The Original Six: New York Rangers
The Rangers represent a kind of Faustian dilemma played out on one of the grandest sports stages in the world: the question of whether a team would or should sacrifice the long-term future for one shot at the grand prize.
When confronted with the proposition, the Rangers answered emphatically, "Yes."
When the Rangers ended a 54-year Cup drought in 1994, it was a high-water mark for both the long-suffering franchise and the league itself. The win included thrilling comebacks and the famous guarantee of a victory over New Jersey by captain Mark Messier in the Eastern Conference finals. The Cup finals series was also compelling as the Rangers finally won at home in a seventh and deciding contest.
But what has followed has been more than a decade of chaos and futility. Coincidence? Not at all.
"I would think that anybody who was involved with the Rangers would do it again," former NHL netminder Glenn Healy said. "It's carpe diem because you've got to seize the moment. We may have guessed right for 1994. We may have guessed wrong for 1998."
Immediately after the Cup win, coach Mike Keenan bolted the organization. Aging veterans slowed and/or retired, and there was little thought given to developing young players. Instead, in an effort to maintain the success of the Cup team, the Rangers seemingly bought every top-name free agent who came on the market, from Eric Lindros to Pavel Bure to Bobby Holik to Darius Kasparaitis.
After a decade marked by furious spending with almost nothing to show for it (the team missed the playoffs seven straight seasons from 1997 to 2004), the Rangers have adapted surprisingly well to the new NHL.
The Rangers spent much of last season's first half in first place in the Atlantic Division before faltering down the stretch and being swept by New Jersey in the first round. This season, the Blueshirts have been up and down, but are again in the playoff hunt.
From 1942, the year after they won their second-to-last Cup, through 1966, the last year before expansion, the Rangers missed the playoffs 18 times. When the team became more competitive in the 1980s, it ran into the New York Islanders dynasty and a tough Philadelphia Flyers team. But through it all, the team never lacked for stars, whether it was Rod Gilbert or Phil Esposito or Brian Leetch or Messier or Mike Richter. Wayne Gretzky himself made an appearance on Broadway, ending his illustrious NHL career in Ranger blue. And regardless of whether the team was winning, the fans came out.
Hall of Famer Mike Gartner played in Washington and briefly in Minnesota before going to the Rangers late in the 1989-90 season.
"It was like I was going into a completely different league, it was that much of a difference," Gartner said of his arrival in Manhattan. "It was, and still is, a first-class organization."
As for the fans, Gartner said players always knew where they stood with them, either positively or negatively. Healy played for the Rangers from 1993 to '97 and said the Rangers truly "figured it out" in terms of how to treat their players and fans.
"They had booster club dinners with Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky for gosh sakes," Healy said. "Try that one on for size in Toronto and see what happens."
In the wake of the new collective bargaining agreement, one might have imagined the Rangers would have been a hard sell for GM Glen Sather, assistant GM Don Maloney and coach Tom Renney. In the past, it was enough simply to throw enough dollars at a free agent. Still, even with a salary cap and a high cost of living, the Rangers still command high respect in the hockey community. Aaron Ward and Matt Cullen both left a Stanley Cup champion in Carolina to come to New York. Brendan Shanahan turned down more money and longer terms elsewhere, including Detroit and Montreal, to come to New York.
Maloney, who played for the Rangers for more than a decade, said he believes the city and the Rangers' reputation for treating players well remain a competitive advantage even with the level financial landscape.
Following the 1994 Cup win, the Rangers declined precipitously. Keenan was gone, players were expected to play different roles and the lockout delayed the start of the next season until January.
"I remember hanging the Stanley Cup banner in New York and saying, 'Was that last year?' It felt like it was two years ago," Healy recalled.
While Steve Larmer and Glenn Anderson were important pieces of the Cup run, their careers were basically over. Anderson played only a handful of NHL games after the Cup win (none with the Rangers), while Larmer played only one more season.
Then-GM Neil Smith (and Sather after him) eschewed internal development in favor of trying to buy a way back to a championship. "For a number of years, any big name that was available seemed to end up in New York," Maloney said.
Lindros, Messier (for a second go-round), Holik, Bure, Kasparaitis and others -- all were past their prime and almost all were overpaid. As a result, the ability to develop young players in the system was stunted. "We're still paying for it now," Maloney said. "We've got our work cut out for us."
The problem for the Rangers was they didn't get bang for their bucks, but they weren't bad enough to restock their farm team with high draft picks. Even when the team had high picks, they were often squandered (Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark in 1999; Manny Malhotra in 1998; Hugh Jessiman in 2003). Of that group, only Jessiman is still a Ranger.
The move cost the Rangers the services of Anson Carter, but the Capitals, in sell-off mode, agreed to take on part of Jagr's salary, a boon especially after the post-lockout introduction of the salary cap.
At the start of the 2005-06 season, Maloney said the team had two priorities: build from within and find players who could play with Jagr. So, the Rangers brought in Czech countrymen Martin Straka and Martin Rucinsky and Swede Michael Nylander.
The strategy was a success. The big winger was positively electric, finishing with 123 points, second in league scoring behind Joe Thornton. He was also a Hart Trophy finalist. His points total was 44 points greater than second-leading scorer Nylander. More important, Jagr bought into Renney's systems. His tone and demeanor set the standard for the rest of the hardworking Rangers team that overachieved for most of the season. Although Jagr has suffered through various injuries this season, he is once again the team's most important skater. If the Rangers do make the playoffs, it will be because of Jagr.
After years of missing with the big names, this was one the Rangers got right.
"King Henrik" turned in a 30-win campaign and was a Vezina Trophy finalist. The wins were the most by a Rangers rookie and he was named to the NHL's all-rookie team. Although he struggled in the playoffs, going 0-3 against the Devils, Lundqvist has displayed confidence and poise that belie his age and lack of NHL experience. His play was one of the main reasons the team made the playoffs.
This season, he managed to put aside some early-season wobbles and his steady play has kept the Rangers in the playoff hunt. In many ways, Lundqvist represents the new direction embarked upon by the team. After the Rangers failed to come up with an adequate replacement for longtime netminder Mike Richter, Lundqvist essentially came out of nowhere to become that player (he was the 205th pick in the 2000 draft). Moreover, he has become a homegrown player fans can identify with and has accepted his role with maturity.
The team has retooled its scouting staff, bringing on board three scouts who previously were head or senior scouts with other teams (Gordie Clark, Pierre Dorion and Tim Murray).
After a rough start, the Rangers are seeing young players develop more quickly because of the ice time and roles they've been given within their AHL team in Hartford. The Wolf Pack struggled early on, but were 28-20-3 by mid-February.
The great myth in New York has been fans won't put up with a rebuilding team, and that has been, in part, the justification for perpetually trying to build externally. Maloney doesn't buy it.
"I really do believe that they'll put up with growing pains," he said. "But nobody should have to put [up] with [them] for five to 10 years. I think we've turned a corner."
Over the next two seasons, Maloney expects the roster to boast seven or eight homegrown players, something that would have been unheard of under the old Rangers philosophy.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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