Following yesterday’s first part of Jeff Gorton’s report card, which focused solely on the 2017 offseason, today’s piece will be covering the moves Gorton made over the course of the 2017-18 season. Once again, the grades are handed out without prejudice as to whether competing with Henrik Lundqvist or building around a new core in the future is a more sensible strategy compared to the other one. The grades are strictly based on the quality off assets the team brought into or shipped out of the organization.
Minor Roster Moves Throughout the Season: C-
Nothing in this section really moved the needle on New York’s in-season results, but I feel it’s worth a mention. Claiming Adam Cracknell off waivers, subsequently shipping him to Montreal for Peter Holland, and swapping Matt Puempel for Ryan Sproul were three early season moves that attempted to shore up New York’s organizational depth. Sproul spent most of the season in the AHL, Cracknell lasted four games before being waived again, and Holland was part of the carousel of forgettable bottom six forwards that filled the team’s lineup down the stretch. The only move Gorton made worth having an opinion on was claiming Cody McLeod off waivers in January, but even then the season was almost lost at that point anyway, so it didn’t cause much damage to the team’s chances.
The team also made two minor swaps leading up to the trade deadline, sending Ryan Graves to Colorado in exchange for Chris Bigras and swapping Adam Chapie and Joe Whitney for John Albert and Hubert Labrie of the Washington Capitals, but the odds of any of those six players earning NHL minutes in the future is minimal.
Trade Deadline Rental Deals: B/Incomplete
The McDonagh trade gets a separate grade due to it being more of a “hockey trade” than the other three, so this section focuses on the Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, and Nick Holden trades. The Holden trade is the type of move that gets made by contending teams every single deadline: Depth defenseman for a mid-round pick. Acquiring Rob O’Gara wasn’t necessary, but as long as he doesn’t sniff the NHL next season the Rangers will be in good shape and the trade will go down as a minor win. The Rangers traded the 114th pick for Holden in 2016, got a season and a half of solid play out of him, and turned him into the 88th pick of this year’s draft. It’s hard to describe Holden’s tenure in New York as anything other than a success.
Netting a first round pick for Michael Grabner would have been nice, but only one rental winger landed one of those selections, so it’s hard to be mad about that. Gorton did a great job in extracting value from a rival team though, as he landed a 2nd Round selection (48th overall) along with defensive prospect Yegor Rykov from the New Jersey Devils for the right to rent Grabner.
Not that it factors into the grade, but Grabner was a major flop in New Jersey, posting a 2-3-5 slash line in 21 regular season games. He followed that up by going pointless in two playoff games against Tampa Bay, and spent the final three games of his season watching from the press box as a healthy scratch. That’s the type of stretch that would make Blueshirts’ fans long for the days of Eric Staal on Broadway. There’s an argument to be made that Grabner netted the biggest positive haul of any rental winger at this year’s deadline, so this was an all-around excellent move by Gorton.
The Rick Nash trade involved more pieces than anybody could have imagined prior to his time on Broadway ending. The Rangers received a 2018 1st Round selection (26th overall), a 2019 7th Round selection, defensive prospect Ryan Lindgren, and forwards Matt Beleskey and Ryan Spooner in return for Nash. The 26th pick is the major prize here, as Nash was the only pure rental winger on the market that landed a first round selection this season. The Bruins retained 50% of Beleskey’s contract, and the Rangers took on the remaining two years of his contract at $1.9 million AAV, to help facilitate the deal.
Beleskey could earn a spot in the team’s bottom six next season if things break the right way for him, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. He was never worth the $19 million contract Boston signed him to, but he’s similar to Brendan Smith in that he’s still unquestionably an NHL-caliber player, so a change of scenery could help him revitalize his career.
The result of this trade gets murky with Ryan Spooner’s inclusion. I’m strictly of the opinion that trades can only be graded fairly at the time of the trade, but given Spooner’s situation I don’t think that’s easily done in this case. Spooner is a player that Boston had been looking to move in the right deal for years, and a wave of younger players beneath him on the depth chart finally pushed him out. He came to New York and posted 16 points in 20 games down the stretch, but Jeff Gorton can’t afford to fall in love with those numbers while ignoring the big picture.
To make a long story short, Spooner’s excellent point production, both in New York and Boston, has been undermined by horrendous shot and scoring chance differentials across the board. Signing him to a long term deal would be detrimental to the team’s future success, and his future with the team will make or break the grade of the Rick Nash trade. There haven’t been any rumblings on which of the team’s four RFA forwards are in their future plans, so it wouldn’t be fair to pencil Spooner into next year’s lineup or assume he’s not on the roster.
Trading Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller for Future Assets: D
When the clock struck 3:00 PM on deadline day and Ryan McDonagh was still a Ranger, most fans breathed a sigh of relief. Moving McDonagh wasn’t something that needed to happen that day, so the thought of Gorton standing firm on a high asking price and refusing to settle for a sub-par offer was a refreshing one.
In the minutes following 3:00 PM, the news that McDonagh hadn’t made it past the deadline began to leak out. Shortly after that, J.T. Miller’s inclusion became public, and the complete trade was announced shortly thereafter: It was McDonagh and Miller for a 2018 1st Round pick (29th overall) prospects Libor Hajek and Brett Howden, forward Vladislav Namestnikov, and a conditional 2019 2nd Round selection (becomes a 1st if Tampa wins the Stanley Cup next season).
If the Rangers had zero chance of being a competitive team next year and McDonagh was going to walk into free agency for nothing, this trade would be palatable. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Looking at the trade from a value perspective, the Rangers received two good but not great prospects, one (possibly two) late first round pick(s) and a middle six tweener who’s closer to a third line forward in exchange for a top pairing defenseman under contract for two playoff runs and a middle six tweener who’s closer to a second line forward. Gorton opted for quantity over quality on this trade, and it’s difficult to see how that strategy will pay off in the long run.
The dream scenario would’ve been a package centered around either Brayden Point or Mikhail Sergachev and a more valuable roster player such as Yanni Gourde. If Steve Yzerman wasn’t willing to part with quality pieces, Gorton didn’t need to capitulate to him and settle for a package lacking in high-upside assets. With Ilya Kovalchuk’s anticipated arrival, a few minor depth moves and a bill of good health was all that New York would have needed to compete for a Stanley Cup had they held onto McDonagh.
Miller was likely to be moved in the offseason had he not been dealt at the deadline, so his days in New York were numbered regardless of the team’s trade deadline plans. That didn’t need to be the case for McDonagh, and his exit created a massive hole in New York’s lineup. In what was inarguably the biggest move Gorton made over the last twelve months, he failed to extract fair value from Steve Yzerman and ended the Rangers’ championship hopes for the near future. Unless all of the prospects develop as expected, the trade could end up harming the team’s long-term optics as well.
Final Grade: D+
While most of the blame for New York’s nightmarish 2017-18 campaign fell on the shoulders of Alain Vigneault, placing it on Jeff Gorton is the more sensible reaction. The Derek Stepan trade gutted the team of its once vaunted center depth, and replacing him with David Desharnais worked about as well as anyone could expect. His best move, signing Shattenkirk, was much closer to Shattenkirk signing himself onto the team and Gorton approving it rather than going out and landing the big fish of the offeason. His actions leading up to the deadline would go down as a smashing success, but the McDonagh trade wiped out what good Gorton had previously done.
All in all, New York’s general manager had a rough go of things following last year’s playoff elimination. Injuries pushed the team past the point of no return and all but assured the Rangers’ first spring without playoff hockey since 2010, but the moves he made leading up to opening night didn’t leave the team with much room for error. One thing, whether it was a rash of injuries or general under performance, would have been enough to turn this into a lost season.
When both of those issues cropped up, Gorton’s past decisions came back to haunt his team, and effectively ended a “golden era” of New York Rangers hockey.
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 / Jeff Gorton I