At a crossroads in a forgettable season, Rangers brass has decided to take the road to rebuilding, starting now.
Although ownership and management aren’t contemplating a complete roster teardown, general manager Jeff Gorton, backed by president Glen Sather, said Thursday that a major selloff is coming to a team that had made the playoffs for seven straight seasons.
“The decisions we make going forward will be based on long-term and not trying to save the season,” Gorton said in a candid news conference. “Let’s face it, we’ve had a pretty good run for a while; many years we’ve had a team where we were looking to add at this time of year. Right now, as we sit last in our division, it’s become increasingly clear that’s not our team right now.”
So expect a handful of moves before the Feb. 26 trade deadline and beyond involving unrestricted free agents such as Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, David Desharnais and Nick Holden, and possibly Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello, who have a year left on their contracts.
“We need to do what we can to get as many assets as we can . . . We want some fast players, we want character players, we want players we can build our team around,” said Gorton, who believed the current squad “would be better than this [25-24-5]. There’s several teams out there looking to get better. I would say it’s a strong market. We’ll do what we can. We have a number of players we’re looking at; we’ll see what it brings back. There’s enough players out there, moves to be made that can improve our team in a pretty quick period of time.”
Gorton praised the track record of coach Alain Vigneault, in his fifth season here, but sidestepped a question on whether he will return in the fall.
“AV’s a good coach. He’s been a good coach in the league. He’s been a good coach for the Rangers,” Gorton said. “I think we’re all responsible in some way here for what we’re seeing. To sit there and say it’s the coach, it’s not the way I want to go. As a manager, as the management staff, as a scouting staff, as a coaching staff, as players, we’re all not good enough right now on the ice, and it’s shown.”
Asked about next season, Gorton said: “I wouldn’t want to answer that today. We have 25, 30 games to go. AV’s our coach; we have a lot of faith in AV from what he’s done here. We’ll leave it at that. There’s a lot of answers that have yet to come.”
Last June, the first steps to retooling were taken when Dan Girardi was bought out and Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta were sent to Arizona for a seventh-round pick in the draft and defenseman Tony DeAngelo. Their two first-round picks, centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, now in Hartford, are faring well, Gorton said.
The broader decision to make widespread changes, including waiving defenseman Brendan Smith on Thursday, Gorton said, “has evolved over the last month. We really haven’t jelled, we haven’t gotten an identity. We’ve always been able to play with speed and skill. I don’t think we’ve been there. We haven’t had enough players going on a nightly basis. When we made the [Stepan/Raanta] trade, we knew we were resetting. It’s going to force us into some decisions now to think long-term and start to try to rebuild and build a Stanley Cup contender.”
In a letter to fans, Gorton — and Sather, who endorsed the plan but didn’t totally rule out that the Rangers still might be able to grab a playoff spot — wrote: “As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy.”