There are few General Managers around the league today who draw such a negative reaction from a team’s fans as does Glen Sather. The one time New York Rangers winger has worn thin his welcome with his confrontational personality and inability to ice a competitive team. But while he may be one of the most disliked members of the organization, the fact remains that he still retains his title as head of the Rangers.
Given the state of the team, it is therefore not too surprising that the face of the Rangers has shifted away from Sather and onto the fan-friendly pair of Assistant General Manager Don Maloney and Head Coach Tom Renney. During the televising of the NHL Draft Lottery while most teams sent their General Managers, it was Maloney who was the face of the Rangers. It was he who so obviously demonstrated his disappointment and the disappointment of Rangers fans everywhere with his little more than his expression. In the papers it has been both he and Renney who have been providing the quotes, talking up the prospects and explaining the free agent acquisitions. Sather makes his appearance still, but it is Maloney and Renney who are leading this rebuilding effort.
In terms of the rebuild, the Rangers have largely made it through the free agency frenzy unscathed. That said, the team appears to have been caught a little off guard by the signing of unrestricted free agent goaltender Jason Labarbera to a two-year one-way $800,000 contract with the Los Angeles Kings, and also appear to have underestimated the market for much of the talent that was on sale. In scenes reminiscent of the Rangers at their peak, franchises around the league began handing out long term, big money contracts to players on the downsides of their careers. By contrast the Rangers wrote contracts of one, two, and in one case three years in duration, the longest and largest a $7.5 million deal to 30 year old defenseman Marek Malik.
In all honesty the Rangers are no longer a prime destination for big name free agents looking to cash in on their years of success. New York’s unwillingness to commit to long term contracts no doubt drove some interest away, while the state of the team probably factored in the decisions of others who were looking for immediate success. Maloney’s goal appears to be to build a bridge to the Rangers future, supplying just enough talent to keep the fans coming in for the next couple of years, until some of the players now in the system are ready to move into the NHL. This of course is likely to mean that the Rangers will once again fall into the limbo between a playoff spot and a top five draft pick, meaning that once again they are likely to miss out on that top end talent the organization so desperately needs.
I am, of course now forced to provide the caveat (with camp still a month away) that the Rangers may very well not be finished with their free agent shopping. While we shouldn’t expect any of the remaining bigger names to surface in New York, it would not surprise to see one or two more players added to the roster and perhaps even the return of captain Mark Messier, a mover that would perhaps complicate matters this season, but would no doubt sell a few extra tickets and merchandise.
Hopefully for Tom Renney’s sake the decision will be made to move on from the past. The retention of Tom Renney along with the acquisition of Perry Pearn, Mike Pelino and Benoit Allaire appears to represent a change in coaching philosophy towards technique and structure, and away from talent and experience. As Glen Sather found out in his recent stint as head coach, it is no longer sufficient to be just a leader on the bench, a coach must be able to analyze the game and create and teach a system that allows a group of five skaters to work as one. Renney is expected to be that teacher, and he is likely to have a number of students paying attention.
Since the end of the 2003-04 season, the Rangers have signed ten players of their prospect ranks and are expected to have interest in adding a handful more, perhaps including the highly thought of European pair of Jarkko Immonen and Petr Prucha if issues with the clubs and IIHF transfer agreements can be worked out in time. The prospects will join the relatively inexperienced group of Balej, Tyutin, Murray, Moore, Ortmeyer, Kondratiev and Lampman (made their NHL debuts in 2003-04) as well as forward Chad Wiseman.
All in all this should be a transition year as the Rangers shift into a rebuilding phase. There will many nights that this team will be simply outclassed by the opposition and expectations should be set accordingly. But hopefully (you can’t blame me for being cynical here), the team and its fans will remain committed to this new course and will see through the rough times ahead.