It looked as if the Rangers were about to turn their
season around. After a inconclusive start to the New Year, New York broke
out with two emotional wins against the rival New York Islanders, and an 2-1
overtime loss (but creditable performance) against the Tampa Bay
Lightning. They followed this up with a 3-3 come from behind tie with
their nemesis the New Jersey Devils, and another one in Montreal against perhaps
one of the hottest teams in the league. And then came Boston...
In the space of 20 minutes, the Rangers went from a team
that was winning and building confidence to one whose confidence was once again
suspect. The Bruins came out hard against the Rangers and New York quickly
lost their composure and their confidence, collapsing to a 5-2 loss including
three minutes of a fruitless two man advantage. The result was compounded
by the loss of their last steady defenseman in Kasparaitis, perhaps for the rest
of the season. The only Ranger highlight of the game, a punch from Eric
Lindros that sent Joe Thornton to the locker room (and ultimately out of the
follow up contest), but it was the only punch the Rangers showed.
Primed for the rematch, the home team proved to be no
match defensively for the speedy Bruins who skated rings around a defense that
included Joel Bouchard, Dale Purinton and Lawrence Nycholat. The forwards
were constantly caught up ice and Dunham appeared to be tiring as he slid around
the crease, out of position trying to keep the Rangers in it. The 4-1 loss
on home ice was followed up by an equally frustrating 4-2 failure against the
cooling Flyers, including a concussion to Mike Dunham, starting his ninth
straight. The Rangers season was quickly approaching the crossroads...
With de Vries, Dunham and Kasparaitis out, Poti and Leetch
ailing, a power play that had more power than play and a veteran line-up that
spent most of their time behind the play, the Ranger General Manager did the
obvious thing...at least if you're an observer of the New York Rangers, he
acquired high-priced malcontent Jaromir Jagr in exchange for the struggling
On the plus side, the Rangers did not give up any of their
future in terms of players/prospects/picks, but it should be noted that
Lundmark, Tjutin and Blackburn were all injured and the Rangers were really the
only team in a position to (or perhaps more correctly, the only team willing to)
acquire the four, maybe five years remaining on Jagr's contract. On the
down side...the Rangers once again got older...
Already fielding the oldest line-up in team history
(averaging 30.8 years of age on average this season), and the oldest in the
league, the Rangers once again have turned to paying for the past instead of
building for the future. By the time their contracts run out, the Rangers
will have a 36 (or perhaps even 37) year old Jagr, a 36 year old Holik, a 37
year old Leetch, a 35 year old de Vries and a 34 year old Greg de Vries, and
with age comes increased fragility and a degradation of skills. If you
don't believe me just take a look at the Rangers free agent signings in the
previous six seasons.
The continued reliance on big names and past
accomplishments also has a demotivating effect on the prospects within the
organization. Young players feel increasingly that they can never break
into the team, a stint like Dominic Moore's five games earlier in the season may
actually do more to harm him ultimately if he is not given a chance to come
back. This frustration gets aired from time to time in the media when
former players (Bouchard, Keefe, Green and Stock just to name a few) take aim at
the Rangers and their inability to show any confidence in the younger players.
The problem is again compounded when you look at how many
of the Ranger veterans have injury histories, and yet when those players get
hurt it is older players who get to fill the gaps. Even players like
MacDonald and Nycholat are given chance over Wiseman, Moore and Lampman, as the
Rangers look to minimize risk rather than generate rewards.
But perhaps the biggest problem with playing the free
agent and trade markets, is that the Rangers continually put together the wrong
pieces. While Sather has clearly shown that he believes an offense first,
overpower the opposition with offense strategy is one that he subscribes to, the
league has quite clearly shown this not to be the case. Look at last
year's match-ups where teams like New Jersey, Anaheim and Minnesota were able to
stifle much more offensively imaginative teams to make it deep into the
playoffs. If not that, simply look a the decreasing goal scoring in the
league and it appears obvious that the time for offense is past.
The Rangers are now overloaded with forwards who are not
normally used on the penalty kill or are considered weak defensively.
Hlavac, Simon and Barnaby to not kill penalties, while Holik, Lindros and
perhaps Jagr will be used sparingly. The Rangers have pressed Kovalev and
Rucinsky into this role, though neither killed penalties in their previous
stints with the Rangers. That's already 8 of the 12 starting forwards who
are not normally used, no wonder Messier is being used so much. It should
be noted however, that Holik does provide defensive responsibility at even
strength when asked to match up against an opposition threat.
With a penalty kill now ranked 27th in the league (a
constant cause for concern under the Sather regime), what they are doing now
obviously isn't working.
And while they may not contribute defensively or on the
penalty kill, these offensive forces do need the quality ice time to
score. While Kovalev, Carter, Nedved, Mironov, Malakhov and Lindros might
have expected over 20 minutes (or 25 in the case of the defense) of ice time a
night elsewhere on a lesser talented team, they are relegated to substantially
less than that here in New York. Players build on momentum and it's hard
to do this when you're sitting on the bench for three quarters of the
game. If anything the Rangers need more role players now...particularly in
the center position where there are three quality pivots and a fourth who until
recently lead the team in goal scoring.
There are also some players who need to have their ice
Brian Leetch has obviously struggled this season, with
injuries perhaps and maybe because he is not as fresh. Leetch came back
with energy last season after missing 20+ games with a foot injury, a layoff
that perhaps helped rather than hurt his play. Dunham too is a player who
appears better when given more time off, the recent run of nine straight starts
with the impressive Markkanen sitting on the bench, lead to Markkanen being
rusty and Dunham clearly overplaying the puck. Now with Dunham out for an
unknown length of time, Markkanen has to suddenly regain his early season form.
Playing time is of big concern when you consider it is one
of the few motivators that can be used for a veteran player. And while
players do need more ice time to get over the hump, there has to be a limit at
which point you have to reassess what you're doing and try and ride the hot
hand. If Lindros' ice time is limited by his wingers then perhaps it's
time to move him to a line where he'll have partners who can play as much as he
does, if Nedved is struggling because he has wingers who don't finish and the
Holik line is struggling offensively then perhaps they can switch
positions. If Hlavac, who doesn't kill penalties is not scoring, then
perhaps he needs to be sat in favor of a Dominic Moore who not only killed
penalties in his debut, but also set up three goals, and finally if Nedved is
not scoring nor preventing goals then perhaps it's time to trade him for some
help on defense.
Outside the rink needs to become a more professional
environment too. Players need to learn they only get breaks if they
perform on the ice...no missing practices (except for injuries) and no
parties. If the New Jersey Devils are the model franchise that Sather is
looking to emulate, then they need to act like them off the ice as well.
Can this poorly constructed team of defensively challenged
individuals make it to the playoffs under the current leadership? That's a
question that I cannot answer, but I can say that there are numerous
inconsistencies and concerns with the strategy that is being used, and success
may ultimately be in spite of the way things are being done rather than because