For much of the past two decades, the New York Rangers were the NHL’s equivalent of a Floridian retirement community. Madison Square Garden looked more like Del Boca Vista, as the team signed aging players to lucrative deals, and watched them perform as if they were ready to hang up their skates. The Rangers brought in guys like Bobby Holik (5yrs/$45million), Chris Drury (5yrs/$35.25 million), and Scott Gomez (7yrs/$51.5 million) with little or no return on their investment.
Midway through the 2008-09 season, the Rangers replaced Tom Renney with John Tortorella in hopes of getting the team over the hump and giving them a new identity. Tortorella’s previous coaching stint in Tampa had produced a Stanley Cup, but also one of the most carefree styles of hockey in the NHL. Tortorella would play his three big guns in Tampa – Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards – to near exhaustion on a nightly basis in hopes that the age-old theory “the best defense is a good offense” still rang true.
However, Tortorella is using a different style today with the Rangers. A team concept with a focus on physical play has Blueshirt fans thinking Stanley Cup. The Rangers currently sit first in the NHL in hits, and third overall in blocked shots. In fact, they have finished no worse then second in hits since Tortorella took over. Not to mention, they have given up the fewest goals so far this season, and are ranked fourth on the penalty kill.
Even General Manager Glen Sather has seen the error in his ways and one could argue he made one of the greatest trades in NHL history simply by convincing Montreal to take on Scott Gomez and his astronomical $7.4 million dollar a year deal. As part of deal the Rangers received defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who only has a $1.3 million cap hit, is a plus-14 this season and posted a plus-16 mark in just 40 games last season. Gomez, on the other hand, hasn’t even scored a total of 20 goals in two-plus seasons with the Canadiens.
Naming heart-and-soul right winger Ryan Callahan captain prior to the start of this season sent a message that this was going to be a team with a new identity. Gritty players like Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, Derek Stepan, and John Mitchell have excelled in a team first defensive system. The Rangers have just two regulars, Brad Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko, who have a minus rating for the season, and currently sit a top the NHL standings despite not having a single player that ranks in the top 40 in scoring. Of, course having All-Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes doesn’t hurt matters, either.
The Rangers have made the playoffs in two of their last three seasons, but bowed out in the first round on both occasions. They simply relied on Lundqvist to carry them to a playoff berth, but never seemed like a true cup contender. They are now poised to compete with Eastern Conference heavyweights like the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers come playoff time.
New York is no longer trying to buy aging skill, but instead focused on developing young players in their own way. The Rangers appear to be built towards a long playoff run, and this lunch-pail crew is finally a team that the city can be proud of once again.