There comes a time in every team’s cycle of having fostered a good and competitive roster when that roster is no longer particularly good or competitive.
In a salary cap world, there’s no way to be like the Red Wings from the mid-’90s to the late 2000s, and just continually reload every time you lose a borderline Hall of Fame talent and replacee him with a different borderline Hall of Fame talent. Unfortunately, the way the NHL is set up since the implementation of the salary cap — and loser point — is to obfuscate that fact where fans are concerned.
Sure, it’s intellectually disingenuous for a team like, say, Vancouver to be mired in a years-long game of cat-and-mouse with its fans, feigning an earnest interest in rebuilding before not doing it and in fact trading young talent for older guys who kinda suck. The fact that Canucks fans see their team sitting 15 points out of a playoff spot and genuinely have no idea whether they’re going to be sellers at the deadline is a marvel, but it’s indicative of this sleight-of-hand loser-point nonsense that goes on with the standings these days, and happens literally everywhere eventually.
Which is what makes the New York Rangers’ decision yesterday, to come out publicly as an organization and say, “Look, this isn’t working any more.”
While the Canucks are saying, “Ah jeez, who knows what we’re gonna do?” the Rangers are three points out of a playoff spot and saying, “We have to blow this up.” Now, to be fair, at the draft this past summer, Jeff Gorton went on the record and definitively used The R Word — “rebuild” — in an interview. It was, at the time, appended by the sneaky little parachute: “on the fly.”
It’s very difficult to make a rebuild on the fly work, especially when most of the guys you consider your core are not just out of their primes, but also at least 28 and signed for at least a few more years. Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith and of course Henrik Lundqvist might have had another good season or two in them, if everything had gone right. Turns out it didn’t go right. And that was despite Jeff Gorton’s best efforts: He bought out Dan Girardi (smart), he traded Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad, he made reasonable-ish middle-term signings for guys who could help his blue line.
None of it worked, at least not to the extent to which Gorton might have hoped. And given that this is a league which basically functions on the single premise that if you can make the last playoff spot, you can win a Cup, to say, “It’s all or nothing for us,” is kind of remarkable. How many years were the Calgary Flames, as an example, content to aspire to be just the 16th-best team in the league or so, and to what end? The Rangers could have been happy to shovel that crap down their fans’ throats, but instead — after getting humiliated by the Bruins on home ice with Boston coming off a game the previous night — they not only said, “Screw it, we’re gonna blow things up…” they said, “…starting with some mistakes we made like seven months ago.”
Brendan Smith is a guy the Rangers gave up a second- and third-round pick for at the deadline last year, and he was pretty good for them. So good in fact that they fell into the same market inefficiency that sprang up around middle-pairing defenseman about the time of the Adam Larsson trade and gave Smith four years at $4.35 million AAV with a limited no-trade clause. The Rangers put him on waivers yesterday.
Smith, for his part, hasn’t been anywhere close to the Rangers’ worst defenseman — only four more years on that Marc Staal deal! — but he was horrible against the Bruins in that 6-1 loss and unlike a lot of offensive defenders on the team, doesn’t have a no-move clause (Staal and Shattenkirk) to prevent a waiver transaction, and wouldn’t get claimed in a second (McDonagh).
Meanwhile, when asked point-blank whether coach Alain Vigneault — who’s certainly above-average at his job — would be back next season, Gorton dodged the question with aplomb. He likes Vigneault as a coach and a person, and respects him, and thinks he’s good, but also he’s not gonna answer the question. Which is to say Vigneault is probably out of a job at the end of the season, if not before that.
There’s a degree of emotional earnestness here to which everyone should aspire. To be able to admit it before trying to wring a few more years of face-saving out of the deal is the kind of self-awareness you only see in Mountain Goats song, not that a weekend (or more) in Hartford won’t fix what’s wrong with Smith and his contract.
Who knows who gets moved in the next couple weeks for the Rangers here, but if Gorton and Glen Sather are standing as a united front and putting their cards on the table like this, one imagines the prices might not be as steep for guys like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner as they were just a few days ago. And also that the likelihood of the Rangers being willing to pay those guys again this summer has diminished greatly.
Now, you could argue that this is a bit of an overreaction to one admittedly horrible game in which everyone who wasn’t Rick Nash was pretty much giving a bottom-of-the-barrel performance. You wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but let’s say the Rangers win that game 6-1 instead. Would trying to scrape something together with this roster, even if you’re still open to selling at the deadline, be any more advisable? Obviously not, so no matter what the impetus to rethink the team’s approach, and drop the “on the fly” from its long-term plans — even without saying the word “rebuild” in the statement” — all that matters is that they got there, rather than how.
This is a years-long process into which the Rangers have just entered. They’ll get a new coach, a rash of new, young, skilled players and picks, and focus on getting things to where they ought to be again.
That statement Sather and Gorton put out together really does tell the story. They’ve played 129 playoff games in the cap era (second-most in the league behind only the three-time Cup champ Penguins). They won a Presidents’ Trophy (and in fact have the sixth-best record over the last thousand-plus games). They went to three Conference Finals (tied for third in the league) and even made a Cup Final. That’s a pretty good run even if they never could win it for Lundqvist.
And to turn your back on it relatively quickly — the Rangers had 102 points just last season! — because you’ve seen this movie before and know where everything is headed?
That’s beyond commendable. It’s basically unheard of in the NHL, but let’s hope this serves as an example to everyone else: If a big-market, perennially contending cap-ceiling team like the Rangers can do it after one mediocre-and-honestly-not-even-bad season, you can too.
And frankly you probably should.