In the middle of an intense playoff race, the New York Rangers dealt their most highly skilled offensive player on trade deadline day for three depth forwards and an underachieving defenseman.
This should give their roster the depth, toughness and bottom-six scoring it lacked through the first three quarters of the 2013 season.
The deal sent star forward Marian Gaborik, a seven-time 30-plus goal scorer, to the Columbus Blue Jackets for forwards Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, defenseman John Moore and a draft pick (per TSN). One day earlier, the Rangers acquired gritty forward Ryan Clowe from the San Jose Sharks for draft picks.
All of these moves signaled a vote of confidence in head coach John Tortorella, proving that management is behind their coach. More importantly, it shows that they are in favor of his style of play and believe that it can lead the team to a Stanley Cup championship.
The players acquired are the perfect fit in Tortorella's defensive system, because they all block shots, rack up hits, play well defensively, provide bottom-six scoring and can contribute to the penalty kill.
When Rick Nash was acquired from the Blue Jackets last summer, the Rangers had to give up some valuable depth by parting with Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, who were a nice fit in Tortorella's system and provided scoring and grit to the bottom-six.
When the Rangers let depth forward Brandon Prust leave the team in free agency and sign with the Montreal Canadiens last summer, the Blueshirts lost a lot of their toughness and fourth-line depth.
Prust fills a specific role and does it very well, and New York clearly underestimated how important he was when choosing not to re-sign him. They also let depth forward Ruslan Fedotenko walk in free agency, and he was not adequately replaced.
Losing all of these players—and filling their roster spots with guys who weren't on last year's team, which reached the Eastern Conference Finals—resulted in the Rangers losing their identity (defense first, blocking shots, playing physical). With these trades, the Rangers have their identity back.
Tortorella wants his teams to fight, block shots, play responsibly in all three zones and punish their opponents each shift with huge hits and physical play. As the chart below shows, Tortorella hasn't gotten the ideal defensive performance from his team over the course of the entire season:
|Year||GAA||PK%||Takeaways||Blocked Shots||Hits||Fighting Majors|
|2011-12||2.22 (3rd)||86.2% (5th)||536 (17th)||1,338 (4th)||2,419 (1st)||65 (1st)|
|2012-13||2.3 (4th)||81.4 (16th)||190 (27th)||580 (8th)||1,086 (4th)||13 (26th)|
With the Gaborik trade, Tortorella gets some much-needed depth and toughness down the middle, with a young, energetic two-way center in Brassard, a Prust-like tough guy in Dorsett, and a versatile winger in Clowe who will set the tone of each game with his energy, physical play and depth scoring.
In his first shift as a member of the Rangers, Clowe delivered a big hit on Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland that energized his teammates and helped create some offensive-zone pressure for New York. Later in the game, Clowe's work on the forecheck helped create a scoring chance, which he took advantage of for his first goal of the season.
It's these types of shifts that help create offense in Tortorella's system, and even though Gaborik is a great player and had lots of offensive success under Tortorella, he couldn't make as much of an impact on the forecheck or contribute as much defensively in the neutral zone as Clowe can.
Tortorella talked about Clowe's performance and his high hockey IQ after the game (via Blueshirts United):
Clowe’s first shift is what he is. He’s going to bang, he’s going to create scoring chances...He's a smart player. You can see what he does on the wall. He's an experienced guy, he's going to bring everything to our team as far as his physical play, he's a tough fighter if he needs to fight, he has scored big goals. He's playoff savvy, he's been in the playoffs. And from what I understand, I think he's a guy that will speak up in the locker room, too, which is good. As he gets comfortable and gets more comfortable with the guys, I think we have another leader coming in here—that's good for our team.
Even though general manager Glen Sather traded a player with 40-goal potential, the Rangers won't lose too much offense, because Clowe is capable of scoring 20 goals, Brassard is a 40-point player and Dorsett is capable of chipping in 20 points over a normal 82-game season.
New York didn't lose a ton of scoring production as a result of these moves, and they gained a ton of grit and toughness. This means that Tortorella's two major concerns, lack of depth scoring and toughness, were addressed in a major way.
The Rangers' 6-1 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins was a result of the Blueshirts making their opponents fight for every scoring chance, and this is how they were successful last season.
Upgrading their defensive skill and grit will lead to more scoring chances at the other end of the ice, and this strategy from Tortorella was proven to work well last season, when New York ranked 11th in goals scored and finished first in the East standings despite playing a defense-first, physical style of hockey.
Wednesday's impressive win was an example of how strong defense and an effective forecheck leads to scoring opportunities for the Rangers. These trades give Tortorella a team that is much more capable of playing this style than the roster he was given to start the year.
Being able to replace young forwards J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider (both of whom have struggled defensively this season) with veteran players should also make Tortorella more comfortable using all four lines each game, which is a luxury he hasn't had this season.
It's very important for a coach to have players who fit his system, understand it, want to play in it and are talented enough to execute what he wants.
Will the Rangers' deadline trades help them find their identity from last season?
By adding more size, toughness and depth with these deadline acquisitions, Tortorella now has a much more similar version of the roster he had last season, and it's no secret that the 2011-12 Rangers squad was as close to a perfect "Tortorella team" as you will find.
Tortorella now has a group of "blue-collar" players who will thrive in his system, which means there will be no excuses for him if this team fails to earn a playoff spot or is eliminated from the postseason in the first round.
His team's identity is back, and it has a deeper roster with players that fit Tortorella's style perfectly. If the Rangers struggle to win in the playoffs and their defensive, physical game is not successful, expect Tortorella to be on the hot seat entering the 2013-14 season.
Sather has given Tortorella exactly what he needs, so now it's up to the coach to deliver the results on the ice.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All salary information courtesy of CapGeek.