By giving up only a 1998 second-round draft choice and future considerations to the Sabres on Monday for elite center Pat LaFontaine, Rangers general manager Neil Smith wasn't exactly sticking out his neck, even if LaFontaine was. With that deal New York went from a team that had a gaping hole the size of Mark Messier to a club that just might be better than the Rangers who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals last season. LaFontaine, a 13-year NHL veteran who had 951 career points entering this season, had two other numbers that made him expendable in Buffalo's eyes—a $4.8 million salary and five concussions. The Sabres' doctor, in fact, refused to allow him to suit up in the preseason because of the two concussions that sidelined LaFontaine for most of last year. LaFontaine, however, got clearance from his personal doctors. "When he's healthy, Pat can, with his speed and skill, set defenses on their heels the way few players in this league can," says Smith. Those qualities were the ones the Rangers were missing after Messier signed as a free agent with the Canucks in July.
Smith had already done plenty in the off-season to compensate for losing Messier's grit, leadership and penalty-killing ability. He signed as free agents right wing Mike Keane and center Brian Skrudland, both of whom are former NHL captains. Together, with left wing Bill Berg, they form what could be the league's best checking line. Keane and Skrudland are two of eight Rangers who have won Stanley Cups on other teams.
With LaFontaine joining Wayne Gretzky at center, coach Colin Campbell need not move wings Niklas Sundstrom, Adam Graves and Alexei Kovalev from their natural positions. At 22, Sundstrom is an astute player who does everything well. Graves scored 33 goals in 1996-97, but his chronically sore back needs more rest. He has missed only one game in the last six years. The talented Kovalev underwent season-ending knee surgery last January, but it's a recurring brain cramp that keeps him from becoming a star.
The talented forwards complement money goaltender Mike Richter and an above-average defense anchored by Norris Trophy winner Brian Leetch. "I'm a lot happier with the team than I was at this time last year," Smith says. "We have the pieces together."