New York Rangers: Early Offseason News and Notes

The New York Rangers’ season ended in disappointing fashion, but they’ve had a busy start to what should be an eventful offseason. Here is what has happened thus far.

See ya AV: Jeff Gorton’s first move of the offseason came last Saturday night when he relieved Alain Vigneault of his head coaching duties less than six hours after the conclusion of the Blueshirts’ regular-season finale. AV was tremendously successful in his first two seasons on Broadway, as he led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, and then to game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, the year they won the Presidents’ Trophy. However, things went downhill from there. The Blueshirts were ousted in the first round of the 2016 playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins and were thoroughly dominated in the five-game series. In 2017, the Boys in Blue miraculously defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games thanks to some extraordinary goaltending by Henrik Lundqvist, but then completely wasted their easy road to the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the Ottawa Senators in round two. And we all know what happened this season. It was a disaster.

Vigneault was ultimately fired because of his stubborn tendencies, his questionable coaching decisions, and his inability to develop young players. Additionally, his controversial comments in which he essentially blamed Jeff Gorton and his roster for the franchise’s failures this season, emphatically stated that he didn’t think he deserved to be fired, and took no responsibility for his actions, didn’t help his case either. Vigneault spent five seasons behind the bench, posting an admirable 226-147-37 record. Despite his impressive Rangers résumé, the time had certainly come for a breakup between the two parties. Furthermore, the Blueshirts have also dismissed assistant coaches Scott Arniel and Darryl Williams. Jeff Gorton will soon meet with Lindy Ruff to discuss his future, but the veteran bench-boss is not expected to be a candidate to replace AV, or even remain in New York.

Potential Replacements: Rangerstown got their wish in the departure of Alain Vigneault; however, Jeff Gorton’s decision on who replaces AV will mark his most important thus far as the Blueshirts’ general manager. When asked about who would be leading the rebuild, Gorton noted that he will be looking for a younger, more progressive-thinking coach, who is a good leader and communicator. Gorton also revealed that applicants will be required to have coached in some capacity in the past, so the only notable possible candidate that was essentially ruled out was New York legend, Mark Messier. However, another ex-Blueshirt could receive an assistant coach opportunity, that being Martin St. Louis, who reportedly turned down an offer to lead the Hartford Wolfpack prior to this season.

I don’t anticipate that Gorton will go after any of the retired coaches like Dan Bylsma or Darryl Sutter, and am more inclined to think that he will choose someone without NHL experience. The only current head coach I could see emerging as a candidate is the Carolina Hurricanes’ coach, Bill Peters. In my opinion, the ideal hire would be current Toronto Marlies head coach, Sheldon Keefe. He has had great success coaching junior and minor-league hockey, and has played a role in the development of much of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ young core. I’ll have more on him another time.

The Kovalchuk Situation: On Monday, the National Hockey League’s Russian reporter, Igor Eronko, reported that Ilya Kovalchuk is set to sign a 2-3 year deal for roughly six million dollars with the New York Rangers. There has been lots of speculation and controversy surrounding this report. The Russian sniper is technically not allowed to speak with teams until his 35th birthday, which occurs on April 15th. At that point, he can agree on a contract, but he can’t officially sign until free agency begins on July 1st. Because of this, many are questioning the truthfulness of this announcement. Neither the Rangers nor Kovalchuk have commented on the matter.   

If Eronko’s account is correct and Ilya Kovalchuk does join the Blueshirts, this would be a big-time signing. Even at 35 years old, Kovy is an elite goal-scorer and point-producer, both of which haven’t been seen on Broadway since Jaromir Jagr. The former first overall pick was in the prime of his magnificent NHL career when bowed out of his long and lucrative deal with the New Jersey Devils to play in his home country of Russia. Kovalchuk was remarkably successful in his years in North America, totaling 816 points in 816 NHL games. In the KHL, he has tallied 287 points in 264 contests. Ilya added to his already impressive set of accolades by posting 7 points in 6 games during the 2018 Winter Olympics, in which Russia took home the gold medal. Kovy is clearly still a stud. He is a great leader who is loved by all of his former teammates and coaches, and adds plenty of experience to what will certainly be a young group. He should also do wonders for New York’s young Russian, Pavel Buchnevich. 

Gorton’s Presser and Breakup Day: With all the buzz surrounding the Blueshirts, Jeff Gorton met with the media on Tuesday morning. JG commended Alain Vigneault for his work behind the bench, but also explained that the Rangers are looking for a fresh start, and are going in a new direction. He downplayed almost every question about AV’s firing and the future head coach, yet Gorton did say that he expects to interview 5-10 occupants for the vacancy. Additionally, he acknowledged the impressive play of many of the youngsters including Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil but expressed disappointment in others’ finishes to the season. Another thing Gorton mentioned, was that he thought the team lacked toughness and grit, which will be addressed going forward. Finally, he applauded Henrik Lundqvist for his play this season and backed him on his winning mindset for next year. 

Regarding breakup day, there seemed to be a renewed energy surrounding the team. This was evident in the way the players spoke, and even just their facial expressions. Not only is the squad feeling this way because their dreadful campaign has finally come to an end, but they also seemed excited and enthusiastic about the new direction of the organization.

In Other News:

  • As of now, the only Rangers participating in the World Championships are Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, who will be representing the United States and Sweden respectively. Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Kevin Hayes, and Lias Andersson are all undecided. Mats Zuccarello will sit this one out so he can recover from his late season injury.
  • On Tuesday, it was revealed that Henrik Lundqvist has been battling a knee injury since October. Hank marks the second Blueshirt to play through a knee injury this season, the other being Kevin Shattenkirk. Lundqvist’s unnecessarily large 63 game workload is now even more puzzling, especially when you consider the status of the Rangers and his health. He has an MRI scheduled.
  • Jeff Gorton has also placed Alexei Bereglazov on unconditional waivers. Bereglazov failed to crack the Rangers’ roster out of  training camp this past season, and spent most of this year over in the KHL. His contract has now been terminated.
  • The always reliable Bob Mckenzie expects the Blueshirts to move up in the draft order if the lottery doesn’t do them right. The Rangers will either pick 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 9th, 10th, or 11th. They have the highest odds of picking 8th. He also expects New York to go after both Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.
  • Jeff Gorton said the team would address the captaincy-opening after free agency and the draft.
    • My choice: Chris Kreider.
    • Candidate I’m not in favor of: Jesper Fast, but he should definitely be an alternate captain.
    • Likely choice if he’s still with the team: Mats Zuccarello.
    • Other possibilities: Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei, and Marc Staal.
  • And the biggest news of all: The New York Rangers have ended their partnership with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits of the ECHL, and are now affiliated with the Maine Mariners.

** I will have more detailed pieces coming soon on Alain Vigneault’s firing and potential replacements, and the Ilya Kovalchuk situation.

Follow me on Twitter – @BrianPaget17

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