FLUTO SHINZAWA I SUNDAY HOCKEY NOTES
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP
If there is any city where obsolescence leads to irrelevance, it is New York.
On Broadway, it is simply not good business practice to be out of touch with the marketplace. Companies that do not evolve and adapt do not survive.
For parts of the last seven seasons, the Rangers could afford to kick the can down the road and watch their roster approach irrelevance, aided by the brilliance of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The best goalie of his generation locked down the net, stole points, and inflated dreams beyond the boundaries of reality.
Former general manager Glen Sather and successor Jeff Gorton — the latter most likely reluctantly — looked to today more than tomorrow via the likes of Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, and Keith Yandle at the cost of high-end picks, which are every organization’s lifeblood.
What had been standard operating procedure at Madison Square Garden is no more.
Between Feb. 20-27, Gorton traded Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Michael Grabner, and Nick Holden. Earlier in February, the ex-Bruins executive buried Brendan Smith in the AHL, less than eight months after he extended the defenseman with a four-year, $17.4 million deal. It seems like another era following the recent frenzy, but last June, Gorton wheeled Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona and bought out Dan Girardi.
No other infrastructure projects in Manhattan have undergone such a rapid tear-down. Natives would be dancing in Times Square if Mayor Bill DeBlasio attacked the aging subway system with such swiftness.
“We had a lot of players leave in a short period of time,” Gorton said during a conference call following his blockbuster packaging of McDonagh and Miller to Tampa Bay. “When we sat down with our plan, went through what we wanted to do, and talking to teams about where we were headed and what we want to accomplish, you start to get the feel that this is going to happen.
“With this deal today, it was right before the deadline where it really happened. You don’t ever know that it’s going to go through. We were happy going into the summer with Ryan if that was going to happen.
“We’re trying to take it all in. There’s a lot of new players, a lot of new faces. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
You cannot blame the Rangers for chasing their prize in earlier seasons. In 2011-12 and 2014-15, they came up short in the Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey and Tampa Bay. In 2013-14, they engaged the then-mighty Kings in a five-game duel for the Cup. Lundqvist gave the Rangers a chance every time, reinforced by crews that included McDonagh, Nash, Girardi, Stepan, Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards, and Brandon Dubinsky.
The cost, however, was the regular deferment of picks to groom into homegrown players. By the time Callahan, Dubinsky, Stepan, Marc Staal, and Carl Hagelin had developed from boys approaching the draft table into Manhattan men, the next cycle of players was nowhere to be found. The Rangers had traded many of those selections away — the most meaningful being the four straight first-rounders they ceded from 2013-16.
Perhaps if the Rangers had one more difference-maker or better fortune, they could have been the Blackhawks, their fingers studded with rings. But even the Blackhawks are feeling the pain of regularly bumping their heads against the cap ceiling or poking through it.
Chicago is out of it while Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith combine to eat up nearly $23 million annually through 2023. The Ducks, ravaged by injuries, are in a playoff dogfight while Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler, all members of the generational 2003 draft class, collect a combined $23.75 million annually through 2021. Vancouver, led by former Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning, is caught in a nasty patch of tire-spinning — not enough picks for a rebuild, and not good enough to be competitive.
These are positions that Gorton did not envy. So Gorton, assistant GM Chris Drury, and the rest of the Rangers bosses concluded that major short-term dental work was a better long-term alternative to letting their teeth crumble over time.
Within one week, Gorton played both the rental and remaining-term markets perfectly. With Nash, Gorton didn’t wait for Buffalo to trade Evander Kane and deflate his piece’s value. Gorton set the market instead, landing a haul for Nash: the Bruins’ 2018 first-rounder, stay-at-home prospect Ryan Lindgren, and Ryan Spooner being the significant assets. He landed promising 20-year-old defenseman Igor Rybov and a 2018 second-rounder from New Jersey for Grabner. Rob O’Gara, bypassed in Boston by Matt Grzelcyk, could be a long-term third-pairing solution for Holden, who was not in the Rangers’ plans.
McDonagh and Miller were not UFA-to-be mercenaries. McDonagh was the Rangers’ captain. The left-side defenseman, who could have been P.K. Subban’s partner in Montreal, became the centerpiece of one of the NHL’s all-time heists: the price Montreal paid for Scott Gomez. Miller, restricted after this season, will turn 25 on March 14. He projects to be a long-term second-line wing.
But the Lightning wanted Miller to accompany McDonagh and make the bounty they ceded palatable. And it was a whopper: can’t-miss prospects in Brett Howden and Libor Hajek, Tampa’s 2018 first-rounder, a scoring wing in Vladislav Namestnikov, and a conditional 2019 second-round pick.
For too many years, director of player personnel Gordie Clark and the rest of his amateur staff twiddled their thumbs on draft day while their rivals added to their futures bins. Gorton’s breakneck dealing has now given Clark and his colleagues multiple kicks at the can.
They have 10 picks in 2018, including three first-rounders. These are the sums the Bruins had to play with in 2015, when they added Jake DeBrusk, Jakub Zboril, Zach Senyshyn, Brandon Carlo, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jeremy Lauzon to their system.
If the Rangers hit, these selections could become their equivalents of Tampa’s core of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point, and Jonathan Drouin — the latter being the drafted-and-developed property that GM Steve Yzerman sent to Montreal for hotshot defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.
“With three first-round picks on the draft floor, the opportunity will be there,” said Gorton, who had two first-rounders last June. “We found that last year in making a deal. There’s a lot more chatter at the table than without a pick.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for the Rangers to do either or. Whatever it takes. We’re looking forward to it. Having three picks is exciting. Really exciting for everybody.”
The Rangers have options with Spooner and Namestnikov, both arbitration-eligible and due for raises this summer. Ditto for Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei, and Jimmy Vesey. It’s possible the Rangers could deal some of them in June or walk away from their awards if they progress to arbitration.
It’s unknown whether the bosses consider Alain Vigneault as the best man to lead the rebuild. Vigneault is like Claude Julien: a respected and accomplished coach, but perhaps not best suited to weather the overhaul.
But there is promise at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers are excited about the development of Lias Anderson and Filip Chytil, their 2017 first-rounders. The team can build around Skjei, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mika Zibanejad.
“In trying to build a team, adding these assets, and doing all these things, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Gorton said of the scouring expected of his scouts to replenish their lost goods. “A lot of players we need to be out there watching. We have to find out what’s going on in the draft and free agency.
“We have a lot of opportunity to grow as a team and make our team better. That’s our goal. That’s our mission. That’s what we’re going to do. We feel like we’re just starting.”
It may require Vegas GM George McPhee to lift the Cup over his head before his inquisitors put away their needles. That playing in June is even within the Golden Knights’ consideration shows what kind of craziness is happening in the desert.
For a first-year team to send first-, second-, and third-round picks out the door for a wing subject to peaks and valleys may seem irresponsible. Organizations with less than a year of existence are supposed to be adding futures, not bidding them goodbye.
But this season, there’s just as much pixie dust as sand in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights aren’t just going to qualify for the playoffs, they are chasing the Presidents’ Trophy. They could start the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Even if the castaways are playing over their heads under the magical touch of coach Gerard Gallant, Vegas will be positioned just as well as any of the 16 playoff teams to charge into June.
In such circumstances, when this could all turn out to be a mirage next year, it was McPhee’s responsibility to add at the deadline instead of subtract. Tomas Tatar may not keep defensemen up at night like Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall, two of the game’s elite left wings. But the ex-Red Wing knows what to do with the puck when he has time to put it on net.
Tatar is like James Neal, the UFA-to-be who was once projected to be one of Vegas’s primary chips on the rental market. But instead of being sold off for a high-end pick, Neal remains in Vegas. Same goes for David Perron and Luca Sbisa, who are also eligible to leave for nothing come July 1. A week before then, a team building for the future will be without its 2018 first-round pick. This is not normal.
Nothing has qualified as such for the Golden Knights this season.
It is possible the Islanders will not make the playoffs. They are looking up at Columbus, which currently has the best odds of landing the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. The Islanders will have to contend with the Hurricanes and Panthers, who are also fighting for the eighth spot. Before the deadline, GM Garth Snow’s biggest move was to acquire Chris Wagner from Anaheim for Jason Chimera.
None of this can make John Tavares feel good.
Tavares has always been faithful to the team that drafted him first overall in 2009. The captain has served the organization well by playing on a six-year, $33 million bargain. That deal, however, is due to expire this summer. There is no guarantee that Tavares will be as generous this time with one last megabucks opportunity.
The team’s move to Brooklyn has been a bust. The Islanders will return to Nassau Coliseum for part of next season. But their permanent move to Belmont Park is not expected to take place until 2021-22. By then, Tavares could be three seasons into a seven-year deal elsewhere. The Islanders, meanwhile, will be left with nothing.
It is a similar scenario the Senators are facing with Erik Karlsson. Their captain is due to price himself out of Ottawa when his contract expires. Karlsson, however, has one more year of service due to the Senators. It gives GM Pierre Dorion time to continue exploring a trade — one that did not take place before this year’s deadline. The market that was limited this time could expand in June, when more teams will be bidding for Karlsson.
No such luxury exists for Snow. Tavares will be eligible to walk on July 1. Before then, he’ll be free to speak with suitors, as Steven Stamkos did two summers ago. Stamkos, however, re-upped with Tampa Bay, partly because of the musclebound roster he was unwilling to leave. The Lightning, appropriately, have loaded up for the Cup.
The Islanders have some good things. On Feb. 23, Snow re-upped Josh Bailey, Tavares’s linemate, to a six-year, $30 million extension. Rookie Mat Barzal will be a star for many years. But they do not have an ace in goal. Snow is locked in to Casey Cizikas ($3.35 million annually through 2021), Johnny Boychuk ($6 million through 2022), and Andrew Ladd ($5.5 million through 2023).
Tavares controls the situation. His decision will have long-lasting effects on the organization.
The Devils may not finish among the top three in the Metropolitan Division. But they should make the playoffs, certainly a year ahead of schedule. The Devils are the fastest team I’ve seen in person this season. They are on opponents in a hurry, which forces them to rush things and make mistakes. Assistant coach Geoff Ward has played a critical role in the team’s rebuild. Curiously, no team has dismissed its head coach during the season. This could change at the end of the regular season. If so, Ward deserves his first crack at the No. 1 job. Former boss Peter Chiarelli has been committed to Todd McLellan. But if Chiarelli changes his mind following Edmonton’s post-mortem, Ward could be reunited with his former boss. If Ward gets his opportunity somewhere, it could also be Marco Sturm’s chance to land behind an NHL bench. Ward was Sturm’s assistant during last year’s World Championship. Sturm opened eyes by leading Germany to the silver medal in the Olympics.
Raise your hand if you had William Karlsson third in goal scoring, hot on the heels of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Nobody would have predicted the 25-year-old Karlsson of such a breakthrough . . . It’s been nice to watch Ryan Spooner gain immediate traction with the Rangers. Spooner had six assists and a goal in his first three games since being traded. The 26-year-old’s skill is unquestionable . . . Rick Nash will turn 34 on June 16. At his age, there’s no telling when his legs will go. But if Nash finds a two-year, $12.6 million extension palatable, term and price would be fair for both sides. His blazing reboot in Boston, however, may prompt other teams to go longer in years come July 1 . . . Forty years ago, Stan Jonathan and Pierre Bouchard engaged in one of the all-time doozies. Jonathan’s barrage of punches left Bouchard dripping blood onto the Boston Garden ice. On Sunday, the combatants will be signing autographs from noon-2 p.m. at Sportsworld in Saugus . . . The alternate definition of bomb cyclone: the havoc Montreal fans will wreak if the Canadiens don’t make big-time changes.
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