Bobby Holik

At The Center Of It All

Going into the 2002-03 season the Rangers looked set up in at least one position, center ice.  With Lindros, Nedved, Holik and Messier as well as the likes of Lundmark, Lyashenko and Donato in the system, it appeared that if anything the Rangers would finally have the dominating presence down the middle of the ice that they had long been searching for.  

But while they had indeed addressed an area long in need of attention, they had also handicapped the team from the beginning.  The first mistake of course was the lack of depth on the wing, and in particular the left wing position.  The Rangers expected big things from Pavel Bure this year, and so did many of the fans.  An injury scare in the preseason that caused him to miss the first three games proved to be just a preview for the entire season that saw the Russian Rocket miss a total of 43 of 82 games.  

The fact that Bure’s 19 goals had him tied on the team for second just demonstrates how much the Rangers missed his presence on the ice and is further compounded when you consider that Matthew Barnaby was second with 14 goals and Kovalev was third with 10, despite joining the team after 58 games had already been played.

Perhaps they could have been mitigated a little if the Rangers had indeed managed to sign Tony Amonte, a deal which was rumored to have fallen through after Cablevision forced Sather to pull an agreed upon offer off the table due to it’s duration and some sudden fiscal responsibility. 

While the Rangers desperately hoped for a white knight, they also didn’t hesitate with moving first Nedved to left wing at the start of the season, and then Lindros later on to the right of Holik.  Neither experiment ultimately proved successful outside of a handful of games, and really again just demonstrated the unbalanced nature of the team.

While Lindros and Nedved were struggling to find line mates and establish themselves in their natural position, Holik had come to camp out of shape and began the season with a hip injury that eventually forced him to sit out 18 games.  The Rangers were less than impressed with their 50 million dollar man at the time and one wonders if the layoff didn’t perhaps contribute to the injury and his early ineffectiveness.

In fact, in the early going the only centerman who seemed to be having any success was the 41 year old Mark Messier.  His 18 goals was 4th on the team at the end of the season and was somewhat of a renaissance after he struggled through injuries the previous season.  But while Messier was indeed lighting the lamp he was also contributing again to the imbalance of the team.  In games where Messier played over 21 minutes the Rangers were 4-12-2 and had just 4 goals and 5 assists, yet still received the ice time to the end.  Incidentally he also scored 4 goals and 5 assists in the 18 games where he played the fewest amount of minutes (including the two games he left due to injury) with a record of 7-10-1.

But wait, there’s more.

The hiring of Bryan Trottier turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.  From the start Trottier showed that he was unable to hold his players accountable and appeared to buckle to the pressure to play Messier despite numerous statements suggesting his time would be limited during the previous summer.  His unusual approach that included a philosophy that didn’t believe in line matching….or even lines it appeared at times along with his absence from his locker room after games served only to alienate rather than to earn trust.

Add in yet another season ending injury to Richter and the over reliance on Blackburn early in the season before Dunham came to the rescue, along with the decimation of the defensive corps on a team that doesn’t grasp the concept of team defense and you’re in for a long season, no matter who you are.

The end result was a team that had shaky confidence to begin with had it destroyed early and often through risky choices that didn’t pay off, coupled with the reliance on out dated or inappropriate philosophies (or players).

At the end of 2001-02 Petr Nedved was booed almost every time he touched the puck, he was professional at all times and came back to quiet the boo birds in 2002-03 with perhaps the best performance by a forward on the team.  This year it was Eric Lindros…perhaps the first player to ever be booed in three different NHL arenas (Montreal, Philadelphia and New York).

With rumors already floating around that the Rangers are seeking to move Lindros and perhaps acquire Marchant or Fedorov while bringing back Messier it appears the Rangers still haven’t learned their lesson.  Yes center is an important position, but you can’t address it at the expense of the rest of the team.

But it’s not all bad news for next season…

The Rangers now have in their possession a couple of wingers with more ability than any of last year’s crop.  Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter are both significant improvements from last year, although both will expect raises as unrestricted free agents in the off-season.  If Bure comes back, then great…you’ve got a set of wingers that at least matches your center ice position, if not then you at least have Lundmark with a year of experience and perhaps the likes of a Dominic Moore or Lucas Lawson for next year.

Secondly it is time to put Messier in his place.  The Captain needs to be the team player and take his position on the fourth line where he was so effective late in the season.  He will no doubt be the highest paid fourth liner in the league, but then what’s new with the Rangers. Second unit power play time along with reduced penalty kill and even strength responsibilities can only benefit the team.

Of course if you’re going to do these things you will need a coach who can help you implement the changes necessary.  The recent reports from the always creditable Jason Diamos of the New York Times bodes well for Rangers fans.  MacTavish played with Richter, Leetch, Kovalev and Messier as a member of the Rangers cup winning team.  He was an assistant coach here too and knows what the position is all about.

On top of that he’s gone to the playoffs with the Oilers two out of three times and missed once with 93 points…which would have been good enough for 7th in the East in the same season.

Finally the goal should be to keep much of the team together.  A number of peripheral players will no doubt be let go via free agency, including Lefebvre, Karpa and McCarthy.  The Rangers have the opportunity too to resign Leetch and Mironov as well as perhaps dealing the inconsistent Vladimir Malakhov who is entering the final year of his contract.

The return of Kasparaitis to form after a poor start also means there is little room or need to add another high priced, long-term contract to the defensive corps.  If anything it would be wiser to add players in the mould of Cory Cross and Joel Bouchard who can provide cheap, but steady assistance on the blue line.

There is little to be had with respect to wingers either and the only way that it appears possible the Rangers will be able to gain anything here, especially on the left wing, is through a trade.  There are unlikely to be many who are willing to part with a proven player so it will be up to Sather to once again test the markets for a left winger who might fit the bill at a reasonable price.

Maybe this is a recipe for success.  It’s certainly easy for me as a fan to put my thoughts down on paper with no way of proving or disproving my theories.  But while I am not privy to the inner working of the NHL and in particular the Rangers I do think we as the hardcore fans are sometimes more aware of some things than those who are much closer.  It’s just going to take us time to convince them that we actually know what we’re talking

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