The New York Rangers shocked the hockey world when, at the end of the 2020-21 regular season, they pulled the trigger on some drastic changes to their front office, leaving their fanbase to question just what kind of team this is, and what expectations they should have as they transition out of a team reset and aim to become perennial contenders once again. Despite the flurry of changes, though, Rangers fans should rest assured that the organization is actually in pretty good shape – and next season will be a true testament to that.
Rangers Season Didn’t Go As Planned
Before the start of the 2020-21 NHL season, my official preseason power rankings had the Rangers slotted to finish 19th overall. The rationale behind that placement was based on the Igor Shesterkin-Alexander Georgiev goalie tandem, the maturation of Kaapo Kakko and Pavel Buchnevich, and more. The Rangers actually ended up surpassing my prediction, and finishing 16th in league standings, dead center in the middle of the pack.
My rankings would have been considered high among some others, so I’m not entirely sure what the real expectations for this Rangers season were. One thing is for sure though: I certainly don’t think they missed the mark by that much that they had to overhaul the entire management of the team. But then again, I’m not the owner, and I don’t get to see what goes on behind closed doors.
The Rangers finished the season with a 27-23-6 record, good for 60 points, and a whole four games above NHL .500. They placed fifth in the Mass Mutual East Division™, 11 points back of the fourth and final playoff spot, which was won by their neighboring New York Islanders. The Rangers ranked well in goal differential, recording a +20, usually good enough for teams vying for a playoff spot.
Perhaps the nail in the coffin, however, was the Rangers’ play down the stretch. The team was just 4-6-0 in their last 10 games, failing to win the games that they had to in order to make a final push for the playoffs. In my opinion, still, I think they played well above any expectations I had personally set for them prior to the start of the season.
Front Office Sent Packing
As mentioned above, it didn’t take long after the conclusion of the regular season for owner James Dolan to make up his mind about the front office and coaching staff he had working under him; within a few days, almost everybody was sent out the door packing. Among those fired were: head coach David Quinn, assistant coaches Jacques Martin, Greg Brown, and David Oliver, general manager Jeff Gorton, and president John Davidson.
There’s a lot to sift through here, so let’s start with the bench boss Quinn.
Quinn spent three seasons as the coach of the Rangers, signing on at a difficult time, shortly after the team publicly announced they would be undergoing a rebuild, or a reset, or a retool, or whatever you want to call it. The team made the playoffs once under Quinn’s leadership, and was led to a winning record this past season in what shaped up to be a really tough East Division.
For a team going through an organizational reset, Quinn’s track record as the Rangers’ coach actually looks quite impressive, and his success with a young, inexperienced roster could be attributed to his former success coaching NCAA college hockey with the Boston University Terriers. Ownership felt that Quinn had failed to live up to what was expected of him, however, and so his time with the team was done. Subsequently, almost his entire coaching staff had to go, too.
Let’s move now to the two movers and shakers behind the scenes: Gorton and Davidson.
All things considered, Gorton did a tremendous job in his tenure with the Rangers. Along with Glen Sather, he was instrumental in deciding to undergo a rebuild initially, when, after their 2014 Stanley Cup Final appearance in an ultimate loss to the Los Angeles Kings, it looked like the current roster would not be able to make it back there.
Under Gorton, some key moves were made that helped to get the Rangers to where they are today; namely, trading Ryan Spooner for Ryan Strome, trading up to select K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider in recent entry drafts, and acquiring Ryan Lindgren in the trade that saw Rick Nash leave New York, just to name a few. Not to mention, he managed to steal Adam Fox, who was just nominated for his first Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. At the end of the day, the legacy Gorton left on this Rangers team, especially if they go on to win the Cup, is immeasurable.
Davidson said as much on his way out:
“I think that Jeff Gorton and myself, who are gone, when you look back at the work, that team has a chance to spring ahead very quickly,” Davidson explained. “They’re in good shape. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Davidson, who was not fired, but instead came to an agreement with Dolan that his time was up, had been the president of the Rangers for the past few seasons. In an interview after his departure, he said “[he] had a respectful conversation with James Dolan,” and that “[they] decided to part ways.”
Not quite done with his work in the NHL, Davidson was quickly snatched up by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are undergoing a sort of organizational shakeup of their own. He will become the President of Hockey Operations there, a position he actually held before joining the Rangers.
Meet the Rangers’ New Guys
With so many names leaving New York, somebody has got to fill the shoes they left and move into their vacant roles. Some of those roles have already been filled, so let’s meet the new guys, starting with Chris Drury.
Alright, to be fair, Drury is not a “new” guy in the Rangers’ front office, but he is new to his position. Drury was elevated from Associate GM, a position he had held for the past few seasons, to president & GM, absorbing the responsibilities left behind by Davidson and Gorton all at once. Drury is a well-known name in New York, as he previously played for the Rangers, and had a solid NHL career in his days.
Next up is Mike Grier, named by Drury as the new Hockey Operations Advisor on May 19. In his new role, Grier will advise the hockey operations department on both on-ice and off-ice decisions, including player and prospect development. He’ll also assist with the Rangers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Hartford Wolf Pack with on-ice development.
Grier carved out a nice, lengthy NHL career for himself, and hasn’t stopped working in hockey ever since he hung up the skates. Most recently, he was an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils for two seasons from 2018-2020, after serving as a professional scout with the Chicago Blackhawks for four seasons from 2014-2018. In Drury and Grier, the Rangers appear to be in good hands, and hopefully don’t miss a beat with the shakeup they undertook.
Next Head Coach Needs to be ‘The One’
Some pieces of Quinn’s coaching staff remain, including goalie coach Benoit Allaire, and skills coach Mark Ciaccio. Outside of those two, however, the primary task at hand remains finding the next head coach. And it’s imperative that the next coach who comes through those Madison Square Garden doors is “the one.”
According to sources around the Rangers and the NHL, there are a few early candidates to follow Quinn as the next bench boss in New York: Gerard Gallant, Rick Tocchet, Bob Hartley, John Tortorella, Mike Babcock, and even Patrick Roy. The problem is, the Rangers aren’t the only team looking to fill a vacant coaching spot, so they might need to fight for their guy. They are one of the more attractive landing spots for potential head coaches, though, so they have that going for them.
Whoever they decide to go with, it’s likely that they view them as being someone who will take them to the promised land – to win that elusive Stanley Cup, a prize they haven’t touched since 1994. And despite what was a whirlwind of change this offseason, I think the Rangers are pretty well-positioned to do that, and next season will prove whether or not this team is on the right track.