NHL News

‘Rebuild’ accelerated: Are the Rangers ready to contend now?

Artemi Panarin walked out of Madison Square Garden with the first New York Rangers jersey bearing his name draped around his shoulders like a cape. The grandeur of his play — only seven NHLers have amassed more points the past four seasons than Panarin (320) — had been matched by the enormity of his free-agent contract with the Rangers on July 1, totaling seven years and $81.5 million.

Striding toward Seventh Avenue, Panarin turned and faced the large video board atop Penn Station. His face, Photoshopped into a Rangers uniform, stared back under a message that read: “HE’S A GAME-CHANGER. AND HE’S OURS.”

Is this what a rebuild looks like?

It has been just more than one year and five months since “the letter.” The one co-signed by Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton and then-president Glen Sather that signaled a youth movement and predicted the losses of “familiar faces.” The one that Gorton unabashedly said was a harbinger of a rebuild, a rare admission for the guy in charge of a New York sports franchise.

“When you’re a pro team in New York, it’s about winning now. That’s what it is,” said John Davidson, who is back with the Rangers as team president after Sather moved into a senior advisor role. “The reality is that they swung for the fences a few times. Almost hit the grand slam when they lost to Los Angeles [in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final]. Eventually, it’s tough to stay in the upper echelon. For them to make a team decision, with everything on the line, honesty is the best way to go. It just is. For them to be that transparent with everyone in that city — including the media and the fans and the season-ticket holders and large companies that sponsor things — I think it was the right way to go.”

But now Panarin is a Ranger. So is Jacob Trouba, the 25-year-old defenseman acquired from Winnipeg this offseason, who subsequently inked a seven-year deal worth $56 million. That’s $137.5 million committed to two players this summer under the headline of a “rebuild.”

Davidson said he has heard the rumblings of “same old Rangers!” from those who watched the team throw millions at its problems through the years — from Bobby Holik to Scott Gomez to Wade Redden — rather than exhibit patience.

But he isn’t buying a word of that critique this time.

“Some people, and I think this is wrong, have said that ‘they’ve gone against their rebuild by signing Panarin.’ I don’t think so. He’s got a lot of years ahead of him. He’s part of this build. And he’s going to take a lot of pressure off the kids,” he said.

“This is how we’re going to get it done. If we’re ever going to make a serious run at a championship, you can’t stickhandle every summer and hope it’s going to work. You have to have a dedicated plan.

“But I think you can expedite it a little bit.”

Although the rest of the NHL assumed Panarin would join Columbus Blue Jackets teammate Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, it turns out his heart was always on Broadway.

“He’s studied the Rangers through his computer. The Pavel Bure years. Things along those lines. He told us he’d love to win in New York, just like Mark Messier did,” Davidson said. “I don’t want a guy that wants to be in New York. I want a guy that wants to be in New York and wants to play for the Rangers. That’s been something that’s important to him.”

There was discussion among the brain trust, including Gorton and assistant GM Chris Drury, about where the Rangers were in their rebuild and whether the investment in Panarin would be beneficial. It was a brief discussion because it was clear that when this collection of young players actualizes as a contender, there might not be a player of Panarin’s caliber available on the open market.

“That’s one of the conversations we had. When we’re starting to hit our stride here, who will be there?” Gorton said. “We couldn’t count on ‘Player X’ being there because the best players generally sign [long-term] with their teams. So to get a player of his age and his skill level, it just fit into what we were doing. For the life of the contract, we would have a top player.”

Not only that, but the Rangers will have a winger with unparalleled playmaking ability on a team that could be young down the middle with players such as Lias Andersson (20) and Filip Chytil (19). “He’s not a center, but he drives a line because he makes so many plays,” Gorton said.

Davidson knew Panarin from his time with the Blue Jackets, with whom Davidson served as team president until stepping down this year. “I knew him well, so I was able to talk to the management and give my thoughts and insights. He’s a player that can do big things in important spots in games. He’s got a twinkle in his eye. He loves the game,” he said. “When I was with Columbus, we tried everything we could to keep him there. He’s a good player. But he had his sights set on New York.”

New York isn’t, of course, a one-team town. The New York Islanders were also contenders for Panarin, reportedly outbidding the Rangers for his services. But he chose Broadway over Brooklyn (and Nassau) and gave the Blueshirts a victory in this round of the battle of New York.

“I think it was more about getting the player and what it means for the organization vs. whoever else was trying to get him. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that,” Gorton said.

Of course, there’s another team in the market. That’s the one over in Jersey, which had a significant influence on Gorton’s rebuilding plans.

Did the Rangers ever believe that first overall pick Jack Hughes, taken by the Devils in the draft last month, might fall to them at No. 2, where they ended up selecting right wing Kaapo Kakko?

Not wholeheartedly. But maybe they saw that door crack open just a bit, Gorton admits.

“I think we always thought that Kakko was going to be No. 2. Then you go to the world under-18s, and Hughes lit up the tournament. And then Kakko does what he does,” he said.

Hughes had 20 points in seven games for the U.S. in the world U-18 tournament. Kakko then made observers wide-eyed with 11 points in 18 games against NHL players at the IIHF world championships.

“So then you start to think that maybe it’s getting tighter,” Gorton said. “But the way we looked at it, we were going to get a really good player. There was no reason to lose much sleep over it.”

The Finnish phenom joins a Rangers prospect pool filled with whales. Three of them made ESPN’s top 50 ranking in March: right wing Vitali Kravtsov, goalie Igor Shestyorkin and defenseman K’Andre Miller. Andersson, Chytil and Brett Howden saw NHL time last season.

Kakko is a cut above them, a physical specimen with a nose for the back of the net and a player expected to make an immediate impact. Gorton said the key for him, and any of the young players, is to not let the limelight blind them.

“It’s our job to try to protect him as much as we can. We understand this is an 18-year-old. This is New York City. This is the Rangers. There are things we have to do to protect him and just let him play hockey,” he said.

Of course, for Kakko, the good news is that there are going to be other faces of the franchise. For instance, the 27-year-old Russian winger they just signed to a mega-deal and the 37-year-old goalie who remains the Rangers’ standard-bearer.

Fun fact: Henrik Lundqvist was an All-Star last season, something that speaks more to the event’s format — requiring a representative from each team and goalies from each division — than his on-ice achievement. Even so, behind a porous young roster, Lundqvist posted the lowest save percentage (.907), goals-against average (3.07) and win total (18) of his illustrious career.

He’s signed at $8.5 million against the cap for the next two seasons, wielding a no-move clause with zero desire to leave the market. He turns 38 next March and hasn’t been in the Vezina Trophy conversation since 2015. There’s an undeniable feeling that his window as an elite goalie is closing right as the Rangers start to swing their ship around and point it at the horizon, toward the Stanley Cup Lundqvist has chased since 2005.

It’s a question Gorton has faced since “the letter”: Where does Lundqvist fit into a youth movement?

“Of course you think about what Hank’s meant to the organization. It would be nice for Hank to win here. You always have those thoughts,” Gorton said. “But my job as a general manager is to think big picture about what’s best for the organization, not just for Hank. I’d be lying if I said we don’t think about Hank and his age and how much longer he has. But last year, he was an All-Star. We had to fix our defense, and we did a good job in doing that. If we can be better in our own zone, Hank can still win a lot of games for us.”

Gorton talks about Lundqvist’s commitment to excellence and how his age has become a motivating factor for him to work hard in the offseason on conditioning and technique. But there are young goalies pushing him too. Alexandar Georgiev played well in 33 games last season. Shestyorkin is eventually going to be a factor.

As for Lundqvist, he professed disappointment after last season but offered optimism about the rapidity of the rebuild.

“We were not really close in the end to making the playoffs, but does that mean we are far away?” Lundqvist said in April. “You see teams having a tough year add a few pieces, and just like that, you change the dynamic, and you’re in the mix.”

That was before his team acquired Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba.

“When you talk to players around the league right now, they really think that the league changes quickly. You can get better quickly if things go right,” Gorton said. “And Hank’s always felt that way.”

Davidson sees a rebuild in the NHL — in full disclosure, he prefers the term “build” — like a football field.

“I’ve been through it twice already: in St. Louis and in Columbus. There’s a lot of pain that you go through,” he said. “But when you see the end zone a little bit, you start to get excited. The people that have stayed with you through it, they’ve seen the team grow right before their eyes. And then it becomes everybody pulling for everybody else to get to that same end zone, that same goal.”

Where do the Rangers have the ball right now?

“I don’t know yet. I know one thing: When you start a build, you’ve got the ball on your own 1-yard line, and you’ve got the whole field ahead of you,” he said.

What impressed Davidson even before he returned to the fold with the Rangers was the total buy-in from the organization to this process. They jettisoned veterans. They hired an NCAA coach in David Quinn, rather than a retread, to replace Alain Vigneault. They did all of this with the blessing of controversial owner James Dolan, who isn’t particularly known for his patience with mediocrity (which, of course, must make owning the Knicks an arduous ordeal).

“Look, you can’t do this stuff unless you have absolute understanding from everybody in the organization. That starts with the ownership,” Davidson said. “In talking with Jim before taking this job, he understands where this organization is. He’s fully behind the development of young players. He wants to see improvement with everybody, which is what it should be. The commitment from Jim is exactly what you need. If you don’t have it, don’t do it. You’ll just spin your wheels backward. You won’t go forward. You’ll be stuck.”

The path forward for the Rangers is clearer than it is for many teams in the NHL. In the near term, there needs to be some cap maneuvering after Trouba signed and with Brendan Lemieux, Pavel Buchnevich and Tony DeAngelo all needing contracts as RFAs. But next summer, the Rangers have more than $19 million in cap space, with several contracts coming off their books, including forwards Chris Kreider, Vladislav Namestnikov and Jesper Fast, a couple of whom could be on the move well before then. In 2021, defensemen Marc Staal and Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as Lundqvist, are off the books. Meanwhile, the Rangers could have six contributing players on rookie contracts for the next two seasons.

“We spend most of the time thinking about right now, but you always keep an eye on down the road. Two, three, four or five years. But a five-year plan can change a lot. We’re not naïve,” Gorton said.

It’s hard to square the pain of a rebuild with where the Rangers are currently, especially when one sees the zeroes next to names such as Panarin and Trouba on the roster. But the mantra from Davidson, Gorton and the organization remains the same: “We’re getting there. Maybe even faster than we thought. But we’re not there yet.”

“Everyone thinks the Rangers are back in. We aren’t anywhere yet. The puck hasn’t even been dropped. I caution everyone that if you’re going to be very, very young, there are going to be growing pains,” Davidson said.

But this summer has been quite a growth spurt.

“We always get asked about the time frame. But it’s been what, a year and a half since we came out with the letter?” Gorton said. “I look at it like this: We still have work to do to get to where we need to go. We’re still building. Maybe we’re further along than we thought we would be.”

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