November 2009


As the New York Rangers hit the quarter-pole, they are hardly the strapping stallions that started the season 7-1. Rather, they look like the same old Rangers that have to struggle at the finish just to qualify for the playoffs. If you look even closer, they appear to be the same team under John Tortorella that they were under Tom Renney.

Despite the coaching and player changes, the one thing that is constant and consistent about the Blueshirts is their inconsistency. The Rangers are one big roller coaster ride from the beginning of the season to the end. They start the season by winning seven of their first eight games and then go into the tank the tune of a 2-8-1 stretch.

Then again Ranger fans have gotten use to living on the roller coaster. Last year, the Blueshirts opened the season five consecutive wins on their way to a 14-5-2 record during their first 21 games. What followed was yet another season-long struggle to make the playoffs before another heartbreaking elimination – this time in the first round.

Just how bad are things?

Don’t look now, but the Rangers (11-9-1) are tied with the New York Islanders (8-6-7) with 23 points. Yes, those are the same Islanders team that started their season 0-3-3 and won only one game in their first 10 games (1-4-5).

What does this mean for the Rangers this season?

It means the Rangers are going to have to fight tooth and nail all season to secure a playoff berth. It means their margin of error is slim to none and it means that they will have to over-rely on Henrik Lundqvist during the second half of the season – Olympics or not.

Some people might point to the injuries that hit Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky in the Calgary game. That really isn’t the case because the Rangers were just 3-5-1 in their nine games prior to the Flames game. When the offense was producing, the defense was letting them down. When the defense kept the goals against down, the offense was nowhere to be found.

Besides, injuries are a convenient excuse to use when management, coaches and players are looking deflect blame. The Pittsburgh Penguins are playing a defense corps that resembles an AHL blue line as opposed to an NHL blue line because of injuries. Yet, the Penguins are battling the New Jersey Devils at the top of the Atlantic Division while the Rangers are battling the Islanders to stay out of the basement.

The Rangers inability to sustain prosperity lies within the organization’s inability to show consistency.

Coach Tortorella espoused a system where the Rangers would feature sustained puck pressure that would put their opponents on their heels. Of late, it has been the Rangers who have been pinned in their own end. He tells Sean Avery to mind his “p’s and q’s” and then says that Avery needs to be more involved. He warns against the ills of taking penalties and then bemoans the fact Matt Gilroy didn’t take a penalty on Matt Bradley’s eventual game-winning goal.

The Blueshirts have gotten everything they expected (and more) out of the likes of Marian Gaborik and Vinny Prospal. The two rookie defensemen, Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto, are showing themselves to be bona fide NHL blueliners despite their inexperience. Artem Anisimov has struggled at times because he could use more bulk, but he has shown that he will be a solid NHL player.

The problem is that the rest of the lineup has been, you got it, inconsistent at best.

Young guns like Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Daniel Girardi and Marc Staal have not stepped up their play the way they should have – and the way the Rangers needed. While Callahan’s defense and shot blocking has been superb, he received his new contract on the hopes that he would become a 30-goal scorer.

On the other hand, veterans like Avery, Drury, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival are not bringing the leadership and style of play the team needs. Drury has done a nice job becoming the Rangers defensive go-to center, but at his salary the Rangers need more than that from their captain. Redden and Roszival are second pair defensemen who are getting paid first pair salaries – although Redden has picked up his play under Tortorella.

Even The King has been a mere mortal. Henrik Lundqvist has set a high standard from himself, but he has not been able to steal as many games as he had in the past. Could that be a byproduct of Tortorella’s more open system as opposed to Renney’s closer to the vest system?

Of course, this bring us to Glen Sather. The Rangers President/GM’s inability to manage the salary cap has been the biggest constant since the end of the lockout. With the Rangers close to the salary cap, Slats has no room to maneuver to bring in replacements. Even if he utilized the Long Term Injured Reserve option, the relief he receives lasts as long as Dubinsky and/or Drury are out. Once they are ready to return, the Rangers would have to cut salary/players.

Sather did not leave himself with too many options in Hartford when it came to replacements at the center position. Tyler Arnason bailed out on the Wolf Pack when he saw the writing on the wall. Corey Locke is one of those Quadruple-A players whose skills are just a notch below the NHL. The organization does not seem willing to rush Evgeny Grachev so the only other alternative for the Rangers is to use wingers at center.

So what can we expect out of the Rangers out of the second quarter of the season?

The Rangers are going to be like the girl with the curl – when they are going good they will get fans dreaming about a Stanley Cup run. When they are are going bad, it is going to be more ulcers and agita. My advice is to ask Santa Claus for a lot of Maalox because it is probably going to get worse before it gets better.

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Today is a rather special day for three reasons. First off, anyone suffering from paraskevidekatriaphobia knows that today is Friday the 13th, so beware of guys named Jason wearing goalie masks. Secondly, on November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence; that request came from his wife. Thirdly, and most importantly, November 13 marks the 13th anniversary of Ranger Ramblings!

Back in 1996, I was a member of a Rangers e-mail discussion group. Dubi Silverstein of Blueshirt Bulletin fame used to provide recaps for the games. I had the opportunity to fill on November 13. At the end of the recap, I included my own observations under the headline of “Ranger Ramblings”. Kara Vitale, who runs Ranger Fan Central, asked me to write a column and the rest is history.

Since I have experience filling in, I thought I would take this time to help Glen Sather and “fill in” as GM for a few minutes – and given the Rangers recent woes – there is no time to waste.

First off, I realize that the Rangers need to get out from under the horrible contracts of Chris Drury, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival. Most fans would simply banish all three to Hartford and be done with the contracts. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen for two reasons.

To begin, Drury has a no-movement clause in contract that forbids the Rangers demoting, trading, or even waiving him without his permission. Secondly, the Rangers are not going to park $14 million worth of contract in the AHL this season. While the Rangers could buy one or all of the players out, there are still cap implications for the future that would leave some of their salary on the books long after they are gone. As an example, the Islanders will carry parts of Alexei Yashin’s contract on their cap through the 2013-2014 season.

On the plus side, there are some things that can be done. First off, the Rangers need to admit their mistake in signing Donald Brashear and look to give him away in a deal or send him to Hartford. Brash’s $1.4 million salary is a drop in the bucket to Cablevision so parking his contract in the AHL is no problem. The Rangers could do the same to Aaron Voros, but at $1 million, the Rangers could live with that – especially factoring in his friendship with Marian Gaborik.

The next way to free up some salary space is to place Brandon Dubinsky on the Long term Injured Reserve list. Players on LTIR must miss at least 10 games and 24 days in order to qualify. However, their salaries do not count against the cap while on LTIR. Given that Dubinsky is out anywhere from 3-6 weeks, the Rangers could possibly save a minimum of $250,000.

These savings, along with the Rangers estimated cap space of $700,000, gives the Rangers about $2.4 million to spend in an attempt to replace Dubinsky. Of course, the Blueshirts can’t use all of that money because it would give them no flexibility for the rest of the season. Believe it or not, that isn’t even the biggest problem.

The problem facing the Rangers is finding a player who can help the team now in Dubinsky’s absence and also help the team when he returns. Taking a quick look at players who might available does not give on much hope. There are fourth line center types like Adam Mair and Marty Reasoner, but they are hardly replacements for Dubinsky. heck, I am not all that sure they are replacements for Brian Boyle when you factor in the salary increase.

Mike Comrie (Edmonton) and Robert Lang (Phoenix) would nice replacements both on the ice and salary cap wise as each player is on a one-year deal (Comrie at $1.25 million and Lang at $1 million). The problem is that the odds are against the Oilers and Coyotes looking to dump salary at this point in the season and it probably isn’t worth overpaying for either player.

The Rangers could improve their trade position if the decided to move Christopher Higgins and his $2.25 million contract, but not that many teams are going to be lining up for a player they might be able to sign on the cheap as a free agent coming off a disappointing season.

Given the cap constraints and factoring in the kind of players available, the Rangers best alternative is to do nothing. They should still enact my cap saving plan (demote Brashear and LTIR Dubinsky) so that the Rangers have cap space in reserve to make a trade or two at the deadline.

As for replacing Dubinsky, the Blueshirts should roll the dice and call up Evgeny Grachev and throw him to the wolves. On MSG’s season preview show, Coach John Tortorella said he was not afraid to play the kids – and he has shown that by playing Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto. Torts should go the full monty and give Grachev a chance to sink or swim. In 15 games at Hartford, Grachev is averaging nearly a point a game (five goals and eight assists).

No offense to P-A Parenteau (who was recalled with Dane Byers getting sent back to the Wolf Pack), but I believe Grachev should have gotten the call and placed on the first line with Vinny Prospal and Marian Gaborik. This would give the Rangers their best opportunity to see if Grachev is the answer this year. If he is, then the pressure is off as far as the Rangers having to make a trade now or at the deadline.

If Grachev is not ready, the Rangers are in no worse of a position. In fact, they still might be in a good position because, by that time, Chris Drury will be healthy and Dubinsky will be that much closer to being ready to rejoin the team.

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In normal circumstances, I would be writing about the Rangers 1-2 trip out to Western Canada. But as any Ranger fans will tell you, there is no such thing as normal when it comes to the New York Rangers. There are three topics which are more pressing then the Rangers record on the road trip: 1) How are the Rangers going to replace Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky 2) Why didn’t the Rangers retaliate when Curtis Glencross knocked Drury out of the game 3) When is the NHL finally going to do something about hits to the head.

The answer to the first question has gotten a little clearer during the last couple of days. While Coach John Tortorella has not ruled Drury out of Thursday night’s game against Atlanta, even if the Captain does miss the game the news is definitely more encouraging.

Unlike a certain baseball team (the Mets), the Rangers have had experience (unfortunately, too much of it) when it comes to dealing with concussions and post-concussion syndrome. The Rangers training staff would not have allowed Drury to fly home with the team if there any complications.

There is some concern because Drury has had two previous concussions. He missed two games during the 2003-2004 season and four games (and 13 days) during the 2006-2007 season. While he did not take the ice on Monday, Drury did ride the stationary bike so he is able to partake of some physical activity. It appears that Drury’s return is a case of sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, the same is not true for Brandon Dubinsky who suffered a broken bone in his right wrist. Reports say that he could be out anywhere from four to six weeks – marking the first time he will miss NHL games since becoming a regular.

Tortorella does not anticipate the Rangers recalling anyone from Hartford because he has enough available players who can shift from wing to center (e.g. Sean Avery, Ryan Callahan and Chris Higgins) or he can just run three lines and spot the fourth line. This idea is not a crazy strategy given the Rangers relaxed schedule during the next two weeks (three games in the next 10 days and four games in the next 15).

While it might be perceived as a confidence boost for Ranger forwards, it is mainly an indictment of the state of the organizational depth in Hartford at center. Evgeny Grachev has five goals and seven assists in 14 games, but you get the feeling the Rangers don’t want to yo-yo him up and down between the AHL and the NHL. In other words, when he gets recalled it will be to stay.

Corey Locke is a possibility, but as Mitch Beck Howlings pointed out to me, he is in the same boat as P.A. Parenteau. Both players have deficiencies when it comes to defensive play and skating – although Locke does thrive on the power play.

There really isn’t much the Rangers can do on the trade market because of the lack of salary cap space. Even though the Rangers could get some relief by placing Dubinsky on Long Term Injured Reserve, that is not athe best case scenario. While he will be out long enough to qualify for LTIR (10 games and 24 days out of the lineup), the Blueshirts lose that cap space once Dubinsky is ready to return to the lineup. All LTIR does is give the Rangers room to call up players from Hartford – where they run into the problem about a lack of depth at center in Hartford.

It seems that as long as Drury is not out of the lineup for the long term, the Rangers will mix and match with what they have. If they need to add some offensive punch, odds are they will recall Parenteau and just live with what they have. Claiming Adam Mair off waivers from Buffalo just adds another fourth-liner and looking at Peter Forsberg is not an option because of cap issues and health issues. You can also scratch Tyler Arnason off the list beacuse he has been suspended by the Wolf Pack for signing a contract with a European team.

As for our second question, let’s turn to Torts himself for his take on the Rangers lack of retaliation. Here is what Steve Zipay wrote on his Newsday Blog on Sunday.

“I think a lot of guys didn’t even see it. But we’re here to win the hockey game, that’s so early in the game.”

The coach is spot on with his assessment. The Glencross hit occurred 49 seconds into the game. Any retaliation at that point could have jeopardized the game. Yes, I know the Rangers lost, but no one knew that was going to happen a minute into the game. Besides, Daniel Girardi did take a “run” at Glencross who proceeded to skate away.

Some fans would respond that the Rangers should have done something at the end of the game. Perhaps, but don’t forget what happened when Dane Byers drew an instigator penalty with less than five minutes at Vancouver.

Of course, this begs the question – Who would been the player to seek out the retaliation?

Sean Avery? The last thing Avery needed was to cause some kind of ruckus after returning to the scene of his “sloppy seconds” comment that got earned a six-game suspension and an eventual ticket out of Dallas. If Avery had even looked cross-eyed at anyone, you could bet the NHL would hand down a suspension faster than a New York minute.

Byers? The rookie was just returning from his automatic one-game suspension and the last thing he needed was to cause any trouble. It is that type of action that gets players their own rules (see Avery).

The interesting thing about all this retaliation talk is it is coming from a fan base that couldn’t fathom why Colton Orr was in the lineup while he was here and don’t see why Donald Brashear and Aaron Voros on the team as we speak. If you want the Rangers to retaliate, Brashear and Voros are the types of players you need in the lineup – flaws and all.

I know that Voros is the 2009 version of Joe Paterson – a fighter who is willing to drop the gloves but can’t beat anyone. I know that Brashear’s best days are behind him and that age and injuries have caught up with him – and he is a suspension waiting to happen based on past history. However, I don’t mind if an over-the-hill player gets suspended. I do mind when a rookie trying to make his mark in the NHL does.

For better or worse, the Rangers are going to have find a way to keep Byers and Brashear/Voros in the lineup if there is a concern about opponents taking liberties with the Rangers star players. The other possibility is to recall Justin Soryal from Hartford. The 6-2/210 left winger is a tough guy fans are waiting to see. Mitch Beck of Howlings says he has earned his nickname (“Scary”) and as Mitch said “and by the time he’s ready to come to NY watch out…”

Before I end, allow me to step on my soapbox and rail against the job the NHL is doing when it comes to hits to the head. I know that in today’s world we have more access to sports news than ever before. With that said, it seems that the number of injuries as a result of hits to the head is increasing at an alarming rate. Sadly, the NHL is not going to fully address and correct this issue until it is too late and someone dies.

While the league (and more specifically Colin Campbell) deserves all of the negative press it gets as a result of uneven – and in some cases – light suspensions, for once the blame lies beyond Gary Bettman and the league.

The NHL Players Association must share the blame with the NHL. Since the players have the most to lose, it stands to reason that the NHLPA should be at the forefront of any discussion on hits to the head. However, it is difficult to take up this problem when the NHLPA can’t even get their own house in order.

If both sides were smart (and it is a big IF), they would meet to address this problem and use it as a stepping stone for getting a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

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Bob McKenzie tweeted on Twitter that the NHL has suspended Calgary Flames forward Curtis Glencross three games for his hit at the start of Saturday night’s game. I will have more to say on this and the state of the Rangers tomorrow on the Blog.

McKenzie also wrote that two centers on are on the Waiver wire. Buffalo has waived Adam Mair and Washington’s Michael Nylander has cleared waivers. Mair would bring a veteran fourth line type presence that the Rangers have in Brian Boyle (well, not so much the on the veteran side). Nylander would be of interest with Brandon Dubinsky out anywhere from 3-6 weeks and Chris Drury a question mark. However, even with Nylander at half his salary via waivers, it is too much of a cap hit for the Rangers to afford.

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In the spirit of the New York Yankees winning the World Series, let me just say Holy Cow! No, that is not a reference to Yankees or baseball. Rather, it is reference to the fact that there was a Glen Sather sighting by one of New York’s hockey reporters. I guess this means that Groundhog Day has been moved from February to November. The question we need to answer is did Sather see his shadow? Actually, the real question is can Slats see his reflection in a mirror?

The Sather sighting came as part of a Larry Brooks NY Post Exclusive that says the Rangers are among the teams in Sweden to scout the talented, but often injured, Peter Forsberg in the Karjala Cup Tournament.

“Yes, we have interest in Forsberg,” Brooks quotes Sather. “From the reports we’ve been getting, the foot is much better than it was a year ago. We’ll scout him at the tournament and see what, if anything develops. But I’ve always liked Peter and I’ve always been interested in finding a way to bring him to New York, if possible.”

In yet another Groundhog Day reference, this is another case of the Rangers chasing after another broken down veteran. If Forsberg were anywhere near reasonable health, his name would be only an NHL contract by now. Sadly, the once great center is a mere shadow of the player he was a decade ago due to numerous ankle and foot injuries.

Even if Forsberg managed to turn back the clock to his pre-injury status (and that is a big if), the Rangers do have one little problem – extremely limited cap space. Even if Brooks calculations were way off (he said the Rangers have about $700,000 worth of space available), the Blueshirts would not have enough cap space to sign Forsberg – much like they had no salary cap wiggle room to sign Mats Sundin last year.

Sather would be better off trying to find a way to correct his $7 million mistake and move Chris Drury. Internet rumblings have Tampa Bay pondering the fate of their captain Vincent Lecavalier. While their cap hits are close enough to make a deal possible (Drury at $7 million and Lecavalier at $7.7 million), the Lightning center’s contract is in the Rick DiPietro neighborhood ($85 million over 11 seasons).

Even if Sather could find a trading partner, Drury has a No Movement Clause. In other words, Drury can’t go anywhere unless he agrees to it – including being sent down to Hartford.

The only positive thing I can say is that the Rangers are exercising their due diligence to at least kick Forsberg’s tires. Of course, given the state of those tires, they are risking coming up with a lemon.

ON THE FLY

On his Newsday Blue Notes Blog, Steve Zipay is reporting that coach John Tortorella will be reuniting Brandon Dubinsky with Vinny Prospal and Marian Gaborik. Zipay writes that Tort’s was pleased with the Christopher Higgins, Artem Anisimov and Ales Kotalik line. Zipay offered that Enver Lisin could be back in the lineup and team with Drury and Ryan Callahan on the third line with Sean Avery, Brian Boyle and Donald Brashear/Aaron Voros on the fourth line with Dane Byers serving his automatic one-game suspension for picking up an Instigator penalty with less than five minutes left to play against Vancouver.

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The New York Rangers face the first of two trips out west on Tuesday night as they take on the Vancouver Canucks in the Blueshirts first trip to Western Canada since the 2007-2008 season. Hopefully, this trip turns out better than their last visit.

Tom Renney’s troops’ poor performance that season was highlighted by their trip-ending 3-2 shootout loss at Edmonton. The Rangers preceded that loss with a 4-3 loss to Calgary and 3-0 blanking against Vancouver in early January 2008.

The Blueshirts did not play much better following their trip out west. They stumbled along with a 2-4-1 record which included two straight home losses by a combined 11-5 score.

The Rangers fared much better last season when they made their lone trip out west to play the three California teams. They opened the trip with a 3-1 victory over Anaheim and followed it up with a 3-2 overtime win against Los Angeles. The trip ended with a hard fought 3-2 loss at San Jose.

Unfortunately, the Rangers had problems following the trip out west as they limped along to the tune of a 2-3-2 run following their week of California dreaming.

The 2006-2007 season brought the Rangers their best results on a western trip. The Blueshirts headed west early in the season for a four-game road trip at the end of October/beginning of November. The team went 3-1 on the trip with wins over Phoenix, Anaheim (in overtime) and San Jose. The lone blemish was a 4-1 loss at Los Angeles.

Following the road trip, the Rangers followed up with a 3-3-1 record in their next seven games – including a 4-3 shootout win at Florida.

Interestingly enough, the Rangers did not make a trip out west following the lockout as the NHL adjusted their schedule for the 2005/2006 season.

These numbers show that, not only do the Rangers have their work cut out for them in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, but they have work even harder to avoid any lingering after effects of the trip to Western Canada. The Rangers return from the trip with four of their next five games at home – against Atlanta, Washington, Florida and Columbus. The lone road game is a trip to Ottawa.

I am a big believer in these types of road trips out west. They are a good way to help build team bonding. They also serve as a means to focus the team on hockey as all of the distractions of being at “home” in New York are taken away.

I like to believe that the Rangers quick start last season was aided by their trip to the Czech Republic – even if it threw them off their normal training camp routine. The games in Europe forced the Rangers to focus in on hockey earlier than they would have if they started back in New York. However, this is not the belief of former Rangers coach Tom Renney.

With Renney’s Oilers on Long Island to face the Islanders last night, it gave the media their first chance to talk to the former coach. Among the subjects he discussed was the Rangers trip to the Czech Republic.

“I would have rather not gone to Europe, that really accelerated the process. We were in really good shape, that’s what got us our start,” Andrew Gross wrote on his NorthJersey.com Blog. “We were in excellent shape at the start because of the fitness level. It stunted our ability to grow with being at home and continuing to practice a little bit because we weren’t as tidy as it might have appeared.”

As I mentioned at the top, this trip out west is not the Rangers only visit to the left coast. At the end of January, they play back-to-back games at Phoenix and Colorado before finishing up at Los Angeles. Once again the Rangers return with four of the next five at home – against Washington, New Jersey, Nashville and Tampa Bay. The lone road trip is their final regular season visit to the Igloo in Pittsburgh.

One thing that has surprised with this trip west is that the Ranges did not recall a seventh defenseman for the trip. It is a bit of a gamble to head to Western Canada with only six defenseman. Glen Sather and John Tortorella are taking a big gamble that a blueliner does not get hurt in a pre-game skate. I suppose, in an emergency, Brian Boyle could see some shifts on defense because he did play there some for the Kings.

I had the chance to speak with Mitch Beck who runs the Howlings web site that covers the Hartford wolf Pack. While he did not think the Rangers would bring in a seventh defenseman, he did address the pecking order in an e-mail to me.

“If the real question is who the top d-man in Hartford is right now; it’s Bobby Sanguinetti. Technically he’s listed as second among all defenseman in scoring with 15 points with 4 goals and 11 assists in 12 games. He’s tied though in points with Andy Wozniewski (5g, 10a, 15 pts) but the Providence d-man has played one game less,” Beck reported.

“Sanguinetti is plus-1 and has only taken one penalty in the 12 games he’s played in. Don’t take that though as not being physical; just the opposite, he is. He’s just being smart about it. Of his goals, Sanguinetti has 1 on the PP and 5 of his assists have come a man up.”

In addition to his positive report on the Rangers 2006 first round draft pick, Mitch also sent along the following report on some other Wolf Pack rearguards:

• “Ilkka Heikkinen has been good on both sides of the puck. He’s 6th among D-men with 11 points (3g, 8a, 11 pts). He has a plus-3 and has not sat in the box. One of his goals and six of his helpers have been with an opposing player in the box.”

• “In terms of defensive defenseman, Michael Sauer (2g, 3a, 5 pts, and plus-1) has been better than Corey Potter (1g, 4a 5 pts and minus-4).”

• “If someone is doing to ask about Mathieu Dandenault I would tell you that in the five games he’s played in with the Pack, he doesn’t have a point and really hasn’t done anything to stand out.”

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