Two separate series of events occurred Wednesday night in the game between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden, but there was a common theme that wove the two together: an abdication of accountability.
There is a lot to unpack from the Rangers' 4-2 loss to the Capitals and the events that preceded it. The day started with New York firing general manager Jeff Gorton and team president John Davidson.
Rangers' Frustrations With Tom Wilson and the NHL Boils Over on the Ice
In front of a nationalized televised audience, Wednesday night's game started with a line brawl. The teams combined for 72 penalty minutes in the first 4:14 of the game. Nearly everyone on the ice engaged in some sort of scrum. The penalty boxes were crowded.
While it was probably entertaining for those at home and definitely entertaining for the meme-makers on Twitter, it was an embarrassing mess for the NHL.
It all could have been prevented had the league decided to suspend Tom Wilson for his role in a fight with the Rangers on Monday night.
"You guys watched what happened the game before," Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith said in his postgame Zoom press conference. "I had no beef with anybody else on their team. I thought that it should have been handled before this game, and it wasn't. So unfortunately it had to be kind of on my shoulders and I thought I took it."
There were more than 100 penalty minutes in the opening stanza. There were six fighting majors—three for each team right after puck drop. The entire first period was more or less a wrestling match on skates.
Wilson received a fighting major 50 seconds into play. Smith stepped up to take on the guy who, just two days prior, injured superstar teammate Artemi Panarin so severely that his season is over. Wilson later left the game with an upper-body injury, though it's unclear whether it was related to his fight with Smith.
"When your star player gets tossed around like that, it doesn't matter what type of team you have," Rangers forward Ryan Strome said. "I think the response was appropriate. I'm proud of our guys. I think it says a lot about us. These last few days have been super challenging, especially being eliminated [from postseason contention] and just so many guys getting injured and the incident last game."
The NHL Department of Player Safety fined Wilson $5,000 for roughing Pavel Buchnevich but felt no suspension was necessary for what they deemed as a wrestling match with Panarin. Wilson, a repeat offender who has been suspended five times and forfeited more than $1 million in salary, received no punishment for pulling off Panarin's helmet and twice slamming him into the ice.
The Rangers issued a scathing statement Tuesday afternoon, calling the head of player safety, former enforcer George Parros, "unfit" for his job. Shots were fired. The NHL didn't fire back, so the Rangers had to.
"[Emotions] were definitely magnified," Smith said. "It's rare you see six fights right away. It's just basically what happened the game before. You never want to see an elite, elite player get injured. The way he was injured and to be out the whole rest of the season, that's tough. It was magnified because it was in a short period in the first period. I guess that's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes."
If the NHL were after headlines and social media engagement Wednesday night, then congratulations are in order. But at what cost did it get what it wanted? Is this how the league wants casual fans and outside observers to characterize its game?
Fighting has a deep-rooted history in hockey, and it will always have a place in the game. But fighting should be a natural element and not something incited by its own governing body.
For Better or Worse, James Dolan Cleans House in the Rangers' Front Office
And, of course, there was the Rangers' front-office debacle.
The team issued a statement shortly before the game, with owner James Dolan saying the team had underachieved and he felt a change was necessary. Associate general manager Chris Drury was elevated to president and general manager, with senior adviser Glen Sather working alongside him during the transition.
Dolan's statement read:
"We want to thank J.D. and Jeff for their contributions to the organization. They are both great hockey professionals who worked hard for the Rangers. However, in order for the team to succeed in the manner our fans deserve, there needs to be a change in leadership. Chris is a very sought-after executive and a strong leader, who has proven himself to be one of the top young minds in hockey. We are confident he will effectively guide the team to ensure the long-term success we promised Rangers fans."
That was it. There was nothing that followed.
Their dismissals prompted speculation that the statement about Parros issued by the club one day prior had something to do with the firings, but the two incidents are unrelated, according to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.
After years of hands-off management, Dolan has suddenly decided to be hands-on.
But because he did not take questions from the media and Drury was never made available, it left coach David Quinn and the team to answer for the organization. It was an unenviable position to be thrust into, but Quinn, Smith and Strome handled it well.
"It's obviously a crazy day," Strome said. "You add in the anxiety or anticipation all day from our group and then waking up from a pregame nap with a whole new set of news. It's never easy in pro sports. It's a tough business."
Quinn has received no assurances that he will coach the team past Saturday when the Rangers play their regular-season finale in Boston. He anticipates sitting down with Drury and Dolan in the near future, but it's beyond his control. Quinn knows coaches are hired to be fired.
"This is pro sports. When you sign up for a job like this, I completely understood that when you get into the NHL, every day anything can happen," Quinn said. "That's how I go about it. I don't think anything further than that. All I thought about was Jeff and J.D. and how I felt for them."
You have to feel for them and for everyone else involved in a situation like this. The timing was strange, and it painted a negative picture of a franchise legend in Davidson and the architect of the rebuild in Gorton.
This is not the standard operating procedure for most, but it is for Dolan's teams. When he fired New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, there was no press conference. The next day, interim coach Mike Miller came out for pregame media availability like a coaching change hadn't even been made. Knicks president Steve Mills was the next to go, and again, there was only radio silence other than a press release.
The Rangers will move on from this, though there are plenty of questions that still need to be answered. The club is in the midst of a rebuild but is poised to compete again soon. New York has an exceptionally talented young core and one of the best prospect pools in hockey.
It's a strange time to make drastic changes to the hockey operations department, but Dolan owns the team, so he can do what he wants. He will also own the consequences, good or bad.
The NHL Still Has a Disciplinary Problem
As for the NHL, maybe the league doesn't see it necessary to force top players to clean up their acts.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, arguably one of the faces of the game, pushed the head of Philadelphia Flyers forward Travis Konecny into the ice during their game Tuesday night. Konecny still had on his helmet, and it was a more edifying move than the one Wilson used to take down Panarin. But it was still dangerous. He received only a roughing penalty.
Whatever the case may be, until the NHL forces players like Wilson to change, his opponents will be forced to take matters into their own hands.
If the league isn't going to protect them, they will protect themselves.
"I think it was an appropriate response," Strome said. "My only wish was that the Garden was full to be rocking after what happened in the first five minutes."