Monday, June 8, 2009

Rangers Season in Review/Part Four - The Final Countdown. . .

You want to know the sad truth...

I am tired of rambling or even thinking about the Rangers right now! I should have known when I was struggling to fight myself through writing those blog entries (those excessively long blog entries) a month back or so, that perhaps there wasn't even a point to devoting that much time to those details. I mean I still think there were some good points in there, but perhaps this season was just too long and too hard on all of us to even want to recapture that much of it. Best to try to enjoy the existing hockey as much as we possibly can and save the Rangers thoughts for another day. That has been my plan at least.

So, in the final installment of my season in review (aka rambling thoughts) we'll do the opposite.

I used to use this format when I was growing up and I'd sit down to write a Year in Review every New Year's Eve. (woah - self disclosure!!) Well before I grew up and had more important things to do with my time. Is that better? ;)

Anyway, let's have at it and let me wrap the 2008-2009 Rangers season up once and for all. You know. So I can move foward and ramble about other things. =)

The Good:

-The Rangers opening the season as well as they did was undeniably good. They set a franchise record for most points in their first 13 games with 21, when they opened up the 2008-2009 campaign going 10-2-1. That fast start and record, despite all that followed, cannot be taken away from them.

-The Rangers playing the two pre-season games in Bern and the first two regular season games in Prague was a good story. It was fun. Something different. Unfortunately, I didn't get to watch the Prague games live that weekend and had to watch them later, which took some of the mystique away from it. But the once in a lifetime type feel remained, even if the plethora of Czech players that would have made it all over the top amazing no longer were present come the start of season. And even though I sneakily watched and listened to the Bern games at work, I still loved it. The whole season felt so fresh and new, as it always does, and the Rangers had a magical glow about them, a glow that, as it turned out, never seemed to glow so bright away from European soil.

- The Rangers penalty kill. For years, and years and years and years, I said that if the Rangers were going to be so good at taking penalties, they should really learn to kill them off better. The last few years have been stepping stones to that goal and this year, they really, really impressed everyone. Many guys on the team deserve credit for being great PKers, or for working within the system of the PK, but probably none more than Blair Betts, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Hank Lundqvist. With these three, et al, the Rangers boasted the #1 or #2 ranked PK for most of the season, and ended up at #1 in the entire league, which, given the teams movement away from or lack of ever having a strong defensive core in my recent memory, I am not sure any of us would have ever believed it be possible.

-Sean Avery's return put a smile on my face. I'm not going to lie. Was it perfect? Was he perfect? No. But the idea that someone we thought was gone to another team for good, the idea he could come back was uplifting for me. On October 20th, Avery and the Stars came to New York and he said, maybe someday he'd be a Ranger again. I don't know if anyone knew - except Sean perhaps - that such a day would come less than five months later. Regardless, it's his spirit and his drive in the game that made me glad to have him back. I may not understand all he does or will do, but the guy is a very good hockey player and he tries harder and makes a bigger difference than many of his teammates. We've seen that, twice now. I hope against hopes that Sean is able to maintain a balance and remain an effective player for the Rangers going foward. Not everyone gets a second chance. Hopefully Sean will make the most of it.

The Bad:

-The system, or lack thereof, was bad. Not many would deny it was flawed. Sure, in the months since Renney’s departure that Februrary morning I’ve wondered was that really the best way. Was it really as flawed as I thought it was? But, you know, I still hold true that it was. Whatever Renney did to change a team from an exciting, fast, puck-possession squad to a team that put people to sleep on a nightly basis was a bad thing. This team may not have been perfect – goodness no – but I still refuse to believe that they would have done any worse had they been allowed to go forth and play to win, rather than play not to lose.

-I’ll call it the lack of the 60-minute effort, but it really came down to the lack of anything cohesive. I said it once earlier in the season, that if this group was cohesive in anything it was cohesive in not giving full efforts and looking utterly lifeless in doing so. As much as they had a great start and as much as Tortorella and Avery picked them up in the end, this season was chock full of half efforts. And that is really inexcusable. For the players themselves and for the coaches for letting it go on. (Few exceptions notwithstanding).

The Unforgivable:

- The Rangers had a lot of dismal moments on ice this year, but none was probably as consistently dismal as their powerplay, - their "$30 million" powerplay, as I liked to call them to start the year. I mistakenly - oh, oh, so mistakenly - assumed that the Rangers powerplay could not possibly be any worse than it was the past couple years. But boy, was I ever wrong! The powerplay failed to shine, yet again, and this time spent much of the season between 26th and 29th in the league, ending the season at the latter. It is interesting to note that the teams with the 29th and 30th ranked powerplay both made the playoffs - NY and Columbus. But even though it didn't kill this team, it did, in reality, handicap them beyond repair. Imagine, if you will, scoring even one powerplay goal per game, how many more games that may have gone in the Rangers favor. But the Rangers usually got a healthy enough number of chances and would sometimes go 0 for 8! You can't win hockey games doing that. If you are winning in spite of that horrific stat, you are very lucky. And, as we all saw, it can catch up with you in the end.

Again, the Rangers had a big scoring problem, period. But just because a team might not be the best at even strength, one would like to think they'd be a hair better with a man up, right? Well, no. Not in the Rangers case. The two worst parts of the powerplay beyond its own ineptitude was a) the failure of the coaches to change or fix any of it, all season long, continuing, instead, to roll out Redden, Rozsival, Drury, Gomez and Naslund for much of the year, despite seeing no viable growth in goal production and b) the team's ability to not only not score on their own powerplay, but give up way too many shorthanded goals to the other team. For a while, I thought the Rangers had the 1996 Avalanche's record beat. They fell short in the end, but the many games where they gave up not one but two shorthanded goals, even some 5 on 3 shorthanded goals, will not be forgotten.

-The constant issue of accountability from day one was unacceptable. To a certain degree, I can buy that Renney had to play who he had on this team. But, he, at times, failed to take into account that a) he was part of the managerial head that brought them here in the first place and b) that by being so loyal, he was destroying this team's chances, slim though they may be, of being more successful.

Players like Redden were dreadful 90% of the time. Not only were they never benched, not only for a period or a game, but they were given endless powerplay chances, a reward for most teams, or at least given to people who warrant being on it. Drury, Gomez, Rozsival, and co, all had more than their fair share of moments for deserving the bench, but yet they never saw it. And they continued to play top minutes.and underperformed. Over and over and over.

Meanwhile, guys like Dubinsky and Zherdev, for example, were not given such infinite patience. Renney had no problem benching them for making a bad play, skating too slow, or taking a bad penalty.

But Voros. No, his 3 penalties in one game were productive, because he'd learn from them.

And Nigel Dawes, remember, he was a playmaker.


No matter what anyone says, I still think it had a lot to do with favoritism, who a coach liked and didn't like. Ask Danny Fritsche. Ask Petr Prucha. And if there is anything that infuriates me, it's that. I only hope that with Tortorella at the helm for a full year he comes into training camp and lays into anyone who is not going to come ready to play. And if the season starts and there are players that don't have that attitude and conditioning, I hope he benches them, whoever they are.

- Now in going with the theme of unfair treatment, I'd be remiss in not mentioning, again, two of the worst cases that happened this year. Two guys who ironically share the same first name. Two guys named Petr.

I'll save everyone the chance of asking, seriously, she is still not over this, and I'll be short with what I am going to say. (There are many long summer days to ramble endlessly about what was and would not live to last here, so I'm sure there be other thoughts on this, especially the second player I’m about to mention.)

It all started in training camp, remember? The team was miserable, even then. No one looked put together. They won one game 2-1, on this continent, before going to Bern. The number one star of that game was Petr Nedved. One of the, if not the best player in training camp was Petr Nedved.

But no, Petr Nedved didn't get a spot o this team. Even though he looked to be one of the only guys that could score a goal.

And not because he was too old, which we might have understood, and not because they already had a plethora of centers, even though they did, and not because he wasn't good enough, because, face it, he was.

It was because he was Petr Nedved and not Blair Betts.

Beautiful example to set to start the year, no? Send the best player in trainiing camp home for no reason. At least he wanted to be here, wanted to play, and would have costed only about 6.5 million less than the rest of your top two centers.

Makes sense to me.

As for the other Petr, our favorite Petr, he is the ultimate example of unfair treatment.

The guy came into training camp the most in shape of anyone in anyone’s furthest memory of this team. He was in amazing shape. Everyone touted him for it.

Renney was quoted as saying that he'd be a big part of this team this year and get significant time to do so.

Which was a lie. Inevitably a lie, and from the beginning a lie.

Prucha's face may have remained in the opening segment to Rangers hockey on MSG until the day he left and Sean Avery returned, but let's be honest here. He was simply not going to be given the chance to be a Ranger here. Not anymore.

For Prucha stayed in the lockeroom more than he saw the ice. He often didn't get the chance to play and when he did he played with guys struggling worse than he was.

He didn't get the chance to play the powerplay, the one area the team desperately needed help on and an area that he could have helped them out with.

He didn't get the chance to play more than two games in a row, at many times, because he just couldn't "sustain."

And yet the guy had the same wonderful, patient and loyal attitude, each and every day, after weeks and months and even years of this same nonsense with this team. The same great attitude whether he played or not, sat or not. The true teammate in every sense of the word.

He loved his teammates. When asked to name his best friends in the league, his answer: all my teammates.

His teammates, loved him. Gomez was quoted as saying if you were a parent and you wanted your kid to be a hockey player with the right attitude, that's who they should look up to.

The coaches, the GM, whoever it was with this odd indifference to Prucha - they did not have such love for Petr.

Because he was Czech, because he lost confidence, because he was small? We'll probably never know.

Some speculated that Prucha was sitting in the fall because he was about to be traded and they didn't want him to get injured or lower his trade value. Which makes some level of sense. BUT...if that is the reason, you do not then go on record as saying that your player, the one whose value you need to be so high, was not able to play more than a few games in a row without slowing down. You do not say he is not a good playmaker. And you do not say he cannot sustain.

Unless you are just messing with his head. Or you just don't like him.

Look the guy maybe was never going to be as successful as he was that first year, that first glorious year, but they kind of went out of their way to guarantee that it never happened in New York, and on the Rangers.

And even if you didn't like him, although it is still hard to imagine anyone would dislike this young, hardworking kid, who always wore a smile and never complained, you didn't have to treat him like dirt. You could have been honest with him. Talked with him. And if you wanted to trade him, you should have just manned up and did it two years ago!

Regardless of the path here, I still believe Prucha can be a good player in this league. I was happily surprised to see that he was gaining his confidence back in Phoenix. As far as I'm concerned, it's the Rangers loss and the Coyotes gain. And as much as I love the Rangers, this is one case where I hope they see fit to regret it.

The Unforgettable/Good:

There were few unforgettable moments on the positive side here this season. I won't lie. The list, is indeed, very short.

- Opening Night at the Garden where Zherdev/Voros/Dubinsky gave us all an original sense of hope that the Rangers would be a fun, high scoring team.

- Zherdev's late game tying goal versus Pittsburgh on October 25th, which was one of the few times I thought they deserved to come back late and win. The Garden shook.

- Prucha's emotional game tying goal on December 3rd versus Pittsburgh, in his first game back after denying a Hartford conditioning assignment. The power went out. A fan favorite revived.

- February 3rd - Adam Graves Night - ceremony only!

- February 22nd - Andy Bathgate/Harry Howell Night - ceremony only!

- And lastly, for me, Prucha's last game as a Ranger - February 28th. On a night in which he scored a goal, the little "pepperpot" went to the defense of his teammate Dubinsky when the game against Colorado got one-sided and turned nasty. I'll never forget the way the Garden felt as I stared down at this little ball of fire, being pulled away, standing at center ice, before being escorted to the locker room. His final moment on Garden ice as a Ranger.

The Unforgettable/Bad:

The bad unforgettable stuff, there was seemingly more of.

The giving up five goals in five minutes to Montreal in November.

The Christmas Eve Eve Massacre to the Capitals.

The 10-2 loss in Dallas in February.

The lifeless performances on Jersey Retirement Nights.

-But rather than focus on those, there was really only one true unforgettable moment and it didn't even come in a New York Rangers game.

The news came on the day of October 13th, the news that Rangers draft pick and Russian star, Alexei Cherepanov, had died during a game. That day would be filled with uncertainty and doubt. The evening at the Garden a little somber. The days after, more disbelief and more sadness.

The Rangers, for their part, played what I thought was one of their better games of the season that night, perhaps in honor of this kid many of them had never met.

It still, almost 8 months later, does not quite seem real. It was, after all, more than just an event of a given day, a tragedy, but all that it meant for the future of the team. A guy we all imagined was going to play for our team, perhaps next year, wasn't going to be coming.

That was the surface reality, the tangible truth.

The rest of course, the truly emotional and meaningful reality, was that a young man was sadly taken from this Earth, a young man with talent and promise, who had people that loved him. He may have never ended up playing for our team, but he may have had the chance to live.

That reality is the one that is harder to forget.

Looking Ahead:

Ultimately though, so much of this season was very forgettable. I still hold true that this was the problem in the end with my trying to embrace this team.

Sure, 29 teams end up going home unhappy every year, because they did not win the ultimate prize. But, I'd like to think fans of more than just the one team that wins in the end had something to cheer about during the ride, some moments to look back on fondly once the season is over, or reasons to think positively going forward. Perhaps not every team, but some.

As Rangers fan, I'd argue, this year, we might not be among those some. I listed some great moments in there and some things to be proud of, but there were years of dismal hockey here - many years - where I felt better at the end about the group of guys that wore the sweater and had games and players I knew I'd remember forever.

Look, no one is trying to lie to themselves here. In some ways the Rangers, given their mediocre, over-paid parts, actually overacheived. In some ways, however, they weren't allowed to play to their full capabilities. Imagine the team that played in Prague, with those same mediocre, over-paid parts, but with that go-go-go attitude was allowed to play the whole season (or chose to) and I think we'd have had a better, more entertaining team. Perfect? Not even close. But better. I refuse to believe that if they weren't allowed freedom to skate more openly that they wouldn't have accidentally scored more goals and not needed to depend on winning 2-1 games. In some ways I undertand why Renney did it, but I still don't agree with it.

And as for the looking towards next season part, the Rangers management has pretty much killed all hope in this direction either. Their hefty contacts to the big three, and more, prevent this team from actually addressing any of their tangible problems. They went into last season needing a powerplay quarterback, a stay at home defensemen, and a real and true goal scorer. They got not one of these things last Free Agent Frenzy Day and, given the follies of the once great Glen Sather, they have no salary cap room to find these things now.

So, instead, we as fans must hope that our youth, whatever be waiting in the wings, gets the chance to play and shine in order for this team to succeed. An idea we've been waiting to see happen for the last decade. Patiently waiting.

And we, as Rangers fans, must pray, silently or aloud, that there can be no more stupidity left come the big two days of summer - Draft Day and Free Agent Frenzy Day.

But we, as Rangers fans, we know enough to not hope for too much.

**Author's note: I'm finally done, I'm finally posting. I apologize for the length of this - but again, if you are coming here, you know better - and for the amount of time it took to finally put together the pieces. Very, very busy lately. But you know, I feel good getting this out here, so I can hopefully move on to other things hockey related.

And as for this review being, at times, a little harsh, I can't apologize for that. I love the Rangers but this was, in many ways, one of the most disappointing seasons of Rangers hockey I can remember. And not because my favorite player got traded, not because they got knocked out in the first round, not because of anything like that. But because, more times than not, it didn't feel like they were truly trying, and I don't love most of these players enough to forgive them for that.**


Anonymous said...

As bitter as that was, Kels, I've always enjoy your writing, and this was no exception. Thanks for a great perspective on the season.

Interestingly enough (yet completely unsurprisingly) I think we all have the same top favorite moments of the season, mostly because there were a painfully small stock of moments to choose from, but also because those moments were so unquestionably awesome.

I think a criteria of a "highlight of the season" is that you remember where you were and how you felt in each of those moments, and I can certainly attest to that. Zherdev's goal (which I was lucky enough to witness in person), Prucha's goal... Out of the many, mostly awful (that 5-2 loss to the Flyers, the game following Adam Graves night, et al...) games that I attended this season, I'm thankful that I was at least fortunate enough to attend two that I'll never forget-- the game with Zherdev's game-tying goal, and the Islanders game where Prucha scored his second goal. (Those Prucha chants? Ahhh, heaven!!)

I'd also add Prucha's fight with Sean Bergenheim to our own personal list...Probably not the highlight of the season for most people, but it definitely stood out for me because it was so...Prucha. And the Garden went wild, of course. Oh, also Staal's hit on Crosby in the OT of that December 3rd game. The Garden was so hyped up already,and that hit drove everyone delightfully crazy. I remember Staal commenting on the reaction to his hit afterward.

Prucha's last game as a Ranger was amazing for other reasons, as well-- no one was fooling themselves with this sudden outburst (I remember gagging every time I read the phrase 'Avalache of Goals!' Wow. Can you be any more creative?) of offense by thinking that it would actually be sustained, but for once, watching a Rangers game was effortlessly fun. As for it being Prucha's last game as a Ranger, it was almost unbearably sentimental...But no one could have asked for a better last game for him.

And on that Prucha note, thanks for the mini-Petr rant. I'm always up for belaboring the issue of the unfairness of his life here in NY!

As for 'the bad'-- All I can say is, thank GOD I didn't watch that debacle in Dallas (sounds like a movie, lol). My heart just wouldn't be able to take it.

Luke said...

Thanks for sharing your thuoghts on the seanson Kels. I don't know if I could add or subrtact anything from your post. Like a lot of people I don't know what to say about the season now that it's over....

For me there was a personal highlight this season. It was the first time I got to watch every game over the internet. In past years I've used a complex system or saving the radio broadcast and listening to it from my desk the following day. It was nice to finally see all the action... Well, what limited action there was.

I say roll on next season, we can and will do better :-)


Kerri said...

Luke, you continue to amaze me, lol. I can't imagine not being able to watch the games live... I get so frustrated having to listen to the first ten minutes of a game in my car on the way home from work. You are absolutely admirable, and every time the Rangers put out a piss-poor effort, I wonder if they know the effort of others just to have access to games.

Kels, you are so spot on. Like Allyson said, you put together a wonderful list of the good and the bad, that I have to whole-heartedly agree too. Of course the death of Cherepanov was the most serious and terrible thing that happened this season. Not only are the Rangers missing a very important piece that would help reconstruct this lack-of-scoring culture, but they are missing an important family member who died much, much too young in a way that might have been preventable. But other events have really forced me into questioning my fandom.

If the team put out a decent effort every single night, I wouldn’t bat an eye at the power play being so impossibly horrendous. If there were different players out there, in different formations night after night until we found something that worked, it would be a different story. But this lack of accountability is much too similar to the lack of accountability that was found on older Rangers teams. The ‘country club’ was back. And in many ways, I think this is part of the reason that we so thoroughly rejected this lack of accountability, because yeah, it sucked, but it was also a reminder of what was and I don’t want to watch this team to return to that.

The unfair treatment of the Petrs… well, it just wasn’t meant to be. Renney hates the Czech Republic, apparently. I don’t know. But I’m very much bitter that Nedved didn’t make the team, because it was pure favoritism. He scored goals while others did not, period. We could have used some of that “goal scoring” thing this season. Why not let Nedved make the team, and then have a continuing audition between our fourth liners just like Renney did to Fritsche/Rissmiller/Dawes/Prucha? I mean, we changed lines more than our underwear this season, why not just add to the mix? Because, according to several people over at Rangers Report, Blair Betts was Renney’s adoptive son. (And of course, Renney found Prucha in bed with his daughter :-P). I enjoy Blair Betts, very much, and I agree that he was a star this season on the penalty kill, but Nedved was treated unfairly, period, and we could have used him during those long games that we just couldn’t seem to put the puck in the net. As for Prucha…

I just hope we’re laughing next season.

kels said...

Allyson: Any Prucha moment for me was a "moment of the season." I think we all agree on that. ;) Still regret I wasn't around for his "show" vs the Isles in December, but yes, the fight versus Bergenheim was awesome. Can't tell that kid he can't do something! Despite the giant rollercoaster that was his last season or two in New York, he had some amazing moments we probably won't ever forget here, and many of them are the ones we keep referring to from this season. If he was going to go, let him go out the way he did. People love him here.

Luke: I still give you unlimited credit for being so devoted. True, I believe I'd to whatever possible to watch my team even if it wasn't easy, but I haven't been in your position for more than a semester so I can't say for sure. I think it's amazing and I hope they give you a lot more "fun" moments worth staying up for next season! I fell asleep for a few and it wasn't even 2 am!

Kerri: Very good point on the country club atmosphere. I agree completely. And what's worse. When it was a country club of guys in the past, at least some of them were or had been superstars before. The Gomez, Drury, Redden trifecta just reminded you of the worst of the bad years where this was common place and it's not like any of these guys were sooo amazing before that they deserve 5-7 years of free money.

And as for the Petrs. I'm glad you agree with me on the Nedved thing. Nothing could ever be worse than the treatment of Pete Prucha, but Nedved would have definitely had more points than a significant number of players on this team had he been on the team this year. I truly believe that. And it's a shame we'll never get to know.

And as for our Petr. I do hope we are all laughing and smiling :) next season!

Thanks guys for stopping by and leaving comments. I've enjoyed the go-between. And you all deserve major kudos for reading the long, rambling thoughts. Looking forward to next year!