by Jim Samuels
When Glen Sather was brought to New York some fifteen months ago, he was given a challenge, turn this once proud franchise back into a perennial cup contender and more importantly, get the New York Rangers back on the front page of the local tabloids and on the airwaves of New York’s talk radio. Oh, and if you don’t mind, do it quickly.
Despite tremendous internal pressure from Dolan Inc. Sather preached patience with his veteran laden squad, there were no sweeping changes, no blockbuster deals during Slats’ first summer on the job. What had been widely rumored even prior to him taking over, and attempting to pull together a fractured dressing room, Sather brought back the greatest Ranger captain of all time, Mark Messier.
Handcuffed with several mammoth sized contracts, the only other transaction of note that was made in the GM’s initial off-season was one of hardly any impact at all, the signing of the oft-injured defensemen Vladimir Malakhov. After hiring fellow Edmontonian Ron Low to replace the outgoing John Muckler, many figured the Rangers would be much improved simply due to Muckler’s departure, since he had alienated a large number of players the previous season and had failed to come up with a system the team could agree to play.
But after witnessing his club stumble out of the blocks last October, Sather looked below to the Ranger’s AHL affiliate the Hartford Wolf Pack for a much needed injection of youth and enthusiasm. It was only then that the Ranger brass had come a harsh realization, there was no help on the farm, the cupboard was bare. Now, not only did Sather have to change the make up of this current Rangers edition, he had a bigger task at hand, rebuild the entire organization.
Some fifty games into the Rangers ill-fated push for the 8th seed in the eastern conference, a potential deal that would’ve sent netminder Mike Richter to the St Louis Blues for some much needed youth on the backline fell apart during a Presidents Day matinee at MSG. Richter tore his ACL virtually hours before the reported completion of the deal, frustrated, Sather trudged on. Then on March 5th Slats somehow turned 35 year old Alexei Gusarov into swift, young, puck moving defensemen Peter Smrek. For the first time in recent memory the Rangers were getting younger, the purge that in the next 6 months would show many an underachieving highly paid mercenary their walking papers had finally begun. Sather was beginning to put his stamp on not only this team, but the entire organization.
As the season wound down and a fourth consecutive non-playoff spring became imminent, Sather set his sights on the off-season. In separate pre-draft day singings the Rangers inked former Buffalo Sabres first rounder Barrett Heisten, WHL scoring machine Layne Ulmer and puck moving defensemen Matt Kinch. With these additions Sather had greatly upgraded the depth on the farm while at the same time creating competition for spots on the big club. On draft day the Rangers possessed the 10th overall pick, addressing their biggest area of need they selected highly touted goaltender Dan Blackburn in the first round and were downright giddy when defenseman Fedor Tyutin was still available in the second round.
But Sather was not done revamping the Rangers, on the draft’s second day he wheeled the ever popular Adam Graves to San Jose for 23 year-old high scoring winger Mikael Samuelsson and hulking defensemen Christian Gosselin. Then Slats added more depth, acquiring Nils Ekman and Kyle Freadrich from Tampa Bay in exchange for spare part Tim Taylor. Sather was doing what he had set out to do, get this team younger and dump some ill-spent salary.
Each of these transactions, while organizationally sound were cosmetic in nature. Sather had made numerous moves in his tenure as GM thus far but the masses were clamoring for that one big name. Every tabloid in New York was anxiously awaiting Sather’s big splash in this years unrestricted free agency pool. But July 1st came and went, and as big name after big name signed on elsewhere the talk radio airwaves were flooded with calls wondering aloud about Sather’s next move. The only noise made by the Rangers in the free agent market were the signings of tough stay at home defensemen Igor Ulanov and Dave Karpa. While each should greatly improve the team’s overall defensive approach neither is what the headline thirsty New York scribes had been longing for.
Then came the Jaromir Jagr fiasco, Sather, seemingly the only participant in the bidding war for the superstar, played his hand too close to the vest and was outbid for the three-time Hart trophy winner by Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. Once again the big name that Cablevision had longed for escaped the Rangers, this time Sather didn’t get his man. In the aftermath of the Jagr debacle Sather steadfastly defended the commitment to youth simply stating that he wasn’t in any position to deal what youth the organization had been able to stockpile for any one player, even if that player was Jaromir Jagr.
As August rolled on and training camps loomed, Eric Lindros, he of the six concussions, was the next big name being constantly rumored to be headed to Broadway. In the meantime, the paying MSG customers were being told in the yearly state of the Rangers address that accompanies their ticket invoices, to renew their astronomically high priced seats for the upcoming season. They were being sold on a youth movement, promised a young, competitive team that will compete on a night in and night out basis. All the while the Lindros talk was getting louder and louder, Sather would tell anyone who would listen how intriguing the thought of Lindros in the Red, White and Blue would be.
On August 20th despite a deluge of angry phone calls to MSG offices and despite an overwhelmingly negative public opinion surrounding the trade, Sather pulled off the deal that will undoubtedly be his legacy for his tenure as Rangers GM. He acquired Lindros in a four player deal for Czech-Mate Jan Hlavac, defenseman Kim Johnsson and the wild card in the deal, minor league scoring machine Pavel Brendl. Brendl, long considered the blue-chip of the organization had angered Ranger brass seeming rather aloof in regards to showing up to camp out of shape for the second time in three years. So both Sather and Cablevision had their marquee name, but more importantly they had put the Rangers back on the map. People are talking hockey in New York again.
So you might ask how does this deal affect the Rangers in the short term? Good question. The addition of Lindros, assuming he’s healthy, makes the Rangers a much more difficult team to play against. The Rangers now match up much more favorably against the big boys in the eastern conference. Petr Nedved will no longer have to absorb the abuse handed out by the Bobbly Holik’s and Keith Primeau’s of the world, it will finally let him be what he truly is, a number two center. Mark Messier, who was on hand for the press conference introducing the Big Train to the New York media, will also benefit from the presence of Lindros, Mess will no longer be counted on to take every big draw or to play 20-25 minutes a game which caused him wear down during the course of last season.
This team as it’s constituted now is primed to be one of the surprise teams in the eastern conference this season, Richter’s knees not withstanding. Both Sather and Cablevision got their marquee name, but more importantly they’ve put the Rangers back on the map.
People are talking hockey in New York again. Mission accomplished.