Since NHL Free Agency has been going on for eleven days now, New York Rangers front office brass has essentially struck out. This isn’t all that unusual for Rangers fans to deal with, as it has become a common occurrence that there wouldn’t be a big signing through free agency, with GM-turned-President Glen Sather and current GM Jeff Gorton both electing to trade away the future to receive rental players. If the Rangers had won the Stanley Cup, those moves would be praised as necessary. News flash, they didn’t.
The biggest issue of the Rangers front office philosophies is that there is never really a constant replacing of talent through free agency. The Rangers are known as of late for making big trades that make them strong but never get them to the Stanley Cup, and then the players they acquire leave in free agency, leaving the team in a major hole that is never filled in free agency. Free agency is there to make up for rental trades. Free agency is there to replace talent with other talent who the front office feels better fit the team and the direction such team is going in. Sather and Gorton have seemingly neglected that idea and now is when it begins to hurt them.
2016 Free Agency: What Has Been Done
For the optimistic people out there, it may be hard to dig deep and find a reason to be excited about Rangers free agency thus far this year. While we’ve seen players like Eric Staal, Viktor Stalberg, Keith Yandle, and Dan Boyle all find other teams or retire in Boyle’s case, there has been no real significant replacement for any of those guys other than Stalberg.
First things first, Keith Yandle. Yandle is an elite puck moving defenseman with the ability to place the puck in the correct spot to generate a rebound or even put the puck in the net a few times a season. Yandle is a guy every team in the National Hockey League would drool over having. There have been no defenseman acquired through free agency as of yet that will be NHL contributors other than maybe depth signing Adam Clendening. The trade for Nick Holden means there will likely not be a single signing of a relevant top four defenseman to replace Yandle, leaving a big hole in the Rangers powerplay as well as just generally making the offense weaker without a legitimate defenseman other than McDonagh to create scoring chances.
Next, we have Viktor Stalberg and Eric Staal. While Stalberg is a replaceable player, he was one of the “never say die” mentality guys who skated as hard as they could the entire season and the Playoffs, making himself a fan favorite with people who enjoy seeing quality bottom six forwards tearing up the ice and trying to generate scoring chances. Stalberg was replaced by Nathan Gerbe, which isn’t a terrible move, but it’s nowhere near realistically being an upgrade.
Staal is a different story. Staal played poor trying to learn the system and it ended up hurting him and the team as they lost in five and his short Rangers career was over. Staal played hard but there was minimal production, so replacing him with Michael Grabner is a pretty ideal move to make. Grabner is a talented speed burner who has been buried on the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last year, so chances are he will turn it around on a perennial playoff team, likely being a mainstay on the penalty kill as well as generating a few chances in 5 on 5 with his speed.
2016 Free Agency: What Hasn’t Been Done
Where does one start? After the disastrous five game playoff massacre that was the Penguins-Rangers series, it was obvious that there were holes that needed to be looked at by the Rangers front office. After being outscored more than two goals to one over five games against a team that the Rangers have generally found a way to beat over the past few years when the postseason arrives, this year was an entirely different case.
The first big hole in my eyes is the lack of top four defensive talent. Players like Dan Girardi and Marc Staal both went from being guys that would be top four on almost any team in the NHL to being not much more than depth players, which has consistently hurt the Rangers year after year. That issue could’ve easily been addressed in the offseason, with quality players like Jason Demers and David Schlemko both signing for reasonable deals. Instead, the front office decided that they would elect to remain with the same group of guys sans Yandle, adding a third pairing defenseman in Nick Holden to bolster the group. While Holden isn’t bad, he’s not the answer to the problem. The problem is still there in the same place it was last season, but that may be put more on the fact that Girardi played big minutes all season. If Skjei gets big minutes with McDonagh, I suspect the defense to improve alot.
Another big hole is the realistic lack of legitimate scoring forwards. While Rangers fans expect Kreider, Nash, and Hayes to step up their game after being able to become completely healthy, the addition of another forward would’ve been a huge step in the right direction to make the Rangers a realistic offensive powerhouse, which would take pressure off the defense and make the Rangers a team that can put up four or five goals a night if they are on their game, which any team would love to have. Instead, the Rangers penned the bottom six to be the biggest problem when generally the fourth line was the best line on the team for the majority of the year. While free agency isn’t over just yet and there are valuable guys such as Jiri Hudler still on the free agency list, the Rangers likely won’t be making any moves.
The last major hole in the Rangers organization is the lack of sheer prospects. The Rangers have traded away prospects time and time again in moves that have failed. Look at Anthony Duclair, Aleksi Saarela, and countless picks traded away for players that didn’t help the Rangers win a Stanley Cup. Even back to 2013, the Rangers dealt away three picks for an aging Ryane Clowe who played a whopping twelve games with the team. Duclair would solve the lack of legitimate scoring forwards and the Rangers would’ve had the ability to draft a legitimate prospect to fill whatever hole they deemed to be the biggest problem in the prospect pool.
Alain Vigneault Is Not to Blame
While there are many critics of Vigneault, there is no way to blame him for the Rangers inability to win a Stanley Cup. The front office has provided him with no ample replacement for players who were dealt away like Carl Hagelin or retired like Martin St. Louis, both of who were major impact players on the Stanley Cup team just a few years back. For as well as the Rangers have drafted and produced valuable players from within the system, there needs to be a mindset shift in the front office.
When it boils down to it, the National Hockey League is a business. It’s a business where winning is king, losing is unacceptable, and being mediocre will not put food on the table. Vigneault has done as much as he can with the cards he has been dealt. The front office expects the same team to get it done after losing in the first round, and while there’s a slight chance they end up going far in the Playoffs, chances are it’ll take big moves to make it that far. The 2016 Penguins added Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, and Trevor Daley in the matter of one year and they won the Stanley Cup. The Rangers don’t need to emulate that and add a superstar. The Rangers just need middle line guys who can get the job done when they’re asked to, like any of the talented teams in the NHL have now.
The Final Word
I’ve come to the conclusion that the Rangers front office would rather stay loyal to the players that have been around for multiple years instead of making changes that will make a difference in the quest for the Stanley Cup. They would rather build from within than attempt to sign any big impact players to help the team, while retaining massive salaries instead of buying them out and trying again with a different player who is almost guaranteed to be better than the current players who are overpaid to underperform. One wouldn’t be so against these ideals if the Rangers were entering a rebuild, but with a goalie who is set to enter the top 10 in all-time wins, a rebuild only means wasting the last few years of elite goaltending from the King himself. So, as the 2016-2017 season starts to get closer and closer, another wasted offseason passes by, with nothing to show for it but some fourth liners who will play as hard as they can, but with Girardi set to line up again and take big minutes, it’s likely not going to matter. What a mess.