Jeff Gorton’s savvy moves have him ready for next Rangers chapter

Part 23 in a series analyzing the Rangers.

You can, of course, cite the Mika Zibanejad trade as evidence of Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton’s dexterity. The Blueshirts not only pulled off the flip of Derick Brassard during the summer of 2016, but also gained a second-round pick as part of the bargain by deferring the deal until after paying Big Game Brass his $2 million signing bonus due that July 15.

But I prefer to point to this year’s trade deadline, and not because the general manager was able to lock up Chris Kreider with a seven-year extension just before the clock struck the equivalent of midnight for the then-pending unrestricted free agent.

No, what impressed me most about Gorton’s work at the deadline was the decision not to trade similarly pending unrestricted free agent Jesper Fast despite the fact the Blueshirts and winger could not come together regarding his extension.

The GM could have said, “Hey, we’re still rebuilding and we can use the second-rounder that likely would have come back in return.” But he did not. Rather, Gorton surveyed the situation. The young Rangers had charged to within four points of a playoff spot by winning seven of their final eight games before the season was paused by the coronavirus pandemic. They were ahead of schedule.

And Fast was a valuable, perhaps even essential part of the effort, playing the right side and the defensive conscience on the line with Ryan Strome in the middle and Artemi Panarin on the left. Trading him would have bolstered the pipeline, but would have created an immediate vacancy within the top six.

So Gorton punted on the deal and retained Fast, who might become the first noteworthy Ranger allowed to play out his contract into free agency since Keith Yandle in 2016. The GM read the lay of the land and adjusted on the fly, proving that he would not be dogmatic in his approach to the rebuilding.

(Yes, Yandle’s rights were ultimately traded to Florida for fourth-round and sixth-round picks 11 days before the market opened, but that’s a difference without a distinction. Eric Staal also left that year, but he was always meant to be a rental.)

Certainly the front office effort this season was a collaborative affair. As president, John Davidson obviously has authority. But the team of Davidson and Gorton worked seamlessly in its first season. And it was Gorton — with help, of course, from assistant GM Chris Drury — who worked the phones and conducted the contract negotiations.

It was Gorton in the end who said, “No, Fast would not go.”

The text of the Letter, which went to the season-ticket holders on Feb. 8, 2018, appeared over the signatures of Gorton and then-president Glen Sather. The plan to divest and reinvest was approved at the highest level, of course, and that means by CEO Jim Dolan. But Gorton was not only on the rebuilding bus, he was the guy behind the wheel.

Two years later, the organization is stockpiled with prospects and young NHLers. Big-money commitments were made to Panarin and Jacob Trouba as means to accelerate the program. Gorton moved boldly to get the rights to Adam Fox from Carolina for a pair of second-rounders in April 2019 when some suggested he should have waited until August 2020 to sign the defenseman as a free agent without compensation. The GM did not wait.

Not every trade has been perfect. Libor Hajek still has time to become the top-four defenseman the organization believed he would be, and everyone is anticipating the arrival of Nils Lundkvist, but the return from Tampa Bay for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller seems a bit light. The draft choices haven’t all been aced, either, with Lias Andersson at seventh overall in 2018 an obvious bone sticking in management’s craw.

But these are exceptions. The Rangers have made out extremely well through Gorton’s series of trades. One of his best was acquiring Antti Raanta from the Blackhawks for Ryan Haggerty in 2015 while Gorton was still officially assistant GM, only days before he officially succeeded Sather in the job.

The handling of Ryan Graves is perhaps the biggest mistake the front office has made under Gorton’s watch. For whatever reason, the Rangers never gave the young, 6-foot-5 left defenseman a shot after drafting him 110th overall in 2013. It really never made sense.

The Blueshirts used Steven Kampfer and Adam Clendening as fill-ins on the blue line in 2016-17 and then used John Gilmour, Kampfer and Ryan O’Gara in 2017-18, but never once gave Graves a sniff before sending him to Colorado in exchange for Chris Bigras at the 2018 deadline.

Graves, who has since become a prominent member of the Avalanche blue line, sure would look good on Jacob Trouba’s left side, wouldn’t he?

There are, of course, all those prospects. There is Lundkvist and there is K’Andre Miller. There are Vitali Kravtsov and Morgan Barron. There are Hajek, Yegor Rykov, Matthew Robertson and Zac Jones. Not all of them are going to play for the Rangers and not all of them are going to be in the NHL.

Gorton is going to have to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff before the rest of the league gets a legitimate read on these guys. The Rangers are on a need-to-know basis on these kids. They must be viewed as assets, not necessarily prospects. Young guys are going to have to go. It will be Gorton’s responsibility to identify the expendables. That is the next challenge.

But if the past is prologue to the future, Gorton should be up to it. The organization is in good hands.

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