February 2009


I know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but then again, the Romans didn’t have the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins bird dogging them for a playoff spot as they tried to avoid a Mets-like collapse to their season.

Granted, the Rangers did some positive things under new head coach John Tortorella. They should flashes of the attacking style that Torts wants to bring to New York. The power play connected as Wade Redden scored his first goal since New York was a prairie. In the biggest departure from Tom Renney, Tortorella showed a willingness to ride his hot hands.

However, the Rangers first game under their new coach was a continuation of the cliché “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The Blueshirts continue to find ways to not play 60 minutes of hockey.

Tortorella believed that his team’s inability to finish off with a strong third period from the team’s lack of conditioning. In actuality, it is just a continuation of the Rangers being unable to finish teams off because of their ineffective offense and their peashooter power play. Let’s face it, if the Rangers held their sticks any tighter they would be left with a glove full of sawdust.

A couple of times the Rangers had Vesa Toskala scrambling for loose pucks in the crease, yet the Rangers were unable to bury these chances. During the first months or so of the season, the Rangers found a way to score. Now, they are happy that they don’t roof the puck into the netting behind the goal.

Despite the couple of flurries in front, Tortorella will be successful if he can get at least one forward to go to the top of the crease – not the side of the crease and not along the goal line. Just watch how many loose pucks pass through the top of the crease. If the Rangers had a forward stationed at the top of the crease, they would not be doing their best impersonation of being a GAG Team (Goal A Game).

With limited cap space available, and the lack of fiery leaders available on the trade front, President/GM Glen Sather filled his leadership void by bringing a spitfire as coach. That is not so much a knock at Renney as it is Sather for misreading his team. Slats turned his team over to Chris Drury and Scott Gomez when the Rangers passed on bringing back Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan – and he more or less admitted this mistake by bringing in Tortorella.

“Torts is certainly a lot more fiery and lot different in his approach to the game and the players,” Sather told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “He’s going to bring that fiery attitude, and a lot to the games we seemed to be missing it.”

The same fiery attitude his captains did not bring.

In his “exit interviews” with the New York media, Renney also addressed the lack of a “fiery on-ice leader.”
“But we had a struggle all year with internal leadership, and I have to think it was very difficult for guys, especially the younger guys, to look over the locker that used to belong to No. 68 (Jagr) and see someone else there, and the same about the locker that used to belong to No. 14 (Shanahan),” Renney told Larry Brooks of the NY Post on Wednesday.

“It’s a very heavy cross to bear to be a captain or in a leadership role with the New York Rangers, or any pro team in New York City.” I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. I’m not blaming Scott Gomez or Chris Drury. I know they want to win. But it’s different, that’s what I’m saying. And I should have recognized that.”

Renney also admitted to Brooks that he played a part in Shanahan’s not returning to the team because the former coach was “…the one standing in his way.”

Would Jagr and Shanahan made a difference this year? It is a question that one will not be able to answer. The team really couldn’t have been any worse. In fact, if the team was worse, it would have even been better because the Rangers might have been in a better position to win the NHL Draft lottery and get a shot at John Tavares.

With that said, it is a question that had to have gone through Sather’s mind as he watched the players he selected to pick up the leadership mantle on the verge of fumbling away a 10-2-1 start.

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I guess Glen Sather paid close attention to his friend Harry Howell when the honored Ranger spoke to the Garden crowd last night during the jersey retirement ceremony for Howell and Andy Bathgate.

Howell quoted his former Rangers Coach/GM Emile Francis.

“If you players do not do what I tell you, I will send you so far away that the Hockey News won’t be able to find you.”

Well, in these days and ages of salary caps and no-movement clauses in players’ contract, making wholesale changes is pretty near impossible – especially with some of the bloated contracts the Rangers have.

However, coaches are a different story. The Rangers have fired Coach Tom Renney and Assistant Coach Perry Pearn following the Blueshirts 3-2 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Benoit Allaire and Mike Pelino will remain as assistants.

Reports indicate that the Rangers are attempting to negotiate a deal with former Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella – the Rangers interim coach and the man Sather passed on when he was named President/GM. According to Steve Zipay of Newsday, Tortorella is looking for a long-term contract. If Tortorella is not named as Renney’s replacement, the talk is that Jim Schoenfeld will take over the helm.

According to Sportsnet.ca, sources told them that the Rangers scheduled a meeting with Tortorella last week.

If the Rangers do hire Tortorella, it will mark a drastic change in Sather’s hiring policy with the Rangers. With all respects to Renney, Sather has a Rangers’ history of hiring lesser names who would not overshadow the GM (Ron Low, Bryan Trottier and Renney). Sather passed on Tortorella after he finished up as coach of the 1999-2000 Rangers (0-3-1).

If former Daily News Ranger beat writer John Dellapina was correct, Tortorella came closer to getting more than four games a mop-up coach in 2000. On June 21, 2003, Dellapina offered the following insight.
Chosen by Neil Smith to replace Muckler midway through the 1999-2000 season, Tortorella never got that chance because the former GM was not permitted by Garden management to make that change.

When both Smith and Muckler were fired on April 1, 2000, the fiery Tortorella was installed as the interim coach for the final four games. But he never was interviewed that summer by incoming GM Sather, who opted to hire old friend Ron Low.

One has to wonder if Sather is beginning to feel some heat for the first time in New York. Long known as an absentee landlord, Sather is now thrust to the center of the blame game. The idea that Sather is considering Tortorella serves to fuel thoughts (and hopes) that Garden management will soon hold Slats responsible for the state of the Rangers.

The ball is now in the court of the Dolan family. If the Rangers continue their downward spiral into missing the playoffs, they must hold Glen Sather accountable because, as they say, the fish rots from the top.

The one ominous point in hiring a new coach is that the Dolans would not allow Sather to negotiate a long-term deal with a coach if they had any intention of pulling the plug on Sather.

UPDATE

According to a report from Bob McKenzie of TSN.ca, the Rangers have reached an agreement to hire John Tortorella as their new coach. However, there are still other hills to climb – namely Mount Lightning.

Tortorella is still under contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the club must give their consent. Sources told McKenzie that the NHL is involved in the situation.

Given the rumored financial problems the Lightning’s new owners, Olen Koules and Len Barrie, Tampa Bay will probably want to get out from under any future financial dealings with Tortorella.

Considering the Lighting have the NHL’s second worst record (the New York Islanders are the bottom), could any agreement between the Rangers and Lightning over Tortorella also involve the Lightning claiming Sean Avery and re-entry waivers and then trading him to the Rangers. With the Andy Bathgate-Harry Howell ceremony over, and with the Rangers coaching situation settled, one has to figure that the next item on Sather’s agenda is how to guarantee the return of Avery.

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No, my proposed trade is not one fans would expect to read about.

With the Rangers have little wiggle room under the salary cap, and needing to find cap space for the eventual return of Sean Avery, Glen Sather’s trade options are limited. However, there is one “trade” that he can make to try and inject some life into the moribund Blueshirts.

Sather needs to have Tom Renney and Jim Schoenfeld trade jobs. Renney would be re-assigned (that sounds so better than saying he is fired) to become the Assistant GM, Player personnel while Schoenfeld would take over behind the bench.

Why not just fire Renney outright?

Because, like him or not (and like it or not), the Rangers freefall is not completely his responsibility. He has not forgotten how to coach from the time the Rangers shot out of the starting gate at the beginning of the season – a fact the anti-Renney faction conveniently forgets when they rail against him. In fact, when it comes to coaching decisions, most coaches are pretty much all the same. It isn’t as if there is one coach who has come up with any earth-shattering strategy.

Instead, a coach’s number one job is to get his players to play hard and play up to their capabilities – dare I even say – motivate his players. The problem for the Rangers is that there is a disconnect between Renney and his players. For whatever reason, the team has tuned him out and is not responding to him.

Why the disconnect?

That is an answer that every player (and Renney as well) needs to answer for themselves. As for me, I think it stems from the fact there really is no leadership on the ice. Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Markus Naslund are not the fire and brimstone type of captain that Ranger fans are used to (see Mark Messier). That isn’t even the problem because not all captains are created equal. If you are not going to be an in-your-face type of captain they you have to be a captain who leads by example. Anyone think Drury, Gomez or Naslund are doing that?

Back to Renney. Much of the rebuilding job done within the Rangers organization came when Renney was the team’s Vice President for Player Development. He could help the organization by going back to the front office and replacing Schoenfeld as the GM of the Hartford Wolf Pack.

The main concern in firing Renney is the misguided belief that Sather would hire a John Tortorella, Peter Laviolette or Bob Hartley as coach. I would be surprised if Slats did given his underwhelming history of hiring Ranger coaches. Rather than bring in big names, Sather hired the likes of Ron Low and Bryan Trottier.

Besides, would Sather even hire Tortorella? He had the chance to hire him when he took over the Rangers but passed on him in favor of Low. Hire Bob Hartley? You mean the same Thrashers coach whose Renney’s Rangers swept a couple of years ago?

Laviolette would be a great hire and bring him full circle, so to speak. Laviolette played is only 12 NHL games with the Rangers in 1988-1989 and spent five seasons playing with various Rangers minor league affiliates. He turned the 2003-04 Carolina Hurricanes (who missed the playoffs) into the 2005-06 Stanley Cup champions.

So what is the problem?

The problem is Sather going away from his game plan of not hiring strong coaches. While Renney was the best of a sorry lot, no one was breaking down Renney’s door to hire him. As a result, Schoenfeld might be the best choice to finish out the rest of the season.

The question is would Schoenfeld take the job. When Sather fired Trottier in 2003, the GM offered Schoenfeld the job. Schoenfeld did not accept the job so Sather had to finish the season out behind the bench. According to John Dellapina in an August 1, 2007 Daily News blog entry, Schoenfeld turned down the job because he promised Trottier that he would not take his job if Bryan was fired. Not only did Schoenfeld not take the job, but according to a January 30, 2003 article, Dellapina wrote that Schoeny turned down a chance to interview for the head coaching job during that summer.

With the Rangers needing an infusion of lots of things (goals, grit and heart and the top of the list), Schoenfeld would be an interim answer. Any coach who would tell a referee to go have another doughnut is not going to be afraid to ruffle the feathers of underperforming veterans (can you say Wade Redden). Also, as GM of the Wolf pack, Schoenfeld would be more inclined, and more comfortable, turning to the likes of Artem Anisimov, Bobby Sanguinetti or Corey Potter for a fresh legs and a badly needed shot in the arm.

With the Rangers chances of making any significant deals by the trade deadline, the Blueshirts best bet would be to look to Hartford – and the best coach to accomplish that might be Jim Schoenfeld.

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The press release listed below comes from the Rangers official web site. It will be interesting to see if Glen Sather is pro-active in returning Avery to the Rangers. There was some talk on the Internet (I think it might have been Steve Zipay of Newsday) that teams like Pittsburgh and Atlanta might be interested in claiming Avery on re-entry waivers. Remember, any team claiming would only be the hook for about $2 million of Avery’s salary (both in paying and in cap hit) while Dallas absorbs the other half.

The pro-active part would see Sather make a deal with a team at the bottom of the standings. Team X would claim Avery and then trade him to the Rangers for a prospect, draft pick or the ever-popular “future considerations” (i.e. cash). Of course, the Rangers would still need to make room for Avery against their salary cap. Given that Petr Prucha is persona non grata, it would follow that he would be one of the players moved – with Aaron Voros as another possibility given his million dollar contract.

Official Statements from Avery, Sather Regarding Avery’s assignment to Hartford of American Hockey League

New York Rangers
Feb 10, 2009, 10:08 AM EST

On Tuesday, the Dallas Stars assigned forward Sean Avery to the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford. The following are statemtents from Avery and Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather:

STATEMENT FROM SEAN AVERY:

“I would like to thank Glen Sather and the Rangers organization for giving me the chance to resume my hockey career by affording me this opportunity with the Hartford Wolf Pack. I am looking forward to getting back on the ice, working my way back to the NHL and playing the game I love. While I appreciate the many interview requests, at this point in time, I would like to focus on hockey and will not be making any further statements while with the Wolf Pack.”

STATEMENT FROM GLEN SATHER:

“Sean and the Dallas Stars approached me looking for an American Hockey League team for him to resume playing, and I am happy to provide him with the opportunity to continue his career. Sean was a good player for the Rangers during his time here and has worked extremely hard off the ice over the last two months. He remains under contract to and property of the Stars, therefore, any further comment would be inappropriate.”

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If all of the buzz in the hockey world is true, then the Ranger are going to attempt to prove Thomas Wolfe wrong and show that you can go home again. Various reports point to Rangers President/GM Glen Sather attempting to bring home the prodigal son, Sean Avery.

The transaction is a bit of a complicated shell game. The Dallas Stars would place Avery on waivers. Assuming he, which is a pretty good one, the Stars would assign/loan him to the Hartford Wolf Pack. Once the Grate One returned to hockey shape and proved he can play nice with others, the Stars would attempt to recall him and then the Rangers would claim him on re-entry waivers.

This is the part that gets a bit tricky. It is entirely possible that a team with a worse record than the Rangers (believe it or not, there are such teams) could throw a monkey into the wrench and claim before the Rangers had the chance. This scenario is possible because the claiming team is only responsible for half of Avery’s salary (about $2 million) which would be pro-rated.

The one thing that has not been discussed is if the Rangers would be required to send any considerations (prospects and/or draft picks) to Dallas. It is possible the Stars might just be relieved to rid themselves of Avery – even if they have to pay half his salary.

So should the Rangers visit this avenue? Frankly, I think the Rangers need to be concentrating their efforts elsewhere. While many will claim that Avery has changed, let’s be honest, a leopard cannot change it spots. Besides, in this case, would you really want Avery to change all that much? Avery’s value to the team is as an abrasive player (and personality), and that is exactly the one thing the Rangers do not need.

The current Rangers team is in a different situation than it was at the end of last season. There was some talk that there was a group of players who did not care for Avery’s antics. Odds are that feeling has not changed. What has changed is the state of the Rangers locker room. Brendan Shanahan’s leadership and strong personality are gone and I don’t know if the likes of Chris Drury, Scott Gomez or Markus Naslund could rein him in.

While Jaromir Jagr was not a captain in the vein of Mark Messier, it was apparent that the Rangers were his team and commanded attention/respect.

The Blueshirts would be better off seeing what is available on the trade market. Some would argue against this scenario because Avery will cost them nothing but money – as opposed to trade prospects, players, and/or draft picks. Then again, would you rather have Avery or Keith Tkachuk for example? In either case, the Rangers are going to have create salary cap room so why not try and bring the best player possible.

I would rather see the Rangers investigate the trade market than bring Avery back. If the Rangers are looking to catch a spark, I would rather recall Artem Anisimov and give him a full chance to play.

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No, I am not saying that the Rangers should be lined up and shot – although that thought has crossed my mind a couple of times during the season. Instead, my headline refers to the need for Coach Tom Renney to make a stand and go with set lines for more than a game or two.

Much about the Rangers season can be classified as a Catch-22 system and their inability to find and stick with four set lines is probably at the top of the list. Is Renney juggling the lines because the offense won’t click or is it a case of the offense not clicking because of Renney’s constant line shuffling? To borrow an oldie but goodie cliché, it is probably six of one and a half dozen of another.

However, there comes a time when a coach, and a team for that matter, has to make a stand. For Renney and the Rangers that means setting four lines and sticking with them for more than just one game. Renney’s latest incarnations come close to giving the Rangers their best chance at stability – with one minor adjustment.

Renney has left the fourth line of Fredrik Sjostrom, Blair Betts and Colton Orr alone for most of the season – and with good reason. While fans gnash their teeth over the lines inability to score, those same fans forget that this isn’t a Fantasy league and that all teams need balance and players who play specific roles. Not only are Betts and Sjostrom the Rangers best penalty killing forwards, they are among the NHL’s best duos. As for Orr, he serves as the team’s only legitimate enforcer while still being to contribute defensively. Plus, Orr has been so effective at annoying and frustrating Sidney Crosby that he deserves to play for that reason alone.

The new third line of Nigel Dawes, Lauri Korpikoski and Ryan Callahan offers up an interesting combination. Their speed and intensity could very well make up for any scoring problems they might have. If used properly, they should be able to cause havoc on the forecheck, which could lead to turnovers, which will lead to scoring chances.

The Blueshirts’ second line of Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Drury and Nikolai Zherdev may very well be the team’s best line, but for this discussion will we call it the second line. Some might say that Scott Gomez would be the best center for Zherdev, but both players are similar because they both want to carry the puck. With Dubinsky and Drury as his linemates, Zherdev would be able to take better advantage of his playmaking skills – as well as serving as the line’s sniper.

That brings us to Renney’s new first line of Aaron Voros, Gomez and Markus Naslund. Yes, you read that right – Aaron Voros is on the first line. Don’t get me wrong, Voros is nice player to have as long as he on the fourth line or even the third line if the other two forwards are big scorers.

Renney’s justification is that Voros goes to the net – which is a HUGE part of the game the Rangers do not do enough of. However, after a quick start Voros has leveled off – much as he did last year with Minnesota. The solution to getting the Rangers to go to the net is not to play Voros, but to threaten the rest of the team if they don’t go to the net.

Lost in the shuffle is Petr Prucha, who should be the third forward with Gomez and Naslund. No player has stirred up as much debate as Prucha among Ranger fans on the various Internet boards. Renney stated that Prucha’s problem is that he tends to wear down. There is a simple reason for why Prucha “wears down” – he is one of the few Ranger forwards who is active every shift of every game. While he might not be the biggest Ranger, outside of Callahan no forward seems to throw his body around as much as Prucha. Given all of the Rangers struggles on the power play, Prucha has never been given an extended look on the power play.

Even if Renney is correct about Prucha wearing down, then the answer is not sit him out for stretches of time. Rather, it is to give him a game off when this perceived wearing down is hurting his game. If the Rangers have a stretch where they are playing three games in four nights, or even two games in back-to-back nights, then you can give Prucha a night off he truly needs it.

While we are talking about the lineup, Renney and the Rangers should use Dmitri Kalinin’s injury as opportunity to see what Erik Reitz can bring to the team. In his first game as a Ranger he showed his fighting skills might not match his size, but he did show a willingness to use his size and hit – something the Rangers also need. Since there no chance Kalinin will be re-signed, why not take this chance to see what Reitz can do.

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