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?