Where the Gorton regime failed in the rebuild

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: Lias Andersson poses for photos after being selected seventh overall by the New York Rangers during the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: Lias Andersson poses for photos after being selected seventh overall by the New York Rangers during the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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The New York Rangers salute the fans (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

The outlook going into 2018-19

If the Rangers braintrust sat back and assessed the rebuild over the summer of 2018, the outlook was rosy.  Here’s the lineup that they believed would be contending by 2021-22 with their ages in 2018 in parentheses.

Centers:  Mika Zibanejad (25), Kevin Hayes (26), Lias Andersson (19), Filip Chytil (19), Brett Howden (20)
Left Wingers:  Chris Kreider (27), Jimmy Vesey (25), Vlad Namestnikov (26), Brendan Lemieux (22)
Right Wingers:  Pavel Buchnevich (23), Vitali Kravtsov (19), Jesper Fast (27)
Defense:  Brady Skjei (24), Neal Pionk (23), Tony DeAngelo (23) , Ryan Lindgren (20), Libor Hajek (20), K’Andre Miller (18), Nils Lundkvist (18), Yegor Rykov (21), Joey Keane (19)
Goal: Igor Shesterkin (23), Alexandar Georgiev (22), Olof Lindbom (18)

Yes, by 2021-22 this team would be ready to contend.  The veterans would be in their prime and the prospects would be starting to make a difference.  It all looked better by the summer of 2019, the Rangers added Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba  and Adam Fox while subtracting Kevin Hayes and Neal Pionk.  Add in the second overall pick in the NHL draft in Kaapo Kakko.

Well, we all know how that turned out. Of the top 13 prospects in the organization in the summer of 2018, only Igor Shesterkin, Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller have made an impact.  Chytil, Lundkvist and Hajek contribute, but the team has already given up on Howden, Andersson, Rykov, and DeAngelo while trading Keane for Julien Gauthier. Goalie Olof Lindbom looks to be a wasted second round pick.

Where we are

Gorton moves since the summer of 2018 have contributed to the Ranger’s current success.  While there will always be critics, it’s hard to argue with the signing of Artemi Panarin and the trade for Jacob Trouba.  The Adam Fox deal was a no-brainer.   While we can be disappointed with the production from Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière, there was no way that Jeff Gorton was not going to make those two lottery picks.

The salary cap has hampered the Rangers and has forced them to unload players who could ostensibly still be contributing including Jimmy Vesey, Brady Skjei, Jesper Fast and most notably, Pavel Buchnevich.

Diehard Ranger fans haven’t given up on Vitali Kravtsov and are hopeful looking at his six goals and 13 points in 19 KHL games.  We may still see him in a Ranger uniform this season.  But if we don’t and the Rangers end up flipping him for a short term rental or a draft pick, they will have wasted four years of development time.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to take potshots at prior decisions.   But no matter how you look at it,  Jeff Gorton and the Rangers made some strategic decisions in 2017 and 2018 that have had a dire effect on the current Rangers roster.

Imagine if the Rangers had been able to pry Anthony Cirelli from the Lightning instead of Brett Howden.  How formidable would the Rangers be if they could field a lineup that included  Lafrenière, Kakko and Chytil along with Anthony Cirelli,  Martin Necas and Joel Farabee instead of Greg McKegg, Dryden Hunt and Julien Gauthier?

For all of the accolades that Gorton has drawn for the Rangers success this season, if you look at the moves he made at the start of the rebuild, how many of those players are having a significant impact on the 2021-22 Rangers?   Three.  Ryan Strome, Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller. And of the two top ten picks?  Nothing.

Rebuilding a hockey franchise isn’t easy.  This is not meant as a Jeff Gorton bashing session.  He relied on Gordie Clark and his scouts to assess talent and that a big reason that we ended up with Andersson, Kravtsov, Hajek and Howden instead of Cirelli, Necas and Farabee.

When we compain about the lack of depth at forward, it’s worth taking a look back at the beginning of the rebuild to see what went wrong.  The bottom line is Jeff Gorton knew what the team needed and he went for it, but was  a victim of bad choices and lousy talent evaluation.

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