RANGER PREVIEW: THAT SINKING FEELING
It’s mid September. A grinning Bryan Trottier briskly strides into his first post-game media chat as New York Ranger coach and he’s happier than the morning sun. “Hello, everybody,” he beams and one instantly realizes Trottier is daylight to his predecessor Ron Low‘s darkness. Poor Ron. Two seasons, no playoffs, always tense and grimacing, openly disappointed at his team’s performance. Not Trots. Those seven Stanley Cups give him a sunny disposition. Cut to last Saturday: The Rangers have followed a deceptive opening-night win against a Carolina team still hungover from last spring’s Conference Championship parties with their second straight loss, a 6-0 mauling in Pittsburgh. Unable to ignite the players after they fell behind 2-0 early, Trottier addresses the media tense and grimacing, openly disappointed at his team’s performance.
Why are the Rangers like the Titanic? They look great until they hit the ice.
Staring at a five-year playoff drought and probably haunted by whispers questioning his reputation as the architect of champions, GM Glen Sather boldly picked Trottier, the ex-Islander superstar, to guide the Rangers. In the process, Sather irritated the tribal sensibilities of many longtime fans. A vocal minority booed Trottier’s introduction at the home opener last Friday, though the coach said he felt “very welcomed.” By game’s end, the majority were booing after witnessing the Rangers’ lack of speed and defensive awareness—gee, weren’t those last year’s problems?—in losing 4-1 to Montreal.
This is Trottier’s first time in the saddle as an NHL head coach, and he could be atop a $70 million nag. An advocate of fiscal restraint when he ran Edmonton, Sather has now gathered the highest payroll in hockey history. But for all their big names—Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Mark Messier, Bobby Holik, Darius Kasparaitis, Vladimir Malakhov—the Rangers may again struggle to make the playoffs.
The expensive additions of center Holik (at $9.6 million a year) and defenseman Kasparaitis ($4.1 million), both tough guys and long-time Rangers tormentors, are supposed to make this team playoff-ready. After three games, Kasparaitis and his partner Malakhov look monstrously ineffective, showing patience when aggression is needed and vice versa. Holik, touted as the best-checking center in hockey, seems intent on displaying his less formidable puck wizardry instead.
More curious is Sather’s blueprint, because he has constructed a hard-hitting, rugged squad just when the NHL has altered its rules to emphasize speed and skill. Besides Holik and Kasparaitis, he added former Devil pug Krzysztof Oliwa to a cast that already includes antagonists Sandy McCarthy, Mathew Barnaby, and Dale Purinton. But this team has a crying need for scoring wingers and reliable defensemen and, other than Bure, Sather has yet to produce them.
It’s dangerous to criticize NHL GMs these days. Sather’s Philadelphia counterpart, Bobby Clarke, counterattacked the hostile local media’s constant pressure to brew a playoff winner by raging, “Do you think the people criticizing me could do this job? No, of course not. If the writers judged themselves the way they judge me, they would all be fired. The papers are losing readers, they’re losing advertisers, losing money, everything. Maybe it should be you guys that are fired.”
Sather hasn’t gone off on the New York media—nor have they heavily criticized him during his two years here. And with the season and the coach’s career in their infancy, their tenderness dictates that we remain somewhat lenient. Still, Trottier is an inexperienced pilot steering an expensive, flawed ship, and the icebergs are everywhere. —Stu Hackel
BEEN THERE, DOING THAT
While it’s easy to think of an Angels-Giants World Series (assuming the Cardinals are put out of their misery) as a battle of the Cinderellas, it’s not quite as easy as all that. Both teams share a history of ineptitude: The Angels have gone 41 years without a championship, the Giants 48. But the managers that finally led them to the outskirts of the Promised Land boast similar résumés. Angel skip Mike Scoscia played 13 seasons, was a two time All Star, played in two World Series, and won one ring. Dusty Baker played 19 seasons, was a two-time All Star, played in four World Series, and collected one ring. Yankee fans will note that Joe Torre shares that very-good-but-not-a-superstar pedigree: 18 seasons, nine All Star appearances, and an MVP award. The conventional wisdom used to be that bad players (Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson, Walter Alston, and Earl Weaver) make good managers. But Stengel and Co. broke in during the pre-free agent era, when players had no say about who they’d play for. Indeed, last May, while ripping Florida manager John Boles, reliever Dan Miceli came right out and said what a lot of players think: “Guys who have been in the big leagues make good managers. You respect them because they know the game. You can learn from them. Those are the good managers, the ones who played 15 years, like Bruce Bochy, Dusty Baker.”
So who should the Mets pick for their vacancy? Lou Piniella punched the clock for 18 seasons, made one All Star appearance, played in four World Series, and won two rings. If Sweet Lou’s not available, perhaps Fred Wilpon should look Bronxward for a candidate who played 18 seasons, made six All Star appearances, played in four World Series, and owns two rings. The owner of that résumé: Willie Randolph. —Allen St. John