Five years ago, the New York Rangers did something unique that caught hockey fans and analysts off guard. They admitted publicly they needed to reverse course–and revealed how they would fix it. For the purposes of the rebuild report, we’ll start here. The full text is here as well and will guide us as we use the Rangers rebuild (and out) with the Blackhawks.
@botchford Nice letter from the Rangers Management to fans talking about The Plan Going Forward, Canucks did something like this for Season Ticket Holders right? Would just be nice now for them to come out and say what their plans are. Seems like no one knows… pic.twitter.com/gM4V96lt4I
— Brandon D (@damer2431) February 8, 2018
Drafting in the First Round
The big difference for the Rangers is as they decided to do this, they had players they could deal out to acquire picks in the first round, similar to Chicago and what Davidson did last offseason in trading Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach. Taking on the Petr Mrazek contract netted his third pick in the first round. How did the Rangers do with some trades and a little bit of luck in the lottery?
- 2018 – Vitali Kravtsov (9th overall); K’Andre Miller (22nd overall); Nils Lundqvist (28th overall)
- 2019 – Kaapo Kakko (2nd overall)
- 2020 – Alexis Lafreniere (1st overall); Brayden Schneider (19th overall)
- 2021 – Brennan Othmann (16th overall)
- 2022 – None
- 2023 – Gabe Perreault (23rd overall)
Where it gets interesting is that the Rangers didn’t do very well with its first-round picks. Kravtsov and Lundqvist are no longer with the organization, Kakko and Lafreniere (2nd and 1st respectively) have not produced as expected. Othmann ended up in Peterborough and finished his OHL season with 29 goals and 67 points, over a point-per-game production. It’s slightly down from a year prior where he potted 50 goals and 97 points but his playoff performance of 25 points (8-17) that included a Memorial Cup appearance puts him on track to be a “hit” as a first-round pick. It was Chris Drury’s first pick as general manager, too.
Perreault is projected to be a very good player–but clearly a full judgement on that is years away.
Miller and Schneider remain on the team, and had it not been for free agency and trades, the Rangers draft could have torpedoed any chance at truly getting out of a long rebuild.
Drafting Beyond and Other Philosophy
Gorton and then team president John Davidson weren’t given the time they would have liked and were broomed after the 2021 season of missing the playoffs. Team owner Jim Dolan was looking at results and though the Rangers were beaten in the bubble play-in round, they still were able to get the #1 pick of the 2020 Draft. Not to Gorton’s fault, Lafreniere hasn’t been close to what everyone projected him to be–pushing the conversation on generational. Kakko was supposed to be a high scoring forward and to date, has only scored 18 goals as his season high in his four years at the NHL level.
For much of where the Rangers picked, it was best player available because it was the one or two spot. Outside of that, Chris Drury took Perreault, who was projected by many to be a top 20 pick. But there is some help on the way. Will Cuylle (2020 second-round) is a strong winger who scored 25 goals for AHL affiliate Hartford.
Maybe hitting big in the first-round won’t hurt as bad as it would other organizations.
Contracts and Trades
The Rangers, because of the clout they own as an Original Six in Gotham, were able to snag Artemi Panarin, and swing deals to trade for players that could help. This was Gorton’s gift–working the phones. The draft didn’t work out nearly as well, but he could salvage that by acquiring players who would bolster the roster. Drury had an arms race with the Boston Bruins during the season with acquisitions, picking up Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko. But they didn’t make it out of the first round and both are now unrestricted free agents, with Kane the likelier of the two to re-sign.
Beyond that, they’re pressed against the cap with some of the heftier deals on the books but deftly grabbed Blake Wheeler on a cheap deal. Drury has done what he can to walk the tightrope, but still has work to do to finish things off before the season begins. If there’s anywhere that the Blackhawks are in better shape than most it’s here.
Measuring out the Timeline
From the release of “The Letter” to its first playoff shot in 2022, it was four seasons (bubble not withstanding as that was an anomaly) before the Rangers really got rolling. 2021-22 was an Eastern Conference Final loss but the last season was a step back losing in seven games to the Devils in the first round.
The Rangers went a hybrid route, thanks to some free agency signings that went their way. The marquee names chose to go to New York and Gorton filled out the rest with some good trades in acquiring Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox, and Jacob Trouba. Gorton’s talent was working through trades and free agency. Being unable, however, to supplement that with the draft is where he fell into trouble. The lack of making the playoffs sealed his fate–even though much of what he did has the Rangers in the position they’re currently in.
It’s the inverse of what Davidson has sought to do so far for the Blackhawks: find the right pieces in the draft, build slowly and with short term around them while teaching them the rigors of the NHL.
Two Lessons for the Blackhawks from the Rangers Rebuild
#1: Top Picks Aren’t Always Everything: So this one is with caution. Connor Bedard looks like a hell of a lot better of a chance at stardom and generational talent than Lafreniere. But it can’t go without noting that the latter was projected as a can’t miss, will hit big and put the Rangers in a spot as Stanley Cup favorites. Well, it didn’t exactly go that way.
Kakko was also at one point considered a potential #1 pick, as evidenced from TSN’s Bob McKenzie in his final rankings. The Rangers, in consecutive years, were gifted with top two picks and may very well not get close to the value they should be reaping from that spot.
From all intents and purposes, the NHL hasn’t seen a star like Bedard since Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid. But it can’t be understated that the Rangers covered this by being very good in trades and free agent pickups. Some have said they were rushed–others have said that the bright lights of New York put more pressure on them than others face. Regardless of how it’s spun, it goes to show that getting that top pick doesn’t always translate into instant success. Davidson and the Blackhawks continue patiently take a path through the rebuild and that should help Bedard along the way.
#2: Even if success occurs, there will be setbacks: Look no further than this season. The Rangers looked to be in the Stanley Cup discussion and couldn’t escape the first round. But it’s more of a retooling New York needs to do, determining the route to go with Lafreniere as he’s a restricted free agent. A bridge deal? Trade him? Lock him up and hope he becomes the player everyone thought he would? They have help on the way with Othmann, who could slot in as a dangerous forward if his trajectory keeps rising.
The Rangers are in an enviable position. But the Blackhawks insistence on drafting as much as possible along with not delineating from the plan should help.