When he’s not in uniform, Theo Fleury barely looks like a pro hockey player. You might think his individual features—the toothless smile, his ratty, sweat-slicked hair, his unshaven face and wary eyes—would betray him. But seeing these on top of his cocky, five-foot-nothing frame reminds a native New Yorker more of the wiseass punk you went to high school with who ended up hawking Street News on the IRT than of a guy pulling down $7 million a year from the Rangers.
The way he played last season—15 goals and lots of indifference—you half expected fans to snatch him from the ice, take him down to Seventh Avenue, and throw him in front of the IRT.
Standing before his dressing room stall in Madison Square Garden last Wednesday, fresh from a hat trick performance against Tampa Bay, Fleury could easily volley clichés back to reporters on what went wrong and what was now going right for him and his team. “It’s a new year and a new situation. . . . You have to chalk it up to bad luck. . . . My attitude is a lot different. . . . It’s how you rebound after those things that really makes a difference. . . . I wanted to come back this year and prove that I can still play and still do the things I have always done.”
And then, right before he excused himself to go shower and hop the bus to the airport for the trip to Ottawa, he became just a bit annoyed with all this talk of last year, and the punk you suspected was inside peeked through. “You know, some people live in the past and just want to talk about the past and want to stay in the past,” he griped.
None of that for Theo, who would move forward with goals in each of his next two games to give him six in four games, 11 on the year—his best start ever—and put himself on a pace to score 70.
This was going to be a story about how the Rangers were stuck in the past, how this year’s edition was no different from last year’s or that of the year before or the year before. It was going to be about how the Rangers were not a skilled team, or a fast team, or a physical team, or a grinding team; how they were just an old team, destined for a fourth consecutive playoff absence. It was going to be one of those “the more things change . . . ” stories.
Could one reach a different conclusion after the Rangers stumbled and bumbled through a 2-6-0 opening stretch, when new GM Glen Sather decided to leak some damning criticism through an old journalist crony from Edmonton (apparently not caring what that might do to his relations with the local media), when new coach Ron Low’s nonstop roster manipulations relegated Adam Graves to the fourth line (rather than to a spot alongside Mark Messier), when Fleury’s selfish aggression landed him in the penalty box at key moments twice in a week?
Suddenly, though, the picture changed. With convincing wins over three awful teams and a close loss to one of hockey’s best, Ottawa (which Low justifiably called the Blueshirts’ “best 60 minutes of the season”), the Rangers have begun skating with confidence, putting daylight between themselves and the NHL’s lower-rung clubs.
Fleury’s revival is one reason why, but not the sole reason. Messier has played better than most imagined possible, thanks in part to the NHL’s penalty crackdown and his work on the power play. Reliable Brian Leetch seems unburdened, having relinquished his captaincy to El Supremo, Numero 11. Mike Richter, returned from injury, has provided his usual stellar goaltending. The Czech threesome of Peter Nedved, Jan Hlavac, and Radek Dvorak (don’t miss their terrific promotional spot for MSG) have thrown off a mild slump and regained their two-pronged threat—creating opportunities off the rush and by cycling the puck.
But the Rangers have also impressed where they were least expected to. Defenseman Rick Pilon, a plump dog in the Rangers kennel last year, came to camp in shape and is now excelling in his pairing with Leetch. Perhaps it was more desperation than inspiration from Low (Pilon is not the most fleet Blueshirt blue-liner and Leetch can cover for his lack of mobility), but Pilon has filled the top banger role that was Jeff Beukeboom’s and Ulf Samuelsson’s before, and as Low says, “I think he’s only been beaten once or twice this year.”
Another surprise was Low’s accidental creation of a fourth line with Fleury, fine two-way center Tim Taylor, and thug-turned-checking scorer Sandy McCarthy, the October 29 move that triggered the Rangers’ current rise.
Unlike some of his predecessors, who relied on three (and, when trailing late, two) lines, Low prefers four units, feeling it keeps all the forwards fresher and creates a higher-tempo game. He’s got the luxury of four good centers in Messier, Nedved, the highly coveted Mike York, and Taylor. The challenge is finding eight wingers to play with them.
When Fleury’s two slashing minors cost the Ranger a game and a potential comeback, resulting in his demotion from Messier’s line, Low discovered it spread out the scoring. He could use all four lines equally and make the Rangers harder for opponents to contain. “That stroke of genius,” he laughingly told reporters after Saturday’s 5-2 victory over Montreal, “would not have taken place [without Fleury’s lack of discipline]. . . . It’s dumb luck, but I’ll settle for it.”
Another stroke of luck has been the penalty crackdown. With referees threatening to whistle more interference infractions, it’s easier for teams using a forechecking style to work the puck deep into their opponent’s zone. The Rangers have long eschewed playing the less risky neutral-zone trap, and in the past it has burned them, as teams like the Devils would hold up Ranger forwards after shoot-ins and stymie Ranger puck pressure before it started. With the more vigorous enforcement this is less likely now, and the Rangers are spending more time in the other team’s end. The NHL is notorious for starting the campaign calling everything, then backing off as the year goes along, so this bears watching.
And there’s also been—again somewhat accidentally—the needed infusion of youth. When Vladimir Malakhov injured his knee, Sather promoted young Mike Mottau from the AHL. Winner of last year’s Hobey Baker Award as top U.S. collegiate player, Mottau (out of Boston College) is a superb skater and smart positional player with good puck skills who will (when he adjusts to the speed of the NHL game) be a valuable defenseman for years to come.
Similarly, Valeri Kamensky—not far behind Fleury and defenseman Stephane Quintal as last season’s Mercenary of the Year—bruised a kidney and went down yet again; but Johan Witehall (who, at 28, qualifies as a kid on this team) came up from Hartford and has looked comfortable skating with Graves and Messier, notching two assists in three games.
And Sather wrangled two potentially tough customers, defenseman Brad Brown and forward Michel Grosek from Chicago, when he (wink) waived overrated Quintal—escaping the prohibitive clause in Q’s contract calling for a one-year extension at $3 million in the event of a trade—and the Blackhawks picked him up. It made the Rangers younger and tougher and got them two useful bodies for a useless one.
This club is not without problems. They must play better team defense; they still get caught either standing around or running around in their own zone. After Richter, the goaltending is suspect. And, as with all hot streaks, there’s no telling how the players will react when things cool down—although that’s the value of Messier being back in town.
But for the first time in a while—at least momentarily—kismet has returned. The planets have inexplicably aligned for the Rangers.
In his Upper West Side apartment, a short IRT ride from the Garden, former GM Neil Smith is probably sighing. Hopefully, like Theo, he’s not living in the past.