2003-04-19 / Sports

What Happened?!?!? : A Metro Hockey Report

Hockey Columnist
By Andrei Petrovitch
What Happened?!?!? : A Metro Hockey Report

What Happened?!?!? : A Metro Hockey Report


By Andrei Petrovitch

Hockey Columnist

By special request, I’ve been asked to take a break from observing the two metro area teams who are in the playoffs (the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils) to comment on the team that isn’t.

Despite a payroll allegedly in the neighborhood of $80 million, the New York Rangers have succeeded in missing the playoffs for a franchise record sixth-straight year. What makes this so distressing is that the team has missed the playoffs despite employing some of the most talented players in the history of the game. Coaching changes, trades, and free agency – the common prescriptions for quick improvement in hockey – have been ineffective at best, disastrous at worse.

GM/President/Coach Glen Sather must de­­cide whether to hire a new coach or stay behind the bench for the 2003-2004 season. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin).GM/President/Coach Glen Sather must de­­cide whether to hire a new coach or stay behind the bench for the 2003-2004 season. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin).

Expectations for a franchise once considered the flagship of the National Hockey League have lowered considerably; Ranger fans are often the subject of Internet message board ridicule. Making matters worse is the fact that nearly EVERYONE is blaming the Rangers for throwing the NHL’s salary structure out of whack and sending the sport on the fast lane to financial ruin. Needless to say, those pointing the fingers of blame are laughing right now at yet another losing Ranger season.

So what happened this year? And what can the team do about it next year? CAN the team do anything different next year? Let’s examine some of the big questions:

Question: Why didn’t Bryan Trottier work out as head coach?

Answer: First of all, I’ll be the first to admit that no one could have possibly seen Trottier’s failure coming. He said all the right things at his press conference, and he certainly had the respect – early on – of his players. Some media outlets had even predicted that he would win coach of the year honors!

Can Eric Lindros (left) and Alexei Kovalev be a big part of a Ranger playoff run next year? (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin).Can Eric Lindros (left) and Alexei Kovalev be a big part of a Ranger playoff run next year? (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin).

However, there were signs even in the season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes (a 4-1 win). Despite the result, a problem began to emerge. Mark Messier, only a few months shy of his 42 birthday, was playing major minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill/power play special teams. Why? At this stage in his career, he functions best as a third or fourth line center.

Trottier’s bizarre practice of overplaying Messier continued well into the season, thus reducing the Captain’s effectiveness. Also, Trottier refused to deploy his forward lines in such a manner as to match up effectively with the opposing team. As a result, enemy coaches would exploit the weaknesses in the Ranger roster (more later). This tactic effectively nullified any skill advantage that the Rangers may have had, as the opposition’s best defensive line would always be on the ice to counter the New York offense. Surprisingly, Trottier refused to line match for strange philosophical reasons, implying that it would be beneath him to do so (and despite evidence that his team was suffering as a result). His team was also extremely disorganized on the breakout and undisciplined in its own zone.

Question: So it’s all Trottier’s fault then, right?

Answer: Not quite. The team was very unbalanced, with much of its skill based at the center ice position. Aside from the chronically injured Pavel Bure, there was very little depth on the wings. The left side was a major concern all year; Matthew Barnaby has a first liner’s heart but a third liner’s hands, while Ronald Petrovicky will be known more for his hit totals than his goal totals. Petr Nedved’s flirtation with left wing was a failure, as his Euro-finesse style never meshed with Eric Lindros’ Canadian crash-and-bang tendencies.

Help came in the form of Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter, but both came too late and saw their speed-based abilities suffer on the crappy Madison Square Garden ice. Rookie Jamie Lundmark played well following a call up from the minors, but he’s best suited for the right side…which, along with center ice, is very crowded. General manager Glen Sather is to blame in this area, folks.

Question: What about the defense? That’s one position with major talent, right?

Answer: Well, yes and no. The Rangers certainly have some able blueliners: Brian Leetch, Vladimir Malakhov, Tom Poti, Darius Kasparaitus, blah blah blah. However, without a system in which the defensemen know when and where to headman the puck to the forwards on the breakout, or back each other up when one of them goes on a rush or out for a big hit, the names are irrelevant. That said, Boris Mironov was a good pick up; his righty shot was desperately needed on the power play. Still, names without roles or direction are just names – nothing more.

Question: What about Goaltending? And Injuries? The team suffered mightily in both areas this year.

Answers: Don’t give me the injury excuse – the best TEAMS (notice the emphasis) are always able to overcome the broken bones, cuts, and sprains that are inevitable every season.

As for goaltending, the Rangers were actually in a position of strength. After his arrival from the Nashville Predators, Mike Dunham (.916 Save %, 2.50 Goals Against Average) manage to steal games for the inept squad in front of him, while Dan Blackburn remains a building block for the future…if he can manage to overcome his weakness to letting in high shots. Both can, with effective coaching, form a reliable tandem in the nets in the coming season. Trottier’s mediocre coaching also ruined this facet of the Rangers, as both netminders had to endure long consecutive-games-played streaks that drove them into the ground.

Question: So, smartass, what do you recommend that the team do differently? Huh?!?!

Answer: For one thing, Glen Sather should stop the revolving door. The current players should be allowed to get used to each other’s tendencies and bond as a real team. The only exception, of course, should be if an effective left winger becomes available. Then again, there is very little available, so it’s probably best to let Anson Carter get a shot at that position and hope that maybe a minor league call up (John Tripp? Garth Murray?) can make the jump into the majors.

Also, whoever coaches this team has to instill discipline. Individualism must be sacrificed in order to make this fantasy league team play like a real one. The ‘80s obsession that the organization suffers from must also end; freewheeling hockey doesn’t win hockey games any more, but solid defense and intense forechecking does.

Question: Okay, fine. But why is it that critics, especially, those of the Canadian variety, blame the Rangers for the NHL’s financial failures when over expansion and bad business planning are the true culprits?

Answer: I dunno…maybe they hate Cablevision? I’m too tired; I may address that in another column. Until then, have fun watching the playoffs. Right now, the Rangers are doing the same thing.

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