A rebuild can be rough for sensitive hearts like me. The aggregate conversation that takes place in Rangerstown shifts from where it usually is in good times. From exciting highlight-reel plays that took place earlier in the week and excitement for big matchups ahead, to grim prognostication as to how everything could go horribly horribly wrong. Lias Andersson instead of Casey Mittelstadt? No top-five picks? Marc Staal? Still?
I recently did a series of posts on worst-case scenarios that I could think of, and you better believe that there’s plenty more of them kicking around in my head, but I want to make sure the point I was trying to make is clear. The simple idea here is that it’s all a matter of how you look at it. There’s plenty to be excited about, plenty of reason to be optimistic. There’s no doomsday situation that can’t be avoided or ameliorated, and the notion that the Rangers are on the edge of utter catastrophe is a bit out of hand, I’d say.
It might be tough to hit the best possible outcome, a long multi-championship dynasty that blows us all out of the water beyond every possible expectation, but even if we land somewhere in the good-to-pretty-good spectrum we’ve still got a shot at something special. If there’s one thing that this Henrik Lundqvist era has taught me, it’s that you learn to appreciate every game, every playoff series, every memory that can never be erased. It goes without saying too that once you’re in the playoffs anything can happen – the Caps won it somehow last year after years of much better Washington iterations failing miserably. Obviously there’s going to be teams like this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning that make it seem daunting, but check in on the fanciest of odds-making and you’ll find that they’ve got around a 20% shot at winning it all, while the worst playoff teams have somewhere around a 5% chance. If I told you there was a 5% chance you’d win the lottery would you do it? Would you keep doing it, especially if the journey to alleged disappoint was actually pretty entertaining?
To address the issue of whether we’re Philippe Petit or actually on terra firma head on, let me first say that reasonable people can always disagree, reasonably. Still, there’s certain questions raised by naysaying, certain values and priorities betrayed by advancing tales of apocalypse, and at heart an inability to appreciate what we’re lucky to have in our lives one way or another. Why do we feel the need to monopolize “honesty” as an inherently grim stance? Why would we rather get it right on how things went wrong? Why can’t we just enjoy hockey, one way or another?
Perhaps I’m being uncharitable in my worldview. Blind optimism is no better than deep-seeded cynicism, but the Rangers are doing everything they can to make the most of their situation and put the team back on the road to contention. I am confident that solutions to issues are being worked on tirelessly in the Rangers front office, that Marc Staal’s contract can in fact be moved (whatever happened to Dion Phaneuf?), that the wide-ranging focus on defensive prospects (DeAngelo, Pionk, Miller, Hajek, Rykov, Lundkvist – hold up, that’s six isn’t it?), and that the risks Jeff Gorton has been taking on a regular basis will either pay off or be easily mitigated.
It didn’t happen this season. We knew this. That’s actually a good thing though, no? Wouldn’t we rather totally waste a season when we were anticipating doing exactly that, rather than be stuck in some delusional state where we’re all in on contending and then woops, actually the team has deep structural issues? If the guys we’re staking our team’s future on are going to have bad seasons, let it be now so they can get the wiggles out, and when it’s time to really burn up this league it turns out they’ve been simmering this whole time. The Rangers have a clear strategy of letting things get bad, throwing as much as possible at the wall, and checking out what sticks in a couple of seasons. Shouldn’t that be exactly the kind of self-awareness we want out of Jeff Gorton?
There’s the elephant in the room of our awful defense. It’s true, they’re bad. But that ties into my last point – we picked now to be bad. If we were contending and this current version of Marc Staal were out there constantly, yeah I’d be mad about it. But it’s honestly fine despite how frustrating he can be at times knowing his contract is an albatross. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if you think the brain trust hasn’t been working on a way to move him I don’t know what to tell you. These things take time, teams’ perspectives change, and deals can always be struck. It might not be an ideal trade, but it seems more likely than not that he’s gone sooner rather than later. Buying him out would be bad, but not that bad. Be patient though, because freaking out about it can’t help, but will hurt. Ditto for Brendan Smith.
Now, we’ve also got an allegedly-bad defenseman in Kevin Shattenkirk clogging up our defensive depth chart right? Sure, it was a strangely timed UFA signing, and he hasn’t turned into the number-one guy we all hoped he would be. But he’s fundamentally a good player, and if the Rangers find a team looking to take it to the next level, are willing to retain salary (they should), and have the right targets in mind, then there could be a pretty nice return. I will be bummed to see him go, given the hometown connection, but if it’s what needs to be done and the front office handles it correctly, it’ll be for the best.
So that’s three whole roster spots on defense we’ve opened up, and a fairly sizable stock of very promising young d-men. That certainly looks to me like it’ll be more than enough to turn into an effective defensive group, one potentially buttressed by living legend Erik Karlsson, should the Rangers successfully sign him. When your worst blueliner is Brady Skjei potentially, you’ve got a good group. Nothing to be upset about there, it just isn’t tomorrow yet. Ok, fine. Watch some baseball, check out some NCAA and overseas highlights, and just wait. It’ll be more than just alright, I promise.
More generally there’s the risks Jeff Gorton has been taking throughout this rebuild that show a certain posture towards high-reward scenarios. Starting with the Stepan trade, he ran the chance that DeAngelo would be one-dimensional or that his attitude would hinder his potential. Obviously Quinn has had to bench him a couple of times, but Quinn has been doing so liberally up and down the lineup, and Tony D seems to be actually pretty responsive and well-adjusted in his reaction to it. Lias Andersson was the second half of that trade, and despite most fans looking at him through the lens of disappointment, again, patience is the trick here. He may not turn out to be an elite guy, but if you surround him with other good players it’ll all turn out fine. Even if he maxes out at Derek Stepan, then you’ve got a player you can build a team around, and yes, you can build a team around that kind of player (we actually did it, and it worked pretty well, and we almost won the Cup that way).
That same draft the Rangers also selected Filip Chytil, a potential steal who is looking like a better and better idea every day. Just wait until he hits his stride and has a breakout season. We liquidated our assets last deadline and did so again this deadline, and picked up some guys who at first blush may not seem exceptional, but a bunch of them all together could build a formidable team. Quantity over quality is not as bad of a strategy as it may seem, and in fact might be the better road to take. Eventually, someone is going to turn into an exceptional talent, maybe even an elite player. So if we keep stepping back up to the plate and swinging for the fences, I’m optimistic that we’ll hit a few out of the park and then build around a new core the way every other team does.
Signing a guy like Jake Elmer is a great move – it cost literally nothing but an ELC and a roster spot. I mean, it can’t be as ridiculous as taking a flyer on a guy who came from a country that had produced next to no good hockey players ever, had one decent Olympics, and had to go back to the KHL to hone his skills for a bit before maturing into a three-zone monster who could shift the tides of any given game through a combination of skill and pure hustle. What I’m getting at is that the Rangers are leaving no stone left unturned as far as building a new roster goes, and that’s something to be excited about. Would I have liked Nic Petan over Brendan Lemieux? I guess, but I’m more than positive it won’t be what decides the success of this rebuild.
Lastly, we took a big risk on David Quinn, and it’s important not to forget that. You might have some minor gripes over who’s scratched when, but he’s been pretty open and transparent about what he’s been working to accomplish with this team and how he’s going about it. If you can’t vibe with that after the pendulum swings of both AV and Torts I don’t know what to tell you – it probably says more about your perception as a fan than it does about DQ as a coach. Right now there’s little to go off of as far as what we’re going to be looking at two years from now as far as lineup decisions, deployment, and strategy. Quinn is taking what we’ve got out right now for a test drive, knowing full well that this car is coming out of the shop looking vastly different every season over the course of his contract.
It’s a bit weird, I’ll admit, to say that we’re not unicycling on the edge of the Grand Canyon at the same time as we’re taking a bunch of risks. This isn’t a contradiction in terms though, because what we’ve been doing for a while now is loading up on weighted dice. Not all of them are going to roll in our favor, and in fact some of them will inevitably come up the wrong way. Some of them won’t though, and that’s going to happen enough times to give us a new core of players who can be the foundation of several new contending Rangers teams over the course of a long period of time. There are, I’m confident, Plans A-Z, lessons learned from the past, and ample reasons for optimism. Patience though folks, because these Rangers aren’t on the brink of total failure. Quite the opposite, they’re warming up for a huge leap forward, and it’s looking like a solid bet that it’ll go our way.