The New York Rangers Are Shaking It Up, But Future Plans Remain Murky

Sweeping changes are coming. We know that now but we also knew that the past month or so.

That said, I’m not sure anyone saw the start of things going the way they did — when the New York Rangers waived Brendan Smith yesterday afternoon. Just 50 games in a sparkling new four-year contract worth $4.35-million per season, Smith is on his way to Hartford.

The caveat here is Smith reportedly came into camp out of shape, which led to his healthy-scratch stint and rough start to the year. Since then, the eye test has marked Smith out as an utter failure, although apparently his underlying numbers haven’t been that bad. Note: I’ve never personally experienced this big of a gap between eye test and analytics.

The implications to a move like this are twofold, both assuming he doesn’t get claimed. The first is the Rangers are only allowed to bury $1.025-million per contract in the AHL, so the remaining $3.325-million of his cap will still apply to the team’s current cap space. With the Rangers moving forward as sellers, this isn’t a big deal at all, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future.

Having said that...

You would have to assume that if Smith is getting put on waivers, there was no market for him anywhere else. Even a 7th round-pick is better than nothing, so you’d have to assume the Rangers dangled him to no avail. Although, it is possible that a team who did want Smith wanted him to clear waivers first before they cut a deal; once a player has cleared waivers and is traded, the acquiring team can send him to the AHL without him having to go through the wire again.

With the assumption that a claim/trade isn’t happening though, it’s more than likely that the Rangers are giving Smith an enormous wake up call that the NHL cannot be taken for granted and an opportunity to focus on his game the rest of the year, this way he can come back bigger and stronger next year — or potentially later this year if a roster defenseman is traded.

Two hours after Smith’s waiver placement was announced, the Rangers released a double-signed memo from Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton. The memo is below in full:

This change in direction was expected, but to see it actually come to fruition is a good thing. The Rangers giving fair warning that “familiar faces” may be gone doesn’t scream “Rick Nash and Michael Grabner” to me, but rather Ryan McDonagh and maybe Mats Zuccarello. We’ve danced this dance before with Ryan Callahan, and even as far back as Brian Leetch. The Rangers haven’t seen a full-scale rebuild since then, ironically enough, and as Mike detailed, it didn’t go well because of what the Rangers focused on getting back.

The fallout of 2004 also illustrates the risks of putting too many chips on prospects and younger players that other teams are willing to cough up. This is why post-draft scouting is so important and why teams today spend so much time, treasure and energy following the progress of prospects outside of their own organizations.

Sather acquired a dozen players under the age of 25 at the 2004 deadline, but only a 24-year-old Blair Betts (a former second round pick) ended up making a positive impact. Karel Rachunek had a good season in New York, but left the team as a free agent. Jarkko Immonen and Jozef Balej were disasters.

The Rangers made it seem like they were focusing on more NHL-ready players. The hope is that’s not all they are going after, especially with the likes of McDonagh potentially on the block.

Externally, we’re going to have to wait and see, but internally, change has already started. As Smith leaves for Hartford, Neal Pionk has been recalled to get some NHL experience. Pionk has had an up and down first year in Hartford, posting 1-16-17 in 48 games for the Wolf Pack. That said, seeing his game get a little NHL seasoning can’t hurt, since he’s one of the guys from the future that might see themselves crack a youthful roster next year. The team might as well learn what they have — which is why we should expect an increased role for Anthony DeAngelo moving forward as well.

Steven Kampfer’s continued staple to this lineup is both confusing and concerning, but again, if we’re burning it to the ground then so be it. I’d love to get a better look at Ryan Graves, but if the Rangers are going to put Pionk and DeAngelo into the top-four and thrust Kamper onto the third-pair, then it makes sense to keep him around since you can’t hurt his development.

There’s questions surrounding all of this, of course. Does Ilya Kovalchuk’s interest in coming to New York next year make a difference? Does the implication that Nash and Grabner might come back despite being traded matter?

On that last point, it does, a little. I’m not sure the Rangers should be interested in Grabner at four years or more (which is reportedly what he wants), but bringing Nash back as a guy to learn from wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world – and the same goes for Kovalchuk as well. Skill breeds skill.

Before the Rangers were dismantled by the Bruins, Bob McKenzie pretty much said the Rangers were open for business for everyone except Lundqvist (while adding it would take a lot to pry some Rangers away from Broadway).

Here’s how I mark out potential trades:

Untouchable: Lundqvist (which is his choice), Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei

Would need an enormous offer to think about moving them: Kevin Shattenkirk, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider

Longer term “rentals” who can be had for the right price: McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello

Rentals who can be had for the best deal I can get: Nash, Grabner, Nick Holden, Ondrej Pavelec, David Desharnais

If you want them, make me an offer: Pretty much everyone else, although Jesper Fast and Jimmy Vesey would “highlight” this list.

I expect that Holden, Grabner, and Nash are goners this year. I don’t see any way the Rangers keep them around, especially with the market shockingly hot for all three of them. Gorton probably won’t get a top prospect, a 1st round pick, and another asset for Nash, but the Rangers are going to get something nice back for at least Nash and Grabner. I have a funny feeling we’re going to get another nice long look at Boo Nieves — but don’t expect an extended look at either Lias Andersson or Filip Chytil since it’s not worth burning a year of their ELC this year for a non-playoff season.

The real answer to these questions is going to come from McDonagh (if the Rangers move him). McDonagh, you don’t need me to tell you, is the crowned jewel of the Rangers’ currently available players. The type of return Gorton gets for him is going to point out the direction the Rangers are going to be moving forward.

Still, the biggest question moving forward is about the man behind the bench. Gorton gave Vigneault the dreaded public vote of confidence today, which has caused some concern. However, Gorton played this exactly the way they were supposed to, as I outlined on Twitter:

Here’s the reality: this is a sad day for the Rangers, as they finally close the book on one of the most successful stretches in recent memory without a Stanley Cup. Yes, there should be a lingering concern that Lundqvist is getting older, but this is still the right thing to do. All that said, this is a necessary direction for the organization, and one they could have avoided if they took this level of honesty with themselves two years ago.

But they’re making the decision right now and that’s better than making it next year. The team has assets they can send out, and those assets should bring back significant returns to help the team move forward.

We don’t know the full direction yet, which is scary. But at least they’re moving forward with the right mentality.