- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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Going into the season, some of us couldn't pick the Rangers low enough. If there were a way to predict they would finish 19th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, we would have done it.
In recent seasons, weren't the Rangers, the worst NHL team a blank checkbook could buy, going to be a mess in the NHL's New Order?
There was the suspicion that the altered rules and tightened enforcement standards would rejuvenate Jaromir Jagr to a point, but that wouldn't be enough, right?
And now that we're on the verge of the new year?
Although the Rangers have been stumbling a bit over the past couple of weeks, they still look like a bona fide playoff team -- quite an accomplishment for a franchise that hasn't played a postseason game since 1997 -- and a challenger to the Flyers in the Atlantic Division.
Jagr, whose attention was intermittent and effort often halfhearted in the past, again is the best player in the league. Rookie goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been a revelation, and winger Petr Prucha also deserves to be on the Calder Trophy "long list."
A team without a captain and without a leader in the varied styles of Mark Messier or Brian Leetch, the Rangers still seem to have good chemistry with Jagr comfortably serving as the catalyst and front man for the Czech contingent. And how strange is it that Darius Kasparaitis -- one of the men wearing the alternate captains' "A" -- has gone from the guy even his teammates held at arm's length to a sage leader at age 33?
In the wake of the Rangers' surprising first-half performance, the face-saving dodge would be to pawn off those gloom-and-doom predictions for the Rangers as the off-target guesses of the biggest buffoons in sports -- "They" and "People." ("You know, Coach, 'They' said you were overrated." "What do you say to 'People' who say you're not tough enough?")
Yet, even when I saw the Rangers knock off the Flyers on opening night in Philadelphia, and heeded the results of the ESPN.com in-game blog and went to Gino's for a postgame cheesesteak, I didn't see much reason to begin making plans to be in Manhattan during the postseason.
For weeks, I waited for the mirrors to break and for the Rangers to get a giddy Ralph Kramden back on the scoreboard after New York goals.
The mirrors haven't cracked, and Ralph hasn't reappeared.
"I want to be fair to this team, who I hoped would come out and play as well as they have," Rangers coach Tom Renney said this week. "I guess I'm pleasantly surprised that we have been able to maybe force the pundits to reconsider what we are all about as a team. Having said that, it's still early and anything can happen."
Twenty-three-year-old Lundqvist, one of approximately 17 dark-haired Swedes, is coming off a four-season run with Vasta Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League.
"Goaltenders at this level usually come into their own around the mid-20s, or whatever, after a significant NHL experience behind a No. 1 guy," Renney said. "Henrik's growth, I would suggest, is accelerated simply because of his experience in Europe.
"He's played in a couple of world championships; he's played in a very good Swede league. Our game is a hybrid of both North American and European hockey now, especially with the red line out, so I think there's a level of comfort there for him."
"But having said that, too, this is New York, the big city and high expectations, whether we are rebuilding or not," Renney added. "He certainly has met the expectations of the organization, and I would think the fans."
Jagr's reawakening, though, has been the major story. It has gone beyond simply attributing the change to the reopened game. It has to do with a rejuvenation of spirit, and the key will be to keep Jagr in that mode. Instead of giving it the mumbo jumbo of nationalities making no difference, the Rangers have enough of his countrymen around Jagr to form variations of five-man units, if Renney so desires.
"I think the organization's insight into the acquisition of the Czech players to help us to perform better with these new rules and with the red line being out -- all of that has really helped Jaromir," Renney said. "He does have fun when he comes to the rink. He enjoys his teammates, all of them, but the fact that he can speak his native tongue helps him. Not that he doesn't like communicating in English, but it's a good situation for him.
"I think the ability to use his size and strength to protect pucks and work the corners and go to the net in the rules have helped him, but as much as anything, he's just having fun playing."
Renney, who stepped back behind the bench when Glen Sather fired himself to concentrate on his front-office duties late in the 2003-04 season, deserves credit for making something of this quirky mix. And, yes, Sather himself, so hotly criticized for failing to engineer a turnaround in the wake of the disastrous end to Neil Smith's tenure, merits praise for patching together a New Rangers in the wake of the new CBA. Part of that includes having enough decent prospects in the organization -- e.g., Dominic Moore, Fedor Tyutin, Ryan Hollweg, Prucha and Lundqvist -- to fill in the cracks, and more.
"It's nice to know that we're kind of in the hunt," Renney said. "But we have not, at the same time, lost sight of the long-term objective, and that is to develop a team that will win over time."
Renney had a hand in personnel decisions under Sather, since he was the player personnel chief before going back on the bench as Sather's assistant at the outset of the 2003-04 season. And his résumé has a broad-based background, dating back to when he succeeded Ken Hitchcock as coach of a major junior powerhouse, the Kamloops Blazers. The Blazers won the Memorial Cup in Renney's second season before he moved on to the national team -- coaching Canada to the 1994 Olympic silver medal -- then got a 101-game shot as head coach of the then-terrible Canucks.
The surprise probably wasn't that Renney got a second chance but that it took so long to happen.
"Maybe earlier, on the heels of the Vancouver thing, I was hoping that the opportunity to get back in the NHL as a head coach would present itself," Renney said. "But I'm one of those guys who wants to touch every angle of the game I possibly can, and learn as much as I possibly can, so that it continues to be interesting and invigorating and challenging for me.
"The one thing I believe I am is a builder. Being able to do that from the management side of the equation and the player personnel side of the equation, I was really enjoying that. It's funny what happens to you when you're not looking for it."
Renney's right. At the halfway point, the Rangers are far from a cinch to make the postseason. But at least there seems to be some coherence in the Rangers' picture for a change.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
Many predicted more of the same for the Rangers, but Tom Renney and Co. are building a winner.