The Rangers are, and may forever be, a problem child. One whose antics force his beleaguered parents to sigh again and again, "What's wrong this time?"
No matter what promises these boys proffer each September, they are generally broken by December. With seven wins and much ennui in 23 games (a record superior only to first-year Atlanta and the de facto expansion Islanders), this $59 million collection is hockey's top embarrassment. The fans apparently share the team's diminished interest. Many Madison Square Garden soirees this fall, including what would normally have been a rock 'em, sock 'em Islanders encounter, seemed to be attended by zombiesexcept the November night when fans chanted "Fire Muckler!" with some gusto.
The local media have begun the annual spanking for misbehaving Blueshirts. As sure as Santa's gonna find out who's naughty and nice, Rangers watchers know just who's been sleeping and just who's been awake. They know just who's been bad or goodmost have been bad, for Chrissake!
If stockings are hung in the Garden with care, hoping the playoffs soon will be there, the Rangers will be lucky to find lumps of coallucky, because more than one hockey writer has called for the hangings of (a) prez-GM Neil Smith, (b) coach John Muckler, (c) (insert your favorite Rangers here), or (d) all of the above.
So, what's wrong this time? We can harken back to the westward flight of Mark Messier, who would never have tolerated such delinquency. But ol' Mess is, well, ol' Mess, as his continual injuries indicate. Anyway, guys like Messier are rare and rarely replaced.
We can single out new arrivals. Theo Fleury lacks Messier's leadership and can't decipher the congested Eastern Conference defenses. Valeri Kamensky leads the NHL in doctor's appointments, followed closely by Tim Taylor. Kevin Hatcher, ex-beneficiary of Pittsburgh's safe defensive system, has no such insulation in New York. Lumbering Stephane Quintal, counted on for toughness, has only lumbered.
As for returnees, we can file missing person's reports for John MacLean, Kevin Stevens, and others. We can say the Rangers always go as far as Mike Richter and now-sidelined Brian Leetch take them and, this year, that ain't been far.
But the real problem lies deeper, not only in the ghosts of Rangers past or present, but in the ghost of the Rangers' future.
The Rangers' direction in recent yearsmost probably established by a committee of hockey minds, accountants, and corporate execsassumes that New Yorkers cannot endure rebuilding seasons, that the sums charged for admission and concessions mandate the Rangers win now, that the playoffs (with their lucrative home dates) must be the focus, and if you can get a marquee attractiona robust Messier or a faded Wayne Gretzkyyou get him and build from there.
These goals are, supposedly, more easily realized with proven veterans, and not with an infusion of youngsters who might lose at first, but who can be molded over time into a team and play with commitment to one another. That is how consistently winning hockey clubs come to be. Unlike most of their foes, the Rangers have considerable resources and could afford to keep a growing squad together into maturity. Besides, in the last few years, the Rangers' strategy of trying for the postseason by picking up established players has only resulted in early vacations for the Blueshirts.
Impressively, 11 current Rangers have played for various Stanley Cup winners. But they've brought no winning habits to their game this year. They are old, ineffective, prone to injure, and slow.
Meanwhile, not far from Santa's house, the hobbled Montreal Canadiens have been dressing a lineup fortified by fringe players and minor leaguers. Half of the team's already low-rent payrollincluding its top scorers, best defensemen, and most solid checkershave gone on long-term disability. The Montreal Gazette reported that a thoughtful Neil Smith recently phoned his embattled counterpart, Rejean Houle. "I'm not calling to make a trade," Smith said. "I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about all of the injuries your team has run into."
The Canadiens play in the most hockey-intense environment imaginable, before the game's most knowledgeable, critical fans. Even their practices occasion full-blown press conferences. A few weeks ago, they flopped around the NHL basement and the joke in Montreal was, "Why can't the Canadiens surf the Net? Because they can't put three Ws together." They had excuses aplenty at their disposal but played hard nearly every night, were rarely blown out of games. And as of last Saturdayled by that trio of, uh, Flying Frenchmen named Zubrus, Zholtok, and Petrovthey had won six of eight and four in a row, including two against the NHL's top teams.
But that sort of thing can't happen here. Christmas came too earlyin the summer, in fact. And the bags of money Santa delivered then make the Rangers less dedicated, not more.
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