Watching a New York Rangers rebuild is like watching someone learning how to drive. You know at some point there’s going to be an aggressive acceleration, and you’re just hoping it’s not before they figured out how to work the steering wheel.
Hence, the departure of general manager Jeff Gorton this week, for apparently results-oriented reasons, should have Rangers fans shook.
The current rebuild began on Feb. 8, 2018. Long before the Rangers were famous for letters in which they demanded firings from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, they were famous for a letter that foreshadowed a different kind of pain.
Signed by general manager Jeff Gorton and senior adviser Glen Sather, it was an admission that familiar names would be shipped out of town during a prolonged rebuild. “Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender,” it said. “We will keep you informed as this process takes shape.”
This week, the process took the shape of a boot to Gorton’s backside, as he was informed that his services were no longer needed. He and team president John Davidson were fired — sorry, “left the organization,” according to the official release — by owner James Dolan, as associate general manager Chris Drury took over both positions.
“I think we were all surprised. I know I certainly was. And in talking to the players, I know they were too,” coach David Quinn said.
Join the club, sir. The entire hockey world was surprised.
Gorton helped the Rangers amass one of the top-ranked prospect pools in the NHL. No doubt, hitting on a pair of lottery picks like Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière bolsters that group significantly. But he also drafted center Filip Chytil and defenseman K’Andre Miller, along with a collection of solid young players on the way.
Did he benefit because Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox all wanted to play on Broadway? Absolutely. But he’s also the guy that stole Mika Zibanejad from the Ottawa Senators for Derick Brassard and a seventh-rounder; the guy who snagged Ryan Lindgren in the Rick Nash trade with Boston; and the guy who turned Ryan Spooner, also acquired in the Nash trade, into Ryan Strome.
The Rangers haven’t made the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2017, but you could feel they were getting there. Even the most optimistic of fans didn’t think it was going to happen in the 2021 season, in an East Division where you could have penciled in the top four teams in the preseason and felt pretty confident about it.
Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell James Dolan that.
The timing of these dismissals still seems curious, arriving right after Dolan commissioned a statement that blasted the NHL for not suspending Tom Wilson following Monday night’s antics, and called for Player Safety boss George Parros to be dismissed. There was talk that Gorton and Davidson tried to distance themselves from the statement. One source close to the Rangers I spoke with pondered why Davidson, a beloved franchise legend, had been let go so quickly after returning to the team in 2019.
As of Wednesday night, it was still a mystery.
But the majority of sources indicated that this was a performance-based decision. That Dolan felt the rebuild — and a payroll north of $76 million — should have yielded a playoff berth this season. That he wasn’t happy with three losses to the New York Islanders down the stretch in which the Rangers scored a single goal in total. That they played dispassionately in those games apparently was also disturbing. The New York Post reported that Gorton and Davidson “seemed to ignore the meaning of last summer’s beatdown by Carolina under the bubble by not fortifying the roster with grit and strength to support all of the finesse-oriented athletes.”
Or, perhaps, the duo didn’t feel the Rangers were at the point of their maturation as a contender to warrant those moves. You make the playoffs before you make your “Blake Coleman trade” or seek out that character role player like Patrick Maroon. That’s the logical and patient approach, but that apparently has no home here anymore.
While he’s undoubtedly qualified for the job, there’s something disturbingly symbolic about Drury taking over as general manager at this juncture.
Drury was the embodiment of the shortcut. He and Scott Gomez infamously signed massive free-agent deals with Sather’s Rangers in 2007. Drury’s was for five years and $35.25 million. Combined, they ate up $14.5 million in annual cap space. It was a massive swing and ultimately a miss. They won a single playoff series with either Gomez or Drury, buying out the latter in 2011. The only saving grace was flipping Gomez to Montreal for defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
This was nothing new for Rangers fans. They were there for the Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Theo Fleury signings. There for the five-year, $45 million contract handed to Bobby Holik in 2002. There for the six-year, $39 million contract handed to Wade Redden in 2008. The Rangers build something until it’s time to buy something.
That’s what made this rebuild so refreshing. They expunged more high-priced veterans than they acquired. It was meticulous. It was patient. It was the antithesis of what we expected from the Rangers. And then it wasn’t.
So how does Dolan want Drury to accelerate this process? Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel springs to mind, and not just because Dolan never met a high-priced center he didn’t want to acquire. The Rangers have a war chest of prospects and picks at the ready if Eichel becomes available.
Maybe a prize like that is the focus. Maybe it’s just an attitude adjustment, as the Rangers “fortify the roster with grit and strength” in the offseason.
Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t.
Gorton had the Rangers primed to make the leap next season. They almost made it this season. New York had a .211 winning percentage in one-goal games, the lowest in the NHL. That’s one bad bounce. One mistake. That’s hockey.
But this is a business, as David Quinn said. “I’ve got so much respect for Jeff and JD. It’s sad, but unfortunately it’s the tough part of sports,” he said. “We all felt good about what we had done, up until this point.”
Ask around the league, and you’ll find many others that did, too. As one NHL GM told me when the news broke: “This is crazy. What are they thinking?”
We’ll find out shortly, now that James Dolan is steering this car, speeding through the rebuild and driving the Rangers into parts unknown.
Three NHL awards candidates who deserve more love
1. Adam Pelech for Norris. We recently published our Awards Watch for this month, with New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox leading the Norris Trophy race. He’s a terrific candidate, and might end up leading all defensemen in points, which is a surefire way to win a Norris. It’s not an award that values the defensive defensemen in the league. Having 13 points in 53 games isn’t going to cut it. Which is a shame, because New York Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech is having an absolutely outstanding season.
Pelech’s pairing with Ryan Pulock is one of the best in the NHL, with an expected goals percentage of 61.51% at 5-on-5. He’s third in defense wins above average and first when adjusted for shooting. One of the Professional Hockey Writers Association voters we canvassed for the Awards Watch said they were likely voting for Fox but that Pelech was “easily the most underrated defenseman in the league this season.”
2. Joe Pavelski for Selke. The Selke Trophy race is the same every season. There’s the favorite who is “due” for one (Aleksander Barkov). There are the usual suspects who have won in the past or have been in the conversation (Patrice Bergeron, Mark Stone, Ryan O’Reilly). There are the analytics darlings (Phillip Danault, Joel Eriksson Ek, Valeri Nichushkin). There are the “Hey, this star player is actually good at defense!” candidates (Brad Marchand, Sidney Crosby, Mitchell Marner, Leon Draisaitl).
Dallas Stars center Joe Pavelski fits into the latter two categories. He has 45 points in 52 games, including 22 goals — an established offensive star. But he also leads all NHL forwards in even-strength defense goals above average (4.4), earning him accolades in the advanced stats community. The knock on him is that, unlike other candidates, he doesn’t kill penalties. The response to that? Players don’t exactly deploy themselves.
3. Jared Bednar for Jack Adams. It’s going to be hard to overcome the Central Division candidates for this award. Rod Brind’Amour has the Carolina Hurricanes atop that division and poised to finish with the NHL’s best record. Coach Joel Quenneville has the Florida Panthers in the playoffs, which is something we’ve gone through entire U.S. two-term presidencies without seeing at times. (Seriously, the George W. Bush years were free of the Panthers in the playoffs.) Coach Q is seeking to win only his second Jack Adams, getting the first with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000.
Bednar has a little bit of that Quenneville problem right now as the head coach of a team that’s unanimously accepted as being supremely loaded. This is commonplace for coach of the year awards: Phil Jackson only won once with the Chicago Bulls, after all. Scotty Bowman? Twice.
I’m not trying to put a coach who hasn’t even played for a conference title yet into that stratosphere, but the Avalanche are first in expected goals against per 60 minutes (1.76), third in expected goals scored per 60 (2.59), and Bednar has once again guided this team through injuries and absences. An extremely underrated coach. Well, in the regular season.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Systemic change
As I wrote about this week on Tom Wilson, it’s the system that needs changing. If half of the passion and vitriol spewed at the incident on Monday was refocused on reforming the mechanisms through which players and teams can be punished for injurious plays, then there’s a chance we might have real progress here. Increase the cap on fines for players. Target teams, general managers and coaches with financial penalties for repeat offenders. That’s a start.
Loser: Washington Capitals
Tough week. Evgeny Kuznetsov landed back on the COVID-19 list, and he and Ilya Samsonov were disciplined by the team. The loss of T.J. Oshie‘s father. Alex Ovechkin continues to battle through an injury. The deleted tweet that basically celebrated Wilson injuring Artemi Panarin, and a renewed focus on the Capitals’ role in Wilson’s continuing behavioral issues.
Winner: Goons and pests
John Scott, Georges Laraque, Colton Orr and other former enforcers had their moments in the spotlight to discuss how Wilson broke “The Code” and what would happen to him. Matt Cooke gave The Athletic an interview. Sean Avery chimed in to say he’d take out the Capitals’ goalie in retaliation. Just a banner week for platforming these kinds of folks when people were saying George Parros was unqualified to opine on player safety as a former goon.
Loser: George Parros
While it was incredibly hyperbolic and probably self-defeating, James Dolan putting George Parros on full blast codified a movement that was already afoot, in which critics of the NHL Department of Player Safety either wanted him out or wanted to see the department dramatically shift to having non-enforcers determining punishments.
Winner: Connor McDavid
What an absolute joy to watch a generational talent doing things we’re going to still be talking about in 20 years. Scoring 100 points in a 56-game season is just phenomenal. I don’t care about what division he played in and against which teams he compiled those points. You can stuff your asterisks in a sack, mister.
Loser: Kyle Palmieri
Mea culpa on this one. I thought this would end up being one of the most impactful moves at the trade deadline — and potentially a better fit than Taylor Hall with the Bruins. Instead, Palmieri’s horrific goal-scoring season (9.5% shooting percentage) with the Devils has gotten even more horrific (4.3%) with the Islanders. He has one goal in 14 games. In fairness, Jean-Gabriel Pageau didn’t start lighting it up until the playoffs last season, either.
Winner: Milan Lucic
Saddled with a no-move clause, Lucic said he’d waive it for the Flames so they didn’t have to protect him in the expansion draft. Worst case: He makes the Flames more competitive next season by not losing a player. Best case: Seattle is awesome — and is closer to his home.
Loser: University of Alabama in Huntsville
Sigh. The University of Alabama in Huntsville hockey program was resurrected by a grassroots effort led by alumni and fans last season with the hopes that it would find a conference home by the spring. This week, it suspended its program. “UAH has not secured a conference home for the upcoming season, and therefore must suspend its hockey operations, effective immediately. If UAH ultimately secures conference membership, it plans to promptly reinstate its hockey program. However, UAH will not be eligible for conference play for at least one year upon receiving a conference invitation.”
Justin Bradford reports that “there was an option for UAH hockey to play independently next season with donors offering to pay for everything except for scholarships. The University of Alabama in Huntsville opted to suspend the program instead.”
Pittsburgh hockey dad helps team to safety during Wisconsin shooting. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I think it is,’ and I just turned around, I ran back to the room, told everyone to get out of the room, directed them down the hallway away from where I heard the gunfire.”
According to a new survey, “More than half of youth hockey players and coaches say disrespect to women is a problem in Canada’s sport.”
Bryan Trottier, NFT (non-fungible token) creator. “I didn’t know a lot about it. But the way they explained it to me, they said, you know, collectors are eating this stuff up. Tom Brady did one, Gronk did one. It’s great to be to be a part of something new and fresh in the world of collectibles, and to be an early one in the hockey world, even as I’m known maybe as one of the old guys.”
The Seattle Kraken have their first arch rival: a University District punk rock bar called the Kraken Bar & Lounge, which is suing Seattle’s new NHL franchise.
Justin Bourne on Tom Wilson: “Nobody’s asking Wilson to be Mother Teresa, either, but if he could stop putting his colleagues in the hospital, that’d be preferred.”
A lovely sentiment from the Buffalo Beauts for a fan who had died.
Down Goes Brown’s positive thoughts for non-playoff teams, including the Devils: “Every year there’s one team with a terrible record that has better underlying numbers than you might think, and this year it’s the Devils. They hovered around 50% in 5-on-5 expected goals and possession but got smoked on special teams. That’s not good, but it can usually be fixed.”
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
My piece on who is enabling Tom Wilson (and why, primarily, it’s Tom Wilson).