Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Rangers Season In Review/Part Two: The Question of Captaincy and Leadership. . .

While I don't think these things - captaincy and leadership - doomed the hockey club as much as the so many mediocre players being paid as superstars payroll snafu, I do think it would be wrong to not believe this played a role in some way.

How significant a role? It may be impossible to ever tell.

The Quiet Captain:

As the team got set to begin their season in Prague with their plethora of Czech players on their roster - *ahem, little sarcasm there* - Tom Renney was carefully selecting his choice for captain of the New York Rangers.

Whether he put a lot of thought into this decision or none at all, we'll never know, but he settled on the guy known as Mr. Clutch, Chris Drury.

I have nothing personally against Drury; I have found him in every instance I've seen him to be a polite and kind human being. In fact, The Hockey Rodent said it best when he said he'd "'like' to like" Chris Drury. But...

I never, not for one second, thought he was the right person to be a captain here. Not at all.

Personally, I would not have named a captain so soon. And was pretty upset they chose to do so. When you have arguably the greatest European scorer in the history of the game who has set numerous team records and carried, at many times, the entire Rangers team on his own shoulders leave, and leave under the not so best of circumstances, to me the worst thing you can try to do is try to immediately replace someone of that stature.

Because you will inevitably fail. Whoever it is will never live up to what you need him to be.

My vote would have been for no captain at all. Instead name three alternate captains perhaps based on seniority with the team, or seniority in the league, and let a true captain step up during the season. Let the day in, day out routine of playing in this league and in this city name the captain for you.

But, no. Tom Renney chose to name Chris Drury as captain. Because, presumably,
Drury loved NY, because he wanted to Be a Ranger!, because he was a rotating captain on a successful team in Buffalo, and because he was a winner.

Or, in my opinion which I stated here this season, I think on some level, Tom Renney named Chris Drury captain because he was the most easy-going, and would never say anything but what the media and the brass wanted to hear in the most boring and monotonous way possible - after every single game.

And he lived up to that perfectly.

As for the rest of our expectations, he came up short.

I have my own favorite captains, both on the Rangers and in the NHL. Obviously I loved Mark Messier and think he was always a remarkable captain. He did everything.

My current favorite NHL captain, Jarome Iginla, kind of fits into that mold. He scores points and is, on many nights, the best player on his team. He is supportive of his teammates and will drop the gloves to settle something. He's eloquent and a respected presence in the league, respected by teammates, opponents and those that cover the game. He's the "do-everything" poster boy.

Shane Doan is a close second for me (and yes, it was before this year's trade deadline). He is a very talented player - very underrated in fact. He's humble. He's eloquent. And he's got a great sense of humor. If I were a player, I'd love to have a captain that would be able to keep me loose and laughing when I was uptight or give me a a speech to get me pumped up when I needed that - and most importantly, to know when each situation was necessary. He's a prideful guy, and a guy that wants to succeed. He knows how to work with everyone - veterans, rookies, coaches. Canada has many of the best hockey players in the world and when it comes time to name their captain for their international teams, Doan is always right there. I find that very, very telling in terms of his character.

Chris Drury, on the other hand, does not seem to inspire the same reaction in me, or his teammates. I think he threw one shove this year, maybe accidentally. He showed emotion four times, perhaps. I alluded to it during the season. Once after scoring the goal against the MM squad in Bern. Twice when he was angry he didn't score and a) threw his stick and b) smacked his stick on the boards nearly decapitating Steve Valiquette. And once again, when he scored his "clutch" goal in the playoffs.

As for inspiring in general, the Rangers team didn't seem inspired. Now whether or not that all had to do with the captain remains to be known, but I am of the opinion that it wouldn't have hurt if he had been more vocal.

I mean, seriously, there were so many spans of time his play was dismal, he appeared absent, and I'd swear I had yet to see him have a pulse, whether on the ice or in the post-game interview. I may expect that from a bunch of the non-factors on my team, but the captain?

That can't happen.

A captain, to me, is the right guy if he is that guy that can inspire - inspire others to play better, inspire them to love the game, inspire - anything.

Look the Rangers were blessed to have Mark Messier, the best leader in sports, and one of the greatest captains.

In between Messier's two runs, my favorite player Brian Leetch became captain. Favorite or not, I did not think Leetch was a good captain. That may have been because he loathed the fact Mark was no longer around or maybe he just wasn't able to translate his knowledge of the game to others.

The big difference though was that Brian Leetch was the best player on the team. He was the best player on a team that also had Wayne Gretzky. Leetch had no apologizing to do if he wasn't the perfect captain, because he was always the team's best player.

Drury, gosh forgive him, was not the team's best player. We can't even make a fraction of an argument for him in this case.

See you can get away with being a captain even if you aren't typical captain material if you are the best player on the team. Also true to note that you can be a leader without being a captain, but it is pretty hard to be a captain without first knowing how to lead others.

Now, all that very much aside, I do believe, pretty strongly in fact, that Drury did care very much for this team and his teammates and desire to do well. Perhaps too well. You know how Tom Renney's greatest folly in the end was his loyalty to his players, something we'd normally admire.

Well, Chris Drury's greatest downfall, perhaps, is in caring too much. And not knowing how to focus that emotion.

Instead of seeing a guy that is firing on all cylinders and go-go-go on the ice, we see a guy that was often playing timid, nervous hockey, which is no fun for us to watch and not at all effective.

I didn't necessarily come up with this theory alone. His teammates praise the heck of Chris. Renney and Torts both alluded to how much Chris cared.

So, I decided, perhaps it's not a lack of caring. It probably isn't. But more likely, it's a lack of translating that caring into something that works.

Drury made a bunch of people, myself included, very unhappy with his "won't let this ruin my Christmas" quote after the Christmas Eve-Eve massacre loss to the Capitals last December. Now, I don't really believe that Drury didn't care, or that he wasn't embarassed by the loss, BUT...to say what he said gives the opposite impression. And that is not a good thing.

As fans, I think we expect to hear some more honesty. Some more truth. Some more passion! Some more pulse! Some more anger! Some more - anything, for goodness sakes!

The utter lack of that, in addition to all else, compounded why Drury's leadership style, whatever it may be, just does not translate in New York.

And that is why he being captain was never going to work. A very nice guy, decent hockey player at times, but just not a good captain.


Chris Drury aside for a moment, this team, on a whole, lacked a leadership figure or figures for the young kids to latch onto. Believe it or not, this is a big problem.

I'd like to borrow some thoughts from PJ Stock to hilight this. In the weeks following the Canadiens demise, PJ talked about how when he was in NY and he wasn't doing the right thing, he always had an assistant coach telling him who to look up to.

He was told to look up to Adam Graves, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter. See how they practice. See how they approach the game. See how they work.

And PJ did. And goodness knows PJ had three amazing examples of great people and great hockey players right there. He, he was lucky.

PJ pondered just who the young Canadiens had to show them "the way."

He said in Pittsburgh, guess who sits next to Sidney Crosby. After the trade from the Isles, it's been Bill Guerin.

Guess who sat next to Drew Doughty all season in Los Angeles, he asked. Sean O'Donnell, the veteran.

He wondered who the young Canadiens, namely Carey Price and the Kostitsyns, who they had showing them what to do, telling them what not to do.

He feared they had no one.

I do not for a second think the situation is the same in New York as it is in Montreal, although there are some similarities, surely. And I think the young Rangers - especially the young Rangers - are miles beyond in maturity than many others may be. I think in that way we are blessed. Marc Staal, Lauri Korpikoski - they are 22-years-old! The great majority of the team is 24 or younger. They may be young but they do not strike me as needing people to show them how to act professionally.

HOWEVER. That does not mean that they did not lack for leadership ON the ice.

Tom Renney might not have said all the right things when he was here, but after he left he gave an interview in the NY Post where he got something very right. He said, "

"But we had a struggle all year with internal leadership, and I have to think it was very difficult for guys, especially the younger guys, to look over the locker that used to belong to No. 68 and see someone else there, and the same about the locker that used to belong to No. 14.

It's a very heavy cross to bear to be a captain or in a leadership role with the New York Rangers or any pro team in New York City. It becomes that much more of a burden if you're not accustomed to it, and struggle to reach expectations in an attempt to justify your contract."

I'm not pointing fingers at anybody. I'm not blaming Scott Gomez or Chris Drury. I know they want to win. But it's different, that's what I'm saying. And I should have recognized that."

I'm not knocking #23 and #19 (well more than I already have), but there is no way - no freakin' way - that the young guys, after playing next to guys like Jagr, Shanahan, and Straka, didn't feel a little lost looking at the quiet-man Drury and jokester Gomez.

That's just a fact. Did they need Gomez and Drury to show them how not to end up tied in controversy outside the hockey arena? - no. But they perhaps needed them to show a consistent example of putting in effort on the ice.

I am being brutally honest here, but I just do not think that our new "leaders" did that at all. Perhaps had they played with more conviction and heart, perhaps more than just Staal, Callahan, Hank, would have followed.

Sometimes young people need examples. Maybe they just wanted team unity.

But let's be honest, folks, for the most part the only thing this team was unified in was mediocrity.

Bottom line here. The Rangers might have picked the perfect captain, for the group of boring, lifeless players they were for most of the season. They did not pick a captain who knew what it meant to lead or to inspire. The team suffered for it.

The Rangers also suffered for having their young guys display more leadership captabilities and professionalism than 2/3rds of the guys wearing letters.

It's not Drury or Gomez's fault they are not Jagr or Shanahan. The Rangers were blessed to have two of the leagues all-time greatest play for their team and show their young players what it meant to play and succeed in this league. Blessed. And we fans were blessed too.

But while it perhaps wasn't Drury and Gomez's fault that they were put in that position, they had to have known that it was part of the package deal. Accepting the letters. Accepting the contracts. Because they are here, getting paid, other players cannot be here, and cannot help them do everything they aren't doing.

But in reality, they really weren't being asked to do everything.

Honestly, I'd have been happy if they came to play every night and showed a better example for the rest of the team.

**Sorry, these entries are slow in getting written. Apologies too, again, for the rambling, but it's hard to hammer these points down in general. This is a very hard team to wrap explaination around, which I'm sure no one can argue. A few more thoughts in my head - more soon.

Also, I do not want to make it seem as if I am absolving the 2nd alternate, Naslund, of all blame. But I kinda am. He was not perfect nor was he the solution, but I do not think that he was anything but professional here. He said the right things, win or lose, but he wasn't robotic. He was self critical when he needed to be, and critical of the team. And again, I saw him complain to the refs many more times than I ever saw Drury or Gomez. Credit Naslund for doing his job, but I still do not get the hesitancy of the other two to do theirs. I'm sorry but if any veteran with a big contract was setting a good example of professionalism and class, my bet's on it being #91.**

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