It was both bold and risky. Yet smart, too.
The New York Rangers went public with a declaration of intent to their fans last week, an attempt to articulate a game plan and begin a conversation about the challenges that may lie ahead for the Blueshirts as they seek to re-organize their team after taking several serious shots at winning a Stanley Cup in recent years.
“As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character,” read the letter in part. “This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.”
Whatever the Rangers meant, it was interpreted as a white flag of surrender on this season, and a promise to rebuild with young players. Talking about “building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender” certainly suggests they don’t see this year’s squad as such a team.
GM Jeff Gorton was well positioned to put his name to this. To a significant degree, the biggest problem he has in trying to make the Rangers younger and more vibrant is dealing with the fallout of expensive deals made by his predecessor, Glen Sather. The cost in young players and draft picks in acquiring veterans like Martin St. Louis and Keith Yandle was substantial.
New York has picked in the first round of the NHL draft once in the past five years. That catches up with a team eventually, and it has surely caught up with the Rangers.
Both Gorton and Sather signed the letter, but Gorton is the one who has to execute the blueprint. It’s not so different, really, than the way in which Brendan Shanahan made it crystal clear to Toronto Maple Leafs fans when he arrived in April, 2014 that he intended to tear down what had been built and start all over again. Shanahan didn’t write a letter, per se, but his every utterance and every move expressed his intentions, and fans bought into his vision.
The Leafs were able to do that at least partly because their building is always full and always will be. The same, for the most part, goes for the Rangers. They don’t have to fear thousands of empty seats if they take a few steps back. If wonderfully loyal New York hockey fans weren’t going to abandon them when they didn’t play a single playoff game from 1998 until 2006, Rangers brass can be pretty confident they won’t this time.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Rangers do, if they toss Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh and other veterans overboard. As of today, the club is only two points out of a playoff berth, after all. What the letter implies, however, is that management believes this team as currently constructed can’t win a championship, and a championship is the objective. The Rangers might find themselves in a similarly awkward position to Tampa Bay last year. The Lightning, with their season hobbled by key injuries, dumped veterans like Ben Bishop, Val Filppula and Brian Boyle before the trade deadline, then found themselves in the heat of a tight playoff race in late March.
So what other clubs could make a similar declaration as the Rangers and have their fans accept it? And what clubs couldn’t?
Chicago would be an obvious candidate, sitting 10 points out of the playoffs in the west. GM Stan Bowman has achieved a great deal and generated much goodwill. He would be trusted by many fans if he were to announce a rebuild. What many forget, however, is that when the Blackhawks were terrible in the early part of the century, attendance plummeted. From 2003-07, average attendance fell well below 14,000 a game in the cavernous United Centre, which holds almost 22,000.
For 10 seasons, the Hawks have averaged more than 20,000 fans per game. It wouldn’t be easy to go back to the old days. Rocky Wirtz might frown on a reduction in gate receipts.
Anaheim, with veteran forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, could probably sell a letter announcing a rebuild. GM Bob Murray has done well in drafting and developing young players over the years, so he’s got the credentials.
Detroit would be an interesting case. Red Wings fans are terribly spoiled after more than two decades of success and stars. GM Ken Holland has been there for all of it. He’s trying to rebuild on the fly while riding the wave of interest in a new building. So far, so fairly good, except he doesn’t really have the young star power to make Detroit fans forget all the high-end talent that has retired or moved on. If Holland continues down the current path, it’s going to get harder and harder for him to be the one behind it if Detroit decides to go for a more aggressive rebuilding strategy.
Montreal might be able to sell a rebuild with a public declaration of intent similar to the Rangers, but not with Marc Bergevin at the helm. Bergevin pulled the trigger on the increasingly problematic P.K. Subban-Shea Weber deal, and brought in eight-goal man Jonathan Drouin, sacrificing 19-year-old blue chip defenceman Mikhail Sergachev. Bergevin is widely viewed as the architect of the current conundrum in which the Habs find themselves, although chairman Geoff Molson undoubtedly deserves equal billing. Or blame.
To start anew, the Habs would need a new visionary at the top. Which might happen.
Ottawa is in a stranger spot because owner Eugene Melnyk is widely viewed as being the one responsible for the state of the franchise, and Melnyk isn’t as popular as he once was in the nation’s capital. The big moves the Sens have made in recent years – Bobby Ryan, Dion Phaneuf, Matt Duchene – haven’t produced a strong team this year. Ottawa could bail and rebuild, but they’d take a hit at the gate, and their attendance is already soft. Plus, Melnyk’s got a new building to sell. Try selling seats to that with Erik Karlsson playing elsewhere.
And what about Arizona, the team likely to finish 31st this season? Given that Anthony Duclair got traded, Max Domi has vanished from the list of top NHL youngsters and Oliver Ekman-Larsson might not be long for the desert, it would be a major challenge for management to now announce plans to go with youth. The Coyotes already are going with youth, and it’s yielded the worst team in hockey.
Attendance for Coyotes games hasn’t averaged above 14,000 since Wayne Gretzky was the head coach. Who knows what hockey fans in Arizona would listen or respond to.
The reality is few teams could do what the Rangers have done, or would have the guts to do it. It takes a unique situation to be that straightforward. Honesty is rarely seen as the best policy when it comes to selling hockey tickets.