The Rangers have a lot in common with many long-running Broadway shows. The Blueshirts are an expensive operation (their payroll should approach last season's league-leading $44 million); they're stocked with veteran talent (17 players on their training camp roster were age 30 or older) who could fill several tables at Sardi's reminiscing about the good old days; and though the cast members won't score onstage as often as they used to, they might hit enough high notes to keep the show interesting. "Our future will revolve around how much our stars go back to being stars," says general manager Neil Smith.
The Rangers were punchless (2.40 goals per game), slow and uninspired in 1997-98, and they lost a large chunk of what little offense they had when Pat LaFontaine, who tied with Adam Graves, Wayne Gretzky and Alexei Kovalev for the team lead in goals with 23, retired. Smith needs to make some deals; right winger John MacLean, a 33-year-old free-agent acquisition, will help, but only if the former 40-goal scorer bounces back from his 16-goal, 43-point season with New Jersey and San Jose.
Coach John Muckler will also lean on 18-year-old center Manny Malhotra, New York's No. 1 draft pick in June. Malhotra is smart beyond his years, and by midseason he could be the second-line center. "In six or seven years the Rangers will be building the team around him," says the 37-year-old Gretzky, one star who came through last season. ( Gretzky and Vancouver's Pavel Bure finished tied for third in scoring with 90 points.) Adds Gretzky, "Everybody realizes this team was embarrassed last year and can't get into that situation again."
That situation was missing the playoffs. The Rangers' hopes rest with leading men Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, both of whom flubbed their lines last year. Richter was statistically sound (2.66 goals-against average) but prone to lapses in concentration, and Leetch, a defenseman, has to rebound from an abysmal season (-36). If those two old troupers come through, the Rangers should qualify for a postseason curtain call.