This was supposed to be a big year for the New York Rangers. It was anticipated that they would be able to use the largely successful 2011-2012 campaign and playoff run as a springboard to bigger things, and there were many pundits that predicted a Stanley Cup championship to boot.
Offseason acquisition Rick Nash was the missing piece up front, and with a roster of returning young talent on offense and defense the high expectations for the 2012-2013 season were justified. The next step, in other words, was supposed to be the final step towards a Cup win.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the Stanley Cup win. In fact, if truth be told, a whole host of funny things happened. Within the walls of the Rangers' executive suites, however, nobody is laughing. They're not laughing about the lockout, the play of Brad Richards, the relentlessly stubborn and grossly disrespectful behavior of their coach or, in general, about the wasted season that began with such promise.
Change is necessary, far more change than anyone would have anticipated when the season began and even more now that the playoffs are over for the team. Holes were exposed, critical weaknesses proved devastating and, in large part, the culture appears to have been corrupted.
While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions to be made by Glen Sather and the remainder of the Rangers' executive team between now and the beginning of camp in September, the following five decisions should simply be automatic.
Current Rangers' Coach John Tortorella
In the case of John Tortorella, there is perhaps no more damning indication of just how quickly he should be let go than a comment he made during the team breakup over this past weekend. The quote is as follows;
“I know I’m supposed to feel it was a disappointing season, but I don’t buy it and I won’t,” the coach said to the New York Post. “I don’t think we took a step back. I think it was a sideways step.”
As any observer would tell you, this season was by no means a sideways step. The team struggled all season to gain any kind of momentum, and it wasn't until after the trade deadline that the group showed itself capable of sustaining a winning approach night in and night out.
The trade deadline brought in talent, no doubt; however, it could be said that the Rangers possessed enough talent from day one to perform consistently over the course of the season. The deadline acquisitions of Ryan Clowe, Derick Brassard, John Moore and Mats Zuccarello were compelling - and to a relative degree each of these players has the ability to positively contribute in the years to come if they remain with the team—however, had the players on the roster from day one been utilized properly there would not have been the need to overhaul the team so late in the season.
Specifically, Marian Gaborik, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller were perhaps the most poorly utilized assets in all of hockey this year. Gaborik was inexplicably asked to switch wings, despite potting 105 goals over his first three seasons as a Ranger and despite the fact that he was arguably the only asset that opposing teams needed to focus on for the first two of those seasons.
As for Kreider and Miller, two of the most promising talents to come out of the US Hockey program in many years, they each spent more time looking over their shoulders waiting for their coach to harass them than they did concentrating on what they do best, which is create offense. And in the case of Miller specifically, Tortorella refused to allow the young center to gain any momentum, instead relying on an obviously overmatched Brad Richards for the entire season.
Did the Rangers lose some key personnel between last season and this? Yes, they did. With this said, though, Tortorella should have been able to overcome the loss of key role players like Brandon Prust, John Mitchell, Ruslan Fedotenko, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky simply because he had the assets to do so. By trading those players or letting them walk the implicit message was that the team could thrive without their services. And with the exception of Prust, who received an absurd offer from Montreal, the Rangers had every opportunity to decide to keep each of these assets.
Tortorella knew these deals and decisions were being made, and to imagine that he fought tooth and nail to keep Rick Nash from coming to New York is equally absurd as imagining that the Rangers power play has been an effective weapon for the past three years or so.
Lockout or no lockout, and Tortorella is sure to take every opportunity to mention the lockout, this Rangers team had the same opportunity to prepare for the season as every other team in the league. That the team began the season woefully unprepared to compete with the assets available is a testament to Tortorella's stubborn refusal to adjust to his roster.
It was a fatal flaw of his, perhaps his most profound fatal flaw, and though he is responsible for putting together some teams that achieved some great moments the reality is that he is not the man to coach the current roster of the New York Rangers.
His collapse defense approach, as well as his tendency to stifle offensive creativity, works well with a roster of lunch-pail players. The current Rangers are not the lunch-pail type, though, and Tortorella's preferred offensive and defensive schemes only serve to ground his best players and place them in physical jeopardy with the shot-blocking demands imposed on them.
Tortorella should hold his head high as he exits, but he should exit nonetheless.
He was the missing piece. He was the big-name, high-kill center who would finally take the pressure off of Marian Gaborik, the only serious threat in the Rangers' lineup for two years running. If he wasn't the second coming of Mark Messier, well, he was close enough.
That was the hype prior to the 2011-2012 season, after Brad Richards had signed a very long and very expensive contract during the summer of 2011. The hype was reasonable, and justified, because coming into that season Richards had established himself as a legitimate number one center in the NHL, capable of handling the pressure of producing on a nightly basis.
The 2011-2012 season, however, was a step back for Richards, so much so that it was only due to a late-season surge that he was able to even approach a respectable level of production for a player of his standing. He was given the responsibility of running the offense, essentially, and certainly the power play, and he wasn't up to the task for much of that season.
The late-season surge, though, as well as a return-to-form showing in the 2012 playoffs (15 points in 20 games), seemed to indicate that, coming into the 2012-2013 season, Brad Richards would ultimately be the player he was expected to be.
With the 2012-2013 season now over, Rangers fans are painfully aware of the fact that Brad Richards is not the player he was expected to be. Regardless of his role as player representative during the lockout he had an obligation to be ready to play when the season began. This was not the case, not by any means, and the team suffered as a result.
Marian Gaborik, who was in game-shape despite offseason shoulder surgery, was sentenced to playing with Richards for much of the season prior to his trade to Columbus. Along with being forced to the opposite wing by Tortorella, this proved fatal to Gaborik's career as a Ranger.
Richards was always a step behind physically and mentally. He telegraphed his passes, couldn't keep up through the neutral zone on rushes and seemed completely lost on the power play. Poor decision after poor decision by Richards resulted in a power play that was essentially neutered for the regular season and into the playoffs, and the team couldn't overcome this reality in time for it to make a difference.
The Rangers are permitted one more compliance buyout, wherein the burden of a contract is essentially forgiven. This is an option but perhaps not the best option, as trading Richards accomplishes the removal of the contract in addition to bringing a return.
Trading Richards, however, would be difficult to say the least. His contract is huge and his skill seems to be eroding, a combination that does not bode well in the least. It should be explored, of course, and if success is not found the compliance option should be exercised.
Most importantly, removing Richards from the mix would be the definition of addition by subtraction. More than six million would be freed up in year one of the deal alone, and those are critical dollars in a year where the salary cap as a whole is shrinking by roughly six million as well.
Regardless of how the math works out, though, Brad Richards should not be wearing a Rangers uniform next year.
This was and remains a no-brainer kind of move, however recent comments by King Henrik indicate that the Rangers may not have a lock on their all-universe netminder as he approaches unrestricted status at the end of next season. Specifically, Lundqvist stated in the New York Post that he is "... going to talk to my agent and will see. I [have] had such a great time in New York. They’ve treated me really well and gave me the opportunity to play. “It’s been a lot of fun. I have one more year on my contract and we’ll see.”
Note all the past tense comments there, and notice the lack of a resounding and emphatic "yes, I look forward to signing and bringing a Cup to New York."
Whether this is gamesmanship on Lundqvist's part or not, the most revealing aspect of things is the departure this represents from the usual, one-big-happy-family culture that seemed to exist in Tortorella's locker room.
Lundqvist could have spiced his comments with indications of his likely return, however another comment by the goalie is directly at odds with Tortorella's comments on the success of the season. Whereas Tortorella described the season as a "step sideways," Lundqvist made it clear that he defined the year as a "step back".
The signing of Lundqvist, of course, dovetails with the need to remove Brad Richards from the mix. Lundqvist is not the only asset that needs to be addressed, considering that the team also has to decide on the amount of dollars they will dish out to Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and others, however he is the most critical.
Lundqvist will ask for the a fortune, most likely around eight years at eight million each, and he will get it from the Rangers or someone else. All the more reason why Brad Richards needs to go.
The current Rangers roster includes Carl Hagelin, the reigning fastest skater in the NHL, and Chris Kreider, widely recognized as being an even faster skater. Additionally, there are Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and John Moore on defense, Derek Stepan, Derrick Brassard, Rich Nash, Ryan Callahan, J.T. Miller and others on offense whose speed and skating ability can push the pace of any game.
Skill-wise, all of the above mentioned players have a number of dimensions to their game that are too often suppressed under the current team systems.
The Rangers under John Tortorella, of course, choose to slog along. They choose to collapse on defense as opposed to pressuring the puck, leading to the need for more dangerous shot-blocking scenarios than seemingly any other team faces. Their power play, instead of featuring movement and pace, features statue-like chess pieces that are only compelled to move when the opposition inevitably clears the puck.
If Tortorella is still employed next season, he needs to coach to his roster, a point we made in this space after the Game 3 loss to Boston. He will need to utilize the assets he has vs. the assets he apparently wishes he had.
If Tortorella is not the coach next season, well, that brings us to our last slide of the day.
He saved the franchise once before, and he is the man to do it again.
In the current NHL universe, perhaps not even Wayne Gretzky himself commands as much respect as a leader as does Mark Messier. The once and always Rangers' captain is that revered and special.
Quite fortunately for the organization, Messier is already in the Rangers fold. As a special advisor to GM Glen Sather, Messier has no doubt influenced personnel decisions for the past several seasons. His presence in and around the team gives him insights into team make-up and capabilities that no outside candidate could hope to offer, and, in the end, its Mark Messier in possession of those insights.
Messier, by simply walking into the locker room on day one of camp, would make the team better. He personifies the combination of world class skill and world class grit, and he would undoubtedly bring out whichever of those qualities a player lacks in or show that player the door.
Perhaps most critically, however, Messier would likely be proponent of a skill and speed-based approach. attributes that he brought to the table every night of his storied career, attributes that this current Rangers roster possesses in good amount.
Messier would also be capable of ridding the team of the cultural malaise that appears to have infected the core players, the same malaise that led to the team, by John Tortorella's own admission, not being ready to compete when they dropped the puck for Game 1 vs. Boston.
For much of the past several seasons, Messier has spent his time seated next to Glen Sather in the executive boxes. It is time he moves behind the bench, if he is in fact inclined to accept such a position, because the Rangers desperately need the paradigm shift that he would bring virtually overnight.
Simply put, the Rangers could not hope to do better than Mark Messier as their coach.