It was only last May that the New York Rangers were just two wins away from a Stanley Cup Final berth. Glen Sather built a team that head coach John Tortorella could work with, and in 2011-12, the two helped the team reach its peak.
Although the Rangers completely bought into Tortorella’s defensive system, the team lacked the offensive production to see them through to the finals. Sather saw the summer of 2012 as an opportunity to add to the team’s anemic offense and trade valuable depth for superstar Rick Nash. At the same time, the then 12-year Rangers exec found himself in several contract disputes with even more depth forwards, players like Ruslan Fedotenko, John Mitchell and Brandon Prust.
All three were eventually allowed to walk and join other clubs, so when the Rangers opened up training camp in January of 2013, Tortorella was surrounded by a host of new faces. The ensuing season will forever be considered a disappointment, despite the team’s ability to reach the second round of the playoffs. There was a clear lack of depth down the middle, a severe shortage of goals and lack of team fluidity.
In the end, Marian Gaborik and Tortorella became causalities, Brad Richards found himself the press box and Henrik Lundqvist left the organization doubting whether or not he plans to be in New York for the long haul.
The point is, the Rangers were on cloud nine just one year ago, but now things aren’t as peachy. Numerous problems have arisen over the past 12 months, so today we’ll sort through them and take a look at the most serious short-term and long-term problems.
As has been reported, Alain Vigneault has been named the next Rangers coach.
Now, although the team has put a body in the open seat relatively early, it doesn't mean the players will have an easier time adjusting to a new coach. There are a host of players on the roster who played under Tortorella for his entire tenure, and considering that the cap is going down next year, I wouldn't expect the Rangers to bring in too many players at all. So nearly the entire team is going to have to adjust to the drastically different Vigneault regime.
Everything—style of play, handling of the media, locker room atmosphere, level of accountability—will be different. For this group, it’ll be tough to abandon the intense, defensive mindset that was pounded into their heads so aggressively under Torts. Vigneault is expected to open things up, and there will no doubt be a learning curve.
Vigneault is also considered a team-first coach, so he may be more relaxed in the dressing room. Considering the popular belief that several Rangers players were unhappy with the way Tortorella ran the team, this may be a good thing. But AV’s approach in the locker room and at the practice facility is still something the players will need to adjust to.
For most of 2013, fans were calling for Tortorella’s head, but Sather stayed the course and elected to fire Torts after the season ended. Why? Probably because he didn't want to make such a drastic change in the middle of the season, and firing your coach is about as drastic as you can get.
And although Vigneault will have the offseason to prepare for his inaugural training camp in New York, there’s still a ton the players are going to have to get used to. This change isn't going to be easy, and I’d be willing to wager that we’ll be hearing or making a lot of excuses for the Rangers early in 2013-14 because of the coaching change.
Can’t and won’t sugar coat it anymore—Brad Richards’ days in New York are numbered.
His abysmal performance in 2013 and insane contract make him the top candidate for the Rangers’ second and final compliance buyout, a luxury awarded to all teams following the ratification of the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
But the hiring of Vigneault has created additional speculation concerning Richards’ future. Could the new boss get the former Conn Smythe winner back in form? He’s been known to get the most out of his star players, and maybe a large dose of AV is what the doctor ordered for Richie.
But I’m here to say that it doesn't matter. The Rangers may have $14 million in cap space as I type this article, but over the next two summers, the team will have to re-up nearly every other core player on the roster. None of them should be let go at the expense of Richards, so it’s a no-brainer—at least for me it is—that Richards gets bought out.
But let’s just assume for a minute that Sather holds off on buying out Richards this summer and No. 19 plays for the Rangers in 2013-14. What would happen if he does in fact succeed and puts up 80-plus points? Then what? The organization finds itself in a real pickle.
Regardless if something along those lines does happen, this whole situation is tricky. It’ll be tough for Sather to terminate the contract of a player who’s played just two of his nine contracted years with the team.
The Rangers GM had nothing but great things to say about Richards before he signed in New York, and even if many of us expect it to happen, it’ll still come as a shock if/when Sather decides to kick Richards to the curb.
The Rangers may have the best goaltender in the world, but if he were to ever get injured or leave the team, there would be nobody in the system who could even dream of assuming his position.
Backup Martin Biron has countless experience, but at 35 years old, he hasn't gotten steady starting time in close to five years. If Lundqvist were to leave, he would be a (very) short-term option.
Next up would be Cam Talbot, who’ll be 26 next month and, in truth, doesn't have the talent to be a starter in this league. As a backup, maybe, but most certainly not a starter.
There’s also Jason Missiaen and Scott Stajcer, but again, they don’t look like viable options down the road—at least they don’t right now. Both are quite a bit younger than Talbot, so we’ll see if they can emerge as legitimate NHL-level options, but don’t hold your breath.
So depth between the pipes is a problem. Not a run-around-and-scream-like-a-nut problem, but definitely something that needs to be addressed. I would be shocked if Sather doesn't select a goaltender with one of his picks this year, but if he doesn't, he should definitely look to bring a prospect in.
If not for the uncertainty around Lundqvist, it should be because of the simple fact that Hank isn't going to be around forever. Goaltenders need time to mature, and the Rangers need to secure a talented prospect well before Lundqvist begins his decline.
The Rangers—or any team for that matter—can’t afford to be stuck without a solid goalie. Talented keepers don’t grow on trees and the trade market can be unforgiving.
Sticking with prospects, it’s evident that the Rangers are not only thin between the pipes but also up front, in the sense that the Rangers have very few players in the pipeline that boast top-end skill in its purest form.
It’s been a problem for the Rangers for the better part of two decades. Aside from Alex Kovalev, have the Rangers drafted, developed and brought up a superstar forward in the past 20 years?
Sure, they've got Chris Kreider, but he’s already been graduated to the pros and last year showed us maybe he’s more of a project than anything else. I’m not saying he can’t be a star in this league; I’m just saying that it’s pretty up in the air right now. I think many of you would agree.
Below Kreider on the depth chart are players like J.T. Miller, Christian Thomas, Michael St. Croix and Jesper Fast, all of whom are exciting prospects, but none of them are high-end gamebreakers.
Does anyone else find it ironic that the Rangers, who have had yearly struggles in the offensive zone, haven’t been able to either select or develop top-end talent?
Sure, they've been short on top-10 picks, but so have teams like the Red Wings, Devils and Ducks, but that didn't stop them from discovering and grooming players like Pavel Datsyuk, Zach Parise and Ryan Getzlaf, all of whom were not selected anywhere near the top 10.
Ironic or not, these players have eluded the Rangers under Sather. It could be a scouting issue or a developmental issue, but the truth is that if you look at the rosters of the Stanley Cup champions of the past decade, they all feature top-end forwards who came up in their respective team’s system.
Instead, the Rangers have relied on the free-agent market to bring in these players, and we all know how nearly all of those experiments have ended.
If things don’t change soon, the future Rangers will reap what the past and current Rangers have sown for far too long.