Grading Jeff Gorton’s first two years as GM
Jeff Gorton was officially named general manager of the Rangers on July 1, 2015 and though his influence on player personnel decisions began long before then, that date marks a clear crossroads in organizational strategy.
Gorton spent last summer methodically revamping the forward corps and followed that up with a defensive overhaul this offseason. His fingerprints are now all over the roster, with a clear commitment to youth, speed and skill.
While there have been a slew of minor transactions along the way, I’ve focused on Gorton’s more significant moves to gain perspective on his tenure thus far.
June 27, 2015: Traded Carl Hagelin, a 2nd-round pick and a 6th to Anaheim for Emerson Etem and a 2nd (Ryan Gropp)
Though Gorton didn’t technically take office until a few days later, he was assuredly calling the shots here. And while the Blueshirts were in a cap bind and needed to shed salary, the return for Hagelin was a pittance. There’s still a chance that Gropp turns into a serviceable NHLer, but right now it’s hard to view this swap as anything but an unmitigated disaster.
Traded Cam Talbot and pick No. 209 to Edmonton for pick Nos. 57, 79 and 184
Moving Talbot at the height of his trade value was an obvious but shrewd decision. However, there were unconfirmed reports that one or more teams may have offered a first-round pick for Talbot, but changed direction when New York held out too long before pulling the trigger on a deal. If that was indeed the case, then this was a major bungle. But in the grand scheme of things this package is about the going rate for a backup goalie that has starter potential but is still somewhat unproven.
Traded Ryan Haggerty to Chicago for Antti Raanta
Gorton’s busy draft weekend continued when he landed a new backup goalie for Henrik Lundqvist for the laughable price of a prospect in name only that has never come close to securing an NHL job. Raanta sparkled in two seasons with New York.
July 27, 2015: Signed Derek Stepan to a six-year, $39 million deal
It’s hard to separate the deal signed at the time from the trade that came less than two years later. Still, locking up a bona fide No. 1 center in his prime years for a $6.5 million cap hit was a fair price and a necessity for the Blueshirts given the construction of their roster.
February 28, 2016: Traded two 2nd-round picks and Aleksi Saarela for Eric Staal
This is definitely one of the more polarizing moves of Gorton’s career in New York. Though the trend of mortgaging future assets for the chance to win now began long before Gorton’s arrival, this move added to a long-time source of frustration for many Ranger fans. Also, as was the case when New York was attempting to acquire Martin St. Louis, it was clear that the Blueshirts were Carolina’s only real trade partner, so this felt like a significant price to pay even though no first-round picks were included. It also seemed apparent that New York needed more defensive help rather than Staal, but there’s a strong case to be made that Staal could have had a much greater impact if were more wisely deployed. Last season’s performance by Staal with Minnesota showed he still has plenty in the tank. All that said – there are a lot of holes that can be poked in this one.
May 2, 2016: Re-signed Raanta for two years, $2 million
High marks to Gorton for identifying Raanta as an offseason priority last year and quickly hammering out a new, team-friendly deal. Raanta was an absolute steal at his salary last season and obviously a very important component to the blockbuster deal completed with Arizona a month ago.
June 20, 2016: Traded Keith Yandle’s rights to Florida for 4th- and 6th-round picks
Similarly to the Staal deal, there are a confluence of factors surrounding New York’s decision to move on from Yandle that make it hard to evaluate. Obviously, getting something for a free agent the Blueshirts were about to lose for nothing was prudent. But there’s plenty of second-guessing around Yandle’s usage while in New York and the Rangers’ dogged commitment to Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, whose salaries could have been used to help build a long-term pact for Yandle. Of course, if Yandle had inked a seven-year, $44.45 million deal with New York instead of Florida (and it might have cost the Rangers even more than that given Florida’s tax status), then signing Kevin Shattenkirk this summer would have been next to impossible. So maybe it all worked out in the end?
June 25, 2016: Traded a 4th-round pick to Colorado for Nick Holden
Getting one of Patrick Roy’s favorite players for the small price of a mid-round pick is hard to take issue with. Holden fell apart at the end of last season but his production was well worth the cost.
July 1: 2016: Signed Michael Grabner to a two-year, $3.3 million contract
This signing worked out wonderfully in year one and Grabner will again be counted on in a big way this coming season. Grabner wasn’t getting much buzz entering free agency but Gorton spotted an undervalued player and he turned out to be right.
July 13, 2016: Re-signed J.T. Miller for two years, $5.5 million
The Rangers have faced a ton of criticism for their penchant for signing rising young players to bridge deals rather than long-term contracts, which could benefit the team in the long run. But while that line of thinking generally makes sense, Miller had a rocky start to his career and it’s understandable that Gorton wanted to see Miller mature and put together a good full season before making such a commitment. That might bite the Blueshirts next summer, but looking back it’s hard to take issue with Gorton’s logic.
July 18, 2016: Traded Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and a 2nd-round pick
This deal is perhaps the feather in Gorton’s cap to this point. Brassard was a great Ranger, but turning him into a 23-year-old with sky-high potential that’s still cost-controlled and five years Brassard’s junior PLUS getting a high pick was an absolute coup.
July 22, 2016: Re-signed Kevin Hayes for two years, $5.2 million
Much of what was said about Miller applies to Hayes, too. Hayes had a disappointing sophomore season, so Gorton decided he needed to see more before extending a long-term offer which is perfectly acceptable.
July 22, 2016: Signed Chris Kreider to a four-year, $18.5 million deal
In contrast to the Miller and Hayes deals, Gorton was wise to ink Kreider before the BC speedster enjoyed his best professional season. Kreider now looks like a bargain at $4.625 million annually over the next three seasons in the heart of his prime.
August 19, 2016: Signed Jimmy Vesey to an entry-level contract
Landing unsigned college free agents has turned out to be a very successful path for the Blueshirts, but it’s difficult to know how much credit to give Gorton in these situations. It feels like more luck than anything that Vesey had friends on the team, wanted to be close to home and saw the allure of playing in the Big Apple. Still, you have to give Gorton credit for winning the derby.
February 28, 2017: Traded 2nd- and 3rd-round picks to Detroit for Brendan Smith
The Blueshirts refused to pay up for Shattenkirk, so they obtained a very serviceable consolation prize for a much more palatable price. This deal obviously looks even better now that Smith has re-signed, but Gorton did yeoman’s work identifying a talent he liked to fill a massive hole for an agreeable cost that also had a real chance of being a part of the team’s future.
June 14, 2017: Bought out the final three years of Dan Girardi’s contract
Most Ranger fans will agree this desperately needed to happen and it likely came a year late. But buying out a player is a very tricky process. Not only must the team decide it’s better off without a certain loyal veteran, but there must be internal alignment that swallowing a ton of money to send him packing is an acceptable move. Obviously the Rangers have deeper pockets than most, but Gorton deserves credit for pushing this through.
June 2017: Lost Oscar Lindberg to Vegas in the expansion draft
After months of intense speculation about the Rangers’ protected list and plans to capitalize on the trade market, the lack of movement and loss of Lindberg came as a letdown. In the end Gorton was probably smart not to give in to George McPhee’s bribe requests and the lack of trades may have been due more to McPhee’s craftiness than any error by Gorton.
June 23, 2017: Traded Stepan and Raanta to Arizona for Anthony DeAngelo and the No. 7 pick (Lias Andersson)
It was a horribly kept secret that Gorton was discussing deals for Stepan, but the trade market never quite materialized as expected. It’s still confusing that there weren’t teams beating down the door for a legit No. 1 center, but the hype surrounding Andersson has already exploded so the perception of this swap is trending upwards. Maybe Andersson will turn into a star, but it really feels like New York could, or should have come away with at least Christian Dvorak – if not one of Arizona’s even more highly regarded youngsters. Who knows? Maybe Dvorak was on the table and Blueshirts brass simply valued Andersson more. Given that Stepan’s money went straight towards Shattenkirk also helps this look a lot better in hindsight.
June 28, 2017: Re-signed Smith for four years, $17.4 million
Perhaps Gorton overpaid a touch here, but his hand was forced a bit with the specter of free agency looming. Smith proved to be a very solid player that could fit into New York’s blueline puzzle for years, so Gorton was understandably committed to keeping him in the fold.
July 1, 2017: Signed Shattenkirk for four years, $26.6 million
Like with Vesey, it seems like Gorton got lucky here. Shattenkirk was apparently dead set on joining the Rangers and left significant money and term on the table for the chance to play for his childhood favorite team, move back home and play for a contender. Still, for Gorton to land the prize fish of the summer on an extremely favorable four-year term after all the uncertainty leading up to July 1 was a slam dunk.
July 5, 2017: Re-signed Jesper Fast for three years, $5.55 million
This feels a bit rich for a guy that’s best on a checking unit, but Fast has repeatedly proven the ability to play up and down the lineup. Gorton really needed that kind of flexibility after losing Stepan and Lindberg.
July 25, 2017: Re-signed Mika Zibanejad for five years, $26.75 million
Once again this is maybe a hair more AAV than ideal, but it’s a minuscule difference at this salary bracket. To have a No. 1 center under contract for the next five years at $5.35 million annually is a huge win for Gorton. This is a case where avoiding a bridge deal was key as it’s very likely that Zibanejad could command much more in a year or two.
Since a general manager’s job is really never complete, it’s difficult to come up with a fair grade for Gorton.
That said, he only has a couple glaring mistakes on his resume and Gorton has kept the Blueshirts in the playoff mix while also adding considerable talent to the prospect pipeline since taking the reins.
Getting one more center to complete this year’s roster would really put Gorton over the top, but even in lieu of that he’s done an admirable job.
How would you grade Gorton so far?