NEW YORK – New York Rangers coach John Tortorella wasn't surprised Marian Gaborik was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. That's because Tortorella was part of the internal talks that led to Gaborik being shipped out in exchange for forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett, along with defenseman John Moore.
"I was involved in the discussions with it," Tortorella said about 90 minutes before the Rangers were to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden. "It is a situation that for us … listen, he's a good player and his game's beginning to come, but it gives us some flexibility going forward. We're filling out the middle of our lineup with that deal. We get some good players there with some grind, with some skill."
The trade came less than 24 hours after the Rangers acquired forward Ryane Clowe from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for three draft picks. Clowe, Brassard and Moore were in the Rangers' lineup against the Penguins; Dorsett is out with a broken collarbone.
Once Clowe was brought into the fold, the Rangers had to make some tough decisions on the financial side of things. With the salary cap coming down to $64.3 million next season, the Rangers needed to free room to sign soon-to-be restricted free agents Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Carl Hagelin. All three will command raises while the Rangers may want to sign Clowe, an unrestricted free agent, to a long-term deal.
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That meant Gaborik and his $7.5 million cap hit through next season became a luxury the Rangers could no longer afford.
The 31-year-old scored 40 goals in two of his first three seasons with the Rangers after signing a five-year deal in the summer of 2009, but struggled this season after having shoulder surgery in the offseason. He has nine goals in 35 games and two goals in his past 22 games.
The on-ice relationship between Gaborik and Tortorella appeared to grow strained over the years as well. Tortorella has transformed the Rangers in his four-plus seasons here into a tough, grinding, defense-first club that generates offense from being strong in their own end.
As brilliant as Gaborik has been in his career offensively, he has never been mistaken for a Selke Trophy candidate. He has been benched on multiple occasions for defensive lapses and inadequacies, perhaps most famously in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. In Game 2 of that series with the New Jersey Devils, Gaborik failed twice to clear a puck and it led to a tying goal in a game the Rangers would eventually lose.
Gaborik spent most of the third period of that game glued to the bench. It happened again this season against the Montreal Canadiens, when defenseman P.K. Subban turned him inside-out and drew a penalty that led to a goal.
Five days ago with the Rangers preparing to face the Ottawa Senators, Tortorella spent about 10 minutes speaking to Gaborik 1-on-1 on the ice. Despite that heart-to-heart, Gaborik went scoreless over the next three games.
Despite that public history between the two, Tortorella said he "really liked" Gaborik and this was a hard deal to make.
"Gabby and I have a great relationship," Tortorella said. "It's a really good one, no matter what's gone on with him. He's a good man. And I'll miss him. I'll tell you right now – I'll miss him. He has grown as he's been with us. Quite honestly, when he first came here, I don't think he really had enough skin on him. He has skin on him. I respect him.
"It's a tough one for me because I really like the guy. I hope it works for him. I believe the deal will work for both teams because I think he's going to play really well."
Tortorella said he believes Gaborik will find his game in Columbus because he's been getting the scoring chances more of late, he just hasn't been finishing. Perhaps in new surroundings with familiar teammates – Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky are in Columbus because of the Rick Nash trade in July, and Vinny Prospal has been there since 2011 after two years with the Rangers – Gaborik will rediscover his scoring touch.
"He's had a lot of chances to score," Tortorella said. "His numbers aren't there, but he has developed a lot offense. He just hasn't finished. Quite honestly, with a lot of players that struggle during the year this year, you've got to be really careful how you judge them because I think it's one screwed up year. That's why I think he's going to come alive."
"Gabby and I have a great relationship. It's a really good one, no matter what's gone on with him. He's a good man. And I'll miss him. I'll tell you right now – I'll miss him. He has grown as he's been with us. Quite honestly, when he first came here, I don't think he really had enough skin on him. He has skin on him. I respect him."
-- Rangers coach John Tortorella
With the loss of an elite scorer, the Rangers hope their 30th-ranked offense comes alive with the addition of the grit that's been missing since losing Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko to free agency over the summer.
Clowe has yet to score this season, but he has been right around the 20-goal mark throughout his career. Brassard gives the Rangers a third quality center behind Brad Richards and Stepan and has seven goals and 11 assists this season after averaging about 40 points per game the past three seasons.
Dorsett is out until perhaps the Stanley Cup Playoffs, should the ninth-place Rangers climb into a postseason spot over the next three-plus weeks, but he could be the answer to the loss of Prust. The26-year-old had a career-best 12 goals and 20 points last season, but he's more than willing to drop the gloves and kill penalties, two things Prust did very well last season.
Moore replaced Roman Hamrlik on the blue line Wednesday night and could be the answer to the depth issues the Rangers have had on defense. Moore, 22, was a first-round pick in 2009 and should be an upgrade over Stu Bickel and Matt Gilroy as a No. 6 defenseman.
Depth has been a massive problem for the Rangers this season. Tortorella is hoping by dealing a top player they will have the strength in the middle that carried them to the conference finals last year.
"[Clowe is] a guy that certainly brings some jam to our lineup," Tortorella said. "He hasn't scored this year, but he has been able to score [in the past] plus bang, a good leader, good size. So we'll see. What I think we get with him and Dorsett is a little bit of the grind we're missing right now, a little bit different from last year. With Brassard and Moore, you get some skating and skill.
"We'll see how it goes. I'm anxious to see them play."