Rebuilds are a tricky beast. On one hand, there is a need to blow up aging rosters, restock the prospect cupboard, hope you get lucky, and then try again. On the other hand, there is an inherent risk of remaining in a rebuild forever due to a multitude of reasons. Much like hanging on for one last run is flawed, a rebuild can be flawed as well.
I take you to the Edmonton Oilers, who have been in rebuild mode for the better part of a decade now. The Oilers had top pick after top pick, and nailed most of them. However management’s inability to fill up the roster with viable support has led to their never ending spiral around the proverbial toilet.
There is also the case of the Islanders. The Isles had a bunch of top picks as well. They made a major trade to acquire Thomas Vanek that bit them hard, and then didn’t make any significant moves other than taking advantage of a stupid Oilers team that gave them Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome. The Isles came out of their rebuild almost by accident, and never fully committed to filling the roster around their stars. John Tavares has left them. Eberle is next. And they are banking on Robin Lehner continuing a Vezina like performance to keep them relevant. There’s a solid chance this team is a flash in the pan and sink to mediocrity next season.
Both are traps that GM Jeff Gorton is looking to avoid. You can’t rebuild forever, or else you wind up like the Islanders. You can’t make silly moves to accelerate a rebuild or else you wind up like the Oilers. There’s a delicate balance, and it’s a fine line that Gorton must ride.
The move out of the rebuild really began with landing Kaapo Kakko. The infusion of elite talent that he and Vitali Kravtsov may bring to the forwards next year can be a one-two punch we haven’t seen on Broadway in a decade. With not one, but two elite level talents coming to New York, Gorton pulled the trigger on Adam Fox, sacrificing quantity for quality as the next phase in contending begins. That, of course, is retooling the blue line.
This is where evaluating blue line talent at the NHL level is going to play a critical factor. The Rangers are not historically good at this, and a misstep can lead to mediocrity instead of glory. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a Hall for Larsson type misstep either. It can be, very simply, believing that Neal Pionk is a 1RD. Or that Marc Staal – albeit incredibly unmoveable – is a part of the solution.
Larry Brooks is beating the drum on trading Kevin Shattenkirk because of the Fox acquisition. Shatty has a NMC that protects against expansion and demotion, but not against trades. He has a limited NTC where he can still be traded to 20 teams. Now there is certainly some political blow back when it comes to trading Shattenkirk, but there’s a good chance the Rangers actually make their blue line worse by trading him. That is, of course, unless they replace him with Erik Karlsson. And trading Shattenkirk still doesn’t address the larger issue of Staal’s play and ice time, and Brendan Smith’s current status.
The Rangers are going to come out of the rebuild for the 2019-2020 season, which means the rebuild will have lasted, for all intents and purposes, for about 1.5 seasons. In that span, the Rangers will have made 26 draft picks, barring any future trades. They nailed the important picks too and now have a prospect pool filled with talent.
In making the decision to accelerate the rebuild now, the Rangers are sending a message to the current squad that they believe in them, which is certainly a nice boost. They are sending a message to the fans that they are going to make another push with Henrik Lundqvist on the roster. But most importantly, they are sending a message that they aren’t afraid to make moves and believe they are ready for the next step.
It looks like Jeff Gorton has avoided the Islanders’ dilemma. Now let’s see if he avoids the Oilers’ dilemma.