The Rangers were eliminated in the quarterfinals last April, and Werblin proceeded to fire Keating and Nykoluk, hire Patrick to run the front-office operation and place Shero on notice. When training camp opened, the Rangers were optimistic. Disciplinary rules were posted; Shero was working diligently. Then the season opened. Don Maloney, the invaluable left wing, contracted mononucleosis and missed the first 17 games; Right Wing Dean Talafous suffered a recurrence of a nerve injury that had plagued him for two years and has not played a game yet; Defenseman Barry Beck, who suffered dizzy spells during the off-season, broke a finger; Duguay suffered tendon lacerations in his calf and has missed a month; Nilsson broke his arm and has missed five weeks; Goaltender John Davidson underwent knee surgery and may be gone for the season. Altogether, the Rangers have used 30 players, including nine rookies.
But injuries have been only part of the disastrous New York story. The Rangers played without enthusiasm, organization or discipline. Werblin, who encourages his players to strut their celebrity, began to meddle and got into a nasty newspaper war of words with Davidson concerning the goaltender's weight. Shero's status became shaky when the team lost four of its first five games. "It had gotten to the stage where Freddie couldn't communicate with the players even when he wanted to," says one Ranger. "We had lost respect for him as a coach. There had to be a change."
Ah, yes, there's that word again, the byword of the franchise. "When people ask me what's happened to the team that went to the finals, I tell them to look around," says Dave Maloney. "We're not the same team."
Nine players who said "cheese" to the camera for the 1979 team picture have departed in the last 18 months. Three, including Left Wing Nick Fotiu, an enforcer type who kept the opposition loose on the ice and his teammates loose in the locker room, were sacrificed when Shero and Keating went unprepared to the WHA dispersal draft in June of '79. Don Murdoch, a charismatic, sharp-shooting right wing, was exiled to Edmonton last March for keeping his charisma out too late too often. Defenseman Mario Marois was traded to Vancouver last month. But the biggest batch departed in the controversial trade that brought the 23-year-old Beck to Broadway from Colorado 13 months ago: four regulars and two minor-league prospects.
Beck, the 6'3", 215-pound monster man, a franchise type, was supposed to guarantee New York's return to the finals—if not another banner. But Beck has played without a great deal of verve in New York; he has been reluctant to carry the puck, or even to attempt to gain control of a game. His biggest hits have come against small players, and at home. The same people who once saw the Beck trade as cause for celebration, now believe it to be the downfall of the organization. They contend that it cost the Rangers their youth, speed and depth.
Beck himself says, "Anybody who thinks it was a bad trade is stupid." He contends his game was limited by Shero, and maybe it was. Patrick has loosened the reins Shero kept on Beck, and Beck has been more offense-minded and more physical since the coaching change. But he lacks the mobility to beat fore-checkers one-on-one, � la Montreal's Larry Robinson, and he lacks the passing talent to spring forwards, � la the Islanders' Denis Potvin.
The Rangers have appeared to be more enthusiastic and better organized since Patrick took over, going 2-1-1. But as one player said, noting that New York was in a three-way tie for 17th place in the 21-team NHL, "How could we be worse?"
"It's Day 1 for the Rangers," Patrick said the morning he replaced Shero.
It's Day 1 of the 41st Year. Hurry up, Herbie.