The Rangers should reject the urge to retool so that they can rebuild
Were New York a country village and Madison Square Garden a neighborhood pond, were Rangers fans patient and Wayne Gretzky not an icon, New York general manager Neil Smith would have an easy job. Instead of feeling uneasy because of the clamor for him to bring every available big-name star to Broadway—"We want Bure!" the Garden faithful shouted earlier this season before Canucks winger Pavel Bure was dealt to the Panthers; "We want Fleury!" the fans screamed last week, calling for Flames forward Theoren Fleury—Smith could follow the Rangers' plan. "Our priority," he says, "is to build a team that will contend for the Cup in two to four years."
However, New York also has what Smith calls "a second priority." At 23-27-7 through Sunday, the Rangers were six points from the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The faint hope of reaching the postseason is undermining New York's long-term goal; instead of totally embracing a youth movement, the Rangers are staying in the hunt by relying on older stars. Of the players who regularly receive significant ice time, 10 are 30 or older; only three are younger than 26.
Burdened with the desire to put a competitive team around Gretzky and aware that each home playoff game guarantees more than $1 million in gate receipts, Smith has been forced to straddle two divergent lines. New York has made a move toward the future by acquiring youngsters such as Todd Harvey, 24, and defenseman Stan Neckar, 23, within the past year and by giving extensive playing time to 21-year-old center Marc Savard. Yet Smith's boss, Garden president Dave Checketts, is wary of the consequences of giving up the present for the future. "We want a younger, better team, and we'll suffer pain to get there," he says, "but you can't have a bad team in New York for long."
Checketts doesn't refute speculation that Smith could lose his job, which he has held since 1989, if the Rangers miss the playoffs, as they did last season. Though New York is one of only four teams to have won a Cup (in 1994) and also reached a conference finals ('97) in the last five years, fans and some media have afforded Smith little leeway since Mark Messier bolted as a free agent two summers ago. Still, Smith was wise not to sacrifice potential future stars such as goalie Dan Cloutier, 22, and center Manny Malhotra, 18, in a trade for the 27-year-old Bure. Nor should he deal young talent to get the 30-year-old Fleury or anyone else for a short-term gain.
Several older New York players have value to teams eyeing a run at this year's Cup, and the best thing Smith can do is trade some veterans for more young blood. The Rangers will become contenders sooner if Smith resists the lure of playoff sirens and steers directly toward his top priority.
Defenseman Steve Smith
The Flame Is Still Burning
Game nights were rough for Steve Smith last season. While Flames players pulled on their sweaters and laced their skates, Smith would knot his tie, smooth the sleeves of his suit and walk the concrete runway toward the ice to take his place behind the Calgary bench as an assistant to coach Brian Sutter. With each night he grew increasingly glum. "I missed playing so much," he says. "A coach can't make things happen the way a player can."
This year Smith, 35, is making things happen much as he did during his stellar career as a defenseman for the Oilers and the Blackhawks from 1985-86 through 1996-97. Through Sunday he had played in 56 of 57 games, averaged nearly 23 minutes per match and been Calgary's best blueliner. "I can't wipe the smile off my face," Smith says.
Not long ago that grin was a grimace. In 1996-97 Smith's chronically ailing back so pained him that he appeared in just 21 games for Chicago before retiring to take the coaching job with the Flames.