On what’s been a hectic Canada Day on July 1 with the free agent frenzy, the Rangers have called a 4 PM press conference. Glen Sather will step down as general manager moving upstairs as Team President and Jeff Gorton will take over as the new GM.
Give credit where it’s due to New York Post’s Larry Brooks who reported the story following the Rangers’ elimination. A brief email exchange proved correct with Sather uncertain of returning. After 15 years, he’s finally done. The 71-year old Hall Of Famer who was the architect behind five Oilers Stanley Cups took over as Rangers President and GM in the summer of 2000. After some big swings and misses on Eric Lindros, Bobby Holik, Pavel Bure and Alexei Kovalev, he traded Anson Carter for Jaromir Jagr in January 2004.
Following the lockout, Sather rebuilt the organization through the draft while signing Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Marek Malik and Michal Rozsival. They would team up with Jagr and former 2000 seventh round pick Henrik Lundqvist to bring the Rangers back to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Veteran Kevin Weekes along with Petr Prucha, Steve Rucchin were key components. Slats also added Petr Sykora and Sandis Ozolinsh at the deadline. While Sykora fit in, Ozolinsh struggled. After a feel good regular season, they were swept by the Devils. Brendan Shanahan joined up the following year along with protagonist Sean Avery with the team coming very close to beating the Sabres.
That was the start of some of the best hockey the franchise has seen. Over the past decade, the Blueshirts have qualified for the postseason nine out of 10 times and made at least the Conference Finals in three of the last four years. Lundqvist has been the backbone becoming the all-time franchise leader in wins (339) and shutouts (55). The 33-year old Swede has a few years left to win a Cup.
Sather’s best move was dumping Scott Gomez to the Canadiens in a deal that landed them Ryan McDonagh. The anchor of a blueline featuring Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, he’s the 26-year old captain who led them to their first Stanley Cup appearance since 1994 last year. Already a shutdown defenseman, he’ll continue to improve.
While it’s easy to critique Slats for throwing away first round picks in deals for Rick Nash, Keith Yandle and now departed Martin St. Louis, it was all to try to win now. They were close in 2014 losing to the Kings and were a period away from a second straight Stanley Cup Final against the Lightning. The question is will the sacrifice of picks and top prospect Anthony Duclair come back to bite the franchise in the long-term. That’s now Gorton’s job which will be challenging with the Pens improving mightily after acquiring Phil Kessel and the Blue Jackets getting Brandon Saad.
Sather was able to rebuild the team thanks to good drafting by getting former core players Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. They were integral parts of the 2011-12 team coached by John Tortorella that finished with the East’s best record and reached the Conference Final. Eventually, Slats included Dubinsky and Anisimov with Tim Erixon and a first round pick (Kerby Rychel) for Nash, Steven Delisle and a third round pick (Pavel Buchnevich). If Buchnevich comes over next year, that deal could look even better. Though the Jackets used Anisimov as the main piece to pry Saad away from the Blackhawks.
Slats is also responsible for Mats Zuccarello signing. There’s no doubt they missed him the last two rounds. The gritty Zuccarello has become a crucial player who mixes skill with edge making him irreplaceable. He re-signed before the deadline for a now bargain average of $4.5 million over the next four years. His full recovery from a brain contusion is essential to the club’s future. That he can still even play is a miracle.
Sather also gets credit for acquiring Derick Brassard from the Blue Jackets for Marian Gaborik who ironically wound up burning the Rangers as a King last June. Brassard has been a godsend becoming a top two playmaking center who has performed well in the postseason with a team best 40 points (17-23-40) over the last three years. He also is signed for another four years at a cap friendly $5 million average. Derek Stepan is the top center who was selected 51st overall in 2008. He’s become a team leader totaling 27 points (10-17-27) over the last two postseasons. Only 25, the former Wisconsin Badger must be re-signed and should get around $6 million per season.
Former first round picks Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller are big parts of the future. Kreider continues to develop into one of the best power forwards. The 24-year old is coming off a career best season with 21 goals, 25 assists, 46 points and 88 penalty minutes. He’s a proven playoff performer with 12 of his 18 goals coming the past two years. Miller went from the AHL to a top nine forward Alain Vigneault trusted. After tallying 10 goals and 13 assists during the season, he added a goal and seven helpers in the playoffs. The versatile forward who can both play center and wing plays with edge and is a solid two-way player with good upside.
The Rangers are also expecting Kevin Hayes to improve after a great rookie year that saw him total 45 points (17-28-45) in 79 contests after being signed last summer. He struggled somewhat in the playoffs going 2-5-7 but will learn from the experience. Jesper Fast emerged during the postseason registering three goals and three assists while playing with Stepan and Kreider. He’s more of a defensive forward who can play third line and kill penalties replacing Carl Hagelin who was dealt with a second (Julius Nattinen) and sixth round pick (Garrett Metcalf) to the Ducks for Emerson Etem and a first round pick (Ryan Gropp).
In a ultra competitive division, Gorton’s work is cut out. He doesn’t have a lot of cap room due to Sather overspending to keep Girardi and Staal who both have no-movement clauses. The team’s first moves today have been addressing seventh defenseman by replacing Matt Hunwick who signed with the Leafs by bringing back Raphael Diaz and adding depth forward Viktor Stalberg. They really can’t do much else with Stepan, Miller and Fast key restricted’s along with Etem.
With Sather moving upstairs, it officially is a new era. Hopefully, Gorton will be able to deliver a championship.