Friend of the site and noted Rangers troll CJ Turtoro penned a piece about why the Devils are rebuilding better than the Rangers. CJ does bring up two good points, namely center depth and future cap constraints, but there are some holes in his arguments. As such, I’d like to counter his piece with my own. The Rangers are rebuilding better than the Devils. And quite frankly, it isn’t even close.
I’m not going to open this up by trolling the Devils. There’s no real value in pointing out that their head coach is Lindy Ruff. What’s the point in recognizing the Devils haven’t even made the playoffs eight of the last ten years? Is there any merit in discussing that they haven’t won a playoff series in nine years? That 11th ranked prospect pool isn’t bad either, considering they’ve two #1 picks in the last four years, and four top-10 picks in the last six years.
But this post isn’t going to be about trashing the Devils, even if it is fun. As CJ points out, the teams have taken completely different approaches to rebuilding. There’s no wrong way to approach a rebuild, and both have value. But it’s clear to me the Rangers are much further along and have the better outlook for the near and long term futures.
The Case for the Rangers
1) Foundational Pieces
The key to rebuilding to contending status is stockpiling youth at the NHL level. The Rangers are the second youngest team in the league (to the Devils), but have a greater impact up and down the lineup. While the Devils, on paper, have a better WAR than the Rangers with their under-23 players, the Devils are propped up by one. Jack Hughes.
The Rangers, on the other hand, have spread the love. The Rangers currently have four forwards (Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Vitali Kravtsov), three defensemen (Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller), and one goalie (Igor Shesterkin) playing key roles on entry level contracts. Of that group, three are currently on the top line/pair. Another two are top-six/top-four. The other skaters are at least top-nine. Then there’s Shesterkin, who is already showing the Rangers won’t miss a beat moving to him from an all time great in Henrik Lundqvist.
When was the last Stanley Cup champion that didn’t have this kind of depth throughout the lineup? The Blackhawks come to mind, riding mostly just five players. But even the Penguins had legitimate tertiary scoring. Ditto the Kings.
What the Rangers lack, as CJ points out, is a homegrown center on a cheap contract. The Rangers also lack true prospect center depth. This we know. The Devils have Hughes and Nick Hischier. That’s a solid duo, if Hischier can get back on the ice consistently.
But outside of that duo. who else is there? Jesper Bratt is good. But the rest?
How many of the above strike fear into the opposition? Maybe Ty Smith turns into something. He’s certainly got the potential. But he’s going to be less than Fox, and likely less than Miller, especially with Ruff as his head coach. When the entire argument is predicated on one or two players, it’s hard to justify that the Devils are rebuilding better than the Rangers.
Mackenzie Blackwood as the goalie is also a concern. As pointed out, he’s given up 15 more goals than expected in his tenure with the Devils. That’s a problem. The Devils don’t have the offense to outscore Blackwood’s mistakes, nor do they have the defensive ability or coaching to limit the chances against. This is a major problem.
2) The Salary Cap Isn’t a Concern
A major talking point is the salary cap, of which the Devils have a lot more space than the Rangers. That’s fine. But that doesn’t mean the Rangers are in a bad place with the cap. In fact, they are just fine. A simple extra step in research shows the Rangers are going to be just fine with the cap.
Without rehashing the entire post from last week, this roster for next season gives the Rangers $10.7 million in cap space, barring any significant trades. Expand this to the 2022-2023 season, and the only real issue is that the Rangers will have to give Mika Zibanejad a new contract, if they do at all. The cap concerns are very largely overblown. Cap management matters, and it is why the Rangers are rebuilding better than the Devils. They’ve spent their money on high end players, not depth players.
Of the long term Rangers contracts, the focus is on Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider. These are again legitimate concerns, and it was on our minds the minute both contracts were signed. CJ points out that Panarin’s xGAR is slowly coming down. It’s hard for that argument to have merit when Panarin has posted career best numbers two years in a row. His skill set ages well, and while we do expect some slow down in the latter years of his deal, it won’t be immediate. Panarin shouldn’t fall off a cliff, and he should still be a very productive player deep into the contract.
As for Kreider, he’s another guy whose skill set ages somewhat well. He’s a bit of a freak with his speed and strength combination, but what sets him apart is his net-front ability. That doesn’t fade. Plus using the xGAR argument, he’s actually seen an uptick this season. Is there risk? Sure. Is it overblown? Maybe.
The key for the Rangers will be managing the long term contracts for their key pieces. The Rangers can do this by avoiding bridge deals for key players, specifically Fox, Shesterkin, Lafreniere, and Kakko. That quartet has the ability to get expensive quickly. For the Rangers, there’s tremendous value in locking them up immediately, before they get to the eight digit contract range.
3) The Rangers Have a Next Wave”
Often overlooked is the next wave of prospects to hit New York. Braden Schneider and Nils Lundkvist haven’t even played a game for the Rangers yet. Zac Jones is signed, but has only played a pair of games. Lauri Pajuniemi is on his way. Tarmo Reunanen is in the AHL. Karl Henriksson and Matthew Robertson will be there next year. Hunter Skinner and Will Cuylle will get full, non-COVID seasons there.
Now not all of these kids will pan out. And not all of them will be with the Rangers even if they do. But the Rangers don’t just have their current crop on the NHL roster. They have the pieces to fill in the gaps as players get too expensive. In that group are a trio of centers –Henriksson, Brett Berard, Evan Vierling– who have pretty decent ceilings if they continue to develop. They aren’t high-end, though.
Outside of Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and maybe Smith, who do the Devils have next? Alexander Holtz is certainly a high ceiling guy. Dawson Mercer has potential as well. Is that it though? Maybe this year’s draft will go differently for the Devils.
4) The Culture of Winning
There’s a difference between winning at all costs and creating a competitive environment for prospects.. The Devils made some very ill-advised trades in a playoff push as the Rangers were tearing it down. None of them worked out, and then they tore it down themselves.
But don’t correlate trading for Jacob Trouba and signing Panarin to winning at all costs. These were rare opportunities for the Rangers to add core pieces, even if the timing wasn’t 100% in sync with the rest of the rebuild. That duo, along with Zibanejad, Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, and a resurgent Ryan Strome, has given a legitimate top-six that can score with the best of them. This allowed the Rangers to ease their kids into the lineup. It wasn’t flawless and there are certainly questions to their approach, but it’s difficult to doubt the results so far.
The Rangers are in a “playoff race,” even if they really need a few miracles to make it. Last season, they surged and made that play-in round. This is experience their core players are getting, which helps them grow and guide that next wave. The Devils are barely holding off the Sabres for last in the division. Boy, those games must mean something.
Jeff Gorton and David Quinn
This is the biggest offseason in Jeff Gorton’s career. He doesn’t necessarily need to add a big piece, but he is expected to be active. The only thing that can derail this rebuild is Gorton. One bad contract extension or one bad trade can really hamper the Rangers. When betting on big deals, they need to hit, and they need to hit for at least most of the years.
As important as this offseason is for Gorton, the 2022 offseason may be even bigger. That’s when the Rangers need to decide between Zibanejad, Strome, or both. The 2021 and 2022 offseasons are linked together though, as moves this offseason will certainly impact decisions in 2022.
As mentioned above, keeping costs down is going to be critical as the Rangers navigate the latter years of those Panarin and Kreider deals. The Rangers don’t have a good history with locking up talent long term. You can bet they will do it this year with Fox and Shesterkin. Will they do it with their forwards too?
I’ve also been critical of David Quinn’s in-game coaching style. I dislike the neutral zone and blue line approach on defense. I also dislike four righties on PP1, with PP2 getting almost no time. The question is whether or not DQ can be the coach to get them to the next level. A lot will be unveiled next season.
This is a major concern for the Rangers. Most Stanley Cup champions have a legitimate 1C. The Rangers have that in Zibanejad, but that’s only guaranteed through next season. After next season, only Filip Chytil is locked into a contract.
The Rangers will make moves to address this. They will likely keep one of Zibanejad or Strome, but not both, and will need to find creative ways to address this. Morgan Barron is no guarantee. While the numbers show Chytil should be able to take the 2C role with ease, he hasn’t been given that chance because of Strome’s play. In theory, he should still be able to move up to that role, but that’s no guarantee either.
The question though, is how much the Rangers actually need a legitimate center. The wing depth on the Rangers is tops in the NHL, and that is not an exaggeration. The Rangers can run three top-six wingers on each of their top-three lines. Centers that can be game managers will be able to produce with these wingers. Or, at least they should be able to. Nick Foles won a Super Bowl by simply managing a game, and not being a game breaker.
This was written as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek response to CJ, as his article was very rose-colored glasses of him. He brought up great points, specifically center depth, as to where the Devils are rebuilding better than the Rangers. But that also seemed to be the argument he was hanging his hat on for the Devils. If the roles were reversed, I’d do the same thing. Jack Hughes has been spectacular this season, and I do like Nico Hischier.
But to discount everything else the Rangers have done because they aren’t centers seemed misguided. The Rangers have, in no particular order:
- A(nother) franchise goaltender
- An elite defensemen
- Three additional legitimate top-four defensemen
- Nine top-six wingers already at the NHL level
- One of the best players in the game
- A true 1C
- Bargain 2 and 3Cs
- Five or more legitimate prospects on their way to the NHL or AHL
- Most under the age of 26
Rebuilding isn’t just about one elite 1C. It’s about building a foundation and filling in the holes. For the Rangers, the hole is at center, and it’s not as big a hole as you might think. The Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup with Michal Handzus as their 2C. Game managing centers with top wingers are just fine.
The Rangers and the Devils have certainly taken different approaches to rebuilding. While I agree that cap flexibility does matter, and the Devils are better off, it’s because the Devils have no one on their roster. Congrats on having cap space that isn’t used on one of the best players in the league. I’ll take the long term contract risk on Panarin. He’s certainly less of a risk than Ilya Kovalchuk.
The Rangers have the potential to be a great team with depth up and down the lineup. The only thing that can get in their way is themselves. The Rangers are much further along in the rebuild and have a better long term outlook. While that can change in a few years, mainly with how the Devils draft this year and next, it’s true at this point in time. It’s hard to argue, at least logically, that the Devils are rebuilding better than the Rangers. Perhaps I’m biased, though.