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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 19: Matt Beleskey #39 of the New York Rangers celebrates his first period goal against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on September 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Matt Beleskey had a brief stay in New York as he played in one game before returning to Hartford.  Is there a place for him with the New York Rangers?

Matt Beleskey’s tenure with the New York Rangers has not gone well.  He was acquired from the Boston Bruins in the Rick Nash trade deadline deal, but he was seen as a salary dump by the Bruins. He was immediately sent to Hartford, only playing one game with the Rangers.  This season, he suffered a separated shoulder in the pre-season which sidelined him and he didn’t get back into action until late October.

Beleskey is a perfect example of a player riding an unusually high shooting percentage to a huge payday.  Based on one career season he signed a big contract he couldn’t live up to and it derailed what had been a perfectly decent career.  It also explains how he ended up as a New York Ranger.

Early career

Matt Beleskey was a solid left winger for the Belleville Bulls in the OHL.  He was a fourth round pick (#112 overall) by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2006 Entry Draft after a 20 goal season.  He made the Ducks look smart in drafting  him when he had a 41 goal, 91 point season  in 2007-08.

He spent three years bouncing between Anaheim and the AHL.    He made it to the NHL for good in 2011-12 and played 70 games with four goals and 11 assists while adding 72 penalty minutes.   At six feet tall and 207 pounds, he had the size to be a physical, power forward and he played the role.  He did even better in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season as he scored eight goals and had 13 points

As a solid power forward good for 15 goals and 30 points, in the summer of 2013 he signed a  $2.7 million two year deal with the Ducks.  He responded with an okay season limited by injuries.  He scored nine goals and ended up with 24 points and 64 minutes in penalties.

Breakout season

In 2014-15, his last contract season or his “walk year.” Beleskey hit paydirt.  In 65 games he had the proverbial “Cy Young ” season with 22 goals and ten assists.  Even better was his performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs when he scored eight goals in 16 games.  After Anaheim took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Black Hawks to a seventh game in the Conference Finals, Beleskey entered free agency as one of the top forwards available.  Sports Illustrated ranked him as the top UFA in a weak year.

Brand new Boston Bruin’s General Manager Don Sweeney made one of his first moves the signing of the 27-year old Beleskey.  He gave the forward a five year, $19 million contract at an annual cap hit of $3.8 million.   There were some warning signs that he overpaid.

The 22 goals he scored was double his career best. He got those goals with the highest shooting percentage of his career, 15.2%.  Until that year he had career shooting percentage of 7.4%.  His shooting percentage in the playoffs was an unworldly 17.8%.   Of the players who played as many games in the playoffs as Beleskey, he had the sixth best percentage, putting him in the ranks of Ryan Kesler, Tyler Johnson and Chris Kreider.  As fortuitous as the timing was, there was no way he could replicate those numbers and the pressure on him to do so would be enormous.

A bust in Boston

In Beleskey’s first season in Boston he posted decent numbers. He played in 80 games, scoring 15 goals and adding 22 assists, a career high.  There was just one thing that went wrong and Beleskey was seen as one of the primary reason.  The Bruins missed the playoffs.

Beleskey was a scapegoat.  Fans compared him to Ryan Spooner who had more points than Beleskey, but was paid one fourth of his salary.  Pressure to perform only made Beleskey susceptible to bad plays and that only added to his bad reputation.  Three years into his contract, Beleskey found himself benched and then sent down to Providence in the AHL.  In in three years as a Bruin, he totaled 45 points in 143 games including only 18 goals.  He was a minus twelve.

If you take out his first season when he posted decent numbers, in the last two seasons he scored all of three goals in 63 games and was a minus 18. He also stopped his physical play, registering only an average of two hits per game, down from the 3.3 in his first year as a Bruin. It’s no wonder that Boston was looking to unload him when the Rangers came around offering Rick Nash.

A trade to New York

When the Rangers proposed trading Rick Nash to the playoff contending Boston Bruins, the deal grew until it ended up being a five for one deal.  The Rangers acquired two draft picks (2018 first round, 2019 seventh round) along with prospect Ryan Lindgren as well as Ryan Spooner and Matt Beleskey.   When analyzing the deal,  the key elements for New York were the draft picks and Lindgren.  Impending RFA Ryan Spooner and Beleskey were seen a incidental to the trade and a salary dump for Boston.  The Bruins were so eager to part with Beleskey that they agreed to retain half of his $3.8 million salary.   So Beleskey ended up in Hartford where he played 14 games, notching one goal and five assists.

Beleskey’s future

This season, Beleskey appeared to be a classic David Quinn reclamation project. Quinn clearly values physical play (look at Cody McLeod’s ice time) so he got an opportunity to show what he could do and was a contender for a fourth line role.  Then, in an exhibition game versus the Devils he got into a scrap with defenseman Eric Gryba. In the fight, Gryba fell heavily on Beleskey who suffered a separated shoulder.  The injury was another blow to an already unlucky player as he was out of action until late October. Since coming back, he played in 14 games in Hartford with three goals and six assists. His play was strong enough that it warranted the call-up for the Winnipeg game as he replaced Tim Gettinger.  He played well in that game, not scoring, but he was a physical presence with four hits in 8:27 of ice time.

So, what is Beleskey’s future?  Is there a regular role for him on this team or will be remain in Hartford and become another Peter Holland or Cole Schneider?  If the walking wounded come back this weekend and the team then stays healthy, the likelihood is that he remains in the AHL.  Is there room on the NHL roster of a rebuilding team for a 30-year old physical forward?   Definitely not if 34-year old Cody McLeod is in the lineup.  If McLeod stays hurt, Beleskey could see some action.

Is he trade bait?  Even with the Bruins picking up half of his salary, the remaining $1.9 million is a hard number to swallow.  Michael Grabner cost the Rangers $1.65 million per season and brought scoring and speed to the lineup.  Beleskey brings neither.  The Rangers were able to sign David Desharnais last year for $1 million and he outproduced Beleskey.

It’s a sad story, though it is hard to feel sorry for a player who makes $4 million a year.  At a more reasonable salary, Beleskey could be an attractive depth player for a decent team and there would be none of the pressure that accompanies that annual salary.  Instead, he seems doomed to finish out his contract as an AHL player who will then hope to catch on with another organization when he is a free agent after the 2019-20 season. He’ll be 31 years old by that time and that is old by modern NHL standards.

We may see Beleskey in New York before the end of the season, but if comes at the expense of younger players getting valuable experience, that would be a mistake.  The Rangers seem to understand that by sending Beleskey down and keeping Steven Fogarty with the NHL squad.  Let’s hope that Jeff Gorton also learned  from this example about the folly of overpaying an average player on the basis of one good season.

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