkirk / Chris Kreider