Prior to puck drop against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night, Rangers owner James Dolan announced the dismissal of his two top hockey executives, President John Davidson, and GM Jeff Gorton. This is coming just two days after the Tom Wilson incident at Madison Square Garden that shook the hockey world after no suspension was issued by the league. Yesterday, the Rangers released a statement expressing their displeasure at the NHL’s department of player safety, which was rumored to have been against the beliefs of Gorton and Davidson. We typically do not discuss rumors on this website, however, given the circumstances here, we think this information is necessary. Assistant GM Chris Drury is expected to have an increased role with organization, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported he will ascend to both the vacant roles of President and General Manager of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. This move likely means the end of coach David Quinn’s time in the Big Apple, as Drury will probably have a chance to pick his own guy. In this article, we will discuss what’s next for the Rangers under Chris Drury, as well as the highlights from the previous regime.
Since Rangers brass released its letter to fans in 2018 explaining the intent to rebuild, the team has had a massive youth movement, winning the draft lottery twice in 2019 and 2020 to select Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière. They also dealt franchise defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and fan-favorites Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, and Brady Skjei. Regardless of who inherits the team, Gorton/Davidson’s fingerprints will be all over it for years to come. Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, Vitaly Kravtsov, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, KeAndre Miller, Ryan Lindgren, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Fox appear to make up the core of this team for the foreseeable future. After Gorton took over the Rangers in 2015, they had high team AB scores in both the 15-16 and 16-17 season (+39.17 and +74.08 respectively). Since the beginning of their official rebuild in the 2017-18 season, the Rangers team AB has improved all three years (-99.25 in 17-18, -85.98 in 18-19, and a +5.58 in 19-20). At the midseason point they had a -12.82 score. Its fair to say that the Rangers rebuild was ahead of schedule, and that the “struggles” this season were hardly the fault of the front office tandem.
However, looking at the history of David Quinn behind the bench, the developmental progress of the team’s younger stars has been a concern. His philosophy of making young players “earn it” has impacted the growth of Kaapo Kakko specifically in the eyes of Rangers media and fans, and this strategy is also appearing to apply to 2020 1st overall pick Alexis Lafrenière. In the case of Kakko, his rookie AB score was -10.36, among the lowest rookie scores by a Top 3 pick in the history of the AB. Despite obvious maturity, and a midseason improvement of +8.21 AB if it holds, Kakko’s ice time has increased by an average of only four seconds per game in 2020-2021 than 2019-2020 (14:17-14:21). For Lafrenière, its even less than that at 13:45 per game, despite having four less points and a better +/- than Kakko did in his rookie year in almost 14 less games. It’s concerning to see two top picks getting the same amount of ice time as Colin Blackwell, who has only played 77 games in his entire career and was drafted in the 7th round in 2011. No disrespect to Colin Blackwell by the way, as he has consistently scored highly in AB for all years of data we have on him.
Looking at this situation closer, we see similarities between the 2020-2021 Rangers front office shakeup and the Toronto Maple Leafs situation in 2018. Both organizations had incredibly talented front offices (Brendan Shannahan/Lou Lamoriello/Mark Hunter/Kyle Dubas in Toronto, John Davidson/Jeff Gorton/Chris Drury in New York), and up-in-coming GMs ready to step into the role. Both organizations had several top draft picks with lots of upside on their rookie contracts to be built around. Most importantly, both organizations had talented young coaches with their AHL affiliates that were successful working under the assistant general managers at the time. When Mike Babcock was fired by the Leafs earlier last season, Dubas promoted his AHL coach Sheldon Keefe to the big club, and the results have been significant pertaining to the production of the team’s stars. We see something similar happening in New York, and expect the Rangers to promote Hartford Wolfpack coach Kris Knoblauch, who actually coached six games for them this season, in which they went 4-2. In fact, in his first game, the Rangers beat up on the Philadelphia Flyers 9-0 at Madison Square Garden. In those games, where Knoblauch has said he used Quinn’s gameplan, Lafrenière averaged 12 minutes and Kakko 13.36. If Knoblauch had his own way, perhaps he would’ve done things differently in that department.
Regardless, we think a GM/HC tandem of Chris Drury and Kris Knoblauch would be a very interesting mix, as the two have history together. It’s certainly something to monitor, as after tonight, the Rangers only have two games remaining until one of the most unprecedented off-season’s in NHL history. With the expansion draft, a difficult to scout entry draft, a cap crunched free agency, and all the madness of trades, Chris Drury will have his work cut out for him. However a coaching decision will be the upmost priority and we will continue to follow this situation closely. More to come.