When you factor in that Mike Keenan’s Stanley Cup-producing tenure as head coach of the New York Rangers only lasted one season, you can make the argument that Tom Renney is the best coach the team has had in something resembling a generation without being instantly straight-jacketed and taken off to the Hockey Insane Asylum.
Perhaps that says more about the past 30 years in Rangers history than about Coach Renney, but his contributions to the team and to those who root for it cannot be marginalized.
He lead the franchise out of a seven-season span in which they were the laughing stock of the league and would have been, but for the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the laughing stock of all professional sports.
He returned the team to respectability and lead them to three straight playoff berths, the last two of which including first round upsets of the Atlanta Thrashers and the cross-river rival New Jersey Devils.
But, today, with a heavy heart I must recommend that his tenure with the Rangers come to an end.
This season, which opened with two wins in two days in Prague and continued with much early success, is dangerously close to becoming a serious disaster. The Rangers have roughly a quarter of their season left and are in 6th place in the Eastern Conference, yet they are separated from the wrong side of the playoff line by a mere five points.
The team closest to the cut, Carolina, has a game in-hand on the Rangers.
The team behind them, Pittsburgh, is six points behind the Rangers with an equal amount of games left and packs too much talent to dismiss the possibility of a serious run even though their first game following their own coaching change produced a shootout loss to the woeful Islanders yesterday afternoon.
Sitting at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis last night watching a deeply disturbing loss to a sub .500 team, the reality of the situation was inescapable as the individual game played out as a microcosm of the season.
Early on the Rangers seemed to carry the play, but produced very few quality scoring chances and no goals. As the game approached the midway point the Rangers still seemed to control the play, but that balance was tipping until just past the 10:00 mark of the second. The Blues were sustaining major pressure in the Rangers’ zone.
Following an icing call that negated the television timeout and forced the Rangers to keep their same line on the ice, Renney called a timeout to give the players that had just fended off that attack, time to recover prior to the defensive zone faceoff.
While the strategy might have been logical, it proved moot as the Blues won the faceoff clean and scored on a Carlo Colaiacovo slapshot. There is, perhaps, no greater indicator of a doomed coach then when decisions that make sense 99 times out of 100 go wrong.
Granted, a wicked slapshot off a clean faceoff win can happen at any time and the Rangers tied the game six minutes later before going on to give up the game-winner with just over five minutes to play.
But, from the time of the Blues’ first goal to the end of the game, the Rangers’ were outshot approximately 20-5. After holding a lead in shots of 15-9 around the time of the Blues’ goal the final shot total was 33-20 in favor of the Blues. To say the Rangers got smothered, understates it substantially.
With last night’s loss, the Rangers sit 2-6-2 in their last 10 games. At that pace they could very easily be looking up at Carolina and/or Pittsburgh by this time next week. It was hard to watch last night’s game unfold without a sense that this team no longer had the passion required to win.
There is certainly more to hockey than winning the shot count, but to be so completely dominated in that category for the game’s final half suggests a lack of determination.
The Blues have given up 172 goals this season. Teams find ways to get shots against them. The Rangers had four in a 3rd period that began tied.
The rationale for moving past the Renney era goes beyond the team’s recent struggles. Starved for April-and-later hockey, the average Ranger fan is deeply appreciative for the past three postseasons. But, the truth of the matter is that the team has failed to improve.
The first playoff season featured one of the most non-competitive four game sweeps imaginable at the hands of the Devils. The second year, they surprised eveyone with a four game sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers and a reasonably competitive six-game loss to the Sabres.
Last year began equally impressively with an upset of the Devils, but then, after being up 3-0 in game one against Pittsburgh, the Rangers went on to lose that game and the series in more-or-less non-competitive fashion.
There is also some real concern about the development of young players as well. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, still an All-Star, has not progressed past where he was when he burst on the scene with 30 wins in 50 starts in 2005-2006 and won the Gold Medal for Sweden in the Olympics.
This season he has the highest GAA of his career and only two shutouts compared to 10 last season. Petr Prucha excited Ranger fans the same season with a 30-goal rookie campaign has declined steadily, granted with the assistance of injuries, ever since.
To be clear this isn’t all Coach Renney’s fault. Something about this team feels a lot more like Glen Sather’s earlier attempts than the gritty teams that initially pulled the Rangers out of their broken-mirror. Losing a talent like Jaromir Jagr certainly is a blow that’s hard to absorb.
The acquisition of Markus Naslund to replace him was clearly inadequate. Naslund, who currently has 17 goals which would seem to be on pace for the 25 he’s averaged the past three seasons, is not the kind of electrifying playmaker that raises the game of those who share the ice with him that Jagr was.
But, we all know of the Dolan family’s undying loyalty to Sather so we can safely assume that he will at least be afforded the opportunity to make one more coaching change. If he wants this season to amount to anything, he’d better make it soon.