Thursday, September 11, 2008

With apologies in advance to one of hockey’s greats. . .

Okay, that's it. I'm mad. I've maintained a very, very careful balance of indifference, tolerance, and nervous excitement in the Rangers movements this summer, and that was hard at times. And yes, before you try to point out that I was threatening to vomit over a theatre balcony after they signed Redden to the six year, 6.5 million dollar contract. . . okay, hold on, I really can't argue against that. I was mad for that one too. But I'm mad again, and this time it's not at what the Rangers have done, but at the constant back and forth of what they will or will not do!

North of the border and among us hockey knowledgeable Americans, Mats Sundin is the person everyone is sick of hearing about. Will he play, won't he play? For what team will he play? (For the record, I gave up on that tiring charade a few weeks ago. I love you Mats, but I think everyone should just collectively move on to their plan "B"s and if you want to play in January, you can have your pick of the teams that can and will have you then. End of story). But no, no, it is not this particular 35+ year old great player whose last name begins with an S that I'm talking about. It's one of the OTHER 35+ year old great players who's last name begins with an S. Teemu Selanne you ask? No, no. I'm talking about one Brendan Shanahan.

I won't lie to you. Or at least I'll try not to. Before Marcus Naslund came to the Rangers and when Jaromir Jagr was still hanging onto hope of returning to Broadway, I had a dream of the great Czech and the great Swede playing together. When Jagr is healthy and puts his mind to it, there are few better in the league. Mats Sundin, a player I've always liked, had a remarkable season last year. Forget whoever the heck the Leafs representative was for the All-Star tilt in Atlanta - it should have been #13. Of that I am certain.

But, when Naslund was signed and Jagr went back to Siberia, that was, to me, the final step in the dismantling of the post-lockout Rangers. The somewhat overwhelmingly Czech-friendly, the somewhat comprised of rather older, the somewhat mish-mosh of players that had been on the team for the better part of the last three years, be it for two or all three of those years. And I included Brendan Shanahan in that bunch, even though, understandably, he was never "officially" gone. Now, again, I had personally said and felt very strongly that when Jagr, Martin Straka, and Sean Avery left, this team would be different. The atmosphere would indeed change. For better or worse, I couldn't guess. But it would change. The Rangers now, as everyone it seems has mentioned - be it media or fans - could look to their $14 million worth of big centers - Scott Gomez and Chris Drury - to lead the team going forward. They brought in Nik Zherdev and the aforementioned Naslund, in my opinion, to get some guys that these centers could skate with. (Again, getting two high priced centers that could not play with your top line of Straka and Jagr was not the most perfect plan, but who could have forseen that? Again, I repeat, Michael Nylander was not looking so bad after last year, was he?). They brought in a group of guys - Aaron Voros, Patrick Rissimiller, Andreas Jamtin, etc - to fill in some spaces, although I'll be perfectly blunt in asking - what spaces? Sure, sure, if these guys a) play and b) fill a role then c) I'll be more than happy to admit I was wrong. But, honestly, my money is on that one of those three play. Maybe. One.

But I'm getting off track. The Rangers now have Naslund and Zherdev, Voros, Rissmiller, Jamtin. They already had Ryan Callahan, Nigel Dawes, Petr Prucha, Fredrick Sjostrom and Colton Orr that played the bulk of the wingers time this past season of the players that have not moved on or been traded. The Rangers also have a bunch of guys in Hartford whose names I've been hearing for years now - P.A. Parenteau, Hugh Jessiman, Lauri Korpikoski (the one game, one goal guy from last years series with Pittsburgh), to name a few. And Nedved, who can probably play center or wing. (Betts and Dubinsky, as a reminder, are the other two centers). Remind me again how many guys take the ice for a team again? Yeah, the norm is four lines at three guys per, so 12 guys, regardless of whether the coach rolls all four. They dress. And 4 of those are centers, so that leaves 8 spots for wing. So...

I am not the type of person to sit here and make out lines. I really am not. I've seen 47-hundred combinations on blogs this summer alone. And some are typical, some are downright idiotic. And I don't think mine would be much better. But, if we are to assume that Naslund and Zherdev have spots locked up, that leaves 6 spots. Six spots for 8 guys. 9 guys if you included Nedved, 12 if you include some Hartford guys, and 13 if you include Shanahan. (I swear, it was not my intention to make it to 13 - ha!). Now, obviously, training camp and the pre-season is a time to make these decisions, so I'm not saying these guys should not be at camp. Hell, I'm all for having them fight it out - I'll be perfectly honest. But.....I have a few specific problems with adding Shanahan to that list of players trying to make the team. I do.

Because, let's be honest here. Guys like Callahan, Dawes and Orr have been with the team, either last year or the two years before it. They've paid dues and done well in their roles. So they should in all honestly make the team. Down to three. Now, what it comes down to, is do I want at least two of the three of the remaining players that play the bulk of the time (barring injuries and all the other good and bad that might change the original vision of a hockey team that is held at the start of season) to be players who are young, fast, and eager? I do.

Now Shanahan, well, he used to be fast. And he's as determined and as full of heart as they come. That's why I grew to like him here. I really, really did. But. . .

I really do think that having Brendan Shanahan on the team impedes the growth of the young guys. I really do. And not even because I think he invites it. It just seems to happen. When Shanahan came into the fold, he got the first or second line minutes, depending on what line Tom Renney chose to create that week. He got top unit play on the Powerplay, despite the team's absolute and utter inability to not only score with the man advantage but to look like they had any chance in hell of scoring on it. When Shanny played on the PP, guys that had been successful and shown results on the Powerplay, like one Petr Prucha, took a back seat. Those are facts. I'm not trying to make a direct correlation between the two, but I mean fact remains that if one guy plays that role and takes that ice time, that's one less guy that there is room for to play that same role, if you are following me.

Now, if Shanahan were to say that he wanted to play the minutes of a fourth liner, do some time on the penalty kill, where he is very effective, and win some games with those nice shootout goals, I am all for that. Sign him up, let him keep his A, and I can go home happy.

My problem, is I don't believe it will go down like that. I want to, but I can't. If Shanny makes the team it won't be long before he's somehow managed to end up on the 2nd or 1st line. And it won't be long until he's managed to end up on the one-has-to-assume-it-will-be-better-than-last-year-but-these-are-the-New-York-Rangers-so-you-never-know Powerplay. Seriously, I'm not a psychic, but this is how I see it playing out.

And that upsets me. This is, more than probably, Shanahan's last season in the league. A marvelous guy with a marvelous career. And he should have had a more fairy-tale ending than the dismal and disappointing second round beating at the hands of Pittsburgh. He should have. And honestly, I wouldn't have appreciated him if he had not come to New York because I short-sidedly did not like Detroit so I never paid attention to him and the many great players that played there. I accept that, and part of me regrets it. And Shannahan's coming to NY helped resurrect that. I'm glad he came to NY because I got to see one of the true talents in this league night in, night out. And as for a guy - he is a great guy. I was there the day he and Mike Knuble had their unfortunate collision on Garden ice. The place was silent. I know he has the respect of everyone - fans, coaches, media, teammates. I'm saying all this, but that still might not mean enough in the end.

What my concern comes down to is that we're looking at a guy who is saying he's rested, refreshed, and ready to go. But he's still 39 years old. We are all not Gordie Howe. Honestly, really, we aren't. Shanahan, and yes the untimely and unfortunate concussion and knee injury had a lot to do with this, sure, lost a lot of his steps in the time following 2/17/07. He did. And I'll be honest with you, if I knew he was going to take a lesser roll (AND that the coaching staff would be both willing and forceful to that end) I'd really want him on the team.

But the thought of him taking a spot from some young guy who has played with the team before like Prucha, or some young guy like Korpikoski who has been waiting in the wings (literally) for years, upsets me. Because the bottom line is that it's not just a matter of him taking a roster spot for a year. Which is what it would be. It's the fact that they might have to TRADE one of these guys to make room to KEEP him. That's why I am mad. Because then, regardless of the other concerns I've just mentioned, you are now shuffling a team, a team you've already mantled and dismantled and who knows what the freak-antled they've done now, for a guy that will play, at most, a year, and at best, at full strength for half the year.

For he will slow down. It's inevitable. And not at the price of a roster spot for a year. But at the price of some guys that will have to be traded. And they'll be traded away and, if history repeats, go on to play good roles on other teams. (The Rangers do not have a good track record of handling youth, let me tell you). So he'll be here, at the price of these guys that have worked their way up the system and been waiting, waiting as patiently as the rest of us for the Rangers promised youth movement. Oh and no, ladies and gentlemen, it is not 1998. It's 2008. The Rangers have been dis-re-freak-antling their team for a decade now. And youth was promised. And youth was rarely delivered. Now I'm already not happy with the excess of salary money being tied up in four guys and I've made that clear. Jagr is gone. Straka is gone. I think it's the ONLY time for this team to truly embrace the youth. Honestly, it might be now or never. And if that means no Shanahan, I'm sorry, but my vote, is for no Shanahan.

Now, whether Brendan Shanahan comes back or not, I have no choice. But if he plays, I will hope and cheer and pray with all I have in me that he has a monster of a season on Broadway this year. Not to start the season, not to end the season, but this whole year. I will sincerely hope that I was completely and utterly wrong with my above assessment. Because then, and only then, if he looks into the eyes of the Rangers fans and of his former teammates (whomever gets traded away to make his last year on this team a reality), can he say it was truly worth it.

If not, he owes quite a few people an apology. Myself included.

**Author's note. Brendan Shanahan has been a truly classy, talented and professional player and person in this league for a long time. I want that to be clear. The above is merely my opinion. I do not indend for it to take anything away from a guy I completely respect.**

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