There just doesn’t seem to be much justice these days for the three New York-area NHL teams. No matter where you turn, something just doesn’t smell right as we head for the trade deadline and down the homestretch of the NHL season.
Singing the Blues on Broadway
The Rangers just fired Head Coach Tom Renney last week and brought in ex-Lightning head man, John Tortorella. The team has been struggling of late and is barely playing .500 hockey since their torrid 10-1-2 start to the season way back in October. Now, New York is struggling to qualify for the playoffs.
The Rangers problem is hardly a secret: they can’t score goals. Currently, the Broadway Blues rank dead last in the league with 2.24 goals scored per game. They have the league’s worst shooting percentage with just 7.1 percent of their shots finding the back of the net and their once vaunted power play ranks 28th in the league with a success rate of 13.8 percent.
The Rangers have relied heavily on standout goalie Henrik Lundqvist. If not for “King Henrik’s” strong play keeping the Rangers in games, the Rangers would not even be in the hunt for the playoffs right now. Lundqvist has particularly been strong in shootouts. The Rangers have nine shootout victories this season, the most of any team in the league. Without those extra nine points, the Rangers are most likely looking at a lottery pick, not fighting for a playoff berth.
Renney was the man let go, but he can hardly be blamed for the Rangers’ problems. The real issue is GM Glen Sather and the way he managed the salary cap. One important factor Sather seems to have overlooked is that in a salary cap system, it’s not just important to sign the best available players, but to sign them for their actual value.
Two years ago, Sather inked the top two centers available on the free agent market, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, to lucrative, long term contracts. Both Gomez and Drury have performed below their career offensive averages since joining the Rangers, which is disappointing, but the key is that Sather overestimated the value of these two players. Both Gomez and Drury are excellent number two centers on a good team, but Sather paid them like they were among the top 10 players in the league. Sather is paying for two number one centers but isn’t getting the services of any on the ice.
Sather also overpaid for free agent defenseman Wade Redden this past summer. Redden was brought in to quarterback the Rangers power play and be the puck moving defenseman New York has lacked since they traded Brian Leetch prior to the lockout. But instead of being revitalized by the change of scenery, Redden’s play has continued to regress. This week, he scored only his third goal of the season and his first tally since October 10.
The biggest problem on Broadway is that Sather’s decisions have handcuffed the Rangers for the foreseeable future. Drury is making $7.1 million this season, Gomez $8 million. Redden is pulling in $8 million, fellow defenseman Michel Rozsival is being paid $7 million and goalie Henrik Lunqvist is earning $7.75 million (all figures are according to the NHLPA’s Web site). That means five players are taking up nearly $38 million in salary cap money.
All of these players are locked in for next season and all are nearly impossible to trade because with the exception of Lundqvist, they aren’t performing at the level they are being paid for.
So when the Rangers realized in mid-season they needed scoring help, they lacked the room under the salary cap to add free agents Mats Sundin and Brendan Shanahan. Sundin went to Vancouver, Shanahan to the Rangers’ division rivals in New Jersey. The Rangers are still struggling to score goals and it ended up costing Renney his job.
Next year, the situation may be even worse, especially if the salary cap remains flat or goes down due to the faltering economy.
In the first two games under Tortorella, the Rangers scored two total goals and went 0-1-1 against two teams that are hardly among the league’s elite: Toronto and Florida. Renney was let go because it’s always easy to fire the coach when things go wrong, but the problem is the decisions that were made by the GM, not way Tom Renney coached. Even a quality coach like Renney can’t make an ostrich fly.
Clemmensen Sent Down
Meanwhile, across the river in New Jersey, Martin Brodeur made a triumphant return to the lineup after missing nearly four months with an arm injury. Brodeur looked sharp, making 24 saves to earn his 99th career shutout in a 4-0 victory over the Avalanche.
But buried beneath the headlines of Brodeur’s return was the decision to send Scott Clemmensen back to Lowell of the AHL. All Clemmensen did for the Devils this year was save their season. When Brodeur was injured, everyone expected that New Jersey’s season was over. Instead, Clemmensen went 25-13-1 with a 2.39 GAA and a .917 save percentage and helped lead the Devils to first place in the Atlantic Division and a strong third overall in the Eastern Conference.
Now the logic behind demoting Clemmensen was sound: Kevin Weekes would have had to pass through waivers if they Devils had tried to send him down to Lowell whereas Clemmensen did not. While the move made sense, it was hardly fair to Clemmensen, who proved he could be an effective starting goalie in this league in Brodeur’s absence.
Both Clemmensen and Weekes will be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season. Scott Clemmensen would be wise to find work elsewhere next year now that he has created a market for his services. If he stays in New Jersey, he will play 10-15 games again behind Brodeur assuming the future Hall of Famer remains healthy. Clemmensen has proven he’s better than that. He’ll be 32 before the start of next season and this will likely be his last real chance to cash in on his solid performance this year.
Witt’s Hit To Be Reviewed
On Long Island, defenseman Brendan Witt’s hit to the head of Niklas Hagman is sure to be reviewed by the league and will likely result in a suspension. Colin Campbell is expected to meet with Witt sometime on Friday afternoon.
There is no question this was a blow to the head but it hardly appeared intentional and Witt does not have a reputation for being a dirty player. Replays show that Hagman tried to change direction before Witt hit him so the big Islander defenseman didn’t have much time to stop before the hit. The puck was in the area so it wasn’t like Witt was head hunting.
It’s unfortunate for Hagman who was just getting over a concussion suffered earlier in the season.
Witt and Isles Coach Scott Gordon said the hit was unintentional and Witt, who is a physical player on the ice but a classy guy off of it, went to check on Hagman’s condition after the game according to published reports.
The bottom line remains that it did end up being an elbow to the head so intentional or not, a suspension should be forthcoming. The league should adopt a zero-tolerance policy for blows to the head with intent being considered only for the severity of the suspension and/or fine.
Witt should get two or three games for this play but no more because the intent to injure was not there, the puck was in the area and Hagman stopped short and tried to change direction right before contact was made.