When reading The Hockey News’ preview for the 2011-2012 NHL season back in October, I laughed when they predicted the New York Rangers to finish first in the Atlantic Division. With the division being dominated by the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, along with the emergence of the Pittsburgh Penguins this past half decade, it seemed as if there wasn’t any room for the “Broadway Blueshirts.”
When the NHL announced the Rangers would be playing the rival Flyers in the 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park, people were surprised the Flyers weren’t hosting the Penguins or Devils. Flyers fans alike will admit over the last 15 years the rivalry isn’t what it once was (but is still very strong thanks to the whole Philly/New York rivalry and is growing back to where it was in the mid-90s) due to the fact the Rangers simply haven’t had many great teams over the last 15 years.
After losing to the Flyers in the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals, the Rangers would start an era fans do not want to remember. The Rangers would fail to miss the playoffs for seven straight seasons despite having one of the league’s highest payrolls year in and year out (NHL had no salary cap until 2005-2006.)
Once the millennium hit, names like Richter, Messier and Leetch were aging and the Rangers were relying on big spending and younger players to step up and fill the void. Names like Blackburn, Dvorak, Nedved, Holik, Fleury, Dunham, Malakhov, Bure and “Dancin” Anson Carter would dress up for the Rangers on a nightly basis. However, the results never surfaced and the Rangers losing ways continued.
General Manager Glen Sather would try and change things behind the bench, going through numerous coaching changes. After firing Ron Low in 2002, he hired former New York Islanders star, Bryan Trottier. Trottier never won over the fan base and lasted just 54 games before Sather took over for the remainder of the year and much of the 2003-2004 season.
After the NHL lost its entire regular season to a lockout in 2004-2005, the Rangers playoff absence would culminate in the 2005-2006 season. Being carried by the skill of Czech sniper Jaromir Jagr and new head coach Tom Renney, the Rangers finally gave the Madison Square Garden faithful something to cheer about (the Knicks were awful at this time as well) by making the playoffs as the East’s sixth seed, setting them up for a playoff date with cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils.
The Rangers ended their long playoff drought; however their playoff win drought would have to wait another year as the Devils swept the Rangers in the first round, outscoring them 17-4.The season was one to build upon and most importantly, a new face emerged between the pipes for the Rangers; we will call him “Hank.”
Henrik Lundqvist was unknown during the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, being selected 205th overall in the 7th round. Lundqvist would make his debut with the Rangers in the 05-06 season and his numbers went under the radar.
The 2006-2007 season was the best season in a decade. Led by Lundqvist and Jagr, the Rangers cruised past the first round of the playoffs, sweeping the Atlanta Thrashers. After a gritty battle with the top seeded Buffalo Sabres, the Rangers fell in six games but the whole city was beginning to see signs of progression.
Long story short, the Rangers never really progressed. They once again were eliminated in the second round of the NHL playoffs the following year by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jagr skipped town and left for the KHL in Russia.
In 2009, with the Rangers not meeting expectations in late February, Sather, who has been given his fair share of criticism since taking over as GM for Neil Smith in 2000, made his best move to date by firing Renney and hiring the fiery John Tortorella who coached the Tampa Bay Lightning to Stanley Cup glory in 2004.
Something else seemed to be different about the Rangers. They weren’t a team filled with all-stars. They were still going after the big fishes in the free agent market (Redden, Drury, Gomez), but they were surrounding them with younger prospects and allowing them to develop. After finishing a mediocre eighth in the East in 2009, the Rangers would fail to make the playoffs under Tortorella in 2010, and once again were a modest eighth seed in 2011.
This gets me back to the beginning of this article and the reason for my laughter when seeing the Rangers at the top of the Atlantic Division in some publications. The Rangers landed a big fish in the free agent market in Brad Richards and paired him with another free agent acquisition they made in 2009 in Marian Gaborik. Entering 2011-2012, it seemed the Rangers were going down the same path. Some are shocked with just over one month to go in the regular season; the Rangers have a commanding lead in the Eastern Conference (When I first started to write this, it was a ten point lead, five days later, thanks to computer problems, it’s down to four).
What has changed? For starters, they have the best goalie in the league in Lundqvist and he is having a career year. Many hockey purists would agree that you should build a team around a goalie and that is exactly what Sather has done. After watching Lundqvist blossom in 05-06, Sather knew his most important position was filled.
If you look at the Rangers roster, many names are unknown to general hockey fans. The Rangers homegrown talent includes captain Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky, both drafted in 2004. A year later, Sather drafted defenseman Marc Staal. In 2006, it was Artem Anisomov being selected in the 2nd round. In 2007, Carl Hagelin went in the 6th round and is looking like a steal. In 2008, Michael Del Zotto and Derek Stepan were drafted in the first two rounds.
Every name mentioned above not only takes up a roster spot for the Rangers but they are key contributors to the Rangers overall success this year. Don’t forget about undrafted all-star defenseman Dan Girardi who is currently seventh in the league with 156 blocked shots.
Another big reason Sather’s bunch are having such a fantastic year is because the free agent signings are finally panning out (see Gaborik and Richards). If the free agents don’t pan out, he is not hesitating to ship them out of town. On July 1, 2007, Sather made headlines by signing arguably the two biggest free agents on the market in Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. Drury had a few solid seasons before last year in which the Rangers captain was hurt for most of the season and only totaled one goal and four assists in 24 games. With only one year left on his contract entering this season, Drury’s contract was bought out, ending his tenure on Broadway.
The Scott Gomez situation at first looked bleak. Sather made the most of it when he traded Gomez in a package deal that also included Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto to the Montreal Canadians in 2009 for Chris Higgins, Doug Janik, Paul Valentenko and most importantly, Ryan McDonagh (a first rounder in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft). McDonagh, in my mind, is the most underrated defenseman in the league.
The Rangers defensive corps, anchored by Lundqvist, doesn’t have many household names, but they simply do not allow the opposition to score many goals. In addition, when you watch this team play, it seems as if shots do not get through to the goaltender. Entering play this week, the Rangers rank third in the league giving up a modest 2.1 goals per game.
If there is anything that will stop this team from lifting its second banner in 72 years and first since 1994, it will be offense. They do rank 11th in the league in goals per game, averaging 2.7, but they have hit some dry spells this season. Last week they experienced their first three game losing streak in which they accumulated zero points (the Rangers lost three straight to open the season, but two of the losses were in OT.) Furthermore, the Rangers power play is not one of their assets. The power play is near the bottom of the league right now, clicking at a tedious rate of 14.8%. (Note: Boston’s power play was abysmal last season during the playoffs and we all know how that ended.)
With about a month remaining in the regular season, the Rangers are one of the favorites to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals. But as Tortorella said in January responding to team owner Jim Dolan’s remarks about hoisting the cup, they have a lot of work ahead of them and it will only get tougher. No matter what the future entails for the Rangers and the MSG faithful, one thing is guaranteed and that is the Rangers are here to stay (a contender in the East) for a long time. Maybe Rangers fans will be the ones laughing at me this summer if captain Ryan Callahan is hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.