What the defense could look like a year from now

Ryan Graves' stock is on the rise
Ryan Graves’ stock is on the rise

The mandate for Jeff Gorton this offseason was clear: retool the Blueshirts while extending the window to win the Stanley Cup. Though many of us believe that Gorton’s troops will struggle to reach that goal with the defense as currently assembled, he has certainly begun executing a significant makeover.

Up front, Gorton has stockpiled a young group of forwards that stacks up with any in the league. New York will have one of the NHL’s youngest rosters this season with room to grow for many key players still 25 years old or younger including Chris Kreider, Brandon Pirri, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich – not to mention 26-year-old first-line center Derek Stepan.

The additions of Zibanejad and Vesey along with new depth players that are viewed favorably by the #fancystats community are only one half of the story – but Gorton appears to have quickly rebuilt that unit into one positioned for immediate and future success.

The lack of turnover on the blueline is where Gorton continues to garner criticism. Despite rampant pleas for Gorton to somehow, some way keep Keith Yandle and jettison declining veterans Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, the general manager sat idly by as Yandle inked a reasonable pact with the Florida Panthers (one Gorton could have matched in hindsight) and maintained faith in his two long-time soldiers rather than buying out Staal or Girardi, or swallowing the bitter pill of packaging a coveted prospect or high draft pick to dump one via trade.

In the short term, it’s tough to see how a defensive unit that features both players will be able to improve and give Henrik Lundqvist a fighting chance in net.

But though Gorton’s inaction on defense is alarming, perhaps we must exercise some patience as the dust of the offseason settles.

Despite the blueline’s warts, the Blueshirts do have a legitimate top pairing D-man – captain Ryan McDonagh, who is just 27 years old and looked healthy and rejuvenated at the World Cup of Hockey this month.

The 2016-2017 campaign will also mark the first full slate for Brady Skjei, who stepped seamlessly into the lineup late last year. The swift skater already has the look of a savvy veteran and will be a surefire top-four defenseman that can play either side going forward.

Kevin Klein and Nick Holden are also both under very reasonable contracts for the next two seasons and while neither really moves the needle, they’re decent pieces to keep in the mix.

Outside of the presumed top six, there’s still hope for former top prospects Dylan McIlrath, Adam Clendening and Michael Paliotta. Perhaps none will be on Broadway this time next September, but it’s also possible that one or more fulfills his once promising potential and carves out a future in blue.

Amongst the younger prospects, Sean Day and Tarmo Reunanen are long-term projects, but John Gilmour and especially Ryan Graves might have a real chance at cracking the roster next season. Graves’ development has really been on the upswing and he could quickly leapfrog bodies en route to a midseason call-up this year.

Add in a potential Kevin Shattenkirk acquisition via trade or signing over the next 10 months, a blockbuster move for Jacob Trouba, or a swap with the D-heavy Wild or Ducks – and you have the makings of a drastically different group than the one that’s so uninspiring today.

Getting rid of Staal or Girardi was never going to be easy or pleasant, but the cap consequences of buying out Girardi next June are a whole lot easier to stomach than they would have been this offseason. And with the expansion draft looming, that seems like a fairly likely scenario.

We could be looking at something like this relatively quickly:

Holden, Clendening, McIlrath, Paliotta, Gilmour

Seems quite a bit better, doesn’t it?

Obviously, in an ideal world Gorton would have executed the forward makeover in conjunction with revamping the tattered D in one fell swoop to fully arm the club for one more big push while Lundqvist is still at the top of his game. But in reality, it doesn’t work that way.

We’ll never know exactly what moves Gorton came close to making, but given his limited cap flexibility and other constraints, the job Gorton did in remaking the forward group was pretty awe inspiring. Could phase two turn out similarly?

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  • Clock is ticking on Hank. How many more legendary seasons does he have left? Rangers are playing with fire right now with that defense as currently constructed.

  • Great piece Kevin!

    Don’t forget that next offseason Girardi’s full NTC becomes only a 15 team NTC (Girardi will provide the list of 15 teams he wishes not to go to).

    In two offseasons Staal also converts from a full NTC to a modified NTC (though no one seems to have the details of what the modified NTC for Staal will be).

    Moving those two via trade is not as impossible as some think.

    • After this season it will be cheaper to trade Girardi than to buy him out. AAV of $5.5mm, but actual salary is $4mm/$3/$3. Even carrying partial wages is more palatable and a lesser cap hit.

    • I would think the hope is to sign him as a UFA next July 1 as opposed to giving up an asset before then.

  • Kevin, as always great body of work. But I scratch my head on how you can have Staal, Klein, & Graves ahead of Mcllrath on next years depth chart. NO WAY!!!

  • OFFICIAL: #NYR expected lines for tomorrow:

    OFFICIAL: #NYR expected pairings for tomorrow:

    Good lord, who’s getting paired with McIlrath next, Per Djoos?

    • Right on!! Is AV playing games again? The kid needs to make an impression so put him with guys who have no chance of making the team.

      • Come on people. McIlrath is simply not going to prove himself if AV sets him up to succeed. If he covers up for Gilmour’s shortcomings, he shows AV that he can be trusted with important minutes. And if he can’t cover up for Gilmour, well maybe he can’t be relied on.

        • So illogical,please. By that reasoning we should cut McDonagh because he couldn’t cover for G. Sheesh!!

  • Good piece Kevin, however I disagree on Skjei’s readiness. Talented kid, but he looks shaky at times and is going to make mistakes. That is a certainty. Same for Dylan McII. That being said, letting them learn with the big club is probably the way to go. Us fans will need to be patient while they learn, but they both have a lot of potential.

  • I’m not sure Reunanen will develop enough in 4 years to offer him a contract. Couldn’t force his way into mediocre TPS squad, playing in the Mestis.

    Day could be up sooner rather than later. Already not sent back to Mississauga(it will be interesting how long he stays up, let alone get into a game) he’s got the making of an elite player if he tightens up his defensive coverage to merely competent.

    • Here’s a thought about Day, with another expansion draft looming in the next 2 to 4 year, I wonder how giving Day a 9 game NHL audition would affect his professional status. That’s another important factor in deciding whether or not to send him back to Juniors before camp ends.

      • Unless they play 10 games, junior players do not count towards the 50 man roster until after year 19, so even in 4 years would still be roster exempt under current expansion rules.

        • Oh, I knew that, I just wasn’t certain how that works with the expansion draft. In other words how many days in the pro ranks constitutes a professional season?

          It would make sense that the NHL would do the easy thing, and not consider a 9 game NHL stint before being returned to Juniors a pro season, but this is the NHL, a group notorious for eschewing simple solutions for more complicated ones.

  • You can’t help but agree with Arisrules on the window closing on us with our KING.

    How about the Beukeboom effect on this defense, maybe he can make a difference on the teams D-Men and some special teams too…

    it was painfully obvious seeing Sully lift the cup that a new coach could spruce up the team!



  • I agree with everything you said except about the part that Gorton could have matched Yandle’s contract with florida. I would have been super pissed off if we had given a 30 year old D man a 7 YEAR 6.35 MM aav contact.

  • Yandle won’t be missed defensively because he’s not very good in the d-zone. Like so many others you are overhyping Skjei who did not step seamlessly into the lineup and did not play fantastic against Pitt. As for DMAC, he has the potential for top four if he is given the icetime, I have no doubt about that. I’m not ready to annoint Clendening as an NHLer until we see what he can do in the D-zone against stronger competition.

    • Completely wrong on Skjei. He played well against Pittsburgh in the playoffs–the Cup winners–while skating as McDonagh’s RD partner on the first pairing….and that’s likely gonna be where he ends up this year for NYR.

      Also, you’ve wildly overestimated McIlrath’s position in the lineup…no way he displaces Klein on the 2nd pairing and he simply can’t skate as well as Skjei. I love the kid too, but he’s 3rd pairing this year if Vigneault’s finally come to his senses.

  • Great Job Kevin. There really is no easy way to overhaul the blueline with the existing deals but I think Gorton has done a good job with the Holden addition and the discipline he displayed to not pay Yandle. Winnipeg is losing more and more leverage with Trouba. He doesn’t want to be there and now the entire NHL knows it. Let’s see what Gorton can do to get this kid to Broadway

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