The Rangers' plan for getting back to the top may have a fatal flaw
NHL team executives are watching the woeful Rangers (6-12-3 through Sunday) with great interest. Some relish the fact that New York is foundering despite a payroll of $59.4 million, 18% higher than any other club's. Others have a morbid curiosity in the fates of general manager Neil Smith and coach John Muckler, both of whom are rumored to be on thin ice. Most, however, are intrigued by the Rangers' unprecedented attempt to use the free-agent market to win while simultaneously trying to rebuild. "Anything can work," says Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, "but we haven't seen this before."
Since the advent of free agency in 1995, several good teams, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Stars, have augmented already strong lineups by signing a few key free agents. But no lousy team—and the Rangers, who missed the playoffs each of the last two years, are lousy by any measure—has revamped via free agency as New York did last summer by signing six players to multi-year, multimillion-dollar deals, including prized winger Theo Fleury, who will earn $8.5 million this season but through Sunday had zero game-winning or game-tying goals. "We want to rebuild to where we can contend for the Cup," says Smith. "In the meantime we felt we could take advantage of our [financial] resources to sign guys who can help us be competitive today."
With so many new faces it should come as no surprise that New York has "had a hard time getting in sync," in the words of left wing Kevin Stevens. More troublesome is the possibility that management's attempt at a short-term fix is impeding their team's long-term development. With so many high-priced veterans on hand ( NHL free agents must be at least 31), the growth of New York's young players could be stunted.
Free agent signee Tim Taylor, for example, has played well at center, but his presence has limited the ice time of 19-year-old Manny Malhotra, a cornerstone for the future. Similarly, the signing of defensemen Sylvain Lefebvre and Stephane Quintal has cut into the time of blueliner Jason Doig, 22. Nine of the Rangers' top 11 in minutes per game through Sunday were more than 30 years old.
New York's rebuilding effort has focused on three rookies, center Mike York, 21, defenseman Kim Johnsson, 23, and left wing Jan Hlavac, 23, who are being ushered into the league under the leadership of wealthy players 10 years their senior, some of whom seem uninterested in playing. The most alarming aspect of New York's plan is that the Rangers have been left with a paucity of quality players between the ages of 24 and 29—the young veterans who form the core of many NHL teams on the rise. "I don't blame the Rangers for trying this," says Oilers general manager Glen Sather. "They should improve as the year goes on. Is this a way to build for the long term? We'll have to wait and see."
Crease Rule Change
A Net Gain For Everyone
The NHL's decision to repeal the 1991 rule that forbade would-be scorers from entering the crease—a bad rule made worse last year by the league's policy of reviewing every goal that may have been facilitated by such an infraction—is a winner. This year a goal can be disallowed only when a referee determines that an opposing player interfered with the goalie. While scoring hasn't increased significantly, there's welcome anecdotal evidence of more spirited and high-skilled play around the net. "You're not always looking down, worried that your toe might be in the crease," says Kings sniper Luc Robitaille. "You're going to the net, playing hockey. It's not just better this way, it's a lot better."
Even the victims of the rule change agree. " Edmonton got a goal against me with a guy in the crease," says Coyotes goaltender Bob Essensa, "but I still like the change. It's better than having to go upstairs to review every single goal." Adds Flames goalie Grant Fuhr, "It makes it harder for us, but you're seeing exciting goaltending. With more guys around the net, it's hard to get good positioning, so goalies have to use their reactions to make spectacular saves."
The crease rule was implemented to protect goalies from injury, and there's some fear that with crease-crashing back in vogue netminders are once again imperiled. However, NHL rules prohibit anyone from initiating contact with a goalie, and with most games now officiated by two referees, transgressors are more easily spotted. Besides, the goalie's protective equipment is better than ever, and, thanks to his outsized stick, he isn't without recourse if jostled. "You'll get a cross-check, or your face gets run into the post," says Flames winger Valeri Bure. "You pay a price to go in there."