Re-Tooling the Rangers in one Off-Season

Note: The more I wrote in this blog, the more I hated it. It's not that I necessarily dislike the team that I've built, it's more of the hesitation that I know basically everything I wrote up isn't going to happen. There is no doubt that the New York Rangers need change. There is no doubt that the FO needs to give AV the players he needs to succeed. There is no doubt that a few players, for lack of a better term, need to be forced off of this team for the Rangers to succeed. At the end of writing this up, I didn't even want to post it, but I think that's sort of the opposite reason that blogs even exist. So. Enjoy. 

For the first time in my life, I don't envy the General Manager of the New York Rangers. Jeff Gorton, though being in the Rangers organization since 2007, inherited a team from Glen Sather prior to the 15-16 season that was broken. Even within the Rangers, it didn't sound like there was much confidence in the team this season. How many times to Alain Vigneault go on the record saying that this team deserves "one more kick at the can"? And that's all well and good. Having loyalty to a core of players that has given you everything they can doesn't go unnoticed among player circles.

But at what cost?

The 2015-2016 season for the New York Rangers was a failure. From top to bottom. Front office to coaching to the players on the ice. It's easy to say it just wasn't their year, but it is more than that. The core went rotten. The Rangers need a re-tool.

Henrik Lundqvist is 34 years old. When people cite that the Rangers window is closing, it's more a testament to Lundqvist heading towards the end of his career. I think these comments are somewhat unfounded. Despite not being recognized this year, Lundqvist actually recorded a career high save percentage during 5v5 play. In fact, his save percentage this year was the 2nd best recorded save percentage @ 5v5 since the lockout (among goalies who appeared in 60 or more games) behind Carey Price's historic season last year. If the Rangers penalty kill this season wasn't a complete abomination, Lundqvist would be getting Vezina consideration.

The point of that last paragraph being, the Rangers still have one of the best goalies in the world between the pipes for them, even at age 34, and if the defense in front of him can get their game together, and avoid giving up so many high-danger-scoring-chances, then Henrik Lundqvist can continue to carry the Rangers.

It is based on this logic that the New York Rangers need a 'simple' re-tool, and not a massive rebuild. 

Alain Vingealut will be the coach of the Rangers next season. It is on Jeff Gorton and the front office to get Vigneault the horses he needs to play the system he wants. The Rangers need at a minimum four defensemen who can pick up the puck in their own end, and make a quick breakout pass to the wingers; not only to exit their own zone quickly, but force the quick transition game that AV hockey depends on.

This season, the Rangers had Yandle, McDonagh, and McIlrath (when he played) as the defensemen capable of collecting the puck in the corner, winning the 50/50 battle, picking their head up, and moving the puck. Dan Boyle would too often lose these battles. Kevin Klein was borderline for me to be included in that list. Dan Girardi couldn't do either, and Marc Staal's wild inconsistency leave him in no man's land. Having only three d-men who could consistently play that game; one of whom was injured often, and the other who for some reason couldn't break into the lineup, isn't enough for AV to play AV hockey. At it's ultimate, this is one of the main reasons the Rangers were such an awful possession team this season.

The rest of this blog is predicated on two hypothetical moves that may actually be quite a big road block for the Rangers to accomplish. These two moves are:

  1. Buyout Dan Girardi
  2. Trade Rick Nash

Buying out Dan Girardi might be the only way to convince the loyal Blueshirt to move on. He'll get his money, and be able to sign wherever he pleases, rather than putting his faith in the Rangers to work out a deal to send him somewhere he may be willing to relocate. A Dan Girardi buyout for the Rangers looks as follows:

via generalfanager.com

via generalfanager.com

The cap implications for this buyout are minimal, and worth it. The Rangers will save money during the years where Girardi would've been on the team, and then lose $1.25m per year for four seasons after G's contract would have expired. At that point, with all the expansion being planned for the league, and the Canadian dollar rebounding, it isn't farfetched to believe the cap ceiling could be upwards of $80m. At that level, $1.25m is a drop in the ocean (a thing that being the Rangers allows you to say).

In the mean time, the Rangers save some much needed cap.

The second move here is trading Rick Nash. Is it that hard to believe that the Rangers could get a Kessel-like return for Nash? 

Kessel was traded from the Leafs to the Penguins on the first day of free-agency this past off-season. At the time of the trade, Kessel had 7 years remaining on his contract. The Leafs would retain enough salary to put Kessel's AAV for the Penguins at $6.8m. Kessel plus a 2nd round draft pick returned a nothing d-man, a very-good prospect, a decent bottom-6 forward, and two draft picks including a first-rounder. In the two seasons leading up to the trade, Kessel would record 62 goals and 141 points in 164 games (.86 points/game). Nash in his last two seasons has recorded 105 points including 57 goals in 139 games (.76 points/game). 

Nash, however, has just two years remaining on his deal -- not quite the 7 years that Kessel had at the time of his trade. Some possible landing spots for Nash could be Toronto to reunite with team Canada coach Mike Babcock, or San Jose, to unite with Joe Thornton. Thornton and Nash have skated together with team Canada, and also played in Switzerland together during both lockout seasons. Let's assume that Nash doesn't want to have the spotlight on him in Toronto (though, it would probably be on Matthews much more than Nash), and the Rangers deal him to San Jose. 

The trade:
Rick Nash (Rangers retain $1.8m) to San Jose for Melker Karlsson, Matt Nieto, 1st round pick (2017) and 3rd round pick (2016 - assuming this trade goes down before the draft).

Again, these aren't moves to be taken lightly. They are, in fact, quite unlikely moves. What they allow for is the Rangers to get rid of Girardi (to put it bluntly), and clear a bunch of cap to make the moves they need to make in order to stay competitive next season. On the surface, losing Nash is huge. But, last season, his impact on the players around him wasn't as big as it used to be. Of course, we are judging Nash on truly a down year.

Nash.png

Compared to last season...

The Rangers can survive in a post-Nash offense. He wasn't the player they needed him to be for them in the 15-16 season, and they can move on. I'm realizing now that the Rangers moving on from Nash probably deserves it's own post. Can go for days on this, and it'd be a good analysis, but I digress.

After these two moves, it becomes time to fill out the lineup.

We all know the Rangers have been, well, quick to abandon their draft picks on the hopes of winning a Stanley Cup. Fortunately, the NCAA undrafted free agent pool provides quite a bit of talent every season (see: Hayes, Kevin). This year's prized free agent? Jimmy Vesey. Vesey has decided not to sign with Nashville, the team that drafted him, and will become an unrestricted free agent (though still bound to the entry-level contract restrictions) in August. The Rangers would be wise to do what they can to get Vesey into the lineup. At this point, Vesey is good enough to step onto any team's third-line, the Rangers for certain. Promise him third-line minutes, and get Vesey to New York. 

Finally, we can evaluate where the Rangers stand:

Gone: Girardi, Nash, Boyle, Dominic Moore, Eric Staal, Yandle, Boyle, Stalberg(?)
Added: Vesey, Karlsson, Nieto
Need to be re-signed: Kreider, Hayes, Miller, McIlrath, Nieto

In order, above, let's say the cap hits file in as follows:

$4 (4 years), $2.5 (2 years), $2.5 (2 years), $0.8 (1 year), $1.25 (2 years)

Here's how the lineup looks now:

Kreider - Stepan - ________
Miller - Brassard - Zuccarello
Buchnevich - Hayes - Vesey
Nieto - Karlsson - Fast

McDonagh - Klein
Staal - ______
Skjei - McIlrath

Scratch: Hrivik (glass gets waived)

This team has the infusion of youth that the Rangers FO is looking for. It has limited turnover, with the "new" core staying together. Yes, Marc Staal is still in the lineup, and I think he has more value on the trade market than Dan Girardi would, but I believe moving them both this off-season is not what the Rangers are going to do. How much turnover is too much? How many veterans out of the lineup can we move?

The issue here, is that if the Rangers can move Staal as well, that opens up the money to re-sign Yandle. And, along with the other moves made here, leaves the Rangers with a hefty chunk of change to add free agents. Although, as much as the above would suggest otherwise, am I trying to keep this in the realm of possibilities - and Yandle moves on to test the free agent market.

Speaking of the free agent market, this is where the Rangers are going to need to be smart. Where the Rangers are going to ignore every single gut feeling they have, and make smart decisions. The issue with the two glaring decisions that I have wanted the Rangers to make to fill the holes in the lineup above (top-6 RWer, and top-4 d-man) are that both of my targets are having insane playoff runs right now, and jacking up their market prices.

Signings:

David Backes (3 years, $4.5m AAV) and Jason Demers (5 years, $5m AAV).

Backes is following up a mediocre regular season with an absolutely insane playoffs for the Blues right now. He is part of the group of players absolutely putting the team on his back, as a true captain does. Will St. Louis let Backes go if they end up making the WCF or the SCF? It's not hard to believe they won't. He is their captain. He's homegrown. He's finally delivering in the playoffs.

The are a few reasons I like Backes for the Rangers. Backes is a guy who can come in and add to the core. A veteran who is always in the playoffs. He has size, he shoots right-handed which is a huge lack for the Rangers at the forward depths right now. The speed of the game has caught up with Backes, but he is silencing the haters in the playoffs right now. I've kept a close eye on Backes these playoffs. He's not fast. He makes up for his current lack of speed with hockey instinct. He's in the right place at the right time. He's in front of the net. He's cleaning up rebounds. He's getting in on the forecheck and throwing the body. He's playing the puck well.

Despite the rough season, Backes was still 7th on the Blues in terms of 5v5 production (p/60) per corsica.hockey.

Backes is also quite a big part in the possession machine that the St. Louis Blues are.

This is the kind of signing that could be construed as the Rangers of old. Signing the veteran. Perhaps overpaying because he is on the free agent market. But this is the guy the Rangers need. Kreider and Miller can learn a ton about Backes. He'd fit into the locker room. It makes sense.

It makes a lot more sense than being the team that hands Okposo (basically a younger/better Backes right now), an insanely huge contract. Although, it would be quite fun to have Okposo in Rangers blue instead of Brooklyn black.

I'm signing Backes.

Next, Jason Demers.

Again, another guy whose playoff performance is lighting up ideas around the league. Demers and Goligoski are both going to be unrestricted free agents this off-season. They both deserve paydays. If the Rangers were in need of a LHD, I'd be typing this about Goligoski. The Rangers need a RHD. The Rangers need Demers.

Demers is an AV defensemen. His bonafide possession game highlights the fact that he can move the puck. In the regular season, Demers was a 54.17% CF% player, with a differential of +159, a +1.25 cfRel player to the rest of his Stars counterparts. Demers' with or without you chart details a much more important story:

Johnny Oduya was Demers' most popular partner this season. Just look at what being paired with Demers did for Oduya. Wonders. Demers won't add much on the scoresheet, recording just 23 points this past season, but he'll keep the puck out of his own end, and he'll move it up the ice quickly. AV needs that. The Rangers need that.

If you need a comparable player to Demers, look no further than Anton Stralman. Both are possession gurus. Both can add offense, but not much (though Stralman's offensive game has come to life in TB as part of the PP). 

The Rangers know exactly what Marc Staal can do paired with a player like Demers, because that's exactly what Staal did with Stralman.

Take a look at Marc Staal's overview in the 13-14 season where he found himself paired with Stralman on a nightly basis:

That smoothed shot chart has a whole lot of grey in it.

Final roster:

Kreider - Stepan - Backes
Miller - Brassard - Zuccarello
Buchnevich - Hayes - Vesey
Nieto - Karlsson - Fast
Hrivik

McDonagh - Klein
Staal - Demers
Skjei - McIlrath

Hank
Raanta

(Lindberg omitted as he is out injured until November).

This roster is cap compliant. It adds youth. It lets the "new" core of the Rangers take the reigns. It gives AV the defense he needs to compete. It's a fast team in terms of skating, and in terms of moving the puck; each d-pairing have at least one player who can move the puck up the ice quick.

The Rangers don't need to look exactly this way next season, but if they want to stay competitive while moving away from the past, this is the way they can look.