The vast majority of Rangers fans were okay with the team’s announcement back in February that it would strip down and rebuild in an effort to make itself a legitimate Stanley Cup contender over the next few years.
The team had a nice run for more than a decade, reaching a Stanley Cup final and a couple of Eastern Conference finals under coach Alain Vigneault, but increasingly, it had become clear the window on this group was closing. Rebuilding now made sense.
But rebuilding isn’t easy. And it’s rarely fun. Think the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers are on the rise now? Well, in the three seasons from 2013-16, they had a record of 47-199. Ouch.
These Rangers shouldn’t be that bad — not with the young talent on the roster and Henrik Lundqvist in the goal. But there were probably things the management team, led by GM Jeff Gorton, could have done this summer that might have shortened the club’s rebuild time. They opted not to do any of them.
After firing Vigneault following their final game of last season, Gorton hired college hockey coach David Quinn, of Boston University, rather than someone with NHL experience. Quinn’s staff is mostly inexperienced, too, with holdovers Lindy Ruff and goalie coach Benoit Allaire the only NHL veterans on the staff.
The other assistants are Greg Brown, who had been the associate coach at Boston College, and David Oliver, previously a player development exec with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Rangers went into the 2018 NHL draft with 10 picks overall, including three in the first round. Some might have expected Gorton to trade some of those picks in a package to acquire proven NHL talent, but he did not. Instead, he drafted three players in the first round who won’t even be at training camp next month.
After the draft, Gorton said the Rangers would be looking in free agency to sign certain types of veteran players — a select group of guys who had done something in the NHL who could maybe show the young kids on the roster just how the game should be played at the NHL level. On the first day of free agency, he signed 25-year-old defenseman Fredrik Claesson away from Ottawa for a one-year, $700,000 deal. To date, Claesson remains the only NHL free agent the Rangers have signed who wasn’t on their team last year. (Though to be fair, they did sign a couple of undrafted European free agents, Michael Lindqvist and Ville Meskanen.)
Aside from two trades at the draft — swapping the No. 26 and No. 48 overall selections to move up to No. 22 and take defenseman K’Andre Miller, and trading next year’s seventh round pick for a seventh rounder this year to take Massachusetts high schooler Riley Hughes — Gorton hasn’t made any trades this summer.
He did re-sign all the Rangers’ arbitration-eligible restricted free agents — Vladislav Namestnikov, Jimmy Vesey, Brady Skjei, Kevin Hayes and Ryan Spooner — but of those, only Skjei got a long-term deal (six years and $31.5 million). Namestnikov, Vesey and Spooner all signed for two years and Hayes signed a one-year pact that makes him an unrestricted free agent next summer.
So, on paper, the Rangers haven’t done much to upgrade the roster of a team that finished 34-39-9 last season (7-9-3 after the Feb. 26 trade deadline). And the short-term deals they signed indicate they plan on being sellers at the deadline again this season.
The return of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who had knee surgery and didn’t finish the season, will improve the roster some, and if defenseman Brendan Smith — who signed a four-year contract last summer, but played so poorly that he was sent to the minors — has a bounce back season, that should help, too. If Quinn can improve the defense, that would help as well.
But for the most part, everything that Gorton and Co. did — or didn’t do — this summer indicates it could be a long winter for Ranger fans. At this point, all anyone can do is trust the process.