The comparisons have long since begun. Once Montreal Canadiens executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton came on, they were at least inevitable. The differences between him and ex-general manager Marc Bergevin were always going to be analyzed, starting with what was most obvious, the English instead of French.
It marks somewhat of a change in direction for the club. Sure, the Canadiens are intent on hiring a GM to officially replace Bergevin, one who will most certainly speak French, but, in hiring Gorton, the Habs are bringing aboard someone with prior managerial experience at that level, something Bergevin didn’t have when he was first hired by Habs owner Geoff Molson back in 2012.
The irony is Gorton actually has less total experience as a GM now than Bergevin has accumulated over the last decade. However, at actually, legitimately, and, perhaps most importantly, transparently rebuilding a team? There really is no comparison.
To be fair, it’s entirely possible Gorton won’t be granted the ability to maintain that same level of transparency helping out at the helm of the Habs. Regardless, to whet the appetite of Habs fans, here are his top moves while heading up the New York Rangers:
5. Gorton Signs Neal Pionk
Jimmy Vesey was perhaps the most high-profile non-drafted (by the Rangers) signee by Gorton. But perhaps the most successful one went undrafted altogether… and under the radar relatively speaking: Neal Pionk.
Pionk gets a lot of recognition for the success he’s enjoyed with the Winnipeg Jets. However, at the time he was traded to the Jets (along with a first-round pick) for Jacob Trouba, it was seen as a massive win for the Rangers.
Maybe some still see it that way, but the fact is the Trouba trade didn’t make this list for a reason, namely Pionk’s 93 points in 152 games with the Jets (54 points in 140 games with the Rangers for Trouba). Getting Pionk under contract in the first place though? It absolutely has to.
4. Gorton Wins Artemi Panarin Sweepstakes
To a certain extent, Gorton can’t take all the credit for the Pionk signing in the sense that New York is a prime destination for free agents. The same logic holds with the Artemi Panarin signing back in 2019. Nevertheless, it’s hard to diminish Panarin’s Hart Trophy-caliber impact over the course of the last three seasons with the Rangers, during which he’s scored 189 points (59 goals) in 142 games.
Sure, Gorton had to break the bank to sign Panarin, giving him $81.5 million over seven years, but Panarin was only 27 at the time of the signing. He just turned 30. He’ll be “only” 34 when it ends, meaning there’s a very good chance he maintains an elite level of play over its entire course. So, overall, the signing has been a massive win for the Rangers, not to mention a feather in Gorton’s cap.
3. Gorton Salvages Something for Ryan Spooner
The trade that brought Ryan Spooner to the Rangers (i.e., the Rick Nash trade) has underwhelmed in retrospect. Of course, Gorton parlayed the first-round pick they got to draft K’Andre Miller, so that’s somewhat of a saving grace, but, ultimately, Ryan Spooner was a focal point.
True, Spooner had fallen out of favor with the Boston Bruins, but he had still scored 25 points in 39 games that season. He followed that up with 16 points in 20 games the rest of the season with the Rangers. Then the other shoe dropped and he notched just two points in 16 games the next one before getting traded to the Edmonton Oilers.
In exchange, Gorton acquired a similar reclamation project in Ryan Strome. Strome’s career had been at a standstill for a few seasons. Originally a fifth-overall pick, he had been failing to live up to the hype in spite of a 50-point sophomore season with the New York Islanders. That 2018-19 season, like Spooner, he had just two points (18 games). Trading them one for one seemed to make some kind of perverse sense, in that someone’s garbage is another’s treasure.
It didn’t work out so hot for the Oilers, unless you’re intent on sticking with the garbage metaphor. Spooner managed just three points in 25 games with the Oilers. He was out of the NHL by 2019-20, even though he’s only going to be 30 this year. Strome on the other hand rediscovered his game, even before Panarin joined the team. That first season, he scored 33 points (18 goals) in 63 games with the Rangers.
Strome’s since taken it up a gear or two, but, again, playing with Panarin will grease the wheels a little bit. Still, there’s little denying Strome has become a key cog in the Rangers’ offense. Nash was always supposed to fetch the Rangers someone of value, so the draft pick that ultimately turned into Miller was expected to a degree. Strome for Spooner was meanwhile a pleasant surprise that keeps on paying dividends, even if Gorton’s no longer there to reap the rewards.
2. Gorton Gets Adam Fox
In contrast, Gorton was still there to enjoy the fruits of his labor, trading for defenseman Adam Fox, who won the 2021 James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.
In exchange, Gorton gave up just two second-round picks to the Carolina Hurricanes. Granted, those second-round picks, one of which got traded away to the Ottawa Senators for two additional picks, can still develop into good players. However, logic dictates that when you have the chance to pick up a Norris-caliber defenseman you jump at the opportunity, especially when that defenseman is just 21. The fact that Fox, now 23, hadn’t yet played a game in the NHL at the time makes the trade all the more impressive. It was a gamble that paid off in spades.
Of course, the Hurricanes only made the trade because Fox didn’t want to sign there. So, they had to get something for him or risk him walking away for nothing. You also have to take into consideration Fox had originally been drafted by the Calgary Flames and rumors swirled he was unwilling to sign there either. In fact, growing up a Rangers fan, Fox had always been rumored to want to play for the Blueshirts.
So, Gorton effectively had all the leverage. True, theoretically, Fox could have pulled a Vesey (see above) and Gorton could have signed him the following season without giving up the two picks. However, this way, Fox got to play in the NHL right away. It seems to have agreed with him up to now.
1. Gorton Swindles Senators to Get Mika Zibanejad
There is no way to look at the Mika Zibanejad acquisition other than highway larceny. Derick Brassard was supposedly the centerpiece of the trade for the Rangers’ trade partners in the deal, the Ottawa Senators. If you look at what Brassard’s accomplished since and how Zibanejad’s career took off, it’s apples and oranges, though.
Sure, Brassard technically contributed to the Sens’ three-round playoff run the following season (during which they actually beat the Rangers in Round 2). However, Zibanejad put up 37 points in his first season with the Rangers. Brassard? 39 with the Senators. No big difference until you consider Zibanejad was limited to 56 games… and that he was also on the rise as a 23-year-old.
In contrast, Brassard was on the decline. He’s played for seven different teams since the trade in varying roles. Zibanejad, just one. You tend to want to hold onto players like that. You’d think anyway.
Sure, Zibanejad was on the verge of becoming more expensive, maybe to an unjustifiable degree in the eyes of the Senators. His sophomore deal was set to expire at the end of the following season. But, considering the Senators also gave up a second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to get him (with a seventh-rounder going back the other way), they clearly saw themselves as getting the better player in the deal. They were wrong.
Maybe Gorton saw it that way too and he just lucked out. However, there’s enough empirical evidence to suggest he knows what he’s doing overall. This move, like the others on this list, is a good sign for Canadiens fans.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.