Pirri adds more depth for Blueshirts

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Brandon Pirri is the newest Blueshirt creating even more of a crowd at forward. What happens when Oscar Lindberg is ready? What about the kids? Getty Images via AP

While I was at work, fans on my timeline were crowing about Brandon Pirri. I did a quick check to see if he was trending and didn’t find anything. Apparently, it was true. The Rangers indeed signed the 25-year old Pirri for a cheap one year, $1.1 million deal.

A former second round pick of the Blackhawks in the famed ’09 Draft, Pirri has moved around quite a bit. He spent a couple of years with the Panthers where he recorded a career best 22 goals over 49 games in ’14-15. However, he fell out of favor last year when Florida made the playoffs. His production slipped to 11 goals and 13 assists in 52 contests. The Panthers moved him to the Ducks where he totaled three goals and two helpers in nine games. But didn’t participate in their first round disappointment.

So, what is there to add? I’ve always liked Pirri. He’s another depth forward who’s capable of scoring double digit goals. Listed as a center, he didn’t take many faceoffs. So, you can forget about that. Basically, if he contributes offensively then it’s a good low risk signing. Added to new depth forwards Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner and Josh Jooris, Pirri will compete for ice-time on the fourth line. He can play third line if necessary.

However, with young prospects Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey expected to be in a top nine that features Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello, it looks like Pirri will be in a fourth line competition with the newcomers and Alain Vigneault favorite Jesper Fast. What it means for Tanner Glass is probably the end. He’ll likely be ticketed for Hartford.

I’m most curious to see what happens when Oscar Lindberg comes back from off season surgery. The Blueshirts have a glut of forwards. Perhaps general manager Jeff Gorton will shuffle the deck. How many forwards does this team need? Credit Gorton for improving the team’s depth. He bolstered the bottom line and on paper, improved a penalty kill which was a sore spot. Where does Lindberg fit in? He would be the fourth center on the roster assuming Hayes stays at center. And what about Fast, who Vigneault loves to use on different lines?

I guess a lot will be answered by how quickly Buchnevich and Vesey adjust to an NHL training camp and preseason. They aren’t here to be sent down. However, Hartford remains an option if either needs some fine tuning. Most optimistic Ranger fans don’t want to hear that. But look at how many forwards they’ve added. How will Vigneault handle the young guys? Allotting ice-time for everyone won’t be easy.

Unless Gorton is considering using a Nash or a more cap friendly Zuccarello as trade bait to improve a weak blue line, there really are more questions than answers. For bit players like Gerbe, Grabner, Jooris and Pirri, this is their last chance. All are proven NHLers who can be used on the bottom line. Gerbe, Jooris and Grabner can kill penalties. Pirri is what he is. Is that 22-goal season a fluke? Why is he on his third team in a year? All good questions.

With the World Cup of Hockey training camp fast approaching, there will be a few players who won’t be in regular camp. But players such as Henrik Lundqvist, Miller, Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Zuccarello will be in game shape by the time the season starts.

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Vesey Watch results in him being a Ranger

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After a long thought out process, Jimmy Vesey chose the New York Rangers earlier this afternoon. The decision became official just before 6 PM. He signed an entry level contract and will be the newest Blueshirt added to a retool that includes top prospect Pavel Buchnevich and key acquisition Mika Zibanejad. All are talented forwards 23 or younger.

Added to a core featuring Derek Stepan (26), Chris Kreider (25) and J.T. Miller (23), the Rangers feature plenty of young talent capable of keeping them in the mix. Rick Nash is the elder statesman at 32 and Mats Zuccarello will turn 29 before training camp. Swedes Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg are each 23.

So, there’s a lot to like about what they have up front. General Manager Jeff Gorton also added solid fourth liners Josh Jooris, Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe. All of who have speed and can help improve a bad penalty killing unit which ranked near the bottom. A sore spot that got exposed against the ultra talented Penguins in a one sided first round.

As for Vesey, now that the 23-year old from Harvard University is here, expectations could be high. This is a left wing with speed and the ability to finish. The Hobey Baker winner tallied 24 goals and 22 assists for 46 points in 33 games in the ECAC as a senior. That followed up a breakout junior season that saw him notch 32 goals with 26 helpers for 58 points in 37 contests.

The key with any young player is for the organization to remain patient. Let’s find out how he looks in camp which includes practices and team scrimmages. It’s so easy to be unrealistic about what Vesey might bring. There’s so much excitement on Twitter that it borders on absurd. So many celebrities helped recruit him. The fans expect the world. Let’s wait and see what he becomes before projecting too high.

Most young players take time to develop. As we have discovered with Hayes, Kreider and Miller, there are peaks and valleys. Don’t forget Hayes made a similar jump from college to the NHL after not signing with the Blackhawks. It was the Rangers who landed him. He had a very good rookie year finishing strong. His second year was underwhelming. He’ll enter Year 3 with increased expectations and responsibilities with Derick Brassard gone.

I’ll conclude this post with one final thought. As much as #VeseyWatch annoyed me, I’m glad it finally ended. That the Rangers landed him can be viewed as positive. I just hope our fans are patient. It might not happen right away. If he can make the roster and start on the third line, that would be a good start.

Hopefully, that great genius coach of ours doesn’t screw around. Either way, we’ll see what Vesey can add to the team. See you in October.

 

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Rangers sign John Gilmour

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In the middle of #VeseyWatch, the Rangers did add a college free agent defenseman Wednesday. They signed John Gilmour to an entry level contract.

The 23-year old played four years at Providence College. The Friars won their first Frozen Four national championship in 2015 carried by Flames’ goalie prospect Jon Gillies. During his junior season, Gilmour contributed four goals and seven assists in Hockey East. He came on with nine goal and 14 assists for a college best 23 points during his senior year.

Gilmour was originally selected by Calgary in the seventh round in the 2013 NHL Draft. The Flames didn’t sign him. So, the Rangers added some blue line depth. What is Gilmour exactly? I have no clue.

Obviously, he’ll start with Hartford if he’s good enough. The Rangers boast plenty of depth at the back end with Adam Clendening, Dan Girardi, Nick Holden, Kevin Klein, Ryan McDonagh, Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei and Marc Staal. Unless something drastic changes, both Girardi and Staal will be back. How effective they are remains to be seen.

I’m holding out hope for Ryan Graves to get a look sometime next year. But that’s only if things fall apart. The organization believes they can still contend. As long as Henrik Lundqvist is here, that’s their approach. I wish I was optimistic.

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Why Vesey Watch is annoying

Men's Hockey vs. St. Lawrence

As the hot summer continues full of sunshine, humidity and thunderstorms, so does Vesey Watch. The hype surrounding the Harvard University four-year player who opted for free agency rather than signing with Nashville has been insane.

Consider that Jimmy Vesey is 23 already and never played professional. The former Predators’2012 third round pick developed well at Harvard over his final two years. In ’14-15, his 32 goals and 58 points paced the Crimson in the ECAC. His senior year, Vesey produced 24 goals and 22 assists totaling 46 points. That was good enough to win the Hobey Baker Award for top collegiate hockey player.

The odd part is Vesey beat out two better players. Kyle Connor put up 35 goals and 36 assists for 71 points at the University of Michigan. The difference being Connor did it as a 19-year old freshman after getting taken 17th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. Vesey also beat out goalie Thatcher Demko. A highly rated American netminder who won 27 games with a 1.88 goals-against-average, .935 save percentage and 10 shutouts in his junior year at Boston College. The 20-year old went 36th overall in the second round to the Canucks in 2014.

So, how good is Vesey? He scored 56 goals his final two seasons after totaling 24 prior to his junior year. He’s a left wing who is listed at 6-1, 195 pounds. Originally from North Reading, Massachusetts, he still hasn’t made up his mind on who he’s signing with. The Sabres parted with a third round pick in June just to get his rights. But it may have been a waste. There’s no guarantee he’ll sign with Buffalo, who probably has the most upside. Unless he chooses Toronto or goes to Pittsburgh or Chicago, he’d be better off with the Sabres.

In his second day of free agency, Vesey met with Blackhawks, Rangers and hometown Bruins after meeting with the Devils, Islanders, Leafs and Penguins. At some point, he’ll decide who has made the best sales pitch. Hopefully, it ends soon.

Honestly, between all the desperation tweets from our fans along with others, it’s become a joke. How many ‘experts’ have ever seen Vesey play? I just looked at some highlights of his Harvard reel. He definitely has some skill. A superb skater who can finish and set up teammates. However, his success came against college competition. How quickly he transitions to the pro style will determine what kind of career he’ll have.

How good will he be? I have no clue. I don’t pretend to be an expert and automatically pencil him in the top nine. Whenever one of these college free agents become available, the height of expectation can be unrealistic.

I’ve gotten tired of reading my timeline. When you have fans already talking about Vesey as if he’s already a Ranger, it’s brutal. How about waiting first before proclaiming a Ranger, Devil, Islander, etc? The Rangers don’t exactly have as much room as say the Devils with all their cap space. They already are bringing one top prospect into the mix in Russian Pavel Buchnevich. I would like to see what he can do in camp, which is still a way off due to the World Cup.

So, what will Vesey decide? Hopefully, he makes the right decision for him and his family. Whoever he chooses should be an ideal fit with the opportunity for good ice-time and the chance to grow. If I were him, I’d choose a rebuilding team. He’ll have a better chance. Whether it’s Buffalo, New Jersey or Toronto, those would be my choices if I were a young player who wants to play in the NHL.

I guess what it comes down to is I’m just not biased. The Rangers remain a win now team with Henrik Lundqvist getting older. They can’t afford to wait. Time is slipping away. The Pens and Hawks are obviously win now teams who have won recently. They have the last two Stanley Cups. Pittsburgh just re-signed Matt Cullen for another year at a cheap $1 million. After narrowly missing the postseason the last two years, Boston remains an option. But does Vesey want the pressure of playing at home?

Whatever happens, I’m fine with it. I just want the madness to end. When you even have celebrities who play other sports chiming in, it gets to be a little bit much. Leave the kid alone. Let him choose minus the hoopla.

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Long off season continues for hockey fans

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As the summer heat intensifies with still very hot and humid 90+ degree conditions with a thunderstorm about to hit here at home in the Annadale section of Staten Island, a long off season continues for hockey fans.

Even in mid-August into the dog days of summer, the drop of the puck feels a long way off. With training camps being held a bit later due to the World Cup of Hockey which will be televised on ESPN, there hasn’t been a whole lot going on. Unless you’re one of those hockey bloggers fascinated by college rookie free agent Jimmy Vesey, there’s nothing to discuss. The Vesey hype on Twitter has become irritating. All the speculation and projections means nothing until he decides which team he’s signing with.

Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of college players foregoing signing entry level deals with the teams that drafted them. So, excuse me. The Rangers have Kevin Hayes because he and the Blackhawks couldn’t reach agreement. I just don’t like the rule that allows young players who haven’t even turned pro to dictate who they play for. Fans of teams who have taken advantage of the loop hole can thank Mike Van Ryn. He decided he didn’t want to be a Devil, eventually signing with St. Louis. He didn’t have much of a career until he got to Florida where he put up a few solid seasons. Never better than 13-24-37 in ’03-04.

Sometimes, the young players who don’t sign with the original team who picked them don’t turn out to be big stars. Fifteen years ago, the Canucks drafted R.J. Umberger in the first round. After playing three years with Ohio State, his rights were dealt to the Rangers for Martin Rucinsky during ’04 when Glen Sather sold everyone. But following a tryout with Hartford, the Rangers decided not to sign him, allowing Umberger to go to the Flyers. He carved a nice career for himself as a checking center who’s scored at least 20 goals in five seasons with the Flyers and Blue Jackets, topping out at 57 points in ’10-11 for Columbus. Since putting up four straight 20-goal campaigns with the Jackets, he’s been a shell of himself. Yet the Flyers brought him back in a salary dump sending Scott Hartnell to the Jackets. At 34 after earning $4.5 million each over the last two seasons, Umberger might be done. He remains unsigned.

As for Vesey, after playing four yeas for Harvard, he decided not to sign with the Predators, who took him in the third round back in 2012. So, Nashville sent his rights to the Sabres recovering a third round pick (Rem Pitlick). If a player isn’t gonna sign, you may as well get what you can. The thing is Buffalo took a chance here thinking maybe Vesey would see the light and sign with an up and coming team built around Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly. In Western New York, the talent pool is deep with Sam Reinhart, unsigned restricted free agent Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Hudson Fasching. With GM Tim Murray signing Kyle Okposo and acquiring Dmitry Kulikov along with a core featuring Tyler Ennis, Robin Lehner and controversial power forward Evander Kane, the Sabres have all the pieces to make a run at the playoffs in ’16-17.

By adding Alexander Nylander with the eighth overall selection in this year’s Draft, the talent pool only increases. If Vesey chose the Sabres, he’d be just another piece to the puzzle. But he has decided to test free agency. With other strong suitors such as the Maple Leafs, Devils and Bruins all in the mix, it’s anyone’s guess where he lands. He also visited the Rangers. But they remain a long shot. Personally, I would love to see Vesey sign with Buffalo. We’ll see.

As for another overcast night with rain storms in the air, I’ll continue to enjoy the Summer Games in Rio. Plenty of fun track and field to watch. I just watched 17-year old Sydney McLaughlin come in fifth in the women’s 110 meter hurdles during a semi heat. So, she didn’t qualify for the final. But she’s only going to be a high school senior. She got a great experience that she’ll take with her into Tokyo in 2020.

The highlight of the Oympics has been Michael Phelps adding five more golds and a silver to become an immortal. The 31-year old swimmer is the greatest of all-time winning 23 gold medals and totaling 28 throughout a brilliant Olympic career. Nineteen-year old Katie Ledecky continues to look like the female American version winning four more golds and a silver giving her five gold medals in two Olympics. That includes two more world records including the 400 meter freestyle and 800 M freestyle in which she blew away the competition.

American gymnast Simone Biles has wowed everyone winning four gold medals including three individual for vault, all around and floor exercise. She also teamed up with Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian (silver on uneven bars) and silver medal winning Old Bridge, New Jersey native Laurie Hernandez (balance beam) to help the United States win gold in the team all around. Biles also took bronze in balance beam behind Hernandez giving her five total medals. Not bad for a 19-year old.

There are plenty of other great stories. While our Americans have dominated the headlines with a Rio-leading 83 total medals including 28 gold, fascinating Jamaican sprinter Usain “Lightning” Bolt made Olympic history by three-peating in the 100 meters men’s final. The 29-year old is remarkable. His powerful 6-5, 207 pound frame allows him to recover from slow starts with huge strides. He did it again by powering past 34-year old American Justin Gatlin, who took silver despite a fantastic start. He led for the first 60 meters. But a cool Bolt easily caught and passed him having time to smile and pound his chest as he crossed the line in a gold medal time of 9.81.

As a huge track and field fan who ran mostly distance in high school, it doesn’t get any better. The fastest man has always been a huge draw attracting enormous crowds who make plenty of noise. The last time it was this hyped was when Canadian Ben Johnson blew away loathsome Carl Lewis in the ’88 Seoul Games running a then record 9.79 before getting disqualified for a positive steroid test. One that still boggles the mind. If you’ve ever seen the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary 9.79*, then you know what I’m referring to. No question, the muscular Johnson admitted to taking steroids (performance enhancers) after agreeing to go on the program run by then coach Charlie Francis. The perplexing aspect is his urine samples contained stanozolol. A steroid even his coach said Johnson didn’t prefer because it made him feel tight. Francis claimed that Johnson preferred furazabol.

The prospect of PED’s have been around since. Former sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones had their careers tarnished. Particularly the hyped Jones, who had three gold medals and two bronzes stripped from her following the 2000 games in Melbourne. Montgomery once ran a then record 9.78 in ’02 but the end result of the BALCO scandal, he was stripped of his title. Even former Olympic gold medal winner Gatlin who won the 100 meters in Athens with a time of 9.85 is a two-time cheat for doping. His first suspension came while in college for amphetamines due to medication.he took for ADD. The second was for high testosterone in ’06 which originally resulted in an eight-year ban. It eventually got reduced to four, allowing him to return at the 2012 London Games where he took bronze with a time of 9.79 which trailed Jamaicans Bolt (9.63) and Yohan Blake (9.75).

In this year’s race, it was Bolt who beat Gatlin (9.89), who was booed frequently by the Brazilian crowd. Finishing third was Canadian Andre De Grasse, whose time of 9.91 gave the country bronze. The first time in over two decades Canada has had a top three finisher in the 100 M. De Grasse edged Blake for third.

Bolt’s finish produced some of the greatest memes ever.

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Bolt has two events left to go out the ultimate winner. The 200 which is actually considered his best event. He already advanced to the semifinals along with Gatlin. If he can three-peat in that and then guide the Jamaican team to gold in the very exciting 4 x 100, Bolt will be remembered as one of the all-time best. Think Jessie Owens. I don’t count Lewis because I feel his performance was tainted by the positive tests during the American Olympic trials in ’88. He comes off as a hypocrite. Lewis is one of the best ever. But his whole attitude was fraudulent. Imagine an athlete as decorated as him who rubbed even his own American competitors the wrong way due to his arrogance. He was not well liked.

One of the highlights of Rio was the record performance of gold medalist Wayde van Niekerk, who set a world record to win the 400 by beating Michael Johnson’s record (43.18) by running a 43.03. More amazing because he ran out of the eighth lane and couldn’t see the field. He never broke stride. The South African trained with Bolt, who couldn’t believe what he saw prior to winning gold in the 100 M.

On the women’s side, you have a new world’s fastest in tall Jamaican Elaine Thompson, who pulled away from the field to run the 100 meters in 10.71, beating American Tori Bowie (10.83) and former gold medal teammate Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (10.86). Thompson reminds me of a male Bolt due to her length and strength. She takes long strides and looks like she’ll dominate the women’s circuit for a while.

One event I very much looked forward to was the women’s 400 meters final. Namesake Allyson Felix was going for gold in the only individual event she made. Despite some setbacks this season due to injuries which forced her out of the 200 due to not qualifying, there she was going for Olympic gold in the 400. However, a slow start allowed the Bahamas’ Shuanae Miller to surge to the front where it looked like she would lead all the way. But a relentless Felix tracked her down and looked poised to win again. In the closing moments, she was actually past Miller. But Miller did the unthinkable using a desperation dive on instinct to cross the line first edging Felix for the win. Her gold medal time was 49.44  with Felix taking silver at 49.51. Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson took bronze (49.85). Here’s how the end looked:

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Maybe if Felix had leaned at the finish, it might not have mattered. Miller admitted she had to get gold. She didn’t know she would dive. It was just instinctive. There’s nothing against the rules that prohibits diving. It actually decelerates your stride. But hers worked because it got her body across before Felix’ foot touched the line. Ironically, both runners were exhausted after the race and laid on the track recovering rather than celebrate their accomplishments. It was that kind of race.

The Olympics are not for everyone. Especially due to the corrupt IOC. When you have Ryan Lochte and three other American swimmers robbed at gunpoint, it’s not a good look for the games in Brazil. Thankfully, no one got hurt.

However, the Games are something I’ve always enjoyed. Even if NBC’s coverage led by Al “Rotwig” Trautwig on the gymnastics leaves a lot to be desired. At least former gold medalist Nastia Liukin is part of the coverage. Gymnastics are so tough though. Brazil’s excitement over their silver and bronze was pretty cool. The host country has had plenty to cheer for in men’s gymnastics. While their women’s soccer team disappointed like gold medal favored USA losing to Sweden in penalty kicks, their men are still alive as are their women’s beach volleyball tandem, who take on Kerri Walsh-Jennings and new partner April Ross in the semifinals.

If you’re not into Olympics, fine. Baseball has disappointed for Mets fans. The Mets don’t look like a playoff team. At .500 with an inconsistent offense and disappointing bullpen, they actually have a worse record than the Yankees. The Yanks have given me more joy since they finally decided to rebuild the farm system. Seeing Gary Sanchez slug his second home run into the second deck as lightning and thunder gave way to rain reminded me of Roy Hobbs played by Robert Redford in The Natural, which has been on a lot lately. Unfortunately, the rain took Michael Pineda out of the game and the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold a six-run lead against the explosive Jays. They lead 8-6.

With Sanchez and Aaron Judge leading the way along with Didi Gregorius, Yankee fans have plenty to be excited about. Even if they fall short tonight, the future’s bright. With Greg Bird returning next year, Tyler Austin and future Bronx Bombers Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, Julio Mateo and Justus Sheffield, there’s plenty to look forward to.

As for the Amazin’s, I’ll leave that one to Hasan. He’s probably in full Jets mode as preseason continues. As for hockey, I’ll wait patiently. I don’t miss it. I’m enjoying the summer. Everyone should.

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Rangers, Hayes agree for two years, $5.2 million

Kevin Hayes

Purple Hayes: Kevin Hayes finishes off a beauty on Semyon Varlamov. AP Photo by David Zalubowski/Getty Images

It’s been a busy day for Jeff Gorton. After re-signing Chris Kreider to a new four-year deal worth an average cap hit of $4.625 million, the Rangers general manager hammered out a new two-year deal with restricted free agent Kevin Hayes. They agreed on a bridge deal worth $5.2 million ($2.6 AAV).

After a good rookie season in which he tallied 17 goals and 28 assists for 45 points in 79 games, the 24-year old Dorchester, Massachusetts native had a bit of a disappointing sophomore year. He still finished with 14 goals and 22 helpers with 36 points in 79 contests. Nine points down from his first year with the club.

It didn’t end well for Hayes, who was benched by coach Alain Vigneault for the last two games of a first round loss against Pittsburgh. He entered playing better but wasn’t able to get anything going. Rental Eric Staal didn’t pay off. He wound up leaving for Minnesota.

As for Hayes, he certainly has the ability to be a more capable offensive player than what we got in Year 2. There were too many shifts where he disappeared. His play away from the puck suffered. He was one of the guilty forwards who didn’t always back check. Such play got Derick Brassard traded to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 second round pick.

The 6-5, 227 pound Hayes is a strong puck possession player with good vision. An unselfish player who continues to learn a new position at center, he needs to improve his consistency. If he ever reaches his full potential, 20 goals and 30-35 assists is possible. That would mean elevating his game to a level the Rangers are counting on. As he enters his third year, he could be asked to center the second line. That largely depends on who impresses more between him and Zibanejad, who is a two-time 20-goalscorer that’s improving.

Both are young talented players with upside. There’s only a one year age difference. Hayes is 24 while Zibanejad is 23. Each was selected in the first round. Hayes by the Blackhawks 24th overall in 2010. Zibanejad sixth overall in 2011.

While the most responsibility will be with number one pivot Derek Stepan, the Rangers’ offense depends largely on the development and maturity of Hayes and Zibanejad. They’re banking on each for the future.

Gorton did a great job getting all our players re-signed. He somehow was able to save money by moving Brassard. Remarkably, the Rangers still have around $3.5 million in cap space. Unfamiliar territory.

With virtually everything done, it looks like we’ll have to wait through the dog days of summer for two months until the World Cup of Hockey and then training camp. I’m happy to see everyone signed.

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Rangers, Kreider agree to new contract

Chris Kreider PPG

Chris Kreider scores a power play goal in Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

It came down to the wire for the Rangers and Chris Kreider. With the restricted free agent set for a 9 AM arbitration hearing, the announcement didn’t come until 9:35 this morning. The two sides agreed on a new four-year contract worth an average of $4.625 million per season.

TSN insider Aaron Ward broke the story first. The deal also includes a limited no trade clause. Kreider selected 11 teams he would accept a trade to. So, it’s not etched in stone that he’ll stay a Ranger for all four seasons. That largely depends on how he performs.

The 25-year old former ’09 first round pick (19th overall) has a unique skill set. The 6-3, 226 pound Boxford, Massachusetts native combines great speed with physical tools making him a power forward. So far, he’s been capable of scoring 21 goals doing so in each of the previous two seasons. A player who also has a mean streak, he still hasn’t found consistency.

The next step for Kreider is to become a more consistent player. In investing over the next four years at a solid price, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton is banking on Kreider to take that next step. That means going from an up and down 21 goals and 40-plus points to somewhere between 25-30 goals and 50-60 points. The talent is there. It’s all about the player here.

By buying up his first two free agent years, the Rangers are counting on Kreider to be part of a young nucleus of forwards featuring Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan along with newcomers Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad. Stepan is the oldest at 26. Mats Zuccarello is 28 and Rick Nash is the elder statesman at 32.

In already signing Miller to a bridge contract and re-signing Dylan McIlrath while getting Kreider done, Gorton has had a good summer. He also addressed the fourth line and penalty kill with underrated signings of speedsters Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner and Josh Jooris.

Gorton also added Nick Holden from Colorado and Adam Clendening improving depth on the blue line. Considering what he had to work with, he’s done well in his second off-season. With approximately six million left in cap space, all that’s left is Hayes. Figure a bridge deal in the neighborhood of $2.25 AAV should get it done.

With the exception of Derick Brassard, most of the core remains intact. Don’t forget captain Ryan McDonagh is 27. The Rangers’ captain needs to remain healthy for the team to have any success. He has dealt with injuries the past couple of seasons including two concussions in ’15-16. Hopefully, he’ll have better luck in the future. It would be nice if McIlrath, 24, rode shotgun. He must be part of the solution.

Brady Skjei definitely will be. The 22-year old smooth skating defenseman should definitely be a big help on a back end that’s gotten stale. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal must have their roles redefined. They aren’t the same due to wear and tear. The Rangers are hoping a longer off-season will help their recovery. Of the remaining D, righty Kevin Klein could be moved. With two years left at $2.9 million AAV, he only goes if things change.

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Brassard was first class

Zucc's Back: A happy Mats Zuccarello gets congrats from Derick Brassard for one of his two goals in the Rangers' 5-4 win over the Leafs.  The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

In better times,  Mats Zuccarello celebrates a goal with Derick Brassard as cohesive teammates who made the Rangers fun to watch.
The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

Whenever a good player gets traded, it’s emotional for both teammates and fans. Take the captain for captain trade at the 2014 deadline that sent Ryan Callahan to Tampa for Martin St. Louis. Callahan was one of the most popular Rangers. A fan favorite who bled our colors by sacrificing body parts during games, Captain Cally was a Black & Blueshirt.

When he was dealt, I was sad. I also was mad at the organization for intentionally leaking the details of the negotiation between Callahan and the team which didn’t get done. It was an example of PR turning the fans against a player who went above and beyond the call of duty. They didn’t need to do that to justify a trade for a future Hall of Famer. St. Louis became the emotional leader during the club’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. His teammates rallied around him following the death of Mom France.

I’ve always said since that special run which included the first ever comeback from a 3-1 deficit in franchise history, the 2013-14 Rangers don’t get that far without St. Louis. Even if the deal was a risk, Glen Sather had to take it to try to win the Cup. They fell short of that goal losing to the Kings and then to the Lightning in a gut wrenching seventh game of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final. St. Louis retired.

Unfortunately, his loss was felt this past season. Both in the locker room and on the ice, the ’15-16 Rangers missed his presence. Even when they started out well, they never were quite right. Henrik Lundqvist covered up so many mistakes. Eventually, he caved in and Alain Vigneault’s system broke down.

The struggles of proud vets Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented. Coming off injuries that required off-season surgery, neither were the same. They were mistake prone and slow to react causing turnovers and leading to goals against. While they received most of the criticism, a few of the club’s more popular forwards were ignored.

That included Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. A dynamic duo that was formed during the 2014 season. Along with Benoit Pouliot, they became the team’s best puck possession line. After Pouliot departed for the Oilers, Brassard and Zuccarello remained intact teaming with Rick Nash to form the team’s top scoring line. The chemistry between Brassard and Zuccarello was undeniable. They were a perfect match. Brassard with his combination of skating, passing and finishing. Zuccarello with his play-making, skill and bravery.

The Brassard/Zuccarello tandem were fun to watch. They scored and set up pretty goals that got fans out of their seats at MSG. Unfortunately, that chemistry ran out during the second half of ’15-16. They never were in sync. Even worse, their play away from the puck suffered. Ranger forwards didn’t always come back defensively. Brassard and Zuccarello were the biggest culprits. It was sad to see because it hurt the team.

Eventually, Vigneault broke them up. He replaced Zuccarello with J.T. Miller. A stronger two-way presence who Brassard credited for his sudden increase in goal scoring. In an interview with TSN that aired yesterday following the trade to the Senators for Mika Zibanejad and a second round pick, Brassard credited Miller for helping set him up for a career high 27 goals. He was finishing more plays than setting up but wound up with 58 points (27-31-58). Two shy of his career best set in ’14-15.

Zuccarello led the Blueshirts in scoring with a career best 61 including a career high 26 goals to go with 35 helpers. Amazing production from a player who was a question mark due to brain contusion and a fractured skull sustained during the 2015 first round on a Ryan McDonagh shot that struck him in the helmet. By the end of the season, Vigneault tried him successfully with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. A combo we could see more of in the future.

No matter how down I was on Brassard for his inconsistency and defensive deficiency in a first round elimination to the Penguins, he was a very good Ranger. He excelled under Vigneault’s higher tempo and puck possession system. His scoring increased. From a third line role in which he tallied 18 goals and 27 assists plus 6-6-12 in a memorable 2014 postseason, he established career bests in goals (19), assists (41) and points (60) in ’14-15. That included 9-7-16 which paced the team in the 2015 postseason.

Known as Big Game Brass due to his penchant for raising his level in the playoffs, Brassard totaled 44 points (18-26-44) in 59 postseason contests all with the Rangers from 2012-16. That also included a goal and three assists in a disappointing five-game loss to Pittsburgh. Truth be told, they were over matched by a superior and deeper team that won the Stanley Cup. It still was inexcusable for Brassard to give up on a couple of key plays in a blowout Game 5 loss. Perhaps that sealed his fate.

Make no mistake. Brassard had a good run here. But the lack of attention to detail couldn’t have sat well with the coaching staff or management. Having signed a affordable five-year deal worth $25 million ($5 million AAV), the 28-year old from Hull, Canada has three years remaining when he comes home to play for Ottawa. Maybe it’s for the best. He will join a talented team featuring Erik KarlssonMark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan. Hoffman must still be re-signed to a long-term deal. But the Sens have plenty of room. So, the notion that Brassard could be left unprotected for next year’s expansion with Las Vegas seems unlikely.

One thing about Brassard. He was always accountable. When he wasn’t performing up to par, he took responsibility. He was a quality player and teammate whose leadership could be missed. For the Rangers, it became about cutting salary and getting younger. The Zibanejad acquisition does both. As noted yesterday, he has similar production to Brassard at the same stage of his career. It’s ironic that both were chosen sixth overall five years apart. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out for both the Rangers and Sens.

As for Brassard, the classy center made sure to thank the Rangers on Instagram.

The only thing we as fans can do is wish Brassard luck with his new team. As far as the future of the Blueshirts, the page has been turned. With this move, it signals a move in a different direction. Undoubtedly, Kevin Hayes will play a bigger role once he re-signs.

So too will Chris Kreider, who I now expect to get a long-term contract in the neighborhood of five years for $25 million. It’s now about a young nucleus that also includes Stepan, Miller and captain McDonagh. Zibanejad and newly signed top prospect Pavel Buchnevich will be part of it along with Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath.

For once, it’s not about the vets. But rather about youth. Even as Lundqvist ages, there is still enough young talent for the Blueshirts to remain competitive. They also recently signed 19-year old 2015 third round pick Robin Kovacs to an entry level contract. With Ryan Graves and Adam Tambellini also in tow, the future looks bright.

GM Jeff Gorton is preparing for it the right way.

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Brassard is Gone

Derick Brassard is gone. The Rangers traded him to the Senators in exchange for Mika Zibanejad and a second round pick.

Funny enough, I suggested trading Brassard this summer. He’s a quality offensive play-making center who was a good Ranger. He came over from the Blue Jackets in the deal for Marian Gaborik on Apr. 3, 2013.The trade also netted Derek Dorsett and John Moore.

Brassard always raised his level in the playoffs. After putting up 12 points in 2013, he went 6-6-12 during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Centering a cohesive third line flanked by Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, Brassard scored and set up big goals. The trio were terrific on the forecheck the entire 2014 postseason.

With the departure of Pouliot to Edmonton, Brassard was asked to play a bigger role. Signed to a five-year deal with an average cap hit of $5 million, he continued to improve putting up a career high 60 points (19-41-60) in ’14-15. He paced the Rangers with nine goals and 16 points in a postseason that saw the team get within a period of a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. That included a hat trick in Game 6 versus the Lightning.

His final season with the Blueshirts was very good offensively. He set a new career high with a team-leading 27 goals to go with 31 assists and 58 points. However, Brassard’s defensive game leveled off. Never the best defensive center, he fell into lazy habits refusing to backcheck at crucial moments. He and Zuccarello had to be separated by coach Alain Vigneault due to their lack of attention to detail. They didn’t have the same chemistry offensively as the previous year.

In a five-game first round series loss to the Penguins, Brassard tied with Rick Nash for the team lead in scoring with four points. However, his play in Game 5 was awful. He gave up on one goal after a costly turnover. Brassard didn’t compete in what turned out to be the final game of his Rangers career. A blowout loss to the Pens.

By trading him to Ottawa for the younger Zibanejad, who is signed through 2017 at an AAV of $2.625 million, the Rangers freed up salary. They’re saving approximately $2.375 million.

Zibanejad is 23. Like Brassard, he’s a former first round pick. Taken sixth overall by the Senators in the 2011 NHL Draft, the Swedish center is at a similar point in his career as Brassard was when he came here. Ironically, both players went sixth overall in their drafts and were given up at the same point.

Zibanejad has put up back-to-back 20-goal seasons. He followed up 20-26-46 with a career high 21 goals, 30 assists and 51 points this past season. The highest amount of points Brassard ever put up before he joined the Rangers was 47. It’s worth pointing out that his career high 27 markers were the first time he eclipsed the 20-goal mark. So, the team traded him at his high point.

Maybe it’s another smart deal that works out. By moving Brassard, it puts more trust in Kevin Hayes to take over the second line center. A role he should be up to. Given his size and skill set, getting increased minutes should benefit the pass-oriented Hayes. If he’s not up to it, Zibanejad can center the second line.

While some of the reaction has been predictably negative asking what they traded Brassard for, Zibanejad has plenty of skill. He also has some sweet moves in the shootout. Not that I love shootouts. He still has room to grow as a player.

Credit GM Jeff Gorton for making a move that was outside the box. He realized they needed to cut salary. He’s taking a chance on a younger player with similar talent to Brassard. If it works out, nobody will complain. It sets up the Rangers better for the future.

Derek Stepan is the team’s number one center. He’ll obviously need to be more consistent in terms of production. But that also means Chris Kreider better get his act together. Assuming they commit long-term to him, he will directly impact Stepan. The future is likely built around both along with recently re-signed J.T. Miller.

Nash doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. If he isn’t, he’ll have to find chemistry with someone else. Whether it’s with Stepan or likely Hayes given the puck possession and skating he possesses, Nash should be fine. Zuccarello seemed to mesh well with Stepan when tried together.

As for Brassard, thank you for four good years. You helped the team reach higher. Good luck in Ottawa.

 

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Rangers re-sign McIlrath, Hughes and sign Josh Jooris

Dylan McIlrath, Matt Beleskey

New York Rangers’ Dylan McIlrath (6) and Boston Bruins’ Matt Beleskey (39) fight during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Two days after re-signing J.T. Miller, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton stayed busy by re-signing two more players and adding another depth forward. He re-signed restricted free agents Dylan McIlrath and Tommy Hughes to one-year contracts while adding unrestricted forward Josh Jooris also for one year.

The terms for McIlrath are $800,000 for ’16-17. The former 2010 first round pick got into 34 games during his rookie season scoring two goals and adding two assists while racking up 64 penalty minutes as a seventh defenseman. Despite having solid chemistry with ex-Ranger Keith Yandle, he didn’t play consistently due to untrustworthy coach Alain Vigneault.

The big physical defenseman became a fan favorite. The toughest D the Blueshirts have had since Mike Sauer, McIlrath delivered crunching hits while playing with snarl clearing the front of the net. He also took on all comers. That included Wayne Simmonds in response to the Flyers’ power forward concussing Ryan McDonagh.

McIlrath showed improved skating and was solid in his end. New assistant Jeff Beukeboom gets credit for helping McIlrath and Brady Skjei develop in Hartford. It should be interesting to see what strides they make in the upcoming season.

Hughes, 24, is a three-year pro with the Wolf Pack. He’s totaled five goals and 20 assists in 173 games with Hartford.

Jooris is a 26-year old gritty forward who spent his first two seasons in the NHL with the Flames. Originally signed by Calgary in the summer of 2013, the former four-year player out of Union College spent a full year in the AHL before earning a spot with the Flames the past two seasons.

Playing a supporting role, he tallied 12 goals and 12 assists in 60 contests as a rookie in ’14-15. That included four power play goals and four game-winners, helping the Flames reach the postseason. Year 2 wasn’t as successful. In 59 games, he totaled four goals and nine helpers. As a team, Calgary struggled missing the playoffs.

A solid energy guy who can play penalty kill due to his speed and defensive instincts, Jooris is a good addition. Similar to Nathan Gerbe and Michael Grabner, he should help bolster the fourth line. All three forwards Gorton added have speed and play hard.

With off-season surgery keeping Oscar Lindberg out to start the season, the Rangers have at least addressed their fourth line. Even with not much space due to still needing to re-sign key RFA’s Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider, they’ve improved their depth both at forward and on the back end. Gorton traded for Nick Holden and signed Adam Clendening to provide more defensive depth.

With approximately nine million left, Gorton will turn his attention to Hayes and Kreider. Hayes should be easier due to completing a rookie deal. Figure a bridge deal in the neighborhood of $5 million ($2.5 AAV).

Kreider is the harder decision. Do they commit long-term to the 25-year old power forward who’s two seasons away from unrestricted free agency? That largely depends on the organization and if they believe Kreider is worth locking up. Stay tuned.

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