2) the players who formed the nucleus of the team—Brian Leetch, Ulf Dahlen, Tomas Sandstrom and goalie John Vanbiesbrouck—were all draft picks that were chosen by Esposito's predecessor, Craig Patrick.
When Diller fired Esposito after last season's playoffs, he talked to some big names—Herb Brooks, Scotty Bowman and Bob Johnson—about the general manager position. He also interviewed Smith, the 35-year-old scouting director for the Detroit Red Wings who also had spent time in the Islander organization. In July, Smith was finally given the job and, along with it, a chance to hire his own people and do things his own way.
The coach he chose, the 55-year-old Neilson, isn't exactly a bite of the Big Apple. Neilson's idea of a good time is freeze-framing an hour of penalty-killing on the VCR while his trusty old dog, Mike, lies at his feet.
This is Neilson's fifth coaching job in the NHL but, despite his peregrinations, Smith thought he was a man who could bring stability to the Rangers. "This is a pretty young team, and Roger has been an excellent teaching coach," says Smith. "He is low-key, nonegotistical and calm."
In other words, the very things New York City isn't. "I had a few second thoughts," says Neilson. "It seems like there is always turmoil on New York teams, and I was afraid the team was too thin for the division."
True, the Rangers aren't very robust at center. Esposito pried the talented Carey Wilson from Hartford last season, but Wilson isn't a very physical player. On top of that, he sprained his knee on Saturday and could miss several weeks. Another Ranger center, Kelly Kisio, doesn't mind the muck, but at 5'9", 170 pounds, he's a little undersized. He also has back problems. The rest of the center-ice corps consists of three rookies: Mallette, Mark Janssens and Darren Turcotte, who stretched his goal-scoring streak to seven games on Saturday, giving him nine goals in eleven games.
A number of the other parts requisite for a Stanley Cup contender appear to be in place. Wingers Sandstrom and Dahlen are strong, fearless and consummately skilled. Veteran wing John Ogrodnick, whom Bergeron told at one point a year ago to stop coming to practice because of his uninspired play, scored nine goals in the Rangers' first 12 games. "I approached camp like it was the playoffs," said Ogrodnick, who is in the last year of his contract.
Vanbiesbrouck is off to an excellent start, and if he gets enough work to recapture his fine form of 1985-86, the goaltending will be of Cup caliber. The Rangers' greatest strength, however, is a young and mobile defense, keyed by Leetch, last season's NHL Rookie of the Year. Leetch has the shot and passing touch to be a dominating player, and he should benefit from Neilson's teaching.
Whatever the Rangers' potential, the big news from the Big Apple is that Smith intends to let them fulfill it. "Trades reflect instability," he says. "I think they should be used only selectively to supplement good draft choices." Seems that after all these years of ups and downs, only when the Rangers become quietly efficient will they prove to be worth screaming about.