The rebuild seemed to be going fantastic – but suddenly, without any rumblings beforehand, the New York Rangers have fired president John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton.
It’s been a wild week in Manhattan and few stories would have knocked the Tom Wilson-Artemi Panarin debacle off the front page, but this news certainly qualifies.
Gorton has been GM of the Rangers for six seasons while Davidson had been president for two years – brought back to a market he was beloved in from Columbus.
Davidson brought gravitas and a bit of a star quality to his job as president and it’s surprising to see him gone in such short order.
Gorton may be even more surprising based on the incredible job he has done in building up a Rangers franchise that had been languishing in the middle of the NHL for years. During his time as GM, he built up an impressive pipeline forged by a deft draft strategy in the past few seasons: gaining extra picks in the seven-round draft, including multiple first-rounders on occasion. New York goes into the 2021 draft with nine selections, as well.
And with a bit of draft lottery luck, the Rangers have chosen in the top-three the past two seasons, getting Alexis Lafreniere first overall in 2020 and Kaapo Kakko second in 2019. But Gorton and his scouting staff have also been savvy during his tenure.
Zac Jones, now playing his first games with the franchise after winning an NCAA title with UMass last month, was a third-round pick while K’Andre Miller – already looking like a mainstay for the blueline – was snapped up 22nd overall during a 2018 draft that also saw Vitali Kravtsov and Nils Lundkvist (both of whom will get shots at regular roles next season) taken in the first round.
Perhaps Gorton’s best move however was trading for the rights to defenseman Adam Fox, the splendid youngster who is already in contention for the Norris Trophy. On top of that, Gorton made sure the kids wouldn’t get overwhelmed by bringing in sought-after top-rung talents such as Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Jacob Trouba.
True, the Rangers did not make the playoffs this year but they came pretty darn close for a team that, at least externally, was not expected to contend. NHL rebuilds always take a few years longer than fans expect and based on what insiders are saying, the rebuild was taking too long for Rangers ownership, as well.
Which is really unfortunate, as you couldn’t ask for much more from Gorton and Davidson as a pairing. Now, assistant GM Chris Drury has not been fired and Elliotte Friedman is reporting that he will ascend to both vacant roles: President and GM. Drury himself is a pretty sharp hockey mind that many assumed would get his own GM role in the NHL sooner than later.
So this is not the case of Drury being undeserving of his shot, but more so that Gorton didn’t appear to deserve the axe himself. Sure, there were missteps along the way – Anthony DeAngelo could have been jettisoned from the team a lot sooner and Jack Johnson never should have been signed in the first place – but these errors didn’t wreck the bigger picture, which is what the Rangers needed to be focused on this season.
The only concern here is Drury pulling double-duty now, having never held either title before. The president’s role in the NHL has become very important these days as the game gets more complicated and competitive. High-profile names like Brendan Shanahan in Toronto and Brian Burke in Pittsburgh help those organizations balance their GM’s duties and also have a veteran mind to bounce ideas off. And Drury has to do this in the biggest media market in the world.
In a few years when Lafreniere is a 30-goal scorer, Miller is averaging 24 minutes a night and Fox is once again in the Norris hunt, the Rangers will be a playoff team and perhaps a very successful one. Gorton and Davidson won’t be at the helm for those triumphs, but they were certainly an important part of the process that got the Rangers there in the first place.