New York Rangers owner James Dolan made significant changes to the organization, ousting general manager Jeff Gorton and president of hockey operations John Davidson. According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, those changes were helped by “The recent mismatches against the Islanders,” which “Highlighted the team’s deficiencies in grit and leadership.” (from, ‘Rangers fire John Davidson, Jeff Gorton in shocking move,’ NY Post – 05/5/2021)
To usher in this new era of grit and tenacity, Dolan named Chris Drury the new president of hockey operations and general manager. At the same time, the familiar face of Glen Sather has re-appeared in an advisory role. This Rangers group has skill aplenty, with more still to be added. And despite the rash decision to fire two men who have seemingly had a flawless rebuild, Dolan is not wrong; this team does need to add some toughness.
Skill can only take you so far in the NHL. There is still value in tenacity, and those teams that hoist the Stanley Cup at the end of every season seemingly have the perfect blend of talent and toughness. Whether you agree or not, Dolan’s ideology has some merit, and if he was firm on his stance before, the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has only strengthened his belief.
Naturally, playoff hockey is more intense than regular-season games. But this year, as fans started to trickle back into arenas for Round 1, the physicality has also ratcheted up tenfold. The battle of Florida featuring the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, two of the most skilled teams in the NHL, was flat-out nasty. Both teams tried to set the tone physically, despite the plethora of talented players each possessed. Would the Rangers be able to withstand a battle like that with this current roster? Probably not.
Last night’s Game 7 between the Vegas Golden Knights and Minnesota Wild featured 102 hits. Heck, if you think that is impressive, the aforementioned Islanders racked up 72 hits in Game 1 against Pittsburgh. For the Rangers to jump to that next level, they don’t need to become the Islanders; they just need to stand up to them. They are built on speed and skill, with grit being the one component that could send the Blueshirts back to the postseason for the first time since 2017.
Potential Rangers Targets This Offseason
This offseason is of great interest to Rangers’ faithful. Rumors are swirling around that they are big-game hunting, primarily at the center position. The expansion draft also offers a new layer of excitement this summer, with Seattle waiting to nab someone from New York. But digging further into the offseason, we see some names that will likely float under the radar, yet could be the missing component to a strong Rangers team.
Blake Coleman, LW/RW – Current Cap Hit: $1.8 Million
Blake Coleman’s size won’t blow you away at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, but the 29-year-old forward plays the game on edge. Last season he joined the Lightning at the trade deadline, eventually scoring the second goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
He is a versatile forward who is rather inexpensive and is unafraid of going into those dirty areas. He registered 109 hits in 55 games in 2020-21 and is consistently over the 150-hit threshold in 82-game campaigns.
Phillip Danault, C – Current Cap Hit: $3.08 Million
Although his hit totals and physicality won’t blow you out of the water, Danault is a perennial Selke Trophy candidate and one of the better two-way forwards in the game. He has good size at 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, and is not afraid to throw his weight around. He has finished above 51 percent on faceoffs every season since 2016-17, including a solid 52.5 in 2020-21.
It would be an excellent depth add down the middle for the Rangers, especially if they fail to reel in a top-flight center. He has playoff experience and knows what it takes to battle, and the bright light of New York is nothing for someone who has spent time in Montreal.
Jordan Martinook, LW – Current Cap Hit: $2 Million
Most famous for his yelling of ‘Mr. Svechnikov’ before Hurricanes games, Jordan Martinook is an excellent role player. At 28 years old he still has gas left in the tank, providing a physical, two-way style that the Rangers could use on their fourth line. (from ‘Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi leaves Game 6 against Carolina after hard check,’ Tennessean – 05/27/21) He is 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, utilizing his size effectively on the forecheck. Martinook is also not shy about fighting when he has to, a presence that the Rangers currently lack with their current group.
If the Hurricanes let him go — and it might be a big if — the Rangers would be wise to give him a call.
Casey Cizikas, C – Current Cap Hit: $3.35 Million
Rangers fans are awfully familiar with Cizikas, who has been a part of the Islanders’ fourth line, which has terrorized opponents for the last three seasons. A free agent come seasons end, Cizikas might be the victim of a cap crunch, which would see the 30-year-old have to test the market. In addition to the 112 hits thrown by the center in 56 games this season, he won 53.2 percent of his faceoffs.
Cizikas would make perfect sense for the Rangers, as the Islanders’ grit initially sparked Dolan’s changes. Now the Rangers have a chance to add some cavalry straight from the source.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, LW – Current Cap Hit: $1.8 Million
Bellemare is a veteran who has been around the NHL. He is currently operating a spot on the Colorado Avalanche juggernaut; his two-way game makes him an asset on a team loaded with offensive talent. At 36 years old, the Rangers could nab him to a cheap contract that will still earn them valuable minutes. He has the ability to step in at center, and with a solid frame of 6-foot-0 and 198 pounds, he can punish opposing defenses. If the Rangers miss out on some other options, Bellemare could be a very suitable secondary option.
Kurtis Gabriel, RW – Current Cap Hit: $700,000
By far the most affordable option on this list, Gabriel played in just 11 games this season for the San Jose Sharks. His NHL experience is minuscule with 49 career games, but if the Rangers are serious about adding toughness and want an option that they can have team control over, well, Gabriel might just be a fit.
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Despite registering no points in his 11 games, he did register 55 penalty minutes, which comes out to five a game if you’re a mathematics savant. And at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, you can guess where a bulk of those penalty minutes came from. Gabriel fought six times this past season, and for a Rangers team that was bullied at points during this past campaign, inserting Gabriel into the lineup against, let’s say, Tom Wilson may not be the worst idea.
This Offseason Determines the Course of the Rangers’ Rebuild
Entering the most pivotal offseason since ‘The Letter,’ Chris Drury has to make sure that the moves he makes, both on the ice and behind the bench, are the correct ones. But the need for grit, which Drury and Dolan stress, is undoubtedly high on his to-do list.
This postseason has once again highlighted a fatal flaw in how this Rangers group is constructed, regardless of their involvement. We saw it briefly in the Qualifying Round against the Hurricanes when former Ranger Brady Skjei punished Jesper Fast, leading to an early tally for Carolina. The Rangers played the rest of that game trying desperately to run around hitting people in their own right but were completely taken away from their game because of it.
Physicality will always be a crucial component of this sport, especially when the stakes are highest. The Rangers have options this summer, and they would be wise to add one, if not more, of these wily tough guys to their roster.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!