One of the hardest parts of writing is when you get a concept you really like, really want to write about but you can’t quite figure out how to go about executing the piece. The topic of Glen Sather has been that way for the last few weeks for me. See, I’ve started to reconsider my position on Sather’s early years with the Rangers and knowing I’d be adopting an unpopular position realized I would need to construct this post in such a way as to at least give you, the readers, pause, to perhaps even convince you too that Slats’ approach to roster construction pre-lockout was actually similar to the one the club is employing currently; one of building with a young core and augmenting with key free agents. Thankfully there are times when another writer publishes something to help clear the writer’s block.
Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo Sports published a piece (http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nhl–rangers-ready-for-cup-contention-after-trade-for-rick-nash.html) on Monday, July 23rd in which he praised the way the Rangers have built their team and referred to the Nash acquisition as, “one of the final pieces – if not the final piece – of a rebuild done right.”
Cotosnika also wrote this when talking about the trade and rebuild, “The Rangers, who also received a conditional third-rounder and a minor-leaguer, have been building for years. They drafted. They developed. They supplemented with key free agents like Richards and Marian Gaborik, instead of throwing around big money and trying to use free agency as a foundation the way they used to.” It’s the last sentence that sticks out to me and the part that I take a degree of issue with.
The implication of Cotsonika’s statement is the Rangers used free agency as they sole way to build their roster; that they ignored the draft and had little desire to build with youth. That’s an opinion shared by a vast majority of Ranger fans. However if you actually look back at the facts you will see that isn’t necessarily the case. Allow me to explain.
Most Ranger fans remember the early years of Slats’ tenure as Rangers president and general manager when he made trades for aging stars Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure and signed expensive free agents Bobby Holik, Darius Kasparaitis, etc. Those pre-lockout teams were heavily-laden with veterans and Sather’s acquisition of the players listed above doesn’t help the perception that he relied too much on aging, expensive star players rather than building with youth. But let’s hearken back to the summer of 2001 – 2002 to find proof that Sather’s intent even then was to develop a young core.
Adam Rotter of SNYRangersblog recently posted a timeline of sorts (http://www.snyrangersblog.com/2012/06/11/flashback-the-rangers-2001-pursuit-of-jaromir-jagr/) dating back to the summer of 2001 when the Rangers were chasing star forwards Jaromir Jagr and Eric Lindros in trade. It comes complete with excerpts of articles by Larry Brooks of the NY Post in which the scribe quotes Slats throughout the multitude of stages during those chases. Here are a few of the interesting quotes Slats offers up during this time and statements Brooks himself makes in his articles.
On the possibility of including the 10th overall pick in the 2001 draft as part of a package to acquire Jaromir Jagr, then of the Penguins, Slats had this to say:
“I’ve said that I intend to build the organization through youth, but trading the 10th overall pick isn’t the end of the world. It’s not something I’m anxious to do, but it’s not out of the question.”
After losing out on Jagr, who was eventually traded to Washington (though as we all know he eventually made his way to Manhattan), Brooks wrote the following:
“Oh, Patrick (then Penguins GM Craig Patrick) would have taken Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark, but the Rangers were – and are – in no position to yield their top two picks from 1999, kids the organization is banking on more than ever to live up to the expectations Neil Smith had when he traded a lot away to select them. Fact is, if Brendl and Lundmark do not emerge as major players within the next three or four years, the Rangers are cooked.”
When his attempts to acquire Jagr proved fruitless, Sather told Brooks this:
“I guess in the end it gets down to how people evaluate personnel,” the GM told The Post last night. “I knew all along there was a chance this could happen, and I told people a long time ago that I’d only go so far to make a deal.
“Craig told me that Washington was interested, and it’s not that I suspected he was lying, but when we asked [Caps GM] George [McPhee], he told us no, not that I’m accusing him of lying, I don’t know what really to make of that.
“But, really, what it came down to is that I wasn’t prepared to do what Craig had asked me to do in order to make the deal. I’ve said it before and I mean it: I’m not prepared to mortgage the future for any player, not even Jagr. We have to build the organization.”
Sather’s reluctance to include players he felt comprised the Rangers young core is telling. At this point Slats determined to build around youngsters Jamie Lundmark, Manny Malhotra, Tomas Kloucek, Mike York and Radek Dvorak among others, combined with the veteran group consisting of Messier, Leetch and Richter that remained from the 1994 Cup winning club. Also on the roster were veteran scoring forwards Theo Fleury and Petr Nedved. Certainly this was a talented roster. It was a different time for sure but does it really seem so different from what is going on today, especially if you recall how highly Malhotra and Lundmark were thought of back then.
Now yes, Slats would ultimately relent somewhat and traded Pavel Brendl in a package to get Lindros but his desire to build with youth while augmenting the roster with certain veterans was evident. His choices involving which veterans to acquire were where Slats made his guffaws. But even some of those moves are understandable within the context that of the situation that existed then.
At the point the decision was made to add Lindros, the Rangers had missed the postseason for four consecutive seasons. Sather had already been on the scene for a full year more or less and the pressure to bust that playoff drought was increasing. He felt he had several very good young players for the future along with enough talent on the big club to qualify for the postseason. The biggest weakness on the club was at center. With the Hall-of-Fame career of Mark Messier winding down Sather felt adding a true #1 center to alleviate the reliance on Moose was a wise decision. With the benefit of hindsight we know it didn’t work out as envisioned but in that moment did it seem so ridiculous?
My intent isn’t to necessarily defend the Lindros acquisition but to show Sather desired to build the Rangers “the right way,” even a decade ago.
One way a team constructs a young core and keeps fresh talent graduating into that core is by keeping and acquiring draft choices. Those draft choices are then developed into prospects who ultimately replace veteran talent and/or provides the club with enough useful assets to use to acquire necessary roster pieces to challenge for the Cup. Intuitively, if Sather wanted to build his club for long-term success he would stockpile premium (first and second-round) draft picks.
The Rangers, during the period of 2001 (Sather’s first draft as Rangers GM) through the 2005 draft, the Rangers exercised 14 selections in the first and second rounds. That total was tied with the LA Kings for the fifth most during that stretch. Several of those draft choices have turned into quality NHL players including; Fedor Tyutin (2001), Lauri Korpikoski (2004), Brandon Dubinsky (2004), Marc Staal (2005) and Michael Sauer (2005). That doesn’t even count the Rangers current captain, Ryan Callahan, who was selected in the 4th round of the 2004 entry draft.
The strategy of building with youth has always been one espoused by Sather even if it didn’t pan out prior to the lockout. But like any GM Slats wants to win and the pressure of managing in NYC probably makes that feeling stronger than in other markets. That pressure has prompted him to reach in the past when it’s come to acquiring veteran players. He gambled on the health of Lindros and Bure because he felt the future was in good hands with Lundmark and Malhotra. Later, with a veteran group led by Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, Slats erred in adding Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to the crew but the previous team had made it to round two of the postseason and was just seconds from taking a three-games-to-two lead in their series with Buffalo. Slats thought they were close and spent the money to try to add another dynamic to the team. Yes, those decisions were fraught with miscalculations but the plan was more or less the same as it is today.
So how does today’s team differ from the clubs assembled by Slats before?
- The young talent is panning out. The Rangers have drafted and/or developed into regular contributors 10 players currently on the roster; Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto, Michael Sauer and Henrik Lundqvist. Two more, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky were cashed in to acquire star scoring F Rick Nash. The commitment to drafting and developing is working.
Whereas earlier incarnations of youth movements failed when the prospects the club was relying on the become future stars didn’t develop the way they were projected. Lundmark, once compared to Red Wings Hall-of-Fame center Steve Yzerman, and Malhotra never became the dangerous one-two punch up the middle the club anticipated. Kloucek never developed into a top-four blueliner. Plain and simple, too many high draft picks busted.
- Today’s Rangers have Hank and the Blue Shirt teams before the lockout were backstopped by Mike Richter, at the tail end of his career, Mike Dunham and Dan Blackburn. Richter had a great career with the Rangers but his final few seasons were not very good. He won just 49 of 102 decisions with 8 ties, a GAA of 3.08 and a save percentage of roughly 0.900. Dunham posted better GAA and save percentage numbers but wasn’t any luckier in the win/loss column. Blackburn, ironically chosen with the same 10th pick in the 2001 entry draft mentioned earlier in conjunction with the Jagr negotiations, suffered a career-ending shoulder injury before he could really show what he was capable of doing. Meanwhile Hank is a four-time Vezina finalist, one-time winner and gives the Rangers elite goaltending night-in-and-night-out. Good goaltending is a must in this league and this team has it while those teams didn’t.
- Slats inherited a club with a heavy veteran presence in 2000 whereas the lockout that cost the NHL the 2004 0 2005 season and brought about the salary cap era forced Slats to purge the club of expensive veterans and retool the roster. What he was left with was Jagr, a collection of Czech complementary pieces (Marty Straka, Marek Malik, Rozsival, etc.) and a few young players (Prucha, Hank and Dominic Moore to name a few). As time would go on more youth would crack the lineup and reinforce Sather’s resolve in adding more young talent to the core.
- John Tortorella is a great coach; Ron Low and Brian Trottier are not. Tortorella has helped this club develop a personality and style that has led to a cohesive on-ice product and a team that gives 100% each and every night. The teams led by Low and Trottier were listless, undisciplined and never consistently adhered to any sort of structure. That makes a huge difference.
Today’s New York Rangers are a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup. The Pre-lockout Rangers, led by the same president and GM, Glen Sather, were a mess and didn’t even make the playoffs much less present as a viable threat to win a championship. That doesn’t mean Sather is doing anything different now in terms of roster construction other than simply doing it better. He’s always believed in building with youth and today’s club exemplifies that. Sather’s earlier editions of the team had youth that didn’t pan out while his veteran additions also failed.
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