GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Pat Williams, who ran the front office for four NBA teams — Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando and Atlanta — once moaned about the difficulty of his job.
“We can’t win at home. We can’t win on the road,” he said. “As general manager, I just can’t figure out where else to play.”
Fortunately for Jeff Gorton, during his first full campaign as Rangers general manager last season, the Blueshirts did win at home and on the road, although in the end, not often enough.
The Rangers collected 101 points, but faltered in the last two months. They won just nine of their last 19 games and finished third in their division. They reached the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth straight season but were eliminated by the Penguins in the first round in five games.
“You have to have a great season to just get in now and then who knows what happens,” Gorton said Saturday at the team’s training center. “So our No. 1 goal is to make the playoffs, and then hopefully hit our stride at the right time. Obviously last year, we didn’t hit our stride at the right time. In other years, we’ve done a better job of that.”
Williams, who won a title with the 76ers, wasn’t reluctant to wheel and deal, and neither is Gorton, who at 48 has paid his dues as an assistant general manager with the Rangers and with the Boston Bruins.
“Things can change quickly in this league if you make the right moves,” he said. “If you look at the finals last year [between the Sharks and Cup champion Penguins], those were two teams that the year before were saying they were going to change a little bit. We had knocked out [the Penguins] a couple years in a row and they were talking about what to do next and were able to make a few changes and you know the rest of the story, and the same thing holds true for San Jose.”
After that disappointing finish, Gorton considered sweeping changes, but in an era of slow-rising salary caps and no-movement and no-trade contracts, trades aren’t as easy. The NHL is not a fantasy league.
Calls were made, potential deals explored. “Those clauses limit everybody,” Gorton said. “Based on the fact that some guys are still here would tell you that what was out there — and situations that arose — weren’t better than what we have right now . . . we feel more comfortable with some guys in the organization than maybe some other people do. We have a lot confidence in them.”
The major swap turned out to be landing Ottawa center Mika Zibanejad, 23, for Derick Brassard, who turned 29 last week. “We liked him for a while, his package of skating, size and skill, his right hand shot on the power play. He’s well-rounded defensively and scored 20 goals twice in the league. Brass was a really good player for us, but you have to give to get.”
Brassard had a career-high 27 goals, and is due to earn $15 million over the next three years. Zibanejad had only seven fewer points and a cap charge of $2.65 million before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. “Cap space is king,” Gorton said. “You need flexibility.” To that end, he brought in Josh Jooris, speedy Michaal Grabner and Nathan Gerbe on low-cost pacts to restructure the fourth line and penalty-kill. Free agent Brandon Pirri and top prospect Pavel Buchnevich could contribute offense.
Gorton also renegotiated contracts with restricted free agents Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. “They’re all under 25, 26. It’s important that they get better. We didn’t have to go too far down the road as far as [contract] term, and then were able to get [Harvard free agent and Hobey Baker Award] Jimmy Vesey to cap it off. “
Indeed, the loss of offensive defenseman Keith Yandle to Florida in free agency hasn’t been adequately addressed — yet. On Saturday, with another season just a few weeks away, Gorton wouldn’t discuss individual players but is ready to reshuffle the deck if necessary, saying: “We’re never going to turn down a deal to make ourselves better.”