Note: At Blueshirt Banter we grade and evaluate the Rangers’ general manager based on their decisions following the end of the previous regular season and/or playoff run until the end of the most recent season and/or playoff run. In other words, the Adam Fox deal is not discussed in the evaluation below.
Jeff Gorton and then team president Glen Sather released an open letter to fans stating their intention to rebuild the New York Rangers on Feb. 8, 2018. Shortly thereafter, Gorton gutted the Rangers of their captain and several noteworthy players who had expiring contracts at the 2018 deadline. Despite that fire sale, the Rangers’ general manager still had a lot of tough decisions left on his plate before the 2018 offseason arrived.
Gorton needed to re-sign a several key restricted free agents, including Brady Skjei, Kevin Hayes, as well as forwards Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Spooner, and Jimmy Vesey. He also had to serve the rebuild by avoiding temptation in free agency, keep an eye out for depth moves, hire a new head coach, and develop a fruitful working relationship with that hire, David Quinn.
Overall, the expectation for Gorton heading into the 2018-19 season was for him to stay the course with the rebuild. That meant moving players on expiring contracts — however painful that may be — and acquiring picks and prospects to bolster the Rangers’ prospect pipeline and add more youth to the current lineup.
In early May 2018, Gorton signed a duo of European free agents. Ville Meskanen and Michael Lindqvist joined the Rangers on a two-year and a one-year deal, respectively.
After the Capitals lifted the Cup, Gorton signed defenseman Fredrik Claesson and brought back Cody McLeod in the early days of unrestricted free agency. In August, Dustin Tokarski was signed to give the organization a little bit more depth in goal.
Of those five unrestricted free agents, the greatest success story was undoubtedly Claesson. He was arguably the Rangers’ best defenseman in the defensive zone this season, although he didn’t get much of an opportunity to play because of an injury and the team’s crowded blue line — there will be more on this later.
Fredrik Claesson, not qualified by Ottawa, is a good defensive third-pair defender who doesn't draw or take penalties. Should find a job somewhere, with any justice. pic.twitter.com/2Q0A0G0cmZ— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 26, 2018
Meskanen had an up-and-down first season in the AHL, but still has a chance to be an important part of what will be a new-look Hartford Wolf Pack in 2019-20. Lindqvist left the team in November to return to Sweden. He had seven points in 16 games with the Wolf Pack before he decided he’d rather be back in the SHL.
The McLeod signing and the Rangers reported interested in then free agent Ryan Reaves suggests that Gorton and company wanted a guardian on the ice to protect their younger players. McLeod played 31 games for the Rangers before he was dealt. In that window he scored one goal, earned 60 PIM, and had the worst underlying numbers among the Rangers’ forward.
Gorton had far more difficult decisions to make on the RFA front; the toughest calls he had to make were the Skjei and Hayes contracts.
He chose to lock-up Skjei to a controversial long-term contract and, after much deliberation, to sign Hayes to a controversial one-year deal. Gorton also handed out two-year deals to Namestnikov, Spooner, and Vesey.
- Brady Skjei | Six years, $5.25 million AAV.
- Kevin Hayes | One year, $5.175 million AAV.
- Vlad Namestnikov | Two years, $4 million AAV.
- Ryan Spooner | Two years, $4 million AAV.
- Jimmy Vesey | Two years, $2.275 million AAV.
Hayes’ one-year extension all but sealed his fate as a deadline casualty. However, Gorton did manage to avoid going to arbitration with all four of the players who filed for it, although it did come down to the wire with both Hayes and Spooner.
Skjei’s six-year, $31.5 million contract became the second biggest long-term contract Gorton has handed out with the future in mind. Tom Urtz Jr. wrote a great piece for Banter back in July that broke down the Skjei extension. The following is an excerpt from that piece:
I think if you take the highs of Skjei’s first season and the lows of his second season you still end up with a capable player at a fair cap hit. One that was only possible by signing him now as opposed to later. With the Rangers bringing in a new coaching staff as an acknowledgment that Alain Vigneault’s ran stale, there was no way they were going to give Skjei a chance to improve his value. Instead, they took a calculated risk to sign him for his prime.
Gorton put together several more contracts during the season itself.
He re-signed Boo Nieves and Hartford’s Steven Fogarty to one-year contracts on deadline day. Gorton also inked 2018 draft choice Joey Keane and UConn netminder Adam Huska — who the Rangers drafted in the 7th round of the 2015 Draft — to entry-level contracts.
In March, Gorton added another chapter to the Rangers’ tradition of signing undrafted prospects. He snagged forward Jake Elmer from the Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL) before coming to terms on a deal with St. Cloud State star forward Patrick Newell, who had 47 points in 39 games in his senior season. Both were low-risk moves that should help Hartford next season. And, as we all know, Hartford will need all the help it can get.
As expected, Gorton had another busy season when it came to trades. The nine swaps that he made this year matched his total from the 2017-18 season. And, just like last season, he was one of the busiest general managers in the league leading up to the trade deadline.
Before the season began Gorton brought in defenseman Adam McQuaid from Boston in exchange for depth defenseman Steven Kampfer, a 2019 4th round pick, and a conditional 7th. That trade spoke volumes about the front office’s uncertainty with Tony DeAngelo and Neal Pionk. It also reaffirmed that the front office felt that the team had a dearth of toughness.
After a lackluster start to the two-year deal he signed in the offseason, Spooner was sent west to Edmonton in exchange for Ryan Strome. Gorton agreed to retain a portion of Spooner’s salary to make it an equal exchange in terms of the cap hit. Clearly, Spooner’s two-year extension aged poorly in a hurry. He simply didn’t fit under Quinn’s vision for the team. Somehow, Gorton found a way to dodge a bullet of his own making by dealing him to a team that was desperate for new blood.
Strome emerged as a key depth piece for the Rangers and had a career year, while Spooner hit the waiver wire two months after the trade. The Oilers eventually traded him to the Vancouver Canucks for Sam Gagner.
Boy that Strome for Spooner deal looks better and better by the day— Joe Fortunato (@JoeFortunatoBSB) March 30, 2019
Gorton also made several minor moves leading up to the deadline, including bringing in forward Connor Brickley and shipping out Peter Holland, while also adding a pair of 7th round picks for Marek Mazanec and McLeod. Overall, he did exceedingly well in the smaller moves he made.
However, the deals that Gorton will be most judged on were the Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, and Adam McQuaid trades. All three players were pending unrestricted free agents, which made them coveted rentals for playoff-bound teams before the trade deadline.
- Two days before deadline day, Gorton dealt Zuccarello to Dallas for a conditional 2nd round pick in 2019 and a conditional 3rd round pick in 2020. The Rangers will get Dallas’ 1st round pick in 2019 if the Stars reach the Western Conference Final; they will get Dallas’ 1st round pick in 2020 if the Stars re-sign Zuccarello. The amount of upside to the deal helped to take some of the sting away from the departure of one of the Rangers’ most popular players.
- Gorton sent Hayes to Winnipeg for the Jets’ 1st rounder in 2019, a conditional 2022 4th round pick (which the Rangers will not receive), and young agitator Brendan Lemieux. Considering how much the Mark Stone negotiations held up the trade market, Gorton did well getting a 1st rounder and a young player who is expected to have a regular role on the team next season.
- Lastly, Gorton sent McQuaid to Columbus for the Blue Jackets’ 4th and 7th round picks in 2019, and defenseman Julius Bergman. Prior to the trade Bergman had already made plans to play in Sweden next year. He was essentially a warm body the sinking Wolf Pack could play for the remainder of the season. So, all things considered, the Rangers got less back for McQuaid than they gave up to acquire him because they moved down the board in the 4th round. Nope, not great.
Grade: B | Banter Consensus: B
Time will tell just how well — or poor — Gorton did in regards to the Skjei contract, but overall he did a relatively good job in free agency before the 2018-19 season began.
Gorton’s acquisition of McQuaid was definitely a misstep that was exacerbated by the coaching staff. The veteran defenseman created a logjam on the blue line that helped to bury Gorton’s best UFA signing (Claesson) and risked stymieing the development of young defensemen. However, the rest of Gorton’s deals this year brought back good or at least reasonable returns.
Overall, Gorton’s decisions this year were something of a mixed bag. But, if we focus on the big picture, he made more good calls than bad ones. Gorton made tough, but necessary decisions that served the rebuild and managed to escape — or nearly escape — a mess or two of his own making. One can only hope that he will learn from the missteps he made this year as he enters the fifth year of his reign.
All contract and salary information courtesy of CapFriendly.com.
2019 Report Cards: Ryan Strome / Filip Chytil / Brendan Lemieux / Tony DeAngelo / Chris Kreider / Pavel Buchnevich / Neal Pionk / Boo Nieves / Kevin Shattenkirk / Marc Staal / Jimmy Vesey / Brady Skjei