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The Blue Shirts Must Find A New Messier

on Sunday, 28 August 2011.

THE NHL NEEDS THE RANGERS TO SUCCEED

The Blue Shirts Must Find A New Messier
The New York Rangers play their home games in the heart of a massive and storied megalopolis.  They toil in the nexus of a population center so massive that they require at least two of every manner of sports team to satisfy demand.  Getting around in such a densely populated environment is difficult, so if someone makes the effort to attend a contest and pays the inflated urban price for a hockey ticket, the team better deliver or the fans will find someone else to take their money.  As you move out of Manhattan proper, the opportunity for entertainment doesn’t drop off all that much.  For a fan to make a trip into the city to see the local boys play they have to fight traffic, pay for parking and again pay high urban ticket prices.  On the way to and from the game they will pass venues of all types that offer far more convenient ways to spend their discretionary funds.  As a general manager, you can’t have your fans wishing they’d have just done something else.  But that is a danger for the Rangers organization.
The key thing to keep in mind is that the people who show up to watch the game come to be entertained.  The team doesn’t have to win, but the team has to be competitive.  Your fans need to feel like their favorite squad has a shot at the division title.  That’s something the Rangers haven’t done since they last won the Stanley Cup in '93-'94.  Let that soak in.  Even the Jets and Mets have won their division in that same time period (98, 02 & 06 respectively).  If you are a Rangers fan then you haven’t had the joy of watching your team raise a banner of any sort for 15 years.  You’ve seen Gretzky and Jagr don the Blue Shirt.  Even Theo Fleury came skating through at the end of his career.  None of those guys brought the success that the front office hoped for.

What the New York brass needs to do is remember who they are and where they are.  They need to get their sexy swagger back.  A modern incarnation of Mark Messier is long overdue.  A charismatic figure that leads by example, one who scores goals when they are needed most, a man who will drop gloves to stand up for his teammates.  Is he on the team now?  I doubt it.  First off, the player needs to be North American.  I find it hard to believe that a New York crowd could gravitate to a player with a European accent.  Secondly, that player would have to have the emotional intelligence to know how to handle a locker room and really exemplify what it means to be a team player on and off the ice.  Buffoons like Sean Avery need not apply.

What about Marian Gaborik, you ask?  There is no denying that Gaborik must rebound from injuries this season in order for the Rangers to hope for a return to the playoffs.  If he can rebound to his 2009-1 form (42 goals and 44 assists) he will be a most welcome addition to the first line.  But he is a European-style sniper and he knows his role.  What about Brandon Dubinsky, who experienced career highs in both goals and assists last year (24 goals and 30 assists)?  Perhaps: he is a center and is obligated to play more defense than a winger, making him more responsible.  Being an American can only help his cause; he is a native of Alaska.  Yet he finished -3 in plus/minus, not the stats of a team leader.  He’s only 25 so time and more experience will tell.  Let’s see if his production continues to rise this season before passing judgment.

I’ll have my eye on Wojtek Wolski this year to see if he returns to pre-trade form after partial seasons in Phoenix.  A solid assist man in Colorado, the Polish winger scored an average of 47 points in his first four full seasons in the league before being shuffled around.  

Ryan Callahan is becoming a fan favorite. Last year he had 23 goals and 25 assists.  Five of his goals were game winners, leading the team.  That smacks of swagger.  But he too was plagued with poor defense, ending the season with a team worst -7 plus/minus rating.  It seems as if for every good attribute we find in the Rangers top players we can find an equally disturbing quality.  That is the nature of their current roster: inconsistent play.  They have a solid core of role players such as Ruslan Fedetenko, Vinny Prospal and Mark Staal.  But their top players are not the caliber necessary for a New York professional sports franchise.

I had often thought that players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash would be big stars given the opportunity to play in the New York market.  Now we will be able to see what Ilya can do under big market pressure.  Perhaps a big, good-looking kid from out West would make an attractive buy or trade?  Ryan Getzlaf, anyone?  The NHL needs a superstar in New York.  Without the exposure that a prominent team in the largest media market in the U.S. could bring the sport, Gary Bettman can not expect to see his league humbly resume the “fourth most popular sport” position it vacated during the lockout of 1994.
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