This is the second installation (Part 1) in a series I’m doing where I explore potential missteps that the Rangers could make on their attempt to build another contender, and how we might survive them should they come to pass. The point here is to find silver linings, dissect pitfalls that might arise, and stoke a sense of imagination that’s a little bit hopeful and a little bit morose. It’ll all be fine, but it’s worth humoring the thought. This one is going to hit a little bit close to home, as it has to do with repeating the mistakes of the past, the kind of stuff that helped hamstring a dynasty-in-the-making. But maybe it’ll be fine!
Do you guys remember the early 2010s? It was a long time ago, and I am very young, so I actually don’t. My understanding though, based on a cursory reading of history is that the Rangers picked Dan Boyle over Anton Stralman, and this was widely regarded as the beginning of the end of our stellar defensive corps. I’m going to offer a different conceptualization of what went wrong there though, because I think it’s worth considering how maybe things were actually different than they seem in the most obvious light and actually hurt our team even more than one might think.
My thesis is basically this: we didn’t pick Boyle over Stralman, we picked him over one of Dan Girardi (or Sami Vatanen – hey Dave) and Marc Staal. If we had picked just one of those currently-understood-as-bad defenseman, or even pulled the trigger on the widely rumored Girardi/Vatanen swap, then we may have just won a Cup or two. Instead we got tunnel vision and terrible contracts. Allow me to explain.
When giving out big contracts, especially when you can only give out a few of the ones you’d like to give out, choosing two of three guys or something along those lines, you’ve got to have perspective. It was the talk of the town for a little bit – who was going to get traded to avoid an impending cap crunch, who was going to stay and form the backbone of a team that was sure to be contending for years to come. Everyone, including Dave himself (sorry Dave) saw the Girardi deal as a necessary evil, one that would only look bad at the tail end of it. And hey, we didn’t give Ryan Callahan $8m a year like he wanted right?
The problem is that we had Anton Stralman coming into his own as one of the best subtle breakout defensemen in the league. Somehow we didn’t see it coming that he’d want to stick around, somehow we figured we could give out giant contracts for d-men and have it all. Somehow, something went wrong. By the time his contract negotiations came up we didn’t even keep in contact with him, because only then did the front office realize they simply didn’t have the cash. So, the story goes, we went for a cheaper, older version of him on a short-term deal and got a dud.
Except Dan Boyle wasn’t really a dud, he just wasn’t Stralman, or the old Dan Boyle. He was in a bit over his head, and could have been great on a team with say, Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, and Sami Vatenen. Actually it was only one of those guys, and two rapidly-declining backstops who would be sticking around quite a while. How could we have made that all happen though? Simple enough, just have a dang chart on a whiteboard or excel spreadsheet or something. I mean hell, CapFriendly has these charts laid right out for ya! If only we’d have known, and didn’t succumb to basic cognitive biases and emotional attachments.
Which is one of the biggest traps we might fall into this time, and it’s rapidly approaching. Anybody heard of Neal Pionk? What about Tony DeAngelo? K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist? Well we’re not going to be able to retain all of them, and this time hopefully Gorton is a bit more aware of that, having learned from the mistakes of the past. What I’m deeply concerned is we’re going to get to a point down the line where it’s a choice between Miller and Lundkvist, and we all go back and forth and argue who should get traded and who should get the money truck in their driveway, and then we’ll only wind up with one of them when we could have both. The narrative will be that we can only have one though, but that just won’t be true. The problem is actually Pionk.
He makes some nice highlight-reel plays, but we all know he’s sneaky bad right? Don’t be fooled by the end-to-ends, because he makes silly mistakes on the regular at a rate that far outpaces his smarter plays (compare with DeAngelo, who makes excellent moves and the occasional blooper, but in a solid ratio). In other words he’s a prime candidate for The Bad Contract. He might just get a five, six, or seven-year deal at what might seem like a reasonable AAV, until one or two years from now it’s readily apparent that he’s our version of Nikita Zaitsev. The narrative will be that it’ll only look bad towards the end of the term, that he’s totally serviceable in the right role, that guys like him don’t grow on trees, and so on. Reminding anyone of a certain number 5 yet?
Well it gets worse! Then, several years down the line, we’ve got a beauty of a false choice set up between K’Andre and Nils, and we could even add a dash of expiring-bridge-deal to that! Not only might we wind up with Pionk’s future contract tying up space and time and a significant roster spot, forcing a bad decision, but it’s not unlikely that if Pionk gets the bag then DeAngelo doesn’t. He might just get a shorter-term “show me” deal, and it might just be expiring at the time we want to retain both of our 2018 first-rounders, only to realize we can’t. That’s make it a “pick two, but maybe only one, out of three” rather than a “let’s have our cake and eat it too” kind of situation, and that’d be the marginal loss that will prevent us from a dynastic run, even if we do get close.
I’ll be happy to eat my words on this of course, but unfortunately I can see it coming. It’s easily preventable though, and I’ll tell you how: make a damn spreadsheet. Look at things in terms of the big picture. Trade when you’re at an impasse and keep reloading, but also know where your talent is and where it’s just smoke and mirrors. If Gorton has a little self-awareness we could really have something special, a Nashville-esque blueline to backstop an elite forward group on the way to some excellent playoff runs. Or, we could have the 2010-2018 D corps all over again. That’d be bad I think, and the upshot is we simply don’t have to repeat the same old mistakes. It doesn’t have to be farce, or even tragedy. It can be some sweet sweet cross-ice passes and excellent breakouts for the better part of a decade, instead of 5×5’s worth of blown coverage and poor gap control. Gorton, make smart decisions, I believe in you.