Looking at the Rangers’ Rebuild

Just four years after the New York Rangers management sent a letter to the fans and season ticket holders to inform them that the organization would be undergoing a rebuild, the team made a run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2022, ultimately losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. It’s left the entire conference, and especially their division rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, to sit back and ponder how a team that started rebuilding after them has lapped them in their respective process?

Though upon further review, it’s no surprise the Rangers have found so much success in a short period of time and the Flyers have not. New York executed a rebuild about as flawlessly as possible in a short amount of time, meanwhile the Flyers have failed at every major step in their process and as a result have been left to spin their tires in the same mud they’ve been stuck in for almost a decade now.

When you think about a rebuild, typically you think building through the draft. Though, the current Rangers playoff roster isn’t quite as home-grown as it feels. They only have six players that were drafted by the organization. The luck of the draft and a precise prowess with other moves have set the organization up for success for years to come, but just exactly how did the Rangers do they rebuild correctly?

DRAFT

The Rangers absolutely started their rebuild through the draft, though the success rate when it comes to their draft picks versus those that make the NHL still isn’t great. As of this writing, only five players drafted from 2017 to 2022 have seen 100 or more games of NHL ice. One of which, Lias Andersson, their first round pick in 2017, saw a bulk of that time come with the LA Kings. So they haven’t relied on a 100-percent home-grown roster, a myth now-famous snake oil salesman Ron Hextall tried to convince the organization was the only way to go about things in their rebuild.

Their six players on their playoff roster that were drafted by the club are- Chris Kreider (19th overall in 2009), Filip Chytil (21st overall in 2017), Alexis Lafreniere (first overall in 2020), Kappo Kakko (second overall in 2019), K’Andre Miller (22nd overall in 2018) and Igor Shesterkin (118th overall in 2018).

Kreider is 31 years old and a grizzled veteran at this point rather than one of the young guys leading the charge of the new generation, though still a key offensive contributor. He had a career-best, 52 goals and 77 points during the 2021-22 season.

Obviously, Shesterkin has been the hero of the day for the Rangers all season long and has spearheaded their playoff push. He posted a dazzling 2.07 goals against average and .935 save percentage in the regular season and a 2.61 GAA and .928 SV% in 21 playoff games in 2022.

The remaining four, Kakko, Lafreniere, Chytil and Miller have been relatively hit-or-miss during the regular season and playoffs. Some nights they’re leading the way, and others they look like young kids getting their first real taste of NHL playoff action. In Kakko’s case, he’s getting scratched in a win-or-go-home game six.

It’s arguable that the least impressive players there are actually their lottery-winning picks in Lafreniere and Kakko. The duo combined for just 26 goals and 49 points during the regular season and four goals and 14 points during the Rangers’ playoff run. It’s not like the Rangers walked away with a Connor McDavid-esque first overall pick, or a Jack Eichel-caliber player at number two. They got two projects that haven’t significantly overhauled the team or given them a false sense of improvement.

FREE AGENCY

Another six players were signed in free agency, the most notable being forward Artemi Panarin, who signed in 2019. The other signings make up a majority of their depth players. Forwards Dryden Hunt, Greg McKegg, Kevin Rooney, defensemen Patrick Nemeth, and goaltender Alexander Georgiev.

Artemi Panarin left the Blue Jackets during free agency in 2019 and whittled down his options to just a few teams, with the Rangers leading the pack. He signed a seven-year, $81.5 million ($11.6 million aav) contract with the club. He has scored 249 points in 186 games with the club.

The signing of depth players is a critical but often overlooked part of a good team. Solid depth players in the league are often a dime a dozen, with a bushel being available every year in free agency. The three forwards cost them $2,262,500 total, plus Nemeth and Georgiev, who clocked in at $4,900,000 total.

TRADES

The smooth execution of deals and intrepid trades were the backbone of the Rangers’ rebuild. 13 players on their playoff roster were acquired via trade, including Mika Zibanejad, Barclay Goodrow, Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Ryan Strome and Ryan Lindgren. Their trades came in waives, first as sellers during their teardown process, a fairly textbook approach- deal away veteran players and acquire draft picks and prospects. Then they made a few sneaky additions in the form of swapping promising, albeit low-ceiling players for struggling players on other teams. Then the flipping of assets that didn’t have a place in New York for new assets to try again, finally making additions to the roster when the ball was rolling in the right direction.

Once again, nothing newfangled or crazy, just perfectly done by the Rangers.

7/18/2016- 2018 7th and Derick Brassard for 2018 second and Mika Zibanejad

This was a great deal with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time, Brassard was the superior player. Zibanejad has aged like a fine wine and whereas Brassard declined soon after this trade. It was a perfect example of selling high on a roster player and capitalizing on an up-and-coming forward. Zibanejad was 23 at the time of the deal. The Rangers newly acquired 2018 second rounder was traded to the Red Wings in exchange for veteran defenseman Brendan Smith.

6/23/2017- Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan for Tony Deangelo and 2017 first round pick (Lias Andersson)

While the Tony Deangelo experiment ultimately failed in New York, and Lias Andersson ended up getting traded after failing to secure a roster spot with the Rangers, landing a top prospect and a high draft pick for two veteran pieces is a solid return.

2/25/2018- Rick Nash for Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey, Ryan Lindgren, 2018 first (K’Andre Miller), 2019 seventh

The Rangers got an absolute king’s ransom for Nash. Ryan Spooner was a former second round pick that seemingly had tons of potential but never stuck in the NHL. Matt Beleskey was a salary dump after signing a stupid contract after one big season in Anaheim. The 2018 first round pick sent to Ottawa to move up four spots in the first round to acquire K’Andre Miller. Lindgren was a second round pick by Boston in 2016, he was not signed at the time of this trade, but has become a key member of the Rangers’ defense corps.

2/26/2018- Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller for Vlad Namestnikov, Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, 2018 first (Nils Lundkvist), 2019 second (Karl Henriksson)

Hajek, a defenseman, was a second round pick in 2016, Brett Howden is a center and was a first round pick in 2016. Not to mention the 2018 first round pick and a 2019 second round pick. Talk about maximizing the return for a star defenseman.

Vlad Namestnikov was a 25 year-old forward who has some relative success with the Lightning, though was never able to replicate the production with the Rangers. He ws eventually flipped to the Senators for AHL defenseman Nick Ebert and a 2021 fourth round pick.

11/16/2018- Ryan Spooner for Ryan Strome

Strome and Spooner were both young NHL veterans that weren’t having much success with various teams. The swap was made and Strome has emerged as a solid middle-six center option for the Rangers while Spooner played 25 more NHL games before heading to Russia to play in the KHL. A classic example of capitalizing on a good player in a bad situation.

2/23/2019- Mats Zuccarello for 2019 second (Matthew Robertson), 2020 third (Oliver Tarnstrom)

Zuccarello was 32 years old and on an expiring deal at the time of the trade to the Dallas Stars. Robertson played his rookie AHL season during 2021-22. Tarnstrom as of this writing is still unsigned by the club.

2/25/2019- Kevin Hayes for 2019 first (traded for Jacob Trouba), Brenden Lemieux, 2022 fourth

The Rangers dealt Hayes, who was on an expiring contract, to Winnipeg for a first round pick, 23-year-old former first round pick forward prospect Brenden Lemieux and an additional fourth round pick.

That first rounder was traded back to the Jets a few months later when the acquired the rights to Jacob Trouba.

5/30/2019- Adam Fox for 2019 second, 2020 third

Fox was an NCAA standout that was originally drafted by the Calgary Flames in 2016. He refused to sign with the team and was traded the Carolina. He once again refused to sign and was dealt to the Rangers in this trade.

6/17/2019- Jacob Trouba for 2019 first, Neal Pionk

Trouba’s battle with the Jets and contract extensions was well documented. His girlfriend was going to school in New York, thus a deal to the Rangers was high on his list. At the time he was still an RFA so the Jets didn’t have to oblige, but they did and the mutual interest was there from the Rangers.

2/18/2020 Julian Gauthier for Joey Keane

The Rangers swapped AHL star prospects in defenseman Joey Keane, originally their 88th overall pick in 2018, for former 21st overall pick forward Julian Gauthier. Keane has yet to secure an NHL gig and Gauthier has been a key in the Rnagers’ bottom six.

2/24/2020- Brady Skeji for 2020 first (moved up to select Braden Schneider)

Skeji was a first round pick in 2012 and was one of the up-and-coming players whose play was stunted when they sold off some of their veteran players during the teardown process. He was flipped for another first round pick at the 2020 trade deadline. The pick was eventually traded to Calgary when they moved up three picks to select defenseman Braden Schneider. He made his NHL debut in 2021-22.

10/7/2020- Lias Andersson for 2020 second (William Cuylle)

Lias Andersson was drafted seventh overall by the Rangers in 2017, but ultimately never locked down a roster spot. He ended up getting loaned back to his Swedish team in December of 2019 and was ultimately flipped to the Kings for a second round pick in 2020. It was a pick that didn’t work out, so they flipped him for another draft pick.

7/17/21- Barclay Goodrow for 2022 seventh

Rangers acquired the rights of two-time Stanley Cup Champion depth forward Barclay Goodrow. They signed him to a hefty six-year, $21.8 million contract. It was part of their initiative to bulk up their depth, also acquiring Ryan Reeves from Vegas and Sammy Blais from St. Louis.

Rangers vs Flyers

The Rangers may have had quite a bit of luck come their way during the rebuild. Landing two top-two draft picks and acquiring two top players that only wanted to play for your organization goes a long way to expediting the process of a rebuild. But it boils down to so much more than just “They got lucky and landed Panarin and Fox.”

The luck of the draft to win the second and first overall picks in back-to-back years helped, but it’s not exactly like they drafted Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel with those picks. Both Kakko and Lafreniere made the NHL immediately after their draft year, but both have been projects and have taken their time adapting to the NHL. So, in the grand scheme of argument sake, they are more or less a non-factor when comparing the two teams.

As far as Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox go, yes, the luck is incredible that they picked New York, but New York didn’t get them for free. Panarin is making $11.6 million, Fox’s new deal clocks in at $9.5, and Jacob Trouba is making $8 million, not to mention they gave up a first rounder and two second round picks to acquire their services to begin with.

To bring it back to the Flyers’ realm, the biggest difference between the two boils down to the Rangers’ ability to be proactive. During the Hextall era, the name of the game was drafting, in fact, that’s about the only thing that got done during Hextall’s tenure as GM. There was no tear down, no selling high on roster players, no trades or signings targeted at improving the main roster. Nothing.

At the end of the day, it’s not like the Flyers aren’t a destination city of their own… at least they should be. The slow and steady decline over the last decade or so has definitely diminished the perceived value of a hockey town Philadelphia used to be. The organization really has no one but themselves to blame for that one. The lack of proactivity can also be blamed. The inability to pursue a noteworthy star over the last handful of years doesn’t exactly help when it comes to drawing other big names to the team. There’s not a single player on the current roster that players across the league are lining up to play with. And the refusal to sign or trade for a real star, dating back to the Hextall era, has only compacted the problems.

The biggest failure of the Flyers during their decade-long rebuild was their ability to adapt. They wanted to compose a team strictly of their own draft picks. That mentality started during the Hextall days, and has still been carried by the Fletcher regime. They still want to win the the rotten core of the same players that have failed year after year. They have made a few outside additions, like Kevin Hayes and James Van Riemsdyk, mainly out of pure necessity, but didn’t significantly move the needle on the ice.

Looking at how little success the Rangers have had drafting, meanwhile the Flyers desperately cling to every single pick made over the last decade with the hopes and dreams that one of them will be good enough to carry the entire franchise on their back. It’s the duality of their respective approaches.

The Rangers were wheeling and dealing during their entire rebuild. They tore down properly, getting big returns for Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes and Ryan McDonagh, while still signing Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. They drafted well, sold high on draft picks that didn’t work out, and made smart buy-low trades like Julien Gauthier and Ryan Strome.

They really didn’t do anything overly crazy, they just did every step properly. Sure, there was a bit of luck, but at the end of the day it just boils down to sticking to a feasible “process.” Proactivity goes a long way and it was the biggest missing link during the Flyers’ attempted rebuild, which has now been doubly as long as the Rangers have taken to perform theirs.

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By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)

photo credit: syracuse.com

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