Two years ago, Glen Sather watched from his box overlooking Madison Square Garden's ice while the defense-first New Jersey Devils frustrated his New York Rangers.
"Does it bother you that the type of offensive hockey you love, the type that won Stanley Cups, is now obsolete?" he was asked.
"I don't see this defensive style you're talking about, other than teams in the last part of a hockey game who go up two or three goals and start to play the trap," the Ranger GM replied, ignoring both the nine-year trend that transformed hockey and the Devils' second-period trapping nine floors below.
Sather now has a better, rinkside view of the game, but chances are he'll coach the Rangers the same way he coached the flashy Edmonton Oilers in the '80s, eschewing complicated tactics and letting the players play. Unfortunately, it's not the same NHL and he doesn't have Oiler-like talent.
What he has is a team no better than the one he inherited three years ago, with underachieving free agents, poor defense, and a core of diminished, fragile stars. He bungled his goaltending situation, and after Mike Richter went down for the season, the Rangers' fortunes dropped, too. By axing miscast rookie coach Bryan Trottierwho tried installing trapping defenses and lost his playersSather gambles that he can re-weave that old Edmonton magic.
One day, this franchise will end its long fixation with the Oilers. For 13 years, the Ranger vulture has picked the carcass of the Edmonton dynasty. It brought them a captain and a Cup, but now it brings them trouble.
You can't win in today's NHL playing the Oilers' pond hockey. It's now a coaches' game. Winning coaches don't stand behind the bench yelling, "Go get 'em boys!" and letting talent do the rest. They spend exhaustive hours digesting video, and they teach players minute details like defensive stick positioning and new concepts like slash-skating, tracking, and separation. Hockey has grown as technical as football and requires a coaching sophistication the Rangers' staff lacks.
Sather stayed positive last week after his first game behind a bench since 1994, a 4-3 OT loss to Colorado: "We responded well. We played hard and determined. We're going to get better." They remain a flawed team that must win 21 of 27 games to make the playoffs. But firing Trottier allows the Rangers to resume doing what they do best: selling hope in place of victories.
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