Bobby Holik

Dark Days

These are dark days to be a Ranger fan, there is no doubt about that.  A franchise record seven years without the playoffs in the easiest league in which to qualify, a league high salary over that time and a General Manager who is wildly unpopular with the fan base.  And to top things off, a trade two days ago that saw the last (albeit aging) franchise player sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs for picks and prospects, dark days indeed.

Four years into the Glen Sather tenure as President, General Manager and sometimes coach of the New York Rangers, the franchise outlook appears to be as bleak as it ever has been.  The next Ranger playoff appearance could be as far off as the likelihood that the Rangers have an NHL superstar in their prospect pool, and how do the fans react…well it’s your classic seven stages of grief ranging from anger and depression to an almost overly optimistic euphoria.

Rebuilding has finally begun on Broadway…

In quick succession the Rangers have gone from buyers to sellers, sending three long time Ranger properties (or in the case of Kovalev, reacquired property) off to Canada and receiving little in the way of NHL ready talent in return, a situation that was immediately obvious when the Blueshirts played Boston last night and fielded a fourth line of Murray-Dusablon-Gernander, while up in the team box Sather has adopted a “told you so” attitude, claiming he didn’t have the mandate to rebuild.

The New York Media, not exactly on friendly terms with Sather to begin with, is only too happy to oblige in pointing out the obvious inconsistencies, unleashing a tirade of criticism against the recalcitrant leader of what some are now saying is the worst run franchise in professional sports.  But a strange thing has been happening of late amongst the fan base, there is a growing number of voices who are stepping out of the gloom to proclaim good times ahead and a vision that is beginning to be fulfilled.  I’ve even seen some go so far as to buy Sather’s excuse for the past and suggest that he deserves to be kept on, although for some it is a matter of “better the devil you know”.

Talk about the Rangers prospect pool is at a new time high, with the names of Jessiman, Dawes and Tyutin being touted as the core of the Rangers future and the possibility of making a run at Alexander Ovechkin in June’s NHL entry draft.  And while shedding the big salaries may have a direct effect on the upcoming CBA discussions, the chance to rebuild while the league goes through a potential work stoppage may in fact help the Rangers prospects in the longer term.

So now that they’ve made the decision, is it the right thing to do?

Former Rangers General Manager Neil Smith was recently on WFAN and reflected on what went wrong under his leadership and what may have continued under that of his successor.  He brought up the point that the 1994 CBA agreement made a fundamental change to the way business was conducted in the NHL and that it may have contributed greatly to the downfall of the Rangers.  That change was the addition of Unrestricted Free Agency, allowing a player to shop his talents to the highest bidder after he had reached a certainly level of the game in terms of age, salary or games played.  The Rangers went from builders (they had 12 draft picks on the team during the 1993-94 season) to buyers.

Having sold off much of the future to get the Stanley Cup in 1993-94, Smith watched as player after player aged quickly, retired or departed the Ranger stable.  With pressure from within the organization and the media, Smith chose to try and prolong the years of success by adding such names as Gretzky, Nedved, Fleury and Kamensky instead of trading away the assets that were left and beginning again.  It wasn’t until the end of the 1998-99 season that Smith was finally convinced that things weren’t working, and a mini-rebuild process was begun.

Then entered Sather.  With five cup rings as a coach and general manager, he was both highly touted and was saying the right things about the proper way to build a franchise.  But within months he had hired Ron Low, a coach who had never had a winning record and signed Mark Messier and Vladimir Malakhov to high priced contracts…the alarm bells began to ring.  A succession of big misses on free agents and trade acquisitions culminated in the situation today.  With the Rangers finally obviously out of the playoffs (something that was not evident to the Rangers brass in the past), Sather and ownership finally had the will and motivation to make a change in philosophy.

It remains to be seen how far the plan will be carried out with several high priced players likely to remain on the roster for next season and into the near future, but it appears in the short term at least that there is a youth movement finally abroad in New York.

Will the fans tolerate a rebuild?  It’s the question that has almost always been answered with an emphatic NO!  But recent events may have finally overcome this preconception and only the future will prove whether the pundits were correct.  Lean times are ahead for the Rangers, with little in the way of impact players ready to step it up, and plenty of questions over how the veterans will react to the gutting of the team.

Can Jagr be the team guy he wasn’t in Pittsburgh and Washington and be around for what could prove to be a lengthy rebuilding process.  It will require him to limit his game and take on more responsibility than he has been willing to in the past.  Holik, Kasparaitis and de Vries will have to step up and lead by example, acting as mentors rather than just regular team members.

And where will the future come from?  Well we’ll take a look this weekend at who the Rangers have acquired, who is in the system and who might be ready to step it up for next season….

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