Thoughts on Thursday: Reclamation Projects, Missed Opportunities, and Mixed Signals

1. The deadline for NHL teams to qualify pending restricted free agents came and went on Monday, and a handful of players who were once highly touted are set to enter unrestricted free agency. The Rangers didn’t make any shocking decisions, as the writing had been on the wall regarding Brandon Pirri, Mackenzie Skapski, and Adam Clendening for some time. As for the other 29 teams that had to extend qualifying offers, there were a number of interesting decisions made that the another franchise could benefit from.

Of all of the players set to enter unrestricted free agency earlier than they would have liked, Nail Yakupov is the skater with the most buzz surrounding him. After being acquired by the St. Louis Blues in the hopes that a change of scenery could revitalize his career, Yakupov is set hit the market after a nightmarish 16-17 season. The Blues would have had to qualify him at a salary of $2.5 Million, so their decision to let the 1st Overall selection of the 2012 draft walk after scoring nine points in 40 games was an easy one.

Although I don’t see a fit for him in New York, there are enough teams around the league with holes in their roster that Yakupov should still be in the NHL when October rolls around. A bottom feeding team like Arizona or Vancouver would not be risking much by taking a chance on him if the price is right. Vegas makes sense as another chance for a fresh start, and the Golden Knights would do well to bring in somebody with the potential to be as dynamic as Yakupov can be, even if the odds of him reaching his ceiling are low.

Yakupov wasn’t the only highly touted Russian to be let loose by his former team on Monday. The Colorado Avalanche decided to move on from Mikhail Grigorenko, a key component of the Ryan O’Reilly trade from two years ago. New York does have a hole down the middle of their 4th Line due to Oscar Lindberg’s departure to Vegas, but Grigorenko isn’t the type of player Alain Vigneault likes to utilize in a defensive depth role.

Beau Bennett, Jacob Josefson, and Stefan Matteau are three of the other unqualified players that could be of interest to Jeff Gorton. Bennett and Josefson have both toiled in obscurity, but could be useful pieces to New York’s 4th line. The two former Devils have been injury plagued throughout their respective careers, so there is some risk associated with them. But if the the dog days of summer roll around and the Rangers are still in need of forward depth, diving into the bargain bin and picking out one of these two forwards would be a shrewd move. Matteau was unable to crack the roster in Montreal or New Jersey, but he could serve as a 14th forward/AHL call-up as long as he wears #32.

2. With Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta out of New York and Tony DeAngelo and Lias Andersson in, it’s fair to wonder if Jeff Gorton could have gotten more for his former top line center. With Stepan’s no-movement clause kicking in on July 1st, it appears that Gorton felt obligated to get whatever deal he could for Stepan before then, as the odds of him approving a trade to the Coyotes would have been slim to none. However, two bits of info that came out afterwards makes me ponder if the Rangers could have been better off had they held off on pulling the trigger on a deal:

Apparently, John Chayka had been infatuated with what Stepan could bring to his team since last offseason. While Stepan’s name was floating around the rumor mill after New York’s first round exit against Pittsburgh around that time, Arizona was never mentioned as a serious contender to land the Hastings, Minnesota native. A one-for-one swap with Jonas Brodin of the Minnesota Wild was seen as the most likely option, but that deal never materialized. Gorton knew that the Coyotes wanted Stepan, but decided to give the old core one more kick at the can before moving on. Even still, it’s hard to believe that he could only come away with DeAngelo and the 7th overall pick even after throwing in Antti Raanta.

Looking at the return, one can only draw the conclusion that Gorton pushed for more. It’s likely that he pushed for Jakob Chychrun instead of DeAngelo, but the Coyotes value Chychrun as a foundational piece, so prying him away from Chayka was a pipe dream. The Lias Andersson selection makes sense for the organization, but it also leads to more questions about what New York might have wanted in an ideal world. Perhaps they asked about Clayton Keller (7th overall selection in 2016) or Dylan Strome, (3rd overall selection in 2015) as they clearly wanted some sort of highly touted center prospect in the pipeline to “replace” Stepan.

The trade looks bad right now, and the Rangers’ concern about where Stepan is trending may have forced them into a bad deal. However, if Andersson and DeAngelo develop as expected, than the Blueshirts should come out ahead when all is said done. DeAngelo has the potential to become the dynamic, puck moving defenseman the team hasn’t seen since the likes of Keith Yandle (ouch). Andersson has a realistic chance of making the NHL out of training camp, especially if the Rangers are skeptical of the options available on Saturday. From there, his experience in the SHL over the past two seasons should allow for an easier transition to the NHL.

3. Based on the moves New York has made since bowing out to the Ottawa Senators in the playoffs, the only thing clear about their direction is that nobody knows what could happen next. Buying out Dan Girardi was long overdue, and appeared to be the final move to create the room to bring Kevin Shattenkirk home. Since then, every piece of news that has emerged about the team has served to make their plans less and less clear. Trading Stepan and Raanta for a draft pick and a prospect would signal a full blown rebuild, as would the rumors that the team isn’t as eager to bring Shattenkirk to New York as many would have thought.

A rebuild wouldn’t be the worst thing that Jeff Gorton could do, but the other bits of news that have dropped conflict with the desire to blow the team up. The Rangers are allegedly in the running to land former San Jose Sharks forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and dove head first into the abyss yesterday afternoon by agreeing to a contract extension with Brendan Smith that will pay him $4.35 Million per season. Thornton and Marleau could be quality additions to New York’s forward corps if the price is right, but the continued negotiations with Smith are curious after taking into account the other options Jeff Gorton has available to him.

The Rangers general manager fielded questions at the Entry Draft, and one of his responses has shed some light on what he has in store for his team:

On the changes made, "I think it's what we need to do. We need to move forward, a little rebuild on the fly and change the look of our team. We haven't been to the podium in four years so it's a big step for us to get here and these type of players."

That’s a very worrying quote for the residents of Rangerstown. All it takes is a cursory glance around the league to realize that “on the fly” rebuilds don’t usually produce contenders. Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Los Angeles were atrocious in the years leading up to their Stanley Cup victories. Outside of Tim Thomas putting on one of the greatest season-long displays of goaltending the hockey world has seen in decades, Stanley Cup winners are built around generational talents. The Rangers have one player of that ilk, but his time is running out.

Henrik Lundqvist had a rough 16-17 campaign, and every season that comes and goes without a championship means that Father Time is closer and closer to winning yet another battle. While Igor Shesterkin looks to have a future in New York, the Rangers can’t afford to put any eggs into a basket of unknowns. Jeff Gorton should be doing whatever it takes to build a winner today, but some his words over the last week suggest that he’s already looking towards building for a better tomorrow.

On the other hand, some of his words suggest that he’s willing to go all in on bring the Stanley Cup down the Canyon of Heroes as soon as possible. We’ll figure out what his intentions are in due time, as his actions will speak volumes. With only two days left until free agency begins, Rangers fans should brace themselves for a wild ride.