Going into the 2002-03 season the Rangers
looked set up in at least one position, center ice. With Lindros,
Nedved, Holik and Messier as well as the likes of Lundmark, Lyashenko and
Donato in the system, it appeared that if anything the Rangers would
finally have the dominating presence down the middle of the ice that they
had long been searching for.
But while they had indeed addressed an area
long in need of attention, they had also handicapped the team from the
beginning. The first mistake of course was the lack of depth on the
wing, and in particular the left wing position. The Rangers expected
big things from Pavel Bure this year, and so did many of the fans.
An injury scare in the preseason that caused him to miss the first three
games proved to be just a preview for the entire season that saw the
Russian Rocket miss a total of 43 of 82 games.
The fact that Bure's 19 goals had him tied
on the team for second just demonstrates how much the Rangers missed his
presence on the ice and is further compounded when you consider that
Matthew Barnaby was second with 14 goals and Kovalev was third with 10,
despite joining the team after 58 games had already been played.
Perhaps they could have been mitigated a
little if the Rangers had indeed managed to sign Tony Amonte, a deal which
was rumored to have fallen through after Cablevision forced Sather to pull
an agreed upon offer off the table due to it's duration and some sudden
While the Rangers desperately hoped for a
white knight, they also didn't hesitate with moving first Nedved to left
wing at the start of the season, and then Lindros later on to the right of
Holik. Neither experiment ultimately proved successful outside of a
handful of games, and really again just demonstrated the unbalanced nature
of the team.
While Lindros and Nedved were struggling to
find line mates and establish themselves in their natural position, Holik
had come to camp out of shape and began the season with a hip injury that
eventually forced him to sit out 18 games. The Rangers were less
than impressed with their 50 million dollar man at the time and one
wonders if the layoff didn't perhaps contribute to the injury and his
In fact, in the early going the only
centerman who seemed to be having any success was the 41 year old Mark
Messier. His 18 goals was 4th on the team at the end of the season
and was somewhat of a renaissance after he struggled through injuries the
previous season. But while Messier was indeed lighting the lamp he
was also contributing again to the imbalance of the team. In games
where Messier played over 21 minutes the Rangers were 4-12-2 and had just
4 goals and 5 assists, yet still received the ice time to the end.
Incidentally he also scored 4 goals and 5 assists in the 18 games where he
played the fewest amount of minutes (including the two games he left due
to injury) with a record of 7-10-1.
But wait, there's more.
The hiring of Bryan Trottier turned out to
be an unmitigated disaster. From the start Trottier showed that he
was unable to hold his players accountable and appeared to buckle to the
pressure to play Messier despite numerous statements suggesting his time
would be limited during the previous summer. His unusual approach
that included a philosophy that didn't believe in line matching....or even
lines it appeared at times along with his absence from his locker room
after games served only to alienate rather than to earn trust.
Add in yet another season ending injury to
Richter and the over reliance on Blackburn early in the season before
Dunham came to the rescue, along with the decimation of the defensive
corps on a team that doesn't grasp the concept of team defense and you're
in for a long season, no matter who you are.
The end result was a team that had shaky
confidence to begin with had it destroyed early and often through risky
choices that didn't pay off, coupled with the reliance on out dated or
inappropriate philosophies (or players).
At the end of 2001-02 Petr Nedved was booed
almost every time he touched the puck, he was professional at all times
and came back to quiet the boo birds in 2002-03 with perhaps the best
performance by a forward on the team. This year it was Eric
Lindros...perhaps the first player to ever be booed in three different NHL
arenas (Montreal, Philadelphia and New York).
With rumors already floating around that
the Rangers are seeking to move Lindros and perhaps acquire Marchant or
Fedorov while bringing back Messier it appears the Rangers still haven't
learned their lesson. Yes center is an important position, but you
can't address it at the expense of the rest of the team.
But it's not all bad news for next
The Rangers now have in their possession a
couple of wingers with more ability than any of last year's crop.
Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter are both significant improvements from
last year, although both will expect raises as unrestricted free agents in
the off-season. If Bure comes back, then great...you've got a set of
wingers that at least matches your center ice position, if not then you at
least have Lundmark with a year of experience and perhaps the likes of a
Dominic Moore or Lucas Lawson for next year.
Secondly it is time to put Messier in his
place. The Captain needs to be the team player and take his position
on the fourth line where he was so effective late in the season. He
will no doubt be the highest paid fourth liner in the league, but then
what's new with the Rangers. Second unit power play time along with
reduced penalty kill and even strength responsibilities can only benefit
Of course if you're going to do these
things you will need a coach who can help you implement the changes
necessary. The recent reports from the always creditable Jason
Diamos of the New York Times bodes well for Rangers fans. MacTavish
played with Richter, Leetch, Kovalev and Messier as a member of the
Rangers cup winning team. He was an assistant coach here too and
knows what the position is all about.
On top of that he's gone to the playoffs
with the Oilers two out of three times and missed once with 93
points...which would have been good enough for 7th in the East in the same
Finally the goal should be to keep much of
the team together. A number of peripheral players will no doubt be
let go via free agency, including Lefebvre, Karpa and McCarthy. The
Rangers have the opportunity too to resign Leetch and Mironov as well as
perhaps dealing the inconsistent Vladimir Malakhov who is entering the
final year of his contract.
The return of Kasparaitis to form after a
poor start also means there is little room or need to add another high
priced, long-term contract to the defensive corps. If anything it
would be wiser to add players in the mould of Cory Cross and Joel Bouchard
who can provide cheap, but steady assistance on the blue line.
There is little to be had with respect to
wingers either and the only way that it appears possible the Rangers will
be able to gain anything here, especially on the left wing, is through a
trade. There are unlikely to be many who are willing to part with a
proven player so it will be up to Sather to once again test the markets
for a left winger who might fit the bill at a reasonable price.
Maybe this is a recipe for success.
It's certainly easy for me as a fan to put my thoughts down on paper with
no way of proving or disproving my theories. But while I am not privy
to the inner working of the NHL and in particular the Rangers I do think
we as the hardcore fans are sometimes more aware of some things than those
who are much closer. It's just going to take us time to convince
them that we actually know what we're talking about...