Henrik Lundqvist 5

Off To The Races

by Matt Waxman

When the clock struck twelve, twelve PM Eastern Standard Time that is, the gates were opened. The bell had sounded. The jockeys, with a swift contraction of their forearm muscles, disturbed the repose of their horses and sent them into a gallop.

Some horses are best suited for a full sprint right out of the gates; the hope is to maintain their top speed long enough such that the others are too far behind by the time they tire. Other jockeys hope to maintain a good pace, as determined by the sprinters, throughout the entirety of the race such that they are in striking distance when the home stretch is at hand. Everyone knows, however, that it is those whom demonstrate patience and poise, waiting for the opportune time to make their move that usually win the race.

Could the same be said about NHL teams during the offseason? Will those that rush to fill holes on their roster, the sprinters, sacrifice effectiveness for speed, sticking their finger in the dam? Will those that address each issue sequentially end up being stiffed, beaten out for the top-shelf talent? Do the teams that enact an intricate plan come out ahead of the pack?

The Rangers surely resembled a sprinter during the afternoon on July 1, but were they? The signing of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury did occur on the same day within hours of each other, but was the speed with which these moves were executed the result of much thought or impulse? Were these moves the stroke of genius or a foolish attraction to shiny objects? Is all that glitters gold?

The pace of July 1st is always breathtaking, making your cheeks fly back and tears stream. If we might consider the horses to be the free agents, the truth is that, for the most part, all of the sprinters in this race are the best horses available. The less talented horses know this and as a result, also act as sprinters, attempting to stay in the pack such that for at least a few moments they are the geographic equals of the superior horses.

When the top free agents hit the market they are signed before you know it. Once the top free agents start to put their flags in the sand, some of the teams that missed out on them go into a frenzy trying to lure the best remaining player – these teams have been pulled into the sprint. Meanwhile, the lesser free agents, because they had been in the vicinity of the better ones, receive inflated contracts. Teams must participate in the madness or will be left out in the cold. And since these GMs want to keep their jobs the concept of supply and demand is at its best. The speed of these signings cannot be used to assess the quality of these transactions since it’s good business for the free agents to be sprinters and turn the teams into sprinters. If the Rangers really expect to compete for a Stanley Cup this year, they needed to obtain some of the best available talent and that’s what they did.

Scott Gomez

If Gomez and Jagr can click the way Nylander and Jagr did, then Gomez could easily put up 100 points this season; however, Gomez and Nylander are different players in almost everyway. Gomez will bring better speed and the ability to single-handedly mount an end-to-end rush. Scott Gomez‘s ability to play the penalty kill means that he will offer more versatility than Nylander, as well as somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 more shots on goal.

But hold on a second, Nylander elected to shoot more than a half-century less than Gomez (shots: Nylander-193, Gomez-248) and still scored twice as often (goals: Nylander-26, Gomez 13). Watching Gomez all these years it is apparent that he has developed into a good shooter, and is at least on par, if not superior, with Nylander’s shooting abilities. The discrepancy in goals scored is the result of role, line mates, and team. Gomez with linemates Elias and Gionta, especially because of Gionta, would definitely be encouraged to shoot, not necessarily to score, but such that the shifty Gionta could have a chance at working his craft – putting rebounds in the back of the net. Furthermore, the Devils as a team are not known as offensively dynamic, this is to say their offense is concentrated on working traffic in front of the net, using deflections, and all else that is in the nightmares of goalies. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense that Gomez should shoot often.

In a finesse offense, such as the Rangers’, or to avoid the blanket statement, the offense as orchestrated specifically on Jaromir Jagr‘s line, there is not as much of a premium put on shooting as in the congestion offense of the Devils. Instead, cycling, not the 3rd or 4th line variety, perhaps more aptly labeled circling, is king. The goal (pun intended), more often than not, isn’t to blindly fire at the net, although when stymied by a stringy defense this approach might be adopted, but to set-up a high percentage shot; if necessary this will be done by passing up other lesser perimeter shots in favor of a pass. Thus, if Gomez does in fact play with Jagr on his right, and does not undermine Jagr’s leadership, it should be expected that Gomez will shoot less. Fifty times less? That much of a reduction will probably not be seen, however, I can guarantee you that the quality of these shots will increase, especially considering the open ice he will see when Jagr is double-teamed. Rangers fans, after the past two seasons, might say the high shot total isn’t a bad thing after seeing countless Rangers’ powerplays in which there was opportunity to shoot, but no shooting. Well, that likely won’t change as the offense on the first line and the first powerplay unit goes through Jagr and will continue to go through Jagr for as long as he is on the team.

Chris Drury

Chris Drury would be a good fit for almost any team, especially as a second line center (Drury may be over his head as a first line center on a team lacking scoring depth). The guy stunned everyone in Game 5, scoring that goal with time expiring; he beat the Rangers and now he’s on the team. Get the guys who beat you, it usually works, plus, it helps that Drury isn’t coming over from the Devils ‘ la Bobby Holik.

Drury has been a fairly consistent scorer his entire career and I would expect his performance this season to be reminiscent of his last two seasons (25+ goals and 60+ points) as he is still in his prime and will have skilled linemates: Shanahan and Avery or Prucha most likely. Drury was the safer signing of the two, as he leads the league in intangibles–leadership, clutch-ness, specialty team play, and Little League World Series Titles–to steal a phrase from Steve Somers of WFAN 660 (New York); honestly, the guy has won everywhere he has gone, and Rangers fans hope the trend continues. Although Drury is not worth $7 million a season, neither is Gomez, when you consider the fact that Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla, the league’s intangibles runner up, are being paid around the same figure and post better numbers, it was not possible to obtain a player like Drury for less or at all; unless the Rangers were going throw the kitchen sink at the Calgary Flames for Iginla, who is a winger anyway, or fly to Colorado and grab Joe Sakic in his sleep the Rangers would have had to settle for a less impactful and versatile player. Drury is the type of player that could be the final piece needed to put a team over the top and it certainly seems that the Rangers’ front office agrees, otherwise a less expensive player would have been brought in.

Petr Prucha

It seems that the Rangers overpaid for Petr Prucha. Not necessarily based on his output, 30 goals and then 22 goals in limited ice time is nothing to sneeze at, but based on his own admissions. If reports are correct, Prucha wanted to play for the Rangers at any cost. Prucha would probably play for the league minimum if need be, let alone $1.6 million a season; whatever it would take to remain a Ranger (I wonder if he had grown weary of having his name included as a trade piece). With that said, and take it with a grain of salt, the Rangers proceeded to signing Prucha to a very respectable salary which put the team closer to the salary cap despite the fact it could have been avoided. Even if Prucha could have been had for $1.1 million a season the Rangers would have saved themselves half a million in cap space each of the next two seasons.

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying – Prucha needed to be retained as he is still a potential 30+ goal scorer and could maybe record 60+ points if he gets a spot on the second line this season – it’s just that it seems foolish on GM Glen Sather‘s part to have doled out such a contract when the team could have benefited from a more modest one. This could be a calculated move by Sather though. Perhaps a scheme to secure a hometown discount from the young Czech in the future. Let’s not forget that Petr could one day be among the league’s top scorers; if that comes to fruition a hometown discount would certainly be nice and I’m sure Sather would remind Prucha of the generosity the organization has demonstrated with this contract.

Henrik Lundqvist

This could have gotten ugly; a cat and mouse game had already developed between Sather and Lundqvist’s agent. With the limited cap space Sather’s only option was to either sign Hank to a long-term deal, which in turn would impair the Rangers’ ability to resign Avery and/or Hossa, or to go through team-elected arbitration since it was clear from the Lundqvist camp that they would not initiate arbitration; arbitration was a necessary means of preventing Lundqvist from being signed to an offer sheet. I find it puzzling that the Lundqvist camp made the whole process so difficult. Henrik has repeatedly said how much he loves New York’let’s just say only in New York can non-royalty become king. I find it a bit unsettling that Lundqvist didn’t okay a one year low-ball offer (and when I say low-ball I mean around $2 million) for the good of the team when it is clear to any observer that the Rangers will sign him to a rich, long-term deal as soon as possible. Lundqvist will likely sign one of the most lucrative contracts in the Rangers history sometime next season, which is why it would have been nice to have seen him swallow his ego for a moment.

Besides the money, how could you argue signing Henrik? He is the best goalie this team has had since Mike Richter and at 25 years of age could be a great player for many more years. Besides, you have to have a goalie, otherwise almost every shot will be a goal…

Brendan Shanahan

While $2.5 million is the best price you could find for someone who ought to score 30+ goals, record in the neighborhood of 60 points, and best Donald Brashear in hand-to-hand combat, the guy has made a ton of money throughout his entire career and you would have figured he didn’t need an extra $2.8 million in bonuses to feed his children. If Shanahan was truly returning to win a Stanley Cup, which by the way is always a great career move in this city, if you win in New York you’ll never die, you would have thought he also would have taken less for the salary cap’s sake. Either Glen Sather was feeling frisky this offseason (probably won some money in online poker) and decided to give out money the way people are lining up for the last installment of Harry Potter, or everyone is worried about their 401ks.

With that said, if the Rangers are going to ice an offensive juggernaut, like everyone seems to believe this team is, they will need Shanahan. Without Shanahan, the second line wouldn’t be nearly as good and the investment in Chris Drury would have been in vain.

Last season you saw Shanahan lose steam and consciousness because of overuse and a nasty high-speed collision. You would think, that Drury and Gomez will play the penalty kill, at least a bit, which would in turn reduce or completely eliminate Shanahan’s involvement. This would in turn reduce his ice time and increase his effectiveness down the stretch. If this actually happens, and in addition, Drury plays as expected, Shanahan could hear his name announced many times.

The Cullen Dump

It was obvious after the signings of Drury and Gomez that the Rangers would be straddling the salary cap and would be limited in further free agent moves, but with Prucha’s, Shanahan’s, and Lundqvist’s contracts the Rangers were in a whole world of pain. Signing Avery and Hossa, though Hossa to a lesser extent, is very important in determining the skill of the team. Losing these two players would diminish the Rangers depth and versatility as Avery and Hossa could be juggled around the lineup, but with the salary cap as it was retaining both would have likely been impossible. Therefore, Matt Cullen was dropped faster than a Gigli DVD. It makes sense. Cullen is a third liner being paid a 2A line salary and it didn’t help his cause that he is inked for the next three seasons. Plus, with tons of burgeoning talent on the farm the Rangers could easily, in my estimation, find a replacement for Cullen, with Brandon Dubinsky leading the way. In fact, you could make the case that Dubinsky outplayed Cullen during his brief stint on Broadway and would have been Wally Pip-esque if not for the discrepancy in salaries; the decision was probably a case of the “we’re paying him, so we’re playing him” variety. Also, Michael Peca has been mentioned as a possible replacement and may I remind you of Jason Allison’s presence on the market. For the right price, Allison would be a very good fit in my opinion.

The treasure chest that arrived at MSG in Cullen’s stead was fairly remarkable, wasn’t it? Or was it? I personally speculated that Cullen would be traded back to Carolina for a 3rd or 4th round pick. That seemed like a good return for a salary dump. Consequently, I later heard that the malcontent Anton Babchuk, a 23-year-old defenseman, could be the piece going the Rangers’ way, which seemed like a great trade. Andrew Hutchinson… not so much. The guy is a 27-year-old “power play QB” who hasn’t been able to stick in the NHL. Consider this, last year Hutchinson recorded career highs in points (14) and games played (41); sounds like a 7th or 8th defenseman to me. Maybe Hutchinson would be best served as a 7th dressed defenseman, playing one of the wings on the 4th line and the point on the pp, but if the Rangers went down that path Thomas Pock would likely beat Hutchinson out for even that unheralded roster spot.

Joe Barnes, also acquired in exchange for Cullen, is a fairly good prospect, who projects to be a 2nd to 3rd line center, but sustained a severe concussion last season, which caused him to miss nearly the entire season. I have seen no indication of continued concussion problems although I haven’t seen any mention of recovery either. If Barnes is healthy and makes the team, he has a chance of centering the 3rd line, although I believe he will not make the team.

And the 3rd round pick also acquired for Cullen is a good piece for subsequent trades or simply to be used in a supposedly deep draft.

Overall, the Rangers got a good package considering they had to move Cullen. The only problem is that they really didn’t need to move him, at least not yet. Unless Glen Sather already knows his next move, it would have been infinitely wiser to have held on to Cullen for the time being.

In the Future

With the recent revelation of Kasparitis’ apparent rejuvenation, the Rangers definitely have some chips with, which to play, considering the fact they have nine defensemen that have a legitimate shot at earning an NHL roster spot. The numbers would have you believe the tandem of Sather and Renney are relying on ‘defense by committee,’ as some call it, and with the salary cap this seems an astute observation, however, there remains the possibility of some ‘significant’ changes on the blueline.

If the rumors of Phoenix wanting to move Ed Jovanovski, Toronto wanting to move Brian McCabe or Pavel Kubina, and Vancouver wanting move Mathias Ohlund are true, the Rangers will probably express some interest. Personally, I don’t believe any of these defenseman would greatly increase the Rangers chances although each would probably be the #2 or even #1 defenseman on this team.

Realistically you can take Ohlund off your list since Vancouver’s abundance is on defense and the Rangers can really only offer defensemen in return, assuming GM Sather wants to hold on to his prospects and picks. Phoenix and Toronto, however, would be looking to dump their respective defensemen as a means of clearing salary and would likely want a defenseman in return; this seems to be more true for Phoenix, as a team not expected to compete for a playoff spot has no need for an expensive veteran.

With the clearing of salary, at the sacrifice of Cullen, the Rangers should have no issues resigning Sean Avery and Marian Hossa’s little brother. Should the Rangers decide against renewing Marcel, however, I offer some names that could be signed to replace him: Nikita Alexeev, Denis Arkhipov, Kris Beech, Jan Bulis, Nils Ekman, Jan Hrdina, and Juraj Kolnik. All of these players could provide the same type of production.

One thing I have not mentioned yet is the loss of Jed Ortmeyer. I hate seeing him leave, he was such great competitor and his migration coupled with Matt Cullen‘s leaves some holes on the penalty kill. Hopefully Gomez, Drury, Avery, Hossa, and Betts will provide some good penalty killing. But anyway, good luck to Jed.

Training Camp is just over the horizon. I can’t wait for the start of the season!

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