Rangers Must Resist Temptation to Expedite the Rebuild

One of the most iconic moments in Homer’s The Odyssey concerns the Sirens. The creatures stand at the shore and sing beautiful songs that hypnotize passing sailors, who then immediately head towards them. However, these shores are incredibly rocky and not fit for docking. The ships crash and all men on board die. For sirens, that is their purpose in life. Luring ships away from their intended routes and towards their own demise.

The National Hockey League has taken measures over the years to mitigate the extent to which affluent, illustrious teams such as the New York Rangers are able to leverage that influence; namely, the salary cap. There’s simply no way to establish total artificial balance, though. The Rangers are still the Rangers. They are an original six team. They play at Madison Square Garden. They are located in New York City. Ambition plus deep pockets mean spending everywhere the CBA allows; first-class training facilities and travel itineraries, superlative treatment of families. In fact, contract limits only serve to amplify these kinds of perks.

The Rangers have made full use of those advantages, and the 2014 Stanley Cup run doesn’t happen otherwise. Mats Zuccarello had the entire NHL after him as an undrafted free agent, and he chose to sign with the Rangers. Brad Richards took less money to come to New York as a free agent in 2011.  Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis more or less compelled Columbus and Tampa Bay to not only trade them, but specifically to the Rangers. They’ve benefitted recently, too, with Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey signing as college free agents while Kevin Shattenkirk incredibly left $25 million (give or take) on the table so he could facilitate a return to his home.

The Rangers have also been victims of their own allure. The 2007-2011 period is highlighted by a revolving door of pricey additions. It’s not that these signings were all inherently bad. In fact, some were quite good! However, it proved to be a Sisyphean blueprint for building a hockey team. The Rangers were maxing out as pretty good teams with no real shot at the Stanley Cup. The shelf life for players in their late-20s (or older) is a few years at most. The middle of the draft order offered few opportunities to acquire elite teenage talent, and so the only way to improve.

And so the Rangers went speed dating with a buffet of big-name players to see if the next guy could be the one to change the tide. Michael Nylander became Scott Gomez, who became Marian Gaborik. Brendan Shanahan became Markus Naslund. Chris Drury was bought out to make way for Brad Richards. Wade Redden was supplanted by, well, nobody. The Rangers were stuck with that contract. It’s remarkable to think that the most successful of these players - Gaborik and Richards - spent all of three full seasons as Rangers. And how many at full capacity?

And let’s not delve into what happened between 1998 and 2004.

The goal is not to become good, nor even a very good team. The goal is to win a Stanley Cup. Or two. Or three. Thus, General Manager Jeff Gorton’s approach to the 2019 offseason should not concern what moves make the Rangers competitive in April of 2020, but rather what moves most quickly advance the Rangers towards a return to perennial contention.

The Rangers are currently a very bad team by virtually any way one wishes to measure them. They rank 23rd in the NHL by points and dead last by regulation/overtime wins. They are 30th by shot attempts percentage, or Corsi, and 27th by expected goals (Evolving Hockey).

They don’t appear to be anywhere close to contention, and I want to give that hypothesis perspective. I asked other Blueshirt Banter writers to give their takes on what the most aggressive, but not too blatantly unrealistic, 2019 offseason could look like for the Rangers. There were different ideas, but the general consensus trended towards this concept:

  • Landing Erik Karlsson and Artemi Panarin as free agents
  • Trading non-roster assets to Winnipeg in return for Jacob Trouba
  • Re-signing Mats Zuccarello at a hometown discount/

Ignoring the salary cap as a hurdle here, how good would these moves actually make the Rangers? Using Wins Above Replacement via Evolving Hockey, as well as a tool built by Sean Tierney, we can make an estimate.

Based on Wins Above Replacement, this roster would earn around 80 points this season. That would be nowhere near the playoffs. This is an estimate, and certainly a rough one. Hockey is complicated. Projecting for the future is difficult (one would expect improvements for Chytil and Howden next year, among other things). Chemistry and coaching influence performance. But if one wants to argue that this projection undersells that theoretical team, then by how much? Are they an 87-point team? A 92-point team? What good does that do the Rangers regardless? And again, this roster is a borderline pipe dream to begin with.

Does this mean the Rangers have to go into hibernation mode until enough draft picks turn into gold; as many small teams do during rebuilds? Most certainly not. There are still ways for the team to leverage their advantages and assets to acquire players who can make a more immediate impact. Players like Brett Pesce (24 years old) and William Nylander (22) offer opportunities to acquire NHL-ready talent who will have a major impact long-term. The college/European free agent hunting will continue, and this year in 2020 it is Harvard senior defenseman Adam Fox who may very well decide to take the Hayes/Vesey route and sign elsewhere.

In fact, this is not reason to categorically rule out signing someone like Artemi Panarin, Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, or Matt Duchene. Nevertheless, what the Rangers cannot do is fall into the trap of yesteryears and think they can build a team around free agents. This is not a team that is one or two great players away from contention, and the Rangers need to find building blocks for the next 10 years; not two or three. There are going to be sirens singing along the shores this upcoming summer, hoping to hypnotize the Rangers into steering off-course.

Can the Rangers resist that temptation and avoid crashing into the rocks?