Rangers on long road to nowhere
The preseason Stanley Cup contenders are now sliding toward an early summer
GM Glen Sather deserves the most blame, but coach Tom Renney will take the fall
Rangers are locked into overpaying unproductive players for five-six more years
If you are in New Jersey and look across the Hudson River into midtown Manhattan -- oh, say toward the vicinity of Penn Station and its crowning piece, Madison Square Garden -- you generally see New Yorkers smirk. They can see Jersey from that lofty perch and on most days they don't think much of anything about their neighbor other than that it's not New York.
But if you're in New Jersey -- oh, say the upper deck of the Prudential Center, home of Lou Lamoriello's Devils -- and you think about New York, you generally start laughing out loud. It is, after all, the home of the Rangers, and in the very limited view of the hockey world, the legendary franchise has become a joke.
This is obviously disappointing for Rangers fans. (If you throw in MSG's NBA franchise, the Knicks, it's downright painful for a proud city), But it's not unusual. The Devils run a program. The Rangers . . . well, year after year you can't tell who they are without buying one.
The view from here is that there's a world of difference between the two franchises. Last weekend, the Devils (who, by the way, have played much of the season without the NHL's consensus best goaltender) beat the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins (1-0), then the best in the West, the Sharks (6-5 in a shootout). The wins moved them into a second-place tie with the Capitals in the East. The Devils have been consistent all season, but their move came largely on the strength of a 7-3-0 run that ended Tuesday evening with a surprising loss to the surging Panthers, their first road loss in seven games.
Meanwhile the New Yorkers, once again wallowing under the weight of yet another unproductive offseason spending spree, went 2-6-2, dropping from fifth to eighth in the conference, seemingly on an express train out of playoff contention. New Yorkers want to blame coach Tom Renney for the latest fall. New Jerseyites and pretty much everyone else not hunkered down in the MSG offices would tend to point the finger at GM Glen Sather.
Your humble correspondent will side with the majority on this one.
The Rangers, in their current form, are Sather's creation, a team that can't score or keep the puck out of its own net. To be fair to relative bright spot Henrik Lundqvist, who purloined two points Wednesday night in a "must win" game against the lowly Islanders, the problem is largely because the Rangers can't get the puck out of their own zone. They're also relatively useless when given the man-advantage and, in recent weeks, just as poor while defending against one.
When your forwards are ineffective, your defense is incapable, your special teams are incompetent and your goaltender is inundated with shots, that's not bad coaching. That's an inept hockey team. So what's the likely scenario?
Firing Renney. But that would be wrong. The win over the Isles likely bought him a reprieve, but not for long. The pink slip could still come this week. It might come at the end of the regular season when he can easily be a scapegoat should the Rangers miss the playoffs. But without a turnaround the size of defenseman Wade Redden's salary, the firing will happen.
Now, dismissals have been the norm for years in New Jersey where Lamoriello has changed coaches more often than Donald Trump has filed for bankruptcy in nearby Atlantic City, but the Devils' president/GM almost always has a valid reason: He feels his team is better than the man who is running it from behind the bench. Sather has no such thing to fall back on.
Unlike the Devils, Sather has a goalie who is, arguably, the only reason the Rangers aren't running with the Isles in the John Tavares derby. If you watched Saturday's 5-2 loss to the visiting Flyers on national TV, you may have thought you saw a team quit before the last note of the national anthem.
Not true. While the Blueshirts don't regularly give up a short-handed goal with a 5-3 man-advantage like they did, they do regularly score just twice a game. Counting their most recent loss, at St. Louis, in which they scored once, they've lit the lamp twice or less in nine of their last 12 outings prior to their three-goal outburst against the NHL's worst team. The offense, if that's what you want to call it, has been good for only 2.33 goals per game -- worst in the league.
Defensively, the Rangers host so many minus players on one sheet that they make baseball's list of 103 drug-test flunkies look like a plus. Going into the Islanders game, they'd allowed 33 goals while scoring 13, and their power play had squeezed out exactly one in its last 34 attempts. Such anemia is enough to tempt Brian Leetch out of retirement.
Renney has to take some blame, but the bulk falls on Sather. Chris Drury, who inherited the captaincy from the departed Jaromir Jagr, has yet to rise anywhere near the occasion of occasional leadership and appears burdened by a five-year, $35.25 million contract that's way out of line with his career performance. Former Devil Scott Gomez is in the same position (seven-years, $51.5 million) and no one can justify Redden's six-year, $31 million pact that, based on his time in Ottawa, boggled the mind of even the greediest among us.
Other players, including defenseman Mike Rozsival (four years, $20 million), are being paid to a standard far beyond any legitimate measure of what they do. In fact, the impending arrival of Sean Avery is being touted in the New York press as an improvement. Ouch!
Hard to believe that the Rangers earlier this season were thought to be Stanley Cup contenders while the Devils, especially after the injury to Brodeur, were regarded as a team that would finally miss the postseason. But with about 24 games left for both, Brodeur coming back and Lundqvist carrying the weight of New York on his shoulders, the view is decidedly different now.
The Devils are a mortal lock for the playoffs and playing well enough to be a Cup finalist in a wide-open East. The Rangers are locked into salary cap hell with dwindling hope of a berth and a fiscal mess that will mire them in mediocrity or worse for five or six years to come. That's not Renney's fault, but he's likely to be the one who pays.
Meanwhile, you can hear the laughter in New Jersey from midtown Manhattan.