by Cliff Auld
Back on March 3, 2004 who would have ever fathomed that the New York Rangers would be predicted by some to win the 2007 Stanley Cup?. Who would have even believed Glen Sather would still be employed by the New York Rangers roughly 2 ½ years later? See it was on that date with the Rangers stumbling towards another sub .500 season and a seventh consecutive year out of the playoffs that perhaps the greatest player in Ranger history was dealt away for nothing more than prospects and draft choices. Brian Leetch was traded to the Maple Leafs without so much as a phone call from the GM according to many reliable sources. Fans and media were disgusted and outraged. It was hard to believe that things had gone from bad to worse. From June, 2000 when Glen Sather was first hired to March 3, 2004 the Rangers had regressed. Less than 10 years after winning the Cup, the franchise had hit rock bottom and presiding over the demise was Glen Sather.
Realizing that hindsight is 20/20, I’d still like to take a look back at Sather’s reign and examine what has transpired. First of all, Glen Sather has always been regarded as a good talent evaluator. Having Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier on your roster certainly helps your reputation, but even after their departure Sather consistently fielded a representative team and developed young players despite perhaps the most limited financial resources in all of the NHL. It certainly seemed like sound logic that given the financial backing of Cablevision, Sather would be able to turn things around quickly in New York. Unfortunately, Sather proved less adept at “purchasing” talent than he did at developing it. There were the big names (Lindros, Holik) and the lesser names (Malakhov, Igor Ulanov) that were brought in to bring the Rangers back to the playoffs and failed. Sure, Sather made some moves to bring in Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr, but those were only salary dumps by the Panthers and Capitals. Add to that Sather’s propensity for seemingly picking the wrong coaches, i.e. Ron Low and Bryan Trottier, and there probably was not a Ranger fan I know who would have been upset if the Rangers cleaned out Sather and his staff. The Rangers had a bloated payroll, a roster that seemed disinterested, and were going nowhere.
Then came “Armageddon” The league was about to enter uncharted territory in professional sports by losing an entire season to a labor dispute. Sather and Co. were able to see the handwriting on the wall leading up to the dispute. They saw the perfect opportunity to change the makeup of the team. Anticipating that there would be “cost certainty” in the new NHL, the Rangers traded away many of their high priced big name players back in the Spring of 04. Along with Leetch, Peter Nedved, Vladimir Malakhov, Alexei Kovalev, Greg de Vries, and Matthew Barnaby were all dealt for draft picks and prospects. They used those picks to draft quicker faster players.
They were banking on the fact that the subtle rule changes the league was planning along with the crackdown on officiating would render players like Sandy McCarthy obsolete and elevate players like Michael Nylander to top line center. Little did we know the groundwork for the turnaround had been laid even earlier. Henrik Lundqvist (7th round in 00’), Dominic Moore (3rd round in 00’), Fedor Tyutin (2nd round in 01’), Ryan Hollweg (8th round in 01’), Petr Prucha (8th round in 02’), and Nigel Dawes (5th round in 03’) had all been drafted under Sather’s watch.
After buying out the remainder of Bobby Holik’s contract, the Rangers found themselves under the salary cap when the NHL re-opened for business in the Summer of 05’. As the first order of business, Sather retained Tom Renney rather than changing leadership again. Renney had been a tireless worker during the labor stoppage spending significant periods of time overseas scouting. Sather rewarded him by giving him a chance with his new creation. It was believed that Renney could instill a certain pride and work ethic in this group. The Rangers sat by as all the big name free agents flew off the board that summer. “What are they doing?” we all wondered. Sather resisted the temptation of going down the big free agent route again.
With Jaromir Jagr already entrenched as the “marquis” name on the team, Sather decided to build around him. He brought in other European players Jagr was familiar with who could succeed in the newer faster NHL such as Martin Straka and Michal Roszival. Sather tried to replicate the blueprint that worked so well for him in Edmonton by surrounding his star(s) with role players and youngsters who whose game was speed and puck pursuit. The Rangers had changed the make-up and identity of the team in a short period of time which is a very difficult thing to do in professional sports today, just ask the Yankees..
Despite all the excitement of last year’s unexpected rise, Sather and the Rangers knew the team needed to improve in order to take the next step. The Rangers are now “expected” to be good which is entirely different than producing when nothing is expected. Once again, they did their shopping in the bargain basement, and refrained from signing the big ticket item. Yes, they offered Patrick Elias a long term contract, but they passed on players such as Zdeno Chara who was not what the Rangers needed. Instead they instantly created a second scoring line by inking shifty Matt Cullen to play center, and getting Brendan Shanahan to agree to a one year deal. To me, that signaled how far the Rangers have come. In the past , Sather would have blown his competition out of the water with a three year deal, but that is now things are done here now.
A one year contract assures you will get maximum effort and allows you the flexibility to move on if it does not work out. Getting Shanahan that cheaply was a coup for Sather. It is still early, but I believe that two other moves will be regarded as steals when we reflect back after the season. Signing the gritty Aaron Ward provides the Rangers with exactly the type of defensemen they needed at a fraction of the cost of someone like Chara or Rob Blake.
The real steal is going to be Adam Hall. The Rangers traded Dominic Moore who gave it his all last season but is offensively challenged. Hall is much bigger, and has much better hands as illustrated by his 10 PP goals last year. He is also has speed and defensive abilities to match those of Moore. Hall should flourish offensively if the Power play and second line opportunities continue to come his way. All of this maneuvering has been accomplished while leaving the Rangers significantly under the NHL salary cap. This enables the flexibility to add a player the Rangers may need to fill a hole created by injury or poor performance later in the year. In this new salary cap era, very good talent will be available every year at the trade deadline due to financial obligations. The Rangers can take full advantage of that this season.
It certainly seems that the Rangers are poised to produce another exciting season for the Garden faithful. Visions of the Rangers playing deep into May are very realistic. Maybe we should all write a little note of apology to Glen Sather. Maybe he knew what he was doing all along. Maybe we should all thank our lucky stars that Sather was not fired after that horrible day back in March of 2004. Maybe sometimes ignoring your fan base is the best thing that management can do. Critics say that James Dolan has been doing that around the Garden for years. Maybe this time he was right.
… So much for game # 1 of Rick DiPietro’s 15 year contract. huh? Pulled after two periods and six goals against the Coyotes. Do you think Garth Snow might sign himself to a one year deal?
… There are lots of “dynamic duos” in the NHL today. Cheechoo and Thornton, Alfredsson and Heatley, Jagr and Nylander. I say that Nick Zherdev and Rick Nash in Columbus are right up there with all of them. Those guys are good!!!
… The Flyer / Ranger shootout on Sat 10/7 was incredible. That display by Lundqvist and Nittamayki was ridiculous. They made every save look easy…Absolutely amazing.
… Is October not the best month for Sports fans in New York? NFL is in full swing, hockey has begun, MLB playoffs, and NBA pre-season (well three out of four isn’t bad).