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04 October 2007

Curtain Goes up on Broadway Tonight

The last time the Rangers took the Garden ice in a meaningful game, their impressive playoff surge was officially ended by a superior Buffalo Sabres team in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Of course, the series really ended two days earlier, when Chris Drury picked up a loose puck in front of Henrik Lundqvist and deposited it in the net behind King Henrik to tie Game 5 with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. The Sabres went on to win that game in OT, before coming to Manhattan to finish the job.

When the Florida Panthers visit the World's Most Famous Arena tonight to open the 2007-08 season, the feeling of despair and loss from Game 6 will be replaced by a level of excitement and anticipation the Garden Faithful have not had in more than a decade. And, the same man who stuck a dagger in the collective hearts of Ranger fans in the spring will be one of the main reasons for the renewed sense optimism on Broadway.

When last season ended, it was clear the Rangers had a gaping hole down the middle. Michael Nylander did an admirable job centering the Rangers' top line, but beyond that, the Rangers were lacking both quality and depth at the pivot.

Glen Sather tried to address the problem in the summer of 2006 by paying third-line center Matt Cullen to be a second-line center. Cullen is a good team guy, a hard worker and a terrific skater, but he did not have the playmaking ability to help Brendan Shanahan flourish.

As July approached, there were two top quality free agent centers about to hit the market, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. The conventional wisdom was that the Rangers would re-sign Nylander and then attempt to sign either Drury or Gomez. After taking a low-key approach to free agency during the first two summers following the lockout, Glen Sather's approach in 2007 was anything but conventional.

When the dust settled on a frantic opening day of Free Agency, Sather had bagged both Drury and Gomez. So much for a lack of quality at center. These signings, of course, meant the departure of Nylander, as well as Cullen, who became a salary cap casualty and was traded back to Carolina later in the summer.

The Rangers were clearly big winners this summer. The question now is if that will translate into on-ice wins during the fall and winter, and most importantly, next spring.Rangers bashers were quick to point out the Blueshirts have tried the high-priced free agent approach before, and it was a spectacular flop. Others have charged the Rangers are simply trying to buy the Stanley Cup.

Let's dismiss the second notion right off the bat. Repeat after me: You can NOT buy a championship in a league with a hard salary cap. It just can't be done. If you root for a team whose owner isn't spending enough money or isn't putting a quality product on the ice, stop blaming the Rangers and the players and Gary Bettman (there are so many other things to blame on Bettman). Blame your owner. You may not believe this, but just trust me; the owner of your team will not have to clip coupons to afford a better roster. He won't even have to give up his country club membership. And, as an added bonus, a good team might generate more revenue (amazing how that works), thus offsetting the cost of adding talent.

Now that we've established that it's impossible to buy a cup in the salary cap era, let's tackle the wisdom of Sather's July 1 approach. Most of the league, particularly fans of teams whose owners cry poverty and claim they just can't keep up with the big city bullies, would love to see this be a repeat of Neil Smith's summer of '99 train wreck, or Glen Sather's 2001 Island of Misfit Toys disaster. As much as I hate to disappoint you (actually, I really don't hate disappointing you at all), the 2006-2007 version of the Broadway Blueshirts is not the Same Old Ranger$.

If you don't believe me, here are four reasons why the Gomez and Drury signings will not sink the Rangers as other high-priced moves have in the past:

1.) Age, health and Pedigree. Scott Gomez is 27 years old and Chris Drury is 30. They are both in the prime of their careers and played key roles on Championship teams. The veterans brought in by Smith and Sather in past years were all 31 and older, with the exception of Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure, both of whom were only available because of major health risks. Neither Gomes nor Drury has a history of drug and alcohol abuse (Theo Fleury), debilitating concussions (Lindros), torn knee ligaments (Bure) or blindness (Bryan Berrard), which immediately makes them a better bet than previous Ranger high-priced acquisitions. In the past, Broadway was a place for free agents to get one last pay check before calling it quits. Gomez and Drury have plenty of quality years left and they are both winners.

2.) Strong Foundation. In both ‘99 and ‘01, the Rangers were coming off seasons in which they failed to make the playoffs. They then attempted to add high-priced players, who were past their prime and had character and injury issues, to an already old and unsuccessful team. I'm not sure why they had to try it twice to decide it wasn't a formula for success. Fortunately, this isn't the case in 2007. Sather fought off the urge to come right out of the lockout and build the best team money could buy. Instead, he targeted players who worked hard and meshed well with Jaromir Jagr, and who would fit reasonably under the salary cap. He didn't repeat the mistakes of the past by filling every roster spot with a veteran player. This allowed several young players to properly develop and earn spots on the big club, providing the team with an energy level and work ethic sorely lacking during the dark years. The Rangers average age in 99-00 and 01-02 was 30. This year, their average age is 27. Since the lockout, he Rangers not only were able to build a system and identity, they were able to have the right blend of young and veteran players. Most importantly, they have built a foundation for success, by making it back to the playoffs in 05-06 and advancing in 06-07. Gomez and Drury were not targeted to be a starting point. They were brought here to be the final pieces.

3.) Coaching. Admittedly, Tom Renney has made some decisions the past two seasons that are baffling. Like continuing to put Michael Rozsival on the same side of the ice as Jaromir Jagr on the power play, when everyone knows he's always going to just pass to Jagr, and continuing to give ice time to Marcel Hossa. But, the mere fact that the Rangers have played a system the past two seasons, rather than just spending every shift aimlessly skating in five different directions, makes him a significant upgrade over predecessors Glen Sather, Bryan Trottier (who got the job, because Sather liked his penmanship. I really wish I was joking.) and Ron Low. Under Renney, the Rangers have developed a work ethic and accountability up and down the roster. The players skate hard, are responsible in their own zone, forecheck and backcheck (including Jagr). I know this sounds like pretty basic stuff, but anyone who regularly watched the Rangers from 98-05 knows this is a big deal. Renney is not brilliant tactically, but he does get the most out of his players. He has the respect of every player in that room, and they all play hard for him, something that rarely happened under previous coaches.

4.) Goaltending. This is the most important factor. Mike Richter is the greatest American-born Goaltender of all-time, and he should go to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But, by the late 90's, Richter was plagued by injuries and failed by his teammates. He was no longer the indomitable force who backstopped the Rangers to a cup in 1994 and stood on his head to win the 1996 World Cup and single-handedly carried the Rangers to the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals. Knee injuries and concussions put the Rangers’ fate in the hands of unprepared kids like Dan Blackburn and overwhelmed journeymen like Kirk McLean and Mike Dunham. It really didn't matter how much money the Rangers spent on skaters, they didn't have what it took between the pipes to get it done. During King Henrik's Reign, that is no longer an issue. Henrik Lundqvist carried the Rangers down the stretch last year and throughout the playoffs, earning his second Vezina trophy nomination in as many years. While The King got off to a slow start last year, mostly due to the likes of Darius Kasparitis and Sandis Ozolinsh on the blue line, he picked up his game when his team needed him the most. He proved during the 2006 Olympics and the 2007 playoffs that he has the talent and the makeup to stand tall in big games. Before deciding on any team's chances to contend for a cup, you must ask yourself one question: Do they have a goalie capable of getting hot enough to steal games for two months in the spring? When you ask that question about the Rangers, thanks to King Henrik, the answer is a resounding YES.

So, will the Rangers win the Stanley Cup? It's always tough to make predictions in October, but they certainly have the horses. By signing Gomez and Drury, the Rangers not only significantly strengthened a glaring weakness, they also chipped away at conference rivals New Jersey and Buffalo (who also lost Daniel Briere to Philly).

The Rangers are not without questions.

Will Renney be able to find the right line combinations? The "obvious" idea of putting Gomez with Jagr and Drury with Shanahan didn't produce results in the preseason, so Renney is flipping them. Nylander fit very well with Jagr, and it is key that either Drury or Gomez find a way to jell with the Captain. If the top two lines fail to click early, the Rangers could get off to a slow start, and all the expectations will turn into early-season pressure.

How will Gomez and Drury handle the pressure of playing on the big stage? They've both been in plenty of big games, and have flourished in the spotlight. This shouldn't be an issue.

Will the kids be ready? It is critical for the Rangers that Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan build off of last season's success and not take a step back. It will also be important for Brandon Dubinsky and Marc Staal to prove they belong on Brodway.

Will King Henrik's contract situation become a season-long issue? It won't be an issue early in the year, because nothing can be done until January 1. But, the longer into the new year it takes for both sides to reach an agreement on a contract extension, the more potential it has to be a distraction. I have a feeling the Rangers will get a long-term deal with Lundqvist done in plenty of time for the drive to the playoffs.

The Flyers have improved, the Penguins get better every day, Ottawa is still the team to beat, Buffalo still has plenty of young talent and the Devils are still the Devils. It will not be easy for the Rangers to make it out of the East. But, the Flyers and Pens are not quite ready yet and the Devils and Sabres lost too many players. Barring a serious injury to Jagr or Lundqvist, the Eastern Conference in 2008 should come down to the Rangers and Ottawa. The two teams should be evenly matched, but if my life was on the line, I'd take King Henrik over Ray Emery in a big series.

The disappointing feeling that hung over MSG in May will be replaced by a Garden party in June. And, at some point during the playoff run, Chris Drury will have that moment when he rises up to make the difference between winning and losing. And, not a single Ranger fan who had his heart broken in Game 5, will be the least bit surprised.

1 fanatics have replied:

The Ghost said...

That is a heck of a start. Drury fits like a glove.

The big question for yuo guys imho is whether your D will hold up.

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