By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers are pulling the plug on this season — and that’s the best news fans could have hoped for considering where things appear to be headed.
It would have been easy for the Rangers to stick to their trend of being aggressive trade-deadline buyers, while raking in the monetary yields of another playoff run.
Instead, the organizational switch has been flipped in the direction of building toward the future. General manager Jeff Gorton and team president Glen Sather addressed fans in an open letter on Thursday afternoon before the duo met with the media regarding the team’s future.
“We began the process of reshaping our team this past summer, when we traded for assets that we believe will help us in the years to come,” the pair said in the letter. “As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character.
“This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.”
During an 11-minute press conference, Gorton stated that the accountability of this disappointing season is shared by the front office, head coach Alain Vigneault and the players.
“We have not played well for a while,” Gorton said. “It’s become increasingly clearer as the days go on that we’re in tough (shape) as we go forward for the playoffs. It’s the reality of having to look forward. The decisions we make going forward will be based on the long term and not trying to save a season, so to speak.
“I think we’re all responsible in some way here for what we’re seeing,” Gorton added. “To sit there and say it’s the coach — I think it’s not the way I’d want to go. I think as a manager, as a management staff, as a scouting staff, as a coaching staff, as players we’re all not good enough right now on the ice and it’s showing. That’s where it’s at.”
Gorton declined to provide a firm answer on Vigneault’s long-term future.
“We have a lot of faith in AV and what he’s done here,” Gorton said. “We’ll leave it at that.”
Over the final 28 games of the regular season, Vigneault will need to prove his skill at progressing youngsters. Clinging to security-blanket veterans like Cody McLeod, who provide an element of physicality and not much else, has been a trademark of Vigneault’s reign. That kind of thinking needs to go and cannot inhibit the progress of youngsters.
The earn-your-minutes tough love that Vigneault showed to younger versions of Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller resulted in the trio becoming more complete and more dependable forwards. It should not be forgotten that while in Vancouver, Vigneault helped mold a young Ryan Kesler from a defense-first center into a two-way center that provided both scoring punch and shutdown ability.
The Rangers’ new model will be built on youthful talents whose abilities are predicated on speed and skill. Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei, Tony DeAngelo, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Vinni Lettieri, Neal Pionk, among others, fit into the 23-and-under bracket. Hayes, Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey and Boo Nieves are all age 25 and under.
There’s a strong likelihood of Gorton trading away expiring contracts before the Feb. 26 deadline, including Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Nick Holden and David Desharnais. The above list features a wealth of young talent. All the draft picks and newly acquired youngsters gained before the deadline and before the draft this summer will supplement the franchise’s new direction.
The model for many successful teams has been to burn it down when a group of solid, but not quite Stanley Cup-caliber players has taken the club as far as it can go. Quick rebuilds helped pave the way to the success we’ve seen from the Toronto Maple Leafs, St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils.
With their declaration as trade deadline sellers, the Rangers will now have an opportunity to reshape themselves in a new image. Gorton has several interesting chips to dangle that extend beyond players who will be unrestricted free agents in the summer.
For a team that was stuck in the perennial-yet-hollow mindset of win-now, this new direction is a breath of fresh air that could yield real results in the not-too-distant future.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey