Gorton Eager to Mastermind a Rangers Rebuild

I’m Beginning To See The Light — Frank Sinatra hit tune

After three years as Rangers‘ majordomo, Jeff Gorton is beginning to see the light — and loving it.

Not that the Blueshirts’ general manager hasn’t relished his role since replacing Glen Sather in July 2015, but there’s something titillating about being the mastermind of a major rebuild.

“It’s exciting,” Gorton told me, “because — like every other team — we want to win, but we now have a lot of different pieces to work with in order to make a winner.

BUFFALO, NY – JUNE 24: New York Rangers President Glen Sather(L), New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton and Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile (R) attend round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016, in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

“Players like [defensemen] Neal Pionk, Ryan Lindgren and [forward] Ville Meskanen make me feel good about where we’re heading.”

With training camp still in the distance, it’s too soon to forecast who will be here nor who will be captaining the team. But as certain as the Statue of Liberty sits in New York Bay, Henrik Lundqvist will guard the Rangers’ crease.

“For Henrik,” Jeff explained, “it will be a different kind of experience in terms of the lineup. But he’s still at the top of his game and one of the best in the league; always giving us a chance to win. Having him is a good feeling.”

Backing King H is another story. Last season it was Ondrej Pavelec. Is there a front-runner at this point? (Maven’s Choice is Alexandar Georgiev who impressed in the homestretch.)

“Georgiev had a short stint near the end of the season and looked good,” Gorton remembered. “But when it comes to the backup, for now, we’ll let it all play out.”

Barring trades, New York’s offensive core will include leading point-producer Mats Zuccarello (53 points), goal-leader Mika Zibanejad (27 goals), followed by Kevin Hayes and Pavel Buchnevich.

“I can see this as a big year for Pavel,” Gorton enthused. “He’s going to be introduced (by rookie coach David Quinn) to a new type of system and will have bigger minutes.

“He’ll be a top-six forward for a long time and should move from a 43-point [last] season to much more in the future.”

Projecting into 2018-19, The Maven predicts this will be a bust-out year for Chris Kreider. Conspicuous by his absence last season for 24 games due to a blood clot issue, Kreider rebounded like an eager rookie.

At 27 years old, the fully recovered left wing not only looms as captain material but — in the prime of his career — as potentially the club’s new scoring leader.

“Chris is not a young player anymore,” the GM pointed out. “He’s in his prime years and because of that, he’ll be good for the younger players to lean on. I feel that he’s ready for that role.”

Then again, armed with a new contract, Jimmy Vesey, 25, is due to flower and ever reliable Jesper (Quickie) Fast ranks among the National Hockey League’s most dependable utility forwards.

Defense is another story. Once captain Ryan McDonagh was dealt to Tampa Bay, Gorton reshuffled the blue line. Now the core includes Brady Skjei — a young veteran — and Marc Staal.

Meanwhile, Kevin Shattenkirk played through a bum left knee in 2017-18 until he required successful meniscus surgery last January.

“We’re delighted that Kevin is 100 percent healthy,” Gorton said. “I expect a good year from him; a chance to really show his talents.”

After having his season ended early due to a knee injury, Kevin Shattenkirk will be looking for a bounce-back season in 2018-19 season. The defenseman looks ahead to next year and reflects on the 2017-18 campaign.

Younger backline possibilities start with Pionk, Libor Hajek, John Gilmour and Anthony DeAngelo.

One scout on DeAngelo: “The Rangers will give him every chance to make the team. It’s up to him to show them he belongs.”

A native of the Czech Republic, Hajek — according to his Rangers boss — plays a game similar to that of the exited McDonagh.

When The Maven mentioned center Brett Howden — part of the Tampa Bay McDonagh-J.T. Miller deal — Jeff described the Calgary native as “hard-nosed” and in the best possible way.

“I really like a lot about Howden’s game. He can do a lot of things well; a rangy playmaker with a really good upside.”

A rebuild needs building blocks. Through drafts and otherwise, Gorton has a stockpile of potential aces. To wit:

LIAS ANDERSSON, CENTER: The Hockey News puts it this way: “He’s a fast competitive two-way force, a coach’s dream. Lias has excellent hockey sense, worth ethic and plays a 200-foot game.”

FILIP CHYTIL, CENTER: Also from The Hockey News: “Chytil is tall and rangy with an accurate shot and a strong work ethic.” Adds Gorton: “Filip has a big body and is a top-six forward in the making.”

When I asked my sidekick, Matthew Blittner, who he’d pick as the next Blueshirts captain, he pointed to Zuccarello. “He’s the longest-tenured forward and always a vocal leader with the Type-A personality every team needs.”

Gorton told me that he’s in no rush to name a captain; that selecting one at this point in time is not a priority.

There was a priority, however, last February when the high command startled the hockey world with “A message to Rangers fans from Glen Sather and Gorton.”

Give the general staff credit for candor. Well before the trade deadline, Gorton & Company issued a unique — certainly very rare in pro sports — public revelation of roster rebuilding and have followed through on the promise.

Gorton told me that the public response has been positive and understanding. Famed alumnus Mike Richter agrees.

“I appreciate the kind of courage it took to make that announcement,” Richter said on Tuesday at the MSG Signature Marketing Partnership with PepsiCo. “They want to rebuild the team in a certain fashion — in their own vision — and with good leadership.

“The Rangers will be exciting. There’s no path that’s easy, plus they aren’t beginning completely from scratch like Vegas did last season. Management felt the team’s window to win with its [traded and retired] veterans had closed. [It was a] good decision.”

Meanwhile, Gorton takes a gob of optimism from the unlikely Golden Knights march to the Stanley Cup Final:

“Vegas showed us that anything can happen and our guys have to think that way and can say, ‘Why not us?'”

Translated: Now that the stars are in his eyes, Gorton is beginning to see the light!

[Read More From the Maven]