Is Jeff Gorton Rebuilding Or Re-Tooling?

Is Jeff Gorton rebuilding or is he re-tooling? It’s the million dollar question right now, and we really don’t have a clear idea one way or another.

Just to clarify this early. A rebuild would mean blowing the entire thing up, trading assets for picks and prospects and gunning to be a contender a few years down the line. A re-tool would mean changing over the core, yes, but adding players and assets that can help right now/in the near future.

There is a significant amount of evidence that supports the New York Rangers going into a full rebuild. They traded Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta for Anthony DeAngelo and the 7th overall pick (which they used on Lias Andersson). That move screams rebuild, especially when you realize that for all the world-breaking offensive talent DeAngelo has, he’s not really a fix for the actual defensive issues that plagued the team last year. He does fix a problem (not having enough puck-movers on the back end) but he’s not going to fix everything.

Despite all this, I don’t think the Stepan trade is actually signaling a rebuild on its own. Freeing up cap space is a great way to re-tool, and the potential addition of Kevin Shattenkirk would solve most, if not all, of the Rangers’ problems on defense, especially now that Brendan Smith is being brought back into the fold. (Quick take here: Smith’s contract is a little expensive -- maybe 300Kish over where you’d want it to be — but a perfectly fine contract for a much needed player who is somehow undervalued because he doesn’t score.) Now that Smith is locked up, the addition of Shattenkirk would allow the Rangers to have a true top-pair and a true top-four on defense. It would look something like this:

McDonagh - Shattenkirk
Skjei - Smith
DeAngelo - ? (pick a name out of the hat here at your own risk)

Forgetting the forward holes for a minute, all of this makes sense, right? Great, now let’s throw the knuckle curve. While all the above seems to fit the puzzle and make sense, there is suddenly a growing pile of evidence the Rangers and Shattenkirk aren’t this perfect marriage candidate everyone seems to believe they are. From this week’s 30 Thoughts column from Elliotte Friedman:

13. I know we’ve been hammering Shattenkirk to the Rangers, but New York seems very determined to increase the roles and responsibilities of its young players. The draft-day trade with Arizona is excellent evidence of that.

Then there’s Jeff Gorton praising how many young defenseman can make a push this year, which seems to corroborate the above Shattenkirk comment:

Which would not be even close to possible if Smith, Shattenkirk, and DeAngelo are all in the fold — and two of the three already are.

There’s also the Alain Vigneault factor to consider. Nick Holden is so firmly vested in his house of trust, that despite being on the ice for four critical late-blown playoff leads, his ice time was never adjusted. The Rangers also protected Holden in expansion. You can throw Marc Staal into the “AV house of trust” camp as well. It’s hard to imagine a world where both aren’t in the starting lineup.

And yet, how can they be? Stepan wasn’t moved for DeAngelo so he could dominate the AHL for another year. He has issues to work through, yes, but Gorton is betting on his skill to make a difference. Shattenkirk could fall victim to Vigneault’s ... awkward ... usage of good puck-moving defenseman ala Keith Yandle, but without Dan Girardi to block his path to the top pair it’s hard to see that happening (if he even comes to Broadway). Smith was dominant in the playoffs, and even he couldn’t be given ice time protecting a lead down the stretch, so who knows there.

The focus is, of course, on the defense, but without Stepan the offense needs a revisiting as well. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau seem to be on the Rangers’ radar.

Unlike the Stepan trade, this screams win now. You don’t take on players in their late 30’s during a rebuild. You do if you’re re-tooling and looking for short-term commitments to help you win now while allowing young players to season for another year. Thornton would be a fantastic addition to the team to fill Stepan’s shoes — and there are a few young, cheap depth centers who are going to be available. Due to the Rangers’ lack of draft picks, the farm is barren of anyone who could step up into the role next year.

Throw in Scott Hartnell and Benoit Pouliot -- who were both bought out earlier this week -- and there’s going to be plenty of valuable depth players who might be willing to jump onto the Broadway train on the cheap.

Also, if the Rangers really are rebuilding then why is Rick Nash still around? Or Michael Grabner? Or, dare I say, Mats Zuccarello? If the Rangers’ true plan is to shed all of their assets to be great again in three years, you don’t need any of those guys on the team this year. 2018 is supposed to be a remarkably deep draft, is the plan to stockpile picks and assets there?

Finally, there’s this whole Henrik Lundqvist thing. The Rangers went all in the past four years, building around their elite goaltender — not just because of him, but partly. To abandon him now — especially after they finally did the right thing for the team with Girardi -- would be as big of an insult for a player who has given his all for the franchise as I can imagine. Re-tooling, however, is a different story. The Rangers needed to bolster up their farm and get younger. Rebuilding? That’s a slap in the face for the ever-ageing Lundqvist.

Alright I lied. There’s one more thing, and it’s a big one. Even though we sort of covered Vigneault above, there’s a bigger underlying issues with him and a rebuild.

If the New York Rangers are truly rebuilding, then Vigneault cannot be the coach. The Rangers’ bench boss has shown a level of stubbornness with playing veterans over rookies that almost makes you want to tip your cap to him. Almost, except for the fact that its cost the Rangers more games than I can count, and most recently tanked their second round series in the playoffs — destroying a golden road to the Stanley Cup. He has shown an inability to learn from his mistakes, and a repeated willingness to throw young players out of the lineup in favor of ageing, drowning veterans. He takes ice time away from younger players arbitrarily, and doesn’t need to answer for it (not that he’s asked to, mind you).

He’s not a bad coach, but there’s a fair amount of evidence to say he’s not the right coach to lead the Rangers to the Stanley Cup. If the Rangers are rebuilding, there’s no reason why a coach who leans on veterans should be the guy at the helm. Unless him and Gorton worked through the coach’s insecurities when it comes to youth -- which, I suppose, is possible — then a rebuild with him behind the bench makes no sense.

The truth of the matter is, we don’t know what Gorton is going to do. There’s evidence to say he is rebuilding, and evidence to say he is retooling.

We’ll find out soon enough.