"The King" cannot do it alone.
Another early playoff exit for the New York Rangers, and another time when it comes as no surprise.
At least by losing in five games to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals the Rangers lost to a team they were expected to lose to. The New Jersey Devils normally lose in the playoffs to teams they are expected to beat.
The Rangers were as overmatched against the Capitals as the Washington Generals are against the Harlem Globetrotters. They could barely muster any decent scoring chances against the Caps defense. Many of the Rangers goals were flukes caused by crazy caroms and bad bounces. And Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth had plenty of time to check his Blackberry because most of the action happened at the opposite end of the ice.
You can spin the theory that the Rangers should have won Games 1 and 4 and could have won the series, or at worst, been defeated in seven games. Or if you watched the five games, you can make the argument that the scores were not indicative of how much better the Capitals were because Rangers franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi played their hearts out to keep their squad in every low-scoring contest.
There are many mystifying things going on in the world these days. How does Charlie Sheen sell out Radio City Music Hall when all he does is ramble about drugs, ex-wives and tiger blood? Why do people care about President Obama’s birth certificate more than the economy? And when did Mike Tyson become an expert on pigeon racing?
Another mystifying thing is how New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather keeps his job after a decade-plus. Maybe it is not so crazy considering his employer, owner James Dolan, has a bizarre affection for big-name executives who run his franchises into the ground (example: Isiah Thomas).
So another first-round failure will not cost Sather his GM post. Unless he trades Lundqvist to the Philadelphia Flyers for a sixth-round pick in 2015 or is photographed in a hot tub with Denis Potvin, Sather is safer than a guy wearing a bulletproof vest to a water pistol shooting contest.
Since Sather will hang around, he must make some roster moves to improve the team heading into the 2011-12 campaign. Why would Sather make decent decisions now after a decade of dumbness? Maybe he can take the same pill Bradley Cooper’s character did in Limitless. Or maybe he will read this column.
Here are the four things Sather has to do this summer to turn the Rangers into a serious Cup contender.
No more relying on soft wingers from the Western Conference!
Every offseason the Rangers need the same thing— someone to put the puck in the net. And every offseason, Sather spends money or trades draft choices and players to acquire forwards with great skills, fast feet and solid stats from the Western Conference.
And this plan normally fails.
Marian Gaborik’s first year with the Rangers was somewhat successful (42 goals, but no playoff berth for the Rangers). This year, not so much. Just 22 goals in 62 games for the oft-injured Gaborik, and he was virtually nonexistent in the playoffs with only one goal and one assist.
Alex Frolov was a horror show on skates, someone who proved why he was consistently in the doghouse during his days with the L.A. Kings. After scoring 50-plus points for five straight years with Hollywood’s hockey team, Frolov only mustered 16 points in 43 games for the Blueshirts. And before he could turn things around in the second half of the season, he tore his ACL.
Losing Frolov led to Sather trading for Wojtek Wolski, a man who makes Petr Nedved look like a power forward and who was as invisible as a Democrat during a Tea Party rally. Wolski scored 19 points in 37 games with the Rangers and finished with 35 points overall, which was highly underwhelming consider he scored a career-high 65 points last season.
I will not go into great detail about past Sather seasons where he put faith in similar-styled forwards like Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund and Pavel Bure and received mediocre-at-best results in return. But you see the pattern.
Sather has to remember the Rangers play in the Eastern Conference and need bigger wings who are strong along the boards, do not shy away from physical contact and can play solidly in their own zone. Sadly, I have a sinking suspicion that Alex Tanguay is headed our way knowing Sather, and Tanguay does not fit the profile.
Get Gaborik a playmaking center!
Gaborik is not like Alex Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk. He cannot create his own scoring opportunities. He is more of a Brett Hull-type, better at finding open space around the net and scoring when set up by a skilled center.
The Rangers have failed miserably in pairing Gaborik with a center who can regularly pass him the puck in perfect scoring situations. There is no Ranger on the roster who has Craig Janney or Henrik Sedin-like playmaking abilities, so Sather will have to acquire one.
The problem is the Rangers do not have a lot of salary cap room, although some space can be created up if overpaid, past-their-prime veterans like Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal are chopped off the payroll.
Everyone wants Sather to sign Dallas’ Brad Richards to a free-agent deal. And everyone is smart and right. Richards would be ideal for Gaborik. He is a pass-first pivot who can skate with Gaborik and be the Rajon Rondo to Gabby’s Ray Allen.
Yes, Richards suffered a concussion this season, is 31 years old and will not come cheap. But unless Sather cons a team out of its first-line center for Sean Avery and a puck autographed by Tie Domi, or unless he trades a cornerstone like Staal, Richards, who scored 77 points this season and 91 the season before, is the best option available.
Acquire a decent backup for Henrik Lundqvist!
The Rangers like waiting to do things until the last minute. That’s why these procrastinators never secure a playoff spot until the last week of the season. From the All-Star break on, every game has playoff implications, meaning Lundqvist ends up starting 30-plus games in a row and tires himself out heading into the playoffs. This has got to stop.
Martin Biron sounded like a good pickup at the time last offseason, and he was more than decent when he suited up—8-6-0, 2.13 GAA, .923 SP. But Biron’s body betrayed him, and he was not available down the stretch, meaning Lundqvist had to play all the time.
The Rangers cannot go with a youngster behind Lundqvist. There are plenty of low-cost backup goalies who are unrestricted free agents, such as Ray Emery, Henrik Karlsson, Mathieu Garon and Jose Theodore, who Sather can sign to play 20-25 games and keep “The King” fresh for the postseason—if the Rangers reach it.
Add a defenseman who can run a power play!
This is another problem Rangers fans fuss about every offseason. The Rangers have not had an above-average power-play quarterback since Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov manned the points when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, and finding an offensive defenseman is about as easy as telling Don Cherry to pipe down.
Many defensemen have skated through Madison Square Garden over the past decade, and most have made the Rangers faithful pine for Leetch and Zubov even more (examples: Paul Mara and Wade Redden). Heck, after the last couple years, I have been pining for Tom Poti.
Bryan McCabe was supposed to be Sather’s big coup at the trading deadline. Since defensive stalwarts Girardi and Staal are not exactly Larry Murphy and Paul Coffey, the plan was for McCabe to handle the first-unit power-play duties. Sounded great on paper. McCabe had a booming shot and five 15-goal seasons to his credit.
But McCabe’s performance in the playoffs did not earn him any future multi-million contracts. The Rangers were abysmal on the power play against the Capitals, and in the end, McCabe only scored eight points in his 24-game stint with the Rangers.
Tomas Kaberle, Joni Pitkanen, James Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff share two things in common. All are unrestricted free agents, and all scored more points this season than any Rangers defenseman.
Sather should do his darndest to sign one of these guys to boost the scoring from the blue line. It may be tricky because of the salary cap constraints, especially if attempting to sign Richards AND one of these defensemen, but the Rangers have players they can release and young talent to trade in order to make it happen.
The New York Rangers have a solid foundation and future. They had many youngsters at both forward and defense step up this season and take over major roles. Now it is time to fill in the blanks around them with more offensive talent and depth, and then maybe Sather can help lift the Rangers into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 13 years.