The New York Rangers are at a major crossroad in their long history.
Two Ranger greats may be on their way out. Brendan Shanahan may have played his last season and Jaromir Jagr may be headed to another city, or even overseas.
The franchise must ask where to go from here.
In the past, the Rangers have bloated their roster with spicy free agents that have produced inconsistently. This year’s installments were Scott Gomez and Chris Drury.
This year’s Stanley Cup finalists feature two teams that have done the complete opposite.
Both the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins have grown from within. The Red Wings nabbed superstars Niklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in later rounds, while the Penguins were fortunate enough to get the dynamic duo of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the first round of their respective drafts.
These players and several others will lift the Stanley Cup with their first and only franchise.
This trend is not just prevalent in Detroit and Pittsburgh. Philadelphia and Dallas employ various former prospects and see great success.
The Rangers do not have a Datsyuk or Zetterberg to show for previous drafts. Rather, they have Jagr and Martin Straka, two now mediocre stars who were acquired via free agency.
Although these free agents have big names and paychecks, they have cast a spell of mediocrity on a storied franchise in America’s hottest sports market.
The only way to remedy the mediocrity is internal growth, which is hockey speak for patience.
The Rangers have many promising prospects.
The Hartford Wolf Pack (the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate) boasts two of the AHL’s top scorers in Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau and Greg Moore. Andrew Hutchinson has also developed as an offensive defenseman with Hartford.
In Finland, prospect Jarkko Immonen put up solid numbers.
2007 first round draft pick Alexei Cherepanov broke former Ranger Pavel Bure’s rookie goal record in the Russian Super League last season. If the Rangers can get Cherepanov out of Russia’s grasp, he will be an explosive edition to the team.
The Rangers also have many prospects budding throughout major junior and college hockey. Look for Ryan Hillier (Halifax, QMJHL), Antoine Lafleur (PEI, QMJHL) and Carl Hagelin (Michigan, CCHA) to be in the Ranger system soon.
The Rangers have relied heavily on free agents to grow the franchise. While these additions have provided a quick fix, they have not achieved the ultimate goal: the Stanley Cup.
Naturally, instinct tells Rangers’ management to fire head coach Tom Renney or even general manager Glen Sather, but why not fire the players?
If Jagr wants more money, let him walk. If Shanahan wants to retire, more power to him. Reinvest the money spent on them into scouting.
The Rangers must grow from within to succeed. They have quality prospects now and have another draft to acquire more.
Sure, more mediocrity will ensue as young players find themselves in the NHL, but New York fans will grow up with the new generation of Rangers. If the Rangers remain loyal to their prospects, their fans will remain loyal to them.
Look at the Penguins. Fans are literally growing up with Crosby and Malkin.
Fans cannot connect with players who are in the twilight of their career and may not be in town next season.
The Rangers have many things to ponder. It will be interesting to see where Jagr and Straka go and if Shanahan retires. The most integral parts of the Rangers’ future, however, may not make headlines, for it could be in the latter rounds of the draft.
Ranger success is not a coaching change, big free agent signing or trade. It is prospect growth and patience.