The Rangers Didn’t Fix Their Biggest Problem (But Expect To Be Better Anyway)

Every single hockey season starts with a mixed bag of hope, expectations and reality.

This year is no different for the New York Rangers, although the weight of each of those three components has changed dramatically. Two years ago — after the 2014 Stanley Cup Final run — there was a lot of hope, even more expectations and the reality that the first two ingredients were well within the team’s grasp. That’s true pressure, when the expectations and hope are on a level playing field with the reality of the situation. It’s rare, intoxicating and stressful.

As always, hockey is an evolving existence. Teams shed their skin every year — sometimes even during the season -- grow and ultimately change; for better or worse. The Rangers’ core that ran the team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 was extremely young, and even now (just three years later) it almost looks like a completely different team. Three years is an eternity in sports, and nothing is guaranteed for that reason.

We can talk about all the poor decisions the Rangers have made over the years. I brought this up when the Rangers season ended last year, but by now you know the story.

The hope was Jeff Gorton would be different. And if we’re being honest, he mostly has been. I always said we needed to wait until after the draft and free agency before making any judgement calls on him.

Now that we’re here, the body of work that he’s done has been solid. I’m giving him a half-pass on the Keith Yandle disaster, but outside of that every move he’s made has been both smart and savvy.

His free agent acquisitions have been good to great values — Brandon Pirri is a guy teams give up a 2nd round pick for at the deadline -- and his two trades have both made sense and made the team better. As hard as the Derick Brassard trade was to make, it was a brilliant move, moving a player a year too soon and getting a younger, better player in return. Plus, Gorton worked some magic to add a 2nd round draft pick for essentially nothing.

Look out at Gorton’s body of work and it’s like a beautiful garden. Guys like Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast and Brady Skjei are like freshly planted flowers starting to bloom. Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Hayes, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller are like older sturdy trees around the foundation. Henrik Lundqvist is the beautiful golden statue of the Greek God of the sun Apollo standing proudly in the middle. Not that they’re crap, but the recent signings of Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner and Pirri are like the fertilizer — vital for the survival of the rest of the garden in a support role.

Look from a distance and it’s exactly what you’d want. Look closer, however, and you see the garden overrun with weeds.

That is either the greatest analogy I have ever put forth on this website or by far the worst, but the picture of weeds overrunning a beautiful garden was too easy to pass up.

The New York Rangers admitted they weren’t good enough last year.

Then they did nothing to fix the biggest problem they had.

That’s where the reality of the situation diverges from the Rangers’ perceived reality. The Rangers say they expect Dan Girardi and Marc Staal to be better with a full summer off. That’s their perceived reality. The reality of the situation is they hope Girardi and Staal are going to be better.

Hope without logical backing isn’t something you should bet on. Doubling down on hope when the local backing goes against what you want to happen is even worse.

Yeah their forwards got a hell of a lot better -- and if Alain Vigneault can finally end the Tanner Glass nonsense, Broadway might sport the league’s most dominant and complete forward corps. That’s high praise, but it’s also an assertion rife with uncertainty because Vigneault has made a name for himself for not being able to pull himself away from veterans who simply aren’t working.

The seat under Vigneault might not be hot, but there’s actually a seat to get hot under his ass now, and that’s a far cry from where things were last year. As I said earlier this summer: If the Rangers are to see the light then so too much their head coach.

Buchnevich and Vesey being given an opportunity to fill the void -- even if they struggle out of the gate -- is key. For even at their worst they bring more to the table than Glass at his best. With Lundqvist continuing to age as we all do, the Rangers window of opportunity is open, but precariously so. The moment his skills dip — and there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon, thank the Hockey Gods — the team’s “throw everything against the wall and hope he handles all the mistakes” strategy will collapse like a dying star. Last year’s team was so inept at defense even an elite Lundqvist could not lift their heads above the water.

Lazy media members and fans talked about how Lundqvist “lost a step” or “had a bad year.” Maybe they actually believe that. Or maybe, just maybe, they know that if they have to admit Lundqvist was elite and still could not hold this team’s head above the water the darkness will suffocate any form of hope or light. As scary as the latter is, that’s exactly what happened last year.

So how, exactly, does the team expect to be better? Wear and tear doesn’t disappear it builds. Girardi and Staal very well might improve with a long summer to rest and recuperate. They might very well be much better than they were last year. And they also might very well play much better and still be the main reason why the Rangers don’t march through the playoffs.

Hockey is competitive, of course. All professional sports are. Front offices are no different, and sometimes making the ethically right decision is counter-intuitive to making the correct business decision. Girardi and Staal fall into the former. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did in my piece about fancy stats and hockey:

Let me make something crystal clear: You can appreciate what Girardi represents, what he’s given to this team and what he’s helped build and still think that the Rangers’ best option is to move on from him under any circumstances. Read that sentence until you understand it. Hockey is a business, and the end goal is to build the best team to get you to winning a Stanley Cup. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. And it’s fundamentally different from the normal walks of life but it is what it is.

The Rangers didn’t take this road. They backed out from the option to buy him out and they either didn’t or couldn’t trade him. Gorton can’t control the market for an ageing defenseman with an enormous contract, but he can control whether or not he hits the nuclear button.

Sitting on eight years of dead cap space is a big pill to swallow. I get it, I really do. But buying Girardi out next year is essentially the exact same punishment — only it’s seven years of dead cap space — and saves the Rangers a few hundred thousand dollars at the peak. Expecting him to be taken in the expansion draft is just as hopeful (and silly) as expecting him to turn back into what he was when he was 28. It’s not going to happen so we should just stop talking about it.

Only the Rangers are betting their ace in the hole (Lundqvist’s elite status) on that silliness. They’re banking on the fact that the biggest reason why last year was such a disaster doesn’t actually need to be replaced but just needed some time off. It sounds crazy because it is crazy.

I’m all for hoping and wishing the Rangers win the Stanley Cup. As a fan, it’s pretty much the only power I have on the situation. The brass? They have the power to make the changes, and they’ve elected to hope and wish just like you and I do.

The differences with the way Gorton has handled the offense and the defense is stark enough that it makes you turn your head.

On one hand Gorton is wielding the fancy stats sword, pilfering Pirri, Grabner and Gerbe for pennies on the dollar. Taking low-risk gambles on guys like Josh Jooris. Making really tough loyalty decisions on someone like Brassard to ultimately make the team younger, cheaper and, most importantly, much better. Gorton hauled in Kreider on an extension so good it makes you shake your head and laugh, he locked Miller up on a very cheap (but too short) bridge deal and worked Hayes in without any fanfare. That’s all just a year removed from locking Stepan down long term and getting guys like Lindberg and Fast to take two-year bridge deals well below their market value.

How does that guy then keep around both Girardi and Staal -- all while being forced to throw Keith Yandle away for Enron-like shares despite using (at the time) the organization’s most prized possession to get him? After the Rangers traded away Yandle’s rights in June I had this to say:

To summarize: The Rangers just traded their best defenseman this past year and had to do it because they’re resigned to keeping their worst defenseman. Already Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have cost the Rangers Anton Stralman, Carl Hagelin and now Yandle. It’s a spinning cycle that has repeated over and over again.

This isn’t just about the Rangers losing Yandle, it’s about what it does to the defense as a whole. Ryan McDonagh, Girardi, Staal and Kevin Klein are now the Rangers’ top four as it stands today. Trudging that lineup out night in and night out will earn the Rangers exactly what they’ll get: A horrific season of losing hockey that Henrik Lundqvist might not be able to turn into a playoff berth and another wasted year of Hank’s elite talent either way.

Three months later we’re still right there — confused and frustrated. You might be sick about hearing Girardi and Staal’s name but the noise is only going to get louder if they’re not what the Rangers hope they will be this year.

If Gorton couldn’t move them (there were rumors he tried at the draft) then it should have been an enormous red flag that buying Girardi out made sense despite the fiscal punishment. He didn’t.

And as of this writing, the same general manager who orchestrated a slew of moves to give the Rangers what could be the most dangerous and complete forward lineup in the entire league to compliment their elite goaltender has also allowed that same team to trudge out what could be the league’s worst defense.

Vigneault’s system is built on the defense being able to transition the puck from defense to offense seamlessly. The system doesn’t seem like it’s going to change, based off Vigneault telling the media the following, yesterday:

To be fair, that’s not a bad thing. Vigneault’s system is brilliant when it’s filled with the right personnel, but as we’ve seen in the past Vigneault has a problem figuring out who those players are. That’s significant with the current state of the defense because:

  1. You have to actually win the puck in the defensive zone to move it up the ice, and half of the Rangers top four defenseman had some of the worst puck possession numbers in the NHL last year.
  2. Two of the three defenseman who could actually move the puck effectively out of the zone and do what the system requires to be successful (Yandle and Dan Boyle) are no longer on the team.

Since we’re on the subject ...

Vigneault is very fond of coachspeak, so the above might be nothing more than him sidestepping what is probably a somewhat awkward situation. However, Vigneault’s coachspeak is quite often litter with more truth than not. A simple “we’re going to take a hard look at the defense and both Girardi and Staal are ready for that process” reveals very little while also letting both know they’re not grandfathered into a major role with the team.

The current outlook wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Gorton controlled the situation better, but there’s no reason to assume the two aren’t on the same page here. The lone glimmer of hope did come in the form of another series of coachspeak:

But I don’t think this is Vigneault talking about the defense so much as the plethora of decisions he will have at forward. And if we’re being honest, there’s still a ton of potholes the Rangers will have to navigate there -- Fast in the top six and Glass as a whole jump to mind. They take a backseat to the pressing defensive concerns, though, although it still seems the brass really does believe time off will completely fix the defense.

Gorton is the guy who has overseen the current defensive situation, and he’s also the same guy who let everyone know that last year was unacceptable and that it could never happen again. His coach — who we’ll learn a lot about once we see who makes the opening night roster — agreed with him. The players did, too.

For all the good things Jeff Gorton did this summer -- and there was a lot — it’s what he didn’t do that will ultimately decide whether or not he keeps his word.