In the past week, I wrote three pieces on where GM Glen Sather went wrong during his stay in New York, post-lockout. I received a few emails and some comments about being biased and not pointing out where Sather went right, so let’s consider the next three posts to be spin-offs: Where Sather went right. It is obvious that Slats’ weakness is reading markets and finding comparable market value for free agents, and sometimes this overshadows his other moves that turned the Rangers from laughing stock into playoff contender.
Before the lockout, the Rangers were stockpiled with terrible contracts and a barren farm system. This was attributable to ownership of the Rangers forcing Slats to sign and trade for high priced, over the hill free agents. As the 2004 trade deadline approached, Sather usurped power from James Dolan, and started making his moves. The 2004 fire sale will be widely remembered for the trade of Brian Leetch. What is overshadowed is the Rangers had eight picks in the first two rounds, and stockpiled on some decent prospects from these trades. The keepers from this draft? Second-round pick Brandon Dubinsky and fourth-round pick Ryan Callahan. The jury is still out on a few other picks (Dane Byers, Lauri Korpikoski / Enver Lisin, Roman Psurny).
Another aspect of the 2004 draft that cannot be overlooked is the selection of Al Montoya sixth overall. At the time, the Rangers had a revolving door of goalies that just couldn’t get the job done. Dan Blackburn was the one with the most promise, but the Rangers couldn’t bank on him becoming an elite goaltender. Montoya fell to the Rangers at #6 overall, and the Rangers had to take him. Although Montoya wound up not only being a bust, but being relatively useless with the emergence of Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers needed to make this selection.
Following the fire sale and the 2004 draft, the Rangers started their selection of defensemen in the first round for three drafts in the next four years. From these picks came Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, and Bobby Sanguinetti. Two are regulars on the blue line and will be with the Rangers for years to come. The jury is still out on Sanguinetti, who has tremendous upside and is still just 21 years old.
The 2005 draft also saw Marc-Andre Cliche taken in the second round. For those who have short memories, Cliche was the main piece sent to the Kings for Sean Avery. The 2006 draft gave the Rangers Artem Anisimov.
Jumping ahead to the 2008 draft, this is where the Rangers really started to stock up on high end prospects. Following the Del Zotto selection, the Rangers took Derek Stepan and Evgeny Grachev in the second and third rounds, respectively. That’s one hell of a haul for the 2008 draft.
The 2007 draft was one that will be met with tragedy, as Rangers first round pick Alexei Cherepanov died suddenly at just 19 years old. The Rangers would receive a compensatory second-round pick in the 2009 draft. In that 2009 draft, the Rangers took Chris Kreider, Ethan Werek and Ryan Bourque in the first three rounds.
Retaining draft picks was the biggest part of rebuilding the Rangers, but was not the only part. Another huge success the Rangers have had in the past few years is signing undrafted free agents. The most notable is Dan Girardi, who is now a staple on the Rangers defense. You can’t overlook the signings of Matt Gilroy, Ilkka Heikkinen, Sam Klassen, or Tysen Dowzak. Gilroy and Heikkinen have spent time with the Rangers, to mixed results, but are young and will have time to adjust to the speed of the NHL. Klassen is playing fantastic shut down defensive hockey in Canadian Juniors, and Dowzak is a leader of his juniors team that went to the Memorial Cup finals last year.
One final aspect of the rebuild is the collection of prospects and picks via trades. The 2004 fire sale was the most notable, as Sather stockpiled picks and prospects, which included Blair Betts, Josef Balej, Jarkko Immonen, and Maxim Kondratiev. Betts would be the only prospect to stay with the Rangers for an extended period, but the latter three were the high end prospects that the Rangers needed to start the rebuild. The key with these trades is that the Rangers were picking up high ceiling players and game changers.
Sather would also make trades for Chad Johnson, Alex Bourret (giving up nothing in the process) and Ryan McDonagh. Bourret didn’t work out, but McDonagh looks to be the real deal, and will hopefully fill that hole of physical defenseman on the Rangers blue line for years to come. Johnson provides some depth in net, and hopefully a trade chip.
The key to a rebuild is building from the net out. The Rangers had their piece in net in Lundqvist, and have built a very solid, very young core on defense that includes Staal, Girardi, Del Zotto, Sanguinetti, McDonagh, Gilroy and Heikkinen. Not all of these players will remain with the Rangers, but defensive prospect depth can be used as bait to fill other holes. The most impressive part of this is that the Rangers have managed to stay competitive, mostly due to Lundqvist and Jaromir Jagr, throughout the rebuild.
Bear in mind the Rangers are still in a rebuild. Players like McDonagh, Stepan, Werek, Kreider and Bourque need time in the AHL before they will be ready to make the NHL leap. They will also need some time in the NHL to adjust. If all works out perfectly, the Rangers should have a young, Cup contending team by the 2012-2013 season. Of course that is a very, very big IF.
Slats has done an excellent job in rebuilding the Rangers farm system from barren to the #3 system in the league, as per Hockey’s Future. Whether you like him or not, that’s an impressive feat.