It was less than a year ago that the New York Rangers and GM Jeff Gorton started the rebuilding process. At this time they decided to move on from Derek Stepan and his "No Trade Clause," which was about to kick in. Jeff dubbed that summer the 'rebuild on the fly,' which was his way of explaining the direction the organization was headed in: rebuilding while still trying to be competitive enough to win. On the surface, the trade seemed like a loss: moving your number one center and back up goalie in Antti Raanta for a defensive prospect and a draft pick, but fast forward to the draft, and the Rangers selected Lias Andersson.
Andersson is a player who always finds himself in the right place at the right time, has a nose for the net, and is not afraid of contact. He was considered a safe pick by most experts, however after watching his play at the WJC this winter, one thing has become abundantly clear: the kid is full of passion and heart. In a heartbreaking loss to Canada, Lias was involved in a controversial moment by tossing his silver medal away. Some might view this as childish, but there are others that see this as a strong mentality for one thing ... that is to WIN. Anything less for Lias is failure. And that is exactly what Jeff targeted, not just the skill set on the ice but the right mental makeup and work ethic.
Now we come to the present, where the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline was one of the most pivotal points for the Rangers brass. On February 8th, 2018, Jeff Gorton and Glen Sather released a statement letting the fanbase know that a full rebuild was in the plans. We all saw the writing on the wall last summer with the Stepan trade, but coming out with full transparency is something that not many teams do and for this they should be applauded. It's their duty as an organization to field the best team possible when there is a window to win the Stanley Cup, and that window was apparently closed.
Their record on New Years was 21-13-5, and their record was not a good indicator of how bad they really were. According to naturalstattrick.com, on this day, they had a 3rd worst High Danger Chance Against (HDCA) of 511 with a league leading High Danger SV % (HDSV) of 88.65%. Even during one of the Rangers hottest streaks earlier in the season, it was clear that they were not a very good team. Why were they winning then? The answer was the same as it's been for over a decade: the man between the pipes who will eventually hang his number from the rafters in Rangers glory. Henrik Lundqvist was simply covering up for how awful this team was defensively, and that would not last, as there's only so much he can possibly do. As of today the NY Rangers have league leading low CF% of 46.35. Clearly, the Rangers have done a putrid job of creating scoring chances, as well as stopping high danger chances, and the data backs it up. But it's more than just the fancy hockey stats; anyone with an objective view could see this team was just not going anywhere fast and it was time to pull off the proverbial band-aid.
The trade deadline was fast approaching and Jeff knew what must be done. It wasn't a popular move, and it wasn't one that would look good, with the flashy back page splashes that we are all accustomed to with this team. It was a philosophy on hitting the reset button with draft picks and prospects. On an interview today on WFAN with Boomer Esiason, Jeff Gorton addressed some questions about the moves he made and the direction they were headed in. One key factor that came up was one of character. Now we can all come to our own conclusions on that vague term, but it seemed to indicate one of a culture change from the ground up. Perhaps the message from head coach Alain Vigneault is becoming stale, perhaps some of the players are not holding themselves accountable, or it could simply mean everything needs a fresh start, but the message was clear: change is coming and this is just the beginning.
So where does that leave us? The old guard is either moved on, or will be moving on. Ryan McDonagh, JT Miller, Rick Nash, Nick Holden, and Michael Grabner have all been moved for assets to restock this farm. What are the pieces that came back? Ryan Spooner, who is a terrific passer and play maker, Ryan Lindgren, your prototypical shutdown defenseman who's strong on his skates and does all the little things right, Yegor Rykov, who should be a solid cerebral blueliner, Vladislav Namestnikov, who essentially replaces JT Miller as a good young forward, but with more offensive upside who's excellent at controlling the puck in transition. Also Brett Howden, a strong power forward who scores goals by getting in front of the net and causing havoc while also being an outstanding forechecker, and Libor Hajek, who has poise with the puck and shutdown play ability. As we can see from the players that were brought back, the common theme here was strong skating ability, high hockey IQ, and a strong work ethic. There is a realistic chance none of these players become your Erik Karlsson's or Nikita Kucherov's of the world, but they provide a much needed replenishing of the system with depth and flexibility.
The other big component is the slew of picks that came back, in 2018 - two 1st Rounders, a 2nd Rounder, a 3rd Rounder: a conditional 2nd in 2019 that may become a 1st if Tampa Bay wins the Cup, and a 7th Rounder in 2019. This is the big key to this second phase of the rebuild. What can Jeff and the scouts do with this draft? Where do the Rangers land on draft day? Will they move up if they are not where they want to be? This is an exciting time to be a Rangers fan and watch the front office build something that can be amazing, and if you rebuild it, they will come.