New York Rangers: How Did Chris Drury Wind Up Here?

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New York Rangers: How Did Chris Drury Wind Up Here?
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Chris Drury Playing for the US Olympic team in 2010

It is rumoured that Glen Sather, the spendthrift General Manager of the New York Rangers, is preparing to buy out the final year of Chris Drury's $7.05 million per year contract. If he does this, it will be the fourth-largest contract he has signed and then managed to wiggle out of, each time in a different fashion.

Two years ago, Sather managed to convince Swedish LW Marcus Naslund ($4 million per year) to retire. That same offseason, he traded C Scott Gomez ($7.357 million per year over five years) to the Montreal Canadiens and actually got players back for him. Finally, a year later, in a move that has sent veterans scrambling for No Movement Clauses in their contracts, he had D Wade Redden ($6.5 million a year for five years) demoted to the minors, apparently for the duration of his contract.

If Sather manages to buy out Chris Drury this year, he will have taken a net $18.94 million off the Rangers' payroll in two short years.

Chris Drury is paid like he's a top-quality first-line offensive center. Unfortunately at this time in his career he is, when healthy, a quality third-line checking center.

The disparity between his salary and the role he plays has led to considerable criticism from fans and the press. Ultimately, it looks to be the cause of the Rangers' attempt to dump him from the roster. It was not always like this for Drury.

Chris Drury was drafted in the third round in 1994 (72nd overall) by the Quebec Nordiques. He was drafted out of Fairfield University Preparatory School, where he had excelled in their hockey program. He was a multi-sport athlete who was the winning pitcher in the 1989 Little League World Series championship game. If he was spoken of at all at this time, he was spoken of as an athlete who was a leader and a winner.

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Drury won't be the first Sather signing to be pushed out of town

The young American chose to go to Boston University and join their prestigious NCAA Division I program. He spent four years there, winning the National Championship over the Maine Black Bears in 1995. BU won the Hockey East Conference championships two of the four years Drury played for them. They won the Beanpot tournament all four years Chris was a terrier, from 1995-1998.

Chris still holds the record for career goals with Boston U with 113. He was team captain in his senior year. Chris won the Hobey Baker award as the top NCAA men's ice hockey player in his last year in college (1997/'98).  

Drury joined the NHL for the 1998/'99 season. At 22, he was a little more seasoned than most NHL rookies.

He had 20 goals and 44 points in his first year for the Colorado Avalanche, who had moved from Quebec while he was in university. He beat out teammate Milan Hejduk, Marian Hossa, Dan Boyle, JP Dumont, Sami Salo and Vincent Lecavalier among others for rookie of the year honours.

Drury was an important member on those strong Colorado teams. He was fifth in team scoring in the regular season and during the playoffs as they won their second Stanley Cup in 2001.

He followed up the Stanley Cup-winning season with a subpar 2001/'02. He managed to score 21 goals but only had 46 points—a drop of 19 points. This was his worst season with Colorado since his rookie year. He again contributed in the playoffs with 16 points in 21 games but the Avalanche lost in seven games to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference final.

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During the offseason, Drury was traded to the Calgary Flames for defenseman Derek Morris. The Avalanche was looking for help on defense and seemed to have come to the conclusion Drury was likely to never be more than a depth offensive player. 

The Flames tried Drury out on the first line with center Craig Conroy and winger Jarome Iginla. Drury was talented: a good stick handler and a reasonable skater and shooter. He just didn't seem to be a first-line offensive talent.

He got a chance at center in Calgary and made himself useful there. He might have done better as center between Iginla and another offensively talented winger. But of course, on that Calgary team, that would have likely been Martin Gelinas or Oleg Saprykin. 

The Flames didn't feel Drury produced enough offense for the ice time he was given and dropped him back to the second and then third line. Mind you, this was the same management that traded center Marc Savard after ten games that year for Ruslan Zanuillin. They weren't really a crack group of talent evaluators or utilizers.

The Flames missed the playoffs and they quickly bundled Chris Drury to the Buffalo Sabres for another 1994 draft pick, defenseman Rhett Warrener, (Florida Panthers, second round, 27th overall). Rhett fit nicely into the Flames tough-guy image. Unfortunately, he couldn't stay healthy enough to make a positive contribution in Calgary—ironic really.

Drury, meanwhile, had two of his best offensive NHL seasons with the Sabres. There was more offensive talent to play with in Buffalo. Drury quickly became the Sabres' best faceoff man. He was third on the team in ice time his first year.

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Chris had his best years in Buffalo

The lockout gave Drury the opportunity to get completely healthy. When the NHL started up again in 2005, first-line center Daniel Briere missed half the season with injuries. Chris found himself at the front of the queue in Buffalo.

He lead the team's forwards in time on the ice and ice time on the power play. He was second among the forwards killing penalties. He was also the Buffalo Sabres' best faceoff-man, leading in attempts with 1641 and success rate at 55.5 percent.

Drury scored 30 goals and 67 points—both career highs. Despite the fact Briere was back for the playoffs and led the team in playoff scoring, Drury was still a team leader. He had nine goals and 18 points in 18 playoff games. He helped the Sabres get to the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes.

The next season in Buffalo saw Drury have his best offensive season despite a slight decrease in ice time.  He had that opportunity to play with Briere and Vanek at times that season. He scored 37 goals and 69 points in 77 games, again career highs. He helped the team win the Northeast Division. They made it again to the Eastern Conference Finals, again losing, this time in five games to the Ottawa Senators. He was again the second leading Buffalo scorer in the playoffs behind only Daniel Briere with eight goals and 13 points in 16 playoff games. 

This season highlighted the virtues and the problems with Chris Drury's game. He is a versatile, talented player. He is defensively skilled enough to be a teams' best checking and penalty killing forward. He also possesses reasonable offensive talent. His faceoff ability is useful in an offensive as well as a defensive role. 

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Flames Didn't Understand What they had in Drury

This combination of skills got him slotted into the No. 1 center spot for large portions of the season. At 30, he had his best offensive season in the NHL. He was second among forwards on the team in ice time and power play ice time, and played with some extremely talented offensive players. He was still only a 69-point a year player.

The Calgary Flames, when they traded for him, imagined a Chris Drury, who had 65-67 points as a second or third-line player, would blossom into at least a point-a-game player when put on the first line. When that didn't happen in Calgary, they quickly tired of him.

The time in Buffalo proved that Drury didn't have the pure offensive talent to be a real first-line NHL center. Teams looking to win cups and score goals need to have first-line players who are at least point-a-game contributors.

Still, Drury played a huge role in Buffalo. The team missed the playoffs twice and hasn't made it beyond the first round since he left.

Glen Sather and the New York Rangers, like the Calgary Flames before them, envisioned Chris Drury as their first-line center. In July of 2007, Sather signed two of the more highly regarded free-agent centers to plus $7 million per year, multi-year contracts.

They signed two centers whom, at that point in their careers, were arguably second-line passing centers (Gomez) and a third-line checking center with offensive skills (Drury) to contracts that team's can only afford to give to first-line offensive players. The two players cost the Rangers almost a third of their cap space at the time.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The end for the Captain in New York?

They were paid like they were the two best centers in hockey. Unfortunately, they were just the two best centers who were UFAs at that time.

Gomez managed seasons of 70 and then 58 points. He scored 16 goals both seasons, which really was a career average for him, so not unexpected.  

Drury managed seasons of 58, 56 and 32 points before he missed most of last year with injuries. Neither of those totals were what Ranger fans expected. The money spent on those two players meant the rest of the cast was aging veterans and players who could fill in cheap.  

Gomez was dealt after the 58-point season, when he tied for the team scoring lead with Nikolai Zherdev.

Chris Drury still seems to be, at 34, a man who can make a contribution to a team if he can get healthy.

At the 2010 Olympics, he played a checking role against the best players in the world and was not out of place. He won a silver medal with Team USA, losing in overtime to Team Canada in a very tightly contested final. He contributed at the highest level of hockey in the world. That year, some observers thought he was one of the better defensive forwards in the league.

If he is bought out by the Rangers this summer, another team could pay him $1-3 million a year to be their checking center. The 32-point season in 2009/'10 has to make you believe a significant offensive role is beyond him at this point.

He's not and really was never worth the $7.05 million per year Sather decided to pay him. If he's healthy, Chris Drury can make a contribution as a checking center. If the original view of him as a character player and a winner was true, he can also fulfill a valuable mentoring function on any young team trying to learn the complete game.  

A buyout for Chris Drury is probably best for everyone. It gives him another chance to compete and it allows the Rangers cap room to address some more crucial team needs, like a legitimate first-line offensive center.

Through no real fault of his own, Chris Drury has come to this low point in his career. However, if he is bought out, look for an NHL team like the Edmonton Oilers or the Sabres to make an offer to the veteran center. He deserves another chance to play and he is likely to get one.  

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