Even though the NHL season always seems like a long a grueling one (it is), I always find myself in amazement at how fast it actually all goes by. It is January 28th, and the proverbial first half of the season has come to an end with every NHL team skating into the All Star Break for a restful few days before the playoff chase officially begins. Who would have thought at this point, that the New York Rangers would be second in the entire league and in first place in the Eastern Conference? I can guarantee no one had it pegged as such. The highest aspirations I had for the team for the regular season were what they have been for the last few years: battling for a playoff spot the entire year, and going down to the last day.
Obviously, that could still be a possibility depending on which Rangers show up when the second half starts on Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, but for now, let us look back on a first half that has, overall, been a great one. It seems like a long time ago that the Rangers were literally traveling all over the world to play hockey games and having a bumpy start to the season. But from then until now, Ranger fans have watched a team gel and combine to form a potent force that finds ways to win. If you think about it, it is kind of amazing that the Rangers are where they are when you consider a few things. First, the defensive core has never been healthy for a long period of time. Whether it was Marc Staal starting late, or him coming back and Mike Sauer and Steve Eminger going out, the D-corps has not been at full strength.
Surprisingly, the Rangers do not have a player in the top-35 in scoring for the entire NHL. Marian Gaborik leads the team with 39 points. The New York Islanders, who are ranked 25th out of 30 teams in the NHL, have three players in the top-30. The power play, which started off well, has fallen to 25th in the league with the penalty kill all the way up in third place. You would think that if you read just those three blurbs that the team would be on the edge of playoff contention. In fact, these all sound like facts from the last few years, but somehow this team has found a way to make it all the way to the top.
One clear reason that this has occurred has been because of goaltending. Of course Henrik Lundqvist has shouldered the lion’s share of the load this season, but you cannot ignore the contributions of Martin Biron. Lundqvist has 22 wins and a sparking 1.87 goals against average and a .937 save percentage. Yet it really does not matter if he or Biron plays, because Biron’s stats are just as great. He has nine wins in 11 starts with a 1.88 goals against and a .927 save percentage. Having a dependable backup behind Lundqvist may be one of the most important moves the Rangers have made in the last two years, and certainly one of the least unnoticed. Henrik will not be hitting the 70 starts mark that he has hovered around the last few years, unless Biron were to get injured like last season.
Another reason for this successful first half, to me at least, seems to be John Tortorella and the coaching staff. As we were all privileged to see in HBO’s 24/7, and just from interviews in the papers, Tortorella has been approaching this team the right way. It seems to be a cautious optimism with him and even in the midst of all the long winning streaks the team has had, he has been able to keep the players grounded into focusing on what is right in front of them and what they need to improve on. There is no doubt the man knows what he is talking about, having won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay back in 2004.
But it isn’t just that either. What else could it be? Let us play a little game here:
What do all of these names have in common? Henrik Lundqvist, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Marc Staal, Carl Hagelin, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Michael Del Zotto. It isn’t rocket science, people. All of these players grew up through the New York Rangers’ system. With the exception of McDonagh, everyone here was drafted or signed originally by the Rangers. It has taken a lot of yelling, screaming, and a few punches thrown, but the Rangers finally have figured out how to build a team from the ground up and adapt to the cap system. It is all about the chemistry and familiarity that has developed over the last few years between all these players. Why do you think those USSR teams of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s steamrolled? Because they had all played together for years and developed an amazing chemistry level.
Lord knows, I am going to be attacked by 99% of the Ranger fan base, but we have to give a little credit to Glen Sather. [Take a deep, deep breath.] Okay, I gave you an extra minute there to finish yelling and screaming at the screen. So why do we have to do this?
Has Glen Sather made some bad decisions as the general manager of the Rangers? Yes. I am sure he looks back on many of the decisions he has made over his career and regrets some of the things he has done. It happens…we all make mistakes. We are all wrong at one point or another. What Sather had, which most GMs do not, was the patience and trust of a man like James Dolan who really believed that Sather would bring this team back to the top. Now, are they back at the top? Are they as close to a Stanley Cup as Dolan thinks? No, not even close. A lot of work is yet to be done.
Still, the credit does not all go to Sather in terms of the development of players. The credit goes to him in terms of surrounding himself, like any good manager does, with the right people. He has surrounded himself with some very smart hockey minds in the last few years, from John Tortorella, to names like Jim Schoenfeld, Jeff Gorton, Gordie Clark, and Doug Risebrough. All of these guys, along with others, have had a major hand at affecting the team that now skates on the ice at Madison Square Garden. Whether it was through day-to-day development, trades, scouting, or drafting, everyone I just mentioned has done something major for the organization that many people will never know the specifics about.
And who hired them all? Yes, Ranger fans. I know it pains you so much to say it, but it was old Uncle Glen. Now, I am not giving the man a pat on the back just yet. We have a long way to go before Sather solidifies himself in Rangers history (in a positive sense). But the man has figured things out and has done something that he hasn’t done since the early 1980’s when he was with the Edmonton Oilers, and that is build a franchise from the ground up. He has helped put together a core group that is the foundation of the team and sprinkled in some acquisitions from other organizations such as Brad Richards, Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Prust, and Brian Boyle, who have all become integral pieces to the team in their own ways.
All of this has led us to where we are now. As Ranger fans sit back and enjoy the All Star festivities, we all can take a little page from Coach Tortorella’s book in seeing the successes as good, but not getting too far ahead of ourselves. I admit, it is hard not to get all excited about the way the team is playing. That is good to be excited, but there is plenty that needs to be worked on before we can consider our team a Stanley Cup contender. In fact, I know there is not one team who believes they have come even close to winning the Holy Grail as of right now.
The bandwagon is already starting to fill up in New York, and some of the things that I have heard come out of people are mind boggling, but we have to remember that the Stanley Cup is not awarded in January. It is awarded in June. So we have February, March, April, and May in between before any hardware is handed out to anyone.
So, look back on the first half fondly and get ready for what are going to be a stressful few months of Rangers hockey. You know why they will be stressful? Because everyone is going to be gunning for New York. What good can come out of this for the Rangers? Well, as a player on the Danbury Whalers has mentioned many times, that is when things become fun.
Chris Hoeler is the assistant director of player personnel for the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League. He has been a fan of the New York Rangers his entire life.