It’s Time For Jeff Gorton To End The Madness

The saying “better late than never” only applies if things are eventually, you know, done.

Since his ascent to the Rangers’ general manager position, Jeff Gorton has taken a largely silent role from his perch above the ice. Mid-season moves outside of the bargains plucked from the waiver wire have been non-existent, and comments to the media have been nearly as rare. Sure, Gorton made a huge splash this summer by locking down Kevin Shattenkirk, but the Rangers have (predictably) gotten sucked back into the whirlpool that is all but guaranteed with their man behind the bench: getting quality players and horrifically misusing them, forcing square pegs to fit in round holes, or making just as bad lineup/deployment decisions on a daily basis.

In the Rangers’ 2-1 loss to Vegas Sunday, Vigneault hit for the cycle. He made Pavel Buchnevich (his third leading scorer despite spending half of this season on the fourth line/playing less than 14 minutes a night) and Brendan Smith healthy scratches for no reason, sat Henrik Lundqvist after playing him against the worse team on a back-to-back, put Jesper Fast on the top line, Paul Carey in the top-six, played Steven Kampfer more than Brady Skjei in the loss, and sidestepped whatever questions were thrown his way on the matter after the game.

At this stage of Vigneault’s tenure, it’s so predictable that I, almost literally, called the Buchnevich scratch and what Vigneault’s response would have been hours before the game.

Predictably, the Rangers lost the game. Not just that, they got shelled by an opponent ... again. The people lining up to defend Vigneault – including Gorton, which I’ll get to in a minute – don’t seem to realize that things still aren’t working.

The Rangers haven’t won a game in regulation since 12/19 when they beat the Ducks 4-1. In that span they’ve needed overtime or the shootout to beat the objectively bad Sabres and Coyotes, lost to the mediocre Red Wings, got totally dominated by Chicago in an embarrassing loss, and got dominated again by Vegas on Sunday. The only reason the scorelines have been as close as they have been is because of the Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec duo standing on their heads.

The Rangers are 5-3-2 in their last 10, are sitting just three points above Carolina who is gunning for their wild card spot. In the buzzsaw that is the Metro, it’s possible to look at the Rangers and think they can control the East, but you’re leaning entirely on Lundqvist being perfect. And he might be, at least long enough to extend a playoff series or two, but that would just continue to mask the problems that he’s been masking his entire career.

At this stage in the game, Vigneault’s bad habits aren’t a new issue, so Gorton has blood on his hands for this too. His silence needs to be taken as acceptance of this circus until he proves otherwise. General managers shouldn’t be expected to have input on daily coaching decisions, but they can step in when things get out of hand – and Gorton has allowed these issues to fester for far too long.

The Buchnevich situation is as frustrating as it is unexplained. The Rangers have a 22-year-old with five years of professional experience who leads the team in nearly every key metric:

He’s third in points on the team (despite constant role juggling and lack of ice time), produces primary points and points 5v5 better than almost anyone of the team, and still can’t get a sniff. In games where the Rangers haven’t been able to generate a ton of offense, he’s removed from the lineup for the likes of Fast and Carey. When asked, Vigneault claims it’s “the right thing to do” and leaves it at that.

What about Shattenkirk, who has seen as much time on the third pair as he has on the first, who can’t get Nick Holden off the top pair, somehow, and is often third or fourth in terms of total time on ice? Or Smith – the man armed with a $17.4-million dollar contract this summer – who has been pulled form the lineup for Kampfer nearly a dozen times this year.

As an example: Shattenkirk has played with Marc Staal for twice as many minutes 5v5 as he has with Ryan McDonagh. For a guy who was brought in to be part of the Rangers top-four, that’s something of a problem. And while Shattenkirk’s defensive transition to Broadway has been rocky, it’s not like any other defenseman are lighting it up on the back end, either. To not even try a McDonagh-Shattenkirk pairing consistently — especially with the team’s overall struggles -- is unimaginable. Yet here we are. Shades of Yandle all over again.

How a general manage can oversee this without concern or issue is concerning. How Gorton doesn’t mind the absolute waste of a potential elite-level, cost-controlled player in Buchnevich is beyond me. How he can sit and watch Shattenkirk get used like a mid-level defenseman is near insanity. How he’s OK with Vigneault doing the same things he did last year, and the year before, and the year before, with the exact same results is maddening.

And that’s the biggest thing: The team isn’t winning. If the Rangers are consistently playing easy playoff runs, working their way to the Conference Final and then losing it would be one thing, but the Rangers got shelled by the Penguins two years ago, slipped by a just as analytically lost Montreal team last year, and then deflated their own chances by doing the same thing over and over again against Ottawa. That shouldn’t be acceptable.

Gorton needs to do something; he either needs to tell his head coach to cut the crap, or he needs to move on while there’s still time to save this season. The reality is, Vigneault has overseen THREE core changes (summer of 2015, summer of 2016, and last summer) the past four years all to the same end. When you run through a dozen key players and get the same result, then it’s on the ideals coming from behind the bench.

Adding to this: the Rangers are not a great hockey team right now. They’re a dream of being Stanley Cup contenders, and a stretch from even being true playoff contenders. They’re down one of their better players (probably for the entire year), and there’s still a sense Gorton might look at all this and decide to buy at the trade deadline to keep the dream alive. It’s bad business, and it’s the way the Rangers have run the shop for the past three years.

Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, and Holden could all probably garner solid returns at the deadline. With Nash you can work an under-the-table deal to send him to a contender this year and bring him back this summer. With Grabner the Rangers have a player who might get the return of the year for a contender who thinks they’re missing a vital piece. Holden has enough perception is reality around him that he might be worth something as well, as he is a serviceable bottom-pair defenseman at his worst.

Doing this makes the most sense for both the now and the future. The Rangers’ chances at a Cup wouldn’t be damaged all that much (since they’re not high to begin with), they can get futures for continued contention, and they’d be able to re-stock the farm some more. But these ideas cannot happen with Vigneault behind the bench. His expiration date should have been two years ago when the Penguins dismantled the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. It should have absolutely been when Vigneault did the same thing late in games against Montreal and Ottawa, costing them three late-blown leads, and eventually their hopes at the Stanley Cup.

And here we are in the first week of 2018, seeing the exact same thing again. The Rangers have already allowed Vigneault to run Emerson Etem, Dylan McIlrath, Anthony Duclair, Adam Clendening, James Sheppard, Raphael Diaz, Lee Stempniak and Keith Yandle all in the name of Tanner Glass and Dan Girardi. Note: I am not saying that Etem, McIlrath, Clendening, Diaz, or Sheppard would have been great or even good players, but they were better options than Glass or Girardi. Period.

Doing the same thing with Shattenkirk, Smith, and Buchnevich is both maddening and damaging to the team’s success. Imagine having a 22-year-old who leads you in almost all offensive categories, moving him down to the fourth line, playing him less than 14 minutes a night, and then making him a healthy scratch. Oh, and you haven’t won a game in regulation since the middle of last month.

The Rangers are in a tailspin. It looks damn similar to last year and the year before it. We’ve been down this road before.

It’s time for Gorton to change things. By actually doing something about it.