We all know around here how it worked for Patrick Ewing, how he never won a title in New York because no less than six personnel guys at the Garden couldn’t find him a second star to share the load. Over the course of 15 years, Dave DeBusschere, Scotty Stirling, Al Bianchi, Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld and Scott Layden acquired plenty of role players to buoy and support Ewing, but no Scottie Pippens.
It is now beginning to look the same way with Henrik Lundqvist, who has put in a full decade in blue without a true wingman. Mark Messier had Brian Leetch. Lundqvist has a solid corps of young defensemen and a fleet group of young forwards in front of him. What he doesn’t have is a Messier or Leetch, a transcendent, attacking star who changes the game. Lundqvist can’t score goals from his spot in the crease.
That is not to say the Rangers couldn’t have won Game 7 on Friday, and maybe even captured the Cup. It might have happened. It might have happened last year, too. The Rangers were the best team over the course of the regular season in 2014-15. They came within 20 minutes, the third period on Friday, of returning to the Stanley Cup Final. Derick Brassard had his star turns this spring, just not always at all the key moments. Mats Zuccarello surely would have helped.
The ending might have been happier, but a championship was a lot more likely to happen if Glen Sather had found Lundqvist a co-star several years ago. Sather has certainly tried. It’s just that his efforts have turned decidedly sour. He sent three players and a first-round draft pick to Columbus for Rick Nash. He sent two more draft picks, including another first-rounder, plus Ryan Callahan to Tampa for Marty St. Louis. He gave up John Moore, Anthony Duclair and two more draft picks for Keith Yandle, an offensive defenseman.
That’s a big chunk of the future, for almost no return this postseason. In 19 playoff games, Nash, St. Louis and Yandle combined for a grand total of eight goals. None of them is Leetch or Pippen. None of them, either, showed the kind of grit demonstrated by Callahan.
This is not a new failing for Sather, who has a job for life from his buddy Jim Dolan. His flashiest signings and acquisitions have often imploded. The names Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Wade Redden are legend up in the forever-blue seats, not in a good way. To be fair, Sather often has drafted deftly. DeBusschere may have lucked into Ewing, but Sather found Lundqvist with the 205th overall pick in the 2000 entry draft. Sather can make good deals, too, when he is acquiring young talent such as Ryan McDonagh from Montreal. It’s just that when he chases the biggest names, he gets Nash and St. Louis.
This is why the best thing that ever happened to the Rangers and Sather was the institution of an NHL salary cap, which forced the team president to recall at least some of his small-market, Edmonton expertise. That’s how he built this very good Ranger team, through the draft and smaller trades. Whenever he’s tried to put the cherry on top of the deal, however, he’s dropped the whole sundae.
Most of the other Cup champs, now and in the recent past, have come with some depth of stardom. Sidney Crosby has Evgeni Malkin. Chicago has Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Tampa has the Triplets.
Where does Sather go from here? Lundqvist only has about four more prime-time years. Something needs to happen very soon, and not just the ritualistic firing of Alain Vigneault (according to the Garden stopwatch, AV has about one more season left). The Rangers don’t have their top draft picks to trade anymore. They don’t have much cap space. Only the Blackhawks and Kings own higher payrolls.
Lundqvist may just have to win the Stanley Cup with the current cast, more or less, with some inevitable tinkering. It is not an impossible task.
Then again, it never seemed impossible for Ewing, either, until time ran out in New York.
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