At The Crossroads


They don’t shoot. They don’t score. But they want to thrive as hard-working underdogs. They are a bit younger. They are more aggressive. They have some depth and more discipline. Their bright new uniforms scream for a revised nickname (the Great White Way­shirts?). Repackaged and repositioned, they may entice you. But make no mistake. The Rangers stand at the crossroads.

Now that the Cup has been won in our lifetime, now that dreams of a dynasty have been dashed, now that Mark Messier is gone and his lingering impact— which hung over the Garden last year like the ’94 Stanley Cup banner— seems to have dissipated, the Rangers are at this new, uncomfortable, fascinating junction. One path leads back to contention, the other to a resumption of the Dark Ages in which the Albuquerque Islanders and Biloxi Penguins win the Cup before Mayor Andrew Giuliani can, like Dad, plan a Rangers parade up Broadway.

The Blueshirts began this season stumbling down the path to hell with a winless spell, then battled back with an undefeated streak by disabusing themselves of the illusion they can outclass opponents. This team, like most, lacks the aggregate skill to pick the defensive lock that shackles the sport. So they’ve joined the vast majority of clubs who seal off the neutral zone, fight for turnovers, and grind their way to ties and slim victories. It ain’t thrilling, but, at the moment, it works.

It could easily go wrong. Their kindly schedule (seven of their first 10 games at home) turns mean in November as they travel for nine of 12, including a western swing. And with an average age that is still up there— the Rangers are fifth among NHL oldies— their new physical identity may begin taking its toll.

So far, fresh faces have pushed them forward. There’s the Heartbeat Kid, Todd Harvey, once a junior hockey scoring ace who was pried from Dallas last year. If his smallish body withstands its own crashing style, this 23-year-old can become a pillar of the Rangers’ renovation.

There’s Mathieu Schneider, who at 29 has been a Cup winner and a rare 20-goal scorer on defense. Since the main weapon to combat sophisticated team defenses is good puck-carrying defensemen, Schneider will ease Brian Leetch’s burden. He also makes a perfect power play partner for Leetch, something absent since the exile of Sergei Zubov after the ’94 campaign. This cannot be underestimated, because the Rangers’ power play often resembles the Mets’ final week.

Mike Knuble, surrendered by talent-rich Detroit, is big, fast, and good enough to see duty with Wayne Gretzky. And Peter Popovic, a washout in Montreal, has been a revelation on defense.

But some skate against the grain, and the now-injured Alex Kovalev remains the guy accomplishing the least with the most as he eternally holds the puck and takes as many dumb penalties as he draws.

And while the old faces have contributed some fine performances (Leetch, Mike Richter, Ulf Samuelsson, Adam Graves, and Jeff Beukeboom seem to have rebounded; ex-Devil John MacLean’s teaming with Esa Tikkanen and Kevin Stevens has created an effective unit), some of their odometers cause concern.

Then there’s Gretzky, whose slowish start makes one wonder if his brilliant sun may finally set. But every time— every time— in his 20 seasons someone has counted him out, the Great One inevitably has made liars of honest prognosticators.

When Robert Johnson sang about standing at the crossroads, he noted it was a friendless place. Each Rangers loss intensifies the search for culprits, and the man who would be this year’s sacrifice to our modern culture of blame could be Prez­General Manager Neil Smith— although he snagged all the newcomers for nothing (or nothing useful) and is clearly not done dealing.

Smith believes teams are built on cycles, “like a Ferris wheel,” he says. “A new GM usually starts building a team at the lowest point. You get to pick high in the draft and you start on your way up. If you get to the highest point where you can see everything, the Stanley Cup, you still have to start on the way back down again.”

One can’t ignore the mortality rate of recent Cup finalists. Of the 16 finalists between 1989 and 1996, eight failed to qualify for the playoffs within three years. Colorado’s poor start this year may render them number nine. And the Rangers missed out last season four years after winning.

The system is designed that way, of course, with the Entry Draft and Waiver Draft assisting weaker clubs at the expense of stronger ones. But institutional Robin Hood­ism alone doesn’t spin the wheel. Free agency and the game’s fragile economics also work against most attempts to stockpile talent. “Plus,” Smith adds, “young teams don’t tend to win the Stanley Cup any longer, unless it’s an aberration. Today, you usually win with veterans. The veterans expire quicker and that brings you down again fast.

“I’ve always said about winning the Cup, ‘You’re gonna pay now or you’re gonna pay later, but you’re gonna pay.’ If you want to pay before, you do what Quebec— who became Colorado— did. You miss the playoffs four, five, or six years. That’s your payment. You suffered, now you’re ready to win. The Flyers missed my first five years in the league. Now they’re ready to win. Detroit was abominable for a long time.

“With us, we never paid before. I found out quickly when I got to this market that all the stuff I believed in, like saving draft picks, didn’t matter here. All that mattered was the Stanley Cup. ‘Get us to respectability, get us close or we’ll get someone else here who can.’ And they were clamoring for stars [like Messier], and we were able to do that. We made trades to win. But I said when we were going for it, ‘We’ll pay for this later because we’ve given up young people who have a lot more longevity.’ Maybe if we waited for those guys to develop it would never have culminated in a Stanley Cup. So we won. But we paid.”

Smith is now trying to collect young talent again, and “hoping people will have the patience to let us do it that way.” He’s got Harvey, Schneider, Knuble, Niklas Sundstrom, young goalie Dan Cloutier, rookie Manny Malhotra, and more. But will the fans, media, and ownership give them time? Will he give them time? If a true star, a real scorer, a Pavel Bure is offered, could Smith resist the opportunity to sacrifice the future for a hard, quick shove away from the crossroads?

Eventually Smith will have to choose a path, and the wheel will turn.