Jeff Gorton hasn’t been dealt an easy hand.
In his first season as Rangers general manager, Gorton, who assumed the role after Glen Sather consolidated his role as solely team president in July, inherited a roster with stars carrying long-term contracts with no-trade clauses, an AHL team with few NHL-ready prospects and a scarcity of future draft picks to dangle in potential deals. That makes any upgrades, which the Rangers need, somewhat like walking a tightrope.
How much can you surrender for present gains without compromising the future?
At the midway point of the season (the Rangers are 22-14-5 through 41 games played), Gorton is faced with some unenviable decisions as the Rangers, with expectations high after two very successful years, must muster a second-half push to reach the playoffs and then do more than just make some noise in the postseason.
Gorton, who was interim general manager for the Bruins in 2006, was instrumental in acquiring Tuukka Rask,Brad Marchand,Phil Kessel,Milan Lucic and free agents Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. There’s a reason why both the Bruins and Leafs were interested in Gorton before Sather made the shift.
But the trade landscape has changed in the past 10 seasons. It’s nowhere near as simple as fantasy sports, where teams can be upgraded by preying on certain owners. General managers around the poker table are smart with their assets.
“It’s been very quiet until the last week,” Gorton said. “With so many teams close to the cap, it makes it difficult. A lot of times when you’re dealing with teams, they want young players back, they want cheap players back, dollar-for-dollar, so there’s so much that goes into it now, it makes it difficult. The other component is that most teams still feel like they’re in the race; there’s so much parity in the league that they’re probably right. They’re only a few points and one good week from being back in it, and that’s less players in the pool to trade. We’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of teams.”
Looking ahead to 2016-17, the Rangers have three prominent restricted free agents: J.T. Miller,Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. They will shed Dan Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit, and presumably Viktor Stalberg’s $1.1 million and Dom Moore’s $1.5 million. That’s $7.1 million. It’s hard to envision how Gorton can keep unrestricted free agent Keith Yandle, who will command more than $6 million per for multiple years.
“He’s a UFA that stands to do quite well in the market,” Gorton said of the defenseman. “We’ve had some discussions with his agent and will continue to do so.”
The Blueshirts do have former No. 1 pick, defenseman Brady Skjei, ready to jump in from Hartford at a cost of less than $1 million. Can he produce like Yandle? Probably not.
As for potential targets before the Feb. 29th trade deadline, let’s assess:
Eric Staal? For a rental, the big Hurricanes center, who is 31, would certainly help in the postseason. Would likely be impossible to keep long-term, though. As a free agent, he’ll command a lucrative long-term deal.
Jordan Eberle? The Oilers are top-heavy with young forwards, and could use defensemen, but Eberle is due to earn $6 million per season for years. Maybe Nail Yakupov at $2.5 million?
Forget Travis Hamonic and Kyle Okposo. The Islanders are looking West to satisfy Hamonic’s trade request and Okposo, the type of player that would appeal the Blueshirts, won’t be going to their crosstown rivals. Twenty-year-old Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2013 who has asked to be traded from Tampa, will require a package of players, and the prevailing opinions are that he also will be sent west.
Good luck. Jeff. Fans and critics will pounce one way or another. Comes with the territory.
Mothers and sons
In a first for the Rangers, players’ mothers will join their sons on the road trip to Philadelphia and Washington next weekend. Teams generally invite fathers for an annual trip, but Alain Vigneault invited mothers when he was in Vancouver and opted to arrange another such journey.
With his two brothers — Eric and Jordan — also in the NHL — Marc Staal said his mom, Linda, has been a little jealous. “My dad’s been on about 25 fathers’ trips,” he said, “so she’s looking forward to it.”
Coming from Europe is Anita Zuccarello, who raised sons Mats and Fabian as a single mom before marrying. When Mats was 15, she paid for him to attend the Norwegian College of Elite Sport to focus on hockey.
“You only have one mom, what can you say?” Zuccarello told Newsday. “She’s been with me, through the good times and the rough times. She’s been to New York before, but this will be something special, going on the road. I don’t think she has any idea what it’s like for the guys . . . I may have to remind her I’m 28, not 18 anymore.”
Anita Zuccarello won’t be a stranger. She’s met Derick Brassard’s mother, and she texted with Rick Nash’s mom when the sons were playing in the Sochi Olympics. “They’ll be going out on their own, to museums and stuff,’’ Mats said. “Should be some great stories.”