Monday, June 30, 2008

The Day Before Free Agent Frenzy 2008. . .

All weekend (okay, heck, since the Rangers departure from the Stanley Cup playoffs in early May), I’ve been looking forward to Free Agent Frenzy day. July 1st. Tomorrow. But somewhere over the weekend, I started feeling sick to my stomach. Anticipation and excitement turned into worry and dread.

I ask myself - is this what it’s like to be a Maple Leaf fan?


I’ve been reading a random blog here and there, and keeping up with most of what’s been happening in the NY area press over the last few weeks, even though I haven’t commented upon it. Speculations arose. Nothing was answered. Opinions clashed. But yet I read.

And it wasn’t until yesterday that I really found myself feeling nauseated. While sitting down to breakfast, I read the following in the New York Post:

And before everyone jumps at me, I’m not saying the world will end if the Rangers do not keep Sean Avery. But, I am saying the whole landscape of the New York Rangers team and any success it has shown in the last three post lockout seasons can potentially drastically change come tomorrow, and Avery is certainly a part of that whole.

A few things strike me in particular about this article – and I love this article. Larry Brooks often gets the criticism of fans and others because he says the unpopular thing. The thing people don’t want to hear. I used to feel the same way, until I realized that as he said the thing people didn’t want to hear, he was very often just saying the truth. So often he is spot on. And this is another one of those times.

But back to the article and the best points:

-To ignore what Avery has done in the playoffs is to ignore his value. He is more than just a nuisance. He really is. But…it was his play - both in goal scoring and in agitation – that helped the Rangers win not just this year’s opening round series versus the Devils but last year’s opening round series versus Atlanta. And sure, it ended in a sweep. But take Avery out of that mix. Remember what he did to Ilya Kovalchuk that series? Kovalchuk was skating all over the ice trying to rip Avery’s head off. He lost his edge; he lost his focus. And the Rangers benefited. I’m not saying Atlanta would have won the series. But if Kovalchuk played to his potential and became the game breaker that Avery was – anything could have happened. Johan Hedberg played terrific in game 2, a game in which one goal was scored on a weird accidental bank play off the boards (by Avery, if you are curious). I seriously feel it was Bob Hartley’s error (and I love Bob Hartley) in playing a young and already rattled Kari Lehtonen over a steady veteran in Hedberg, to come back for game 3. The Rangers only beat Hedberg by the slimmest of margins in game 2. Game 3 was the blowout at the Garden. But after Kovalchuck lost his head, the series was all but over. Kudos Sean Avery.

-4 million per year is not completely unreasonable. I think all year people referenced Scott Hartnell’s 4 million per year contract. And Avery, I’m sure just like they were, were saying, I’m worth more than Scottie Hartnell. Avery is worth more than a lot of players who are getting bigger bucks than he is. Is he totally worth 4 million? Probably not. Is Chris Drury worth over $7 million? He’s a good guy, but I never thought so. We could go on and on, but we can agree it’s all relative. The point is that Glen Sather was willing to pay Scott Gomez and Drury each $7 million before they ever even stepped onto the ice to play for the Rangers. But he hesitates to play Avery $4 million and we’ve all seen the impact he makes!

-Which brings me to the fact that not everyone works out in NY. Some players fit in perfectly, like they were made in the NY mold. They never caved under the pressure. They didn’t fall to the temptation the City had to offer. Some became legends. Those that do – that really fit in and really make a difference – should be respected. Take Sean Avery. He may be a wild card, but he’s not a complete unknown. He’s proved he can play here AND that he can contribute here. The fans love him! I’ve seen more Avery jerseys and shirts in the stands (throw in a lot of Prucha’s as well) than I’ve seen for most of the rest of his teammates. To me that is a very telling sign. The people of the Garden Faithful admire Avery and want him on their team. And they admire the fact that he’s able to be more than just a pain in the butt. He can play hockey. He really can. And he will, if the Rangers would only let him. Larry Brooks said,

“The Rangers can pay Avery now . . . or they can pay for the next four years for not signing him. The choice is theirs. They have approximately 48 hours to make it.”

-And I agree. I agree, I agree, I agree. But what truly worries me more – not having Sean on the Rangers next year? Or. . . having to watch the Rangers play Sean and his new team? Both options started the run of nausea I have been experiencing.

But Sean Avery is not the sole reason for my headaches and nausea (yes there are headaches now!) Once I got over that, I started thinking about Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Brendan Shanahan, Michal Rozsival, Marek Malik, Jason Strudwick, Paul Mara, and Steve Valliquette. (Did I miss someone?)

I am not saying I want all these players to return. I want maybe three or four of the above at most. But…what I do not want is to have a completely new team next season. Torn from the seams where suddenly it’s all new players, or all young players, without a vision or veteran leadership of guys who have been there before. (And I don’t just mean been there as in been in the league, but I also mean been there as in been a Ranger. So don’t tell me that Gomez and Drury in all their year’s experience fully know what it is like to Be a Ranger!) So while I don’t think they all should stay, I don’t think they should all go either. And, unfortunately, I personally wouldn’t know where to start.

I’m not going to sit here and try to figure out what most makes sense. If I told you I’d keep Jagr at the right price, you might disagree. But I must wonder what the landscape will look like without at least one proven superstar. And yes, he is both. Proven and a superstar. The Rangers didn’t work when it was all superstars fighting for the spotlight. But I’ve always felt the Rangers need at least one, and I think that one is Jaromir Jagr. At least for two more years. Jagr set the Rangers all-time single season scoring record just three seasons ago. Think about that. A team that has been in existence for 80 years, and it was Jaromir Jagr of all people that did it. Was that lightning in a beer bottle? Maybe. But a guy who did that, a guy who carried the team into the stretch this year and into the playoffs, a guy who a year before rehabbed and played hard despite his shoulder not being even close to 100% - that’s the kind of guy I want to have on my team. Take one look at the smile on his face when the team is doing well - not Jagr himself, but the team – and you realize just how happy he truly is to Be a Ranger!

I don’t know what the Rangers are going to do about their defense. I really don’t. My headaches come from not knowing how it’s possible to keep any semblance of last year’s team together and yet still address those concerns in a financially balanced way. I want to trust in Satherland, but it is a nearly impossible concept. I can’t trust in something I haven’t seen all the way through.

In short, I’ve been there for the bad, playoff-less years. And I’ve watched the good (or the good by Rangers standards) of slowly and carefully climbing out of the basement and becoming respectable in these last three years. The Rangers made the playoffs for three years post-lockout (which only the Devils and Ottawa from the Eastern Conference did in that same time frame). Heck, people were picking the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup this year! After picking them to be worst in the league a year before! There were believers. They saw something. And, honestly, while this year’s playoffs were more disappointing than last years, I saw something too. And I just hope this wasn’t a temporary blip we were seeing. I honestly hope we’re not looking at more years of futility and frustration. And I really, really hope it doesn’t start tomorrow.

Til then, I wait. With Tums and Tylenol in hand. ;)

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