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The earlier works of a man of genius are always preferred to the newer ones, in order to prove he is going down instead of up.
The smartest guy in the room, the guy with the perpetual gleam in his eye that announces to the rest of the world that he knows something no one else knows, keeps glancing at the organizational chart on the wall of his 14th-floor office above Madison Square Garden. New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather still sees things the rest of the world misses. The neat rows of defensive pairs and lines and minor leaguers and draftees might look like a mismatched collection of aging big-name talent and middling young prospects, but Sather, folded into the corner of a leather couch on this mid-January afternoon, sees the embryo of a team he thinks eventually will play for a Stanley Cup. "This year," Sather says, "we've come leaps and bounds."
As he speaks on this frigid afternoon, the Rangers, with a league-high $70 million payroll, are four games below .500 and are being coached by the opaque and overmatched Bryan Trottier, of whom Sather says, "I think he's doing a good job." Eight days later, after three straight losses had left the Rangers in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, Sather decided that Trottier wasn't doing such a good job after all. Sather fired him and stuck his own neck on the chopping block by stepping behind an NHL bench for the first time since 1994 to coach a team that's in danger of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year on his watch (and a franchise record sixth straight, dating back to 1997-98).
Sather arrived in New York in June 2000 from a small-market redoubt in Edmonton with a gilt-edged reputation for spotting and blending talent. The smartest guy going to the richest team. Perfect marriage. Under Sather, who is the NHL's longest-tenured G.M., at 23-plus years, the Rangers were supposed to be the phoenix rising, but after a little more than 2� years they are more or less the Phoenix Coyotes, a mid-level team scrambling to reach .500—except that Phoenix has more promising young players and a payroll that is $25 million less than New York's.
Sather, 59 was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997 as a builder—the architect and coach of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers. Those teams, which won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and '90, were the most aesthetically pleasing team in NHL history. But the sepia-tinted memories of those fabulous Oilers are fading along with Sather's fortunes. Over the past 10 seasons his teams have had only one winning record (box, opposite), a performance that ranks among the poorest by any general manager ever. "Glen," one NHL executive says, "is running on fumes."
In his stuttering effort to build a winner in New York, Sather has 1) traded for marquee (but injury-prone) veteran forwards Eric Lindros, now 29, and Pavel Bure, 31, who were practically islands on their former teams; 2) dealt for point-producing but defensively suspect blueliner Tom Poti last season even though the Rangers ranked 30th and 29th in the NHL in goals allowed in 2000-01 and '01-02, respectively; 3) spent not wisely but too well on free agents, signing busts such as defensemen Darius Kasparaitis and the now departed Igor Ulanov; 4) hired coach Ron Low in '00-01 and fired him two years later—the same Ron Low he had hired and fired as bench boss in Edmonton; and 5) brought in Trottier last spring rather than Ken Hitchcock, who led the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999 and whose strengths are instilling discipline and defining his players' roles, two things the Rangers desperately need.
New York has been decimated by injuries and critical absences during the past two seasons—wing Theo Fleury was lost to substance-abuse rehabilitation last year, and this season Bure, goalie Mike Richter, 36, and defenseman Brian Leetch, 34, have all missed considerable time because of various ailments—but no team is immune to such problems, especially one whose average age (29.1) makes it the fifth oldest in the NHL. Unlike in Sather's last decade in Edmonton, when the small-market Oilers were fighting simply to survive, he has few financial worries in New York. In fact Sather can have almost anything he wants, which translated last summer into over-the-top contracts for free agents Kasparaitis (six years, $25.5 million) and Bobby Holik (five years, $45 million). "Glen's a hunter-gatherer, a guy who's at his best using his wiles like he did in Edmonton," says another NHL executive. "Now he doesn't have to hunt or gather. He's sitting at the biggest smorgasbord in hockey and he didn't even have to kill the meat."
The benefits of last summer's moves seemed twofold—the Rangers were adding players known for their toughness and were keeping them from signing with conference rivals—but Kasparaitis has turned out to be a one-dimensional hitter who makes dubious decisions with the puck, and Holik, a unique center whose forte is shutting down opposing centers, reported to training camp with an alarming 14% body fat and wound up missing 18 games early in the season with an injured hip flexor. "Deep down I think he's disillusioned at what he's spent," says Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes' managing partner, who was Sather's crown jewel on the Oilers. "I think it's killing him."
Sather's lament is that it's easier to build a team than to fix one. His approach to free agents has been similar to ones used by the Stars and the Detroit Red Wings, big-budget competitors, but he has had much larger holes to patch. "The successful teams have all filled in with free agents," Sather says. "Look at Detroit, filling from the outside around a strong nucleus. We've had to create that nucleus with free agents and fill in with young players [acquired in] deals and on waivers. At some point, when you have the right nucleus, the formula changes. Money is only part of it, one of the resources you need along with youth and depth. You can't spend money to get youth and draft choices."
He scored in the first two rounds of the 2001 draft when he selected goalie Dan Blackburn, who was with New York last season as an 18-year-old, and defenseman Fedor Tjutin, a highly regarded prospect who was superb for the gold-medal-winning Russian team in the recent world junior championships. But since the mid-1980s Sather's overall record with first-rounders has been shockingly poor. Edmonton turned up two good ones, forwards Jason Arnott (seventh overall pick in 1993) and Ryan Smyth (sixth in '94), but those choices were scattered among flops such as forwards Joe Hulbig (13th in '92), Jason Bonsignore (fourth in '94) and Michel Riesen (the so-called Swiss Miss, 14th in '97). In '95 the Oilers chose center Steve Kelly with the sixth pick, passing over wing Shane Doan, an Albertan playing in the Western Hockey League who was taken seventh, and wing Jarome Iginla, an Edmontonian who went at No. 11. Kelly became a journeyman, while Doan is a blossoming star with Phoenix and Iginla was the NHL's MVP runner-up last season with the Calgary Flames.