Signing free agent Mark Messier could cure what ails the Rangers
It seems like an odd courtship. Do the Rangers, who on Monday were on the verge of signing 39-year-old free-agent center Mark Messier, need another high-priced veteran in a lineup that is already top-heavy with aging, expensive players? Last season New York, whose $60 million payroll was the highest in hockey, got less bang for the buck than any other team in NHL history. But by adding Messier, who departed New York bitterly in 1997, the Rangers will be spending wisely for a change. His return, on a two-year, $11 million contract that should be made official early this week, could help resurrect three important Rangers, all of whom need to bounce back from forgettable seasons if the team is to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
No Ranger requires Messier's playmaking skills more than 32-year-old right wing Theo Fleury, who was a major disappointment in his first season in New York after signing a three-year, $21 million free-agent deal last summer. Without a deft-passing center to set him up, Fleury scored only 15 goals, his lowest full-season total.
Messier's presence will also help revitalize left wing Adam Graves, whose respect for Messier borders on hero worship. The chance to be reunited with his former center should pump up Graves's goal-scoring, which fell to 23 last season.
Perhaps no one felt the sting of Messier's departure three years ago more than defenseman Brian Leetch, a close friend of his and the man who inherited the burden of the Rangers' captaincy in the post-Messier era. New York will have to sort out who wears the C, but Messier's leadership would remove the responsibility of running the dressing room from Leetch, who buckled under its weight. A quiet, introspective man, Leetch would be able to concentrate fully on playing. He missed 32 games with a broken right arm in 1999-2000 and had a career-low 26 points.
"One thing Mark does is take the pressure off the other top players in the locker room," says Flames defenseman Steve Smith, who played seven seasons with Messier in Edmonton. "He doesn't mind adversity or pressure."
Messier is not a long-term solution for the Rangers. His return will, however, bridge the gap until top center-ice prospect Jamie Lundmark, 19, is ready for prime time. Messier's return may also be a godsend for 19-year-old right wing Pavel Brendl, a talented but lazy prospect who will be a big part of New York's future if he can make the commitment required of a good pro.
"Everyone understands the respect Mark has throughout the league," says Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who held that job with the Oilers last season. "He's a terrific leader, a good guy, and he's played very well. We played him a lot last year in Edmonton, and he didn't look like a 39-year-old when I saw him, I'll tell you that."
Eric Lindros's Condition
A Year Off Might Help
As Flyers center Eric Lindros contemplates his future, it's becoming increasingly clear that his best course of action would be to take a full year off to clear his head after suffering four concussions last season and a total of six since he turned pro in 1992-93. Lindros, 27, doesn't want to follow his younger brother Brett into early retirement. Brett played for the Islanders from 1994-95 to May 1996 but quit the game at 20 after suffering three concussions in 10 months.