Rangers decide to fix what's broken
When the puck dropped on the New York Rangers' 2003-04 season, their $77 million payroll was only slightly lower than the NHL-record $77.8 million payroll being doled out by the Detroit Red Wings. That was as close to the top of the league as the Rangers got in what was a watershed season for the boys on Broadway.
Whether it was the injuries -- the Rangers lost 341 man-games to injury or illness last season -- or the mix of players, it didn't come together.
And after years of shedding prospects and draft picks to bring in big-name, big-salary underachievers, the Rangers pulled the plug in March en route to missing the playoffs for a franchise-record seventh straight season. Matthew Barnaby, Greg de Vries, Brian Leetch, Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved, Vladimir Malakhov, Anson Carter, Martin Rucinsky, Chris Simon and Jussi Markkanen were all jettisoned in a dizzying salary dumping spree in the weeks before the trade deadline. The bloodletting didn't stop there as Eric Lindros was left unqualified in the offseason.
In a dramatic about-face, the Rangers have pledged their future to a cast of unknown prospects and draft picks who, in theory, will be allowed to grow together and restore the team's former pride.
Don Maloney, the team's vice president of player personnel and assistant general manager, spoke with ESPN.com about last season and the new direction being taken by the Rangers, a reshuffling of the Rangers' deck Maloney likens to the metamorphosis the New York Yankees underwent in the early 1980s, building from within and complementing homegrown talent with productive veterans.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
Maloney: Initially last season we were hopefully optimistic that if we stayed healthy we could be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. Obviously, it didn't unfold that way.
From the goaltending on out, we were not as good as we'd hoped to be. It would be an understatement to say we were disappointed. We could just never sustain the level of play that you need to be one of the top teams.
Last March we decided to go back to the basics on how to build an organization, how to build a team. Now we're building towards that future right now. We obviously have woken up to the fact that what we were doing the last half dozen years doesn't work.
New York is an interesting place to be a professional athlete, Maloney explained. It's spread out. Players live all over the place. There are the inherent pressures of playing in that market.
It's difficult to pull everything together as a team the way it needs to be to be successful in this league unless the team grows together.
As for the notion that Ranger fans won't stand for a rebuilding process ...
I couldn't disagree with that statement more. You can't have a 10-year rebuilding process. But Ranger fans are absolutely sick of older players coming in and under-performing.
As the Calgary Flames showed us this spring, you can turn your team around in a hurry.
Maloney: That's a very difficult question. We had such a big turnover by the end of the year.
Certainly, Jaromir Jagr. When he came in, there was maybe a little cloud surrounding him. But his dedication and effort was terrific. He loved being here. Of all the players, he might be the guy to me who, at the end of the year, stood out.
Maloney also had praise for rookie forward Jed Ortmeyer, who played 58 games after being called up by the Rangers in November.
He might be the other guy.
On a team filled with poster boys for underachievement, there is no shortage of "bounce back" candidates, but it's in the nets that management is looking for a significant turnaround. The Rangers used five netminders last season, while finishing 27th among NHL teams in goaltending. Former Olympian Mike Dunham's play slumped dramatically last season, and he finished with a 3.03 GAA and .896 save percentage, numbers that factored into him being passed over for Team USA's roster at this summer's World Cup of Hockey. Meanwhile, Dan Blackburn, the Montreal native who was supposed to supplant Mike Richter as the Rangers' goalie of the future was sidelined all of last season by a nerve injury in his shoulder. The Rangers' first pick, 10th overall, in 2001 has been working out and is expected to be ready for training camp.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Maloney: I think there's two. Getting Danny Blackburn back healthy is key for us. And Mike Dunham is key for how we're going to do this year. We need him to be the guy he was when we got him from Nashville.
I also look at a guy like Tom Poti. He's the main guy back there (on defense) now. It's time for Tom Poti to step up and be a leader. It's not that he was poor. I think Tom's just starting to come into his own.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in the system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
Maloney takes a deep breath here. With a team essentially starting from scratch again, that question can be, in fact must be, answered in many different ways.
There are likely a dozen names that could likely play in the NHL. There's Fedor Tyutin, our young defenseman, and (Maxim) Kondratiev that came over from Toronto (in the Leetch deal). He'll play here next year. Thomas Pock (a defenseman) had a real good blush at the end of last year. Jozef Balej (who came from Montreal in the Kovalev deal) had a terrific year in Hartford. He's certainly a possibility. Garth Murray is a hard-nosed role player. He'll play once the season starts.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Maloney: If anything, I think that our attention to detail. Our commitment to play hard every night.
Certainly our goaltending needs to be better. Our play without the puck. Look at the names we've had the past few years, (Lindros, Bure, Kovalev, Nedved). With the puck, they can dazzle you. Without the puck, there may be some questions at times. I'm being kind here.
I know our coaching is going to be great. Tom Renney's a terrific hockey coach. If you spend any time with him, you just know he knows his stuff
Renney was promoted from interim coach July 6.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Maloney: Game 82 when the final buzzer went. There really wasn't any favorite moment for me. Maybe when we made the decision that it was enough.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Maloney: I don't think we have enough time in this phone call.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Maloney: A shotgun. Just kidding. I don't think there is anything that can take me away from the game this summer. Actually, we have a family vacation up in Northern Ontario (Muskoka area) which is always fun. A little family reunion. As for skydiving or motocross racing. No.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.