jeff gorton

The dust has settled a little bit on this past week, which started with a lot of smoke and rumors about AV potentially being fired, the Rangers making a big trade, or both. None of this has transpired – in fact the Rangers put together an exciting comeback against the red hot Vegas Golden Knights and managed to stymie the NHL’s most dynamic scoring duo, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, while pulling off an OT win in Tampa Bay. They go for their third straight win against the Florida Panthers tonight in South Florida, which if they manage it will have the team looking not so bad at all. So this raises the question – what now?

Well let’s start with the win against Vegas. Sure the Rangers managed to put their foot on the gas pedal towards the end of the game, scoring some nice goals to change what seemed like a foregone conclusion of a loss. This win in particular was significant, as Larry Brooks’ column about AV being on the hot seat had just come out the day before. The conventional wisdom was that if the Rangers lost against Vegas, AV would be fired. So much for that.

Yet as Rick Carpiniello put it so succintly on twitter, the third period of that game was like putting lipstick on a pig. Although they managed a compelling counterattack in the third, the first 40 minutes of the game was all blown assignments, opposing team rushes, and getting hemmed in their own end. Not exactly the kind of hockey that should save a coach’s career but hey, if it work it works I guess.

Then we have the game against Tampa. This one, in contrast to the game against Vegas was actually a good game. In particular, the reunited KZB line had the Stamkos/Kucherov scoring unit stuck in their own defensive end for significant portions of the game, sometimes even with the Victor Hedman on the ice as well. The team was connecting on passes and creating chances, and were it not for Andrei Vasilevskiy the score would have been quite tilted towards the Rangers indeed.

This game was a success and showed how well the Rangers can play against a dominant team like Tampa Bay. It comes with a caveat though, although I guess it becomes sort of a chicken/egg conundrum the more you draw it out. Tampa played a particularly bad game, with Dan Girardi giving up significant chances to the Rangers, Stamkos just not creating, and Victor Hedman making some errant passes that were unbecoming of his reputation as the second best defenseman in the game.

Of course, like I said, this becomes a chicken and the egg problem – did the Rangers play well because Tampa played poorly, or did Tampa Bay play poorly because the Rangers played well. The world may never know, but what we do know is that the ice was titled. The Rangers should have won that game and they did. That’s not to undercut their accomplishment, just to point out that it wasn’t particularly hard for them; they were on their game and the result showed accordingly.

So where does this leave us? Well the rumors are still flying about the Rangers potentially making a trade with Montreal, although thankfully according to Larry Brooks Chris Kreider is off the table. AV, in a perfect world, would remain on the hot seat, but on that front I’m not so sure. He could make a strong case to management that he made adjustments that helped win both of the aforementioned games (which, credit where credit is due, he did, at least with regards to the forward lines) and in any event they won regardless of any qualifiers, which is often enough to secure one’s position in today’s NHL. While things may have calmed down a little bit on both of these fronts, in a perfect world they would still be open issues for the front office to resolve (and maybe they will still, who knows, perhaps I’m cynical).

Because the Rangers are still a team in a transitional phase, and they need to decide what kind of team they are quick. In addition to the Montreal rumors, there have been various claims from Canadian media that the Rangers are in fact looking to restock the farm, which may include selling on guys like Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, or even Mats Zuccarello. That doesn’t sound like a team that sees itself as a contender, which is fine, except that Hank isn’t getting any younger. It also becomes quite perplexing when you consider the team’s two biggest free agent signings, Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith, because those both seem like fairly “win now” moves.

Additionally, whether the team is winning or not, if Jeff Gorton is indeed building a new kind of team he needs to decide whether AV is the right coach for that team, except for the fact that he already extended him last year. That would suggest to me that management thinks that this group, right now, can make a run at a Cup, which if that’s the case then the “rebuild on the fly” makes a little less sense. It all seems to be pulling in opposite directions, and some coherence would certainly do this team well.

Of course I may be totally underestimating management here. It is possible to thread the needle in terms of restocking a team’s prospect pool while simultaneously keeping a core together to remain in contention, a la the Anaheim Ducks. It’s also true that even if you do enter a total rebuild, with the right moves (and some luck of course) you can turn things around relatively quickly – just look at how quickly Toronto went from being bottom of the barrel to veritable contenders. Jeff Gorton seems to be competent enough; despite the Derek Stepan deal I think theres evidence that points to the idea that he has his head on straight in a way that Sather perhaps did not.

It’s a strange time to be a fan for sure, with all kinds of factors up in the air and not much to go on except faith. On one hand we have the fairly obvious fact that the Rangers have deep structural issues, while on the other hand they seem capable of coming out of their slump. How the rest of the season will transpire is a mystery, as are whatever moves the front office will or won’t make. It certainly is tough, given some of the past missteps management has made, to trust in the process, but right now that’s all we have to go on.

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