Steve Yzerman, once reported to have been interested in coming to the New York Rangers as Glen Sather’s replacement, well-regarded at minimum or the absolute best according some, is the new General Manager of the Detroit Red Wings. I won’t rehash the details of how he got there – it was more or less the only really probable outcome, although as always I’m a firm believer that improbability is not the same as impossibility. Things look a bit different when you factor in the word that there wasn’t even an interview, but not a lot of that really matters.
What matters most at this point is the next name on every Rangers fan’s mind, and hopefully James Dolan’s too. It’s not just that it’s a good enough idea, it’s more likely than that a great idea. Revisionist history of the short/medium-term past might make it seem otherwise, but a better acknowledgement of the organizational trajectories on the banks of both the Olentangy and Hudson rivers demonstrates how we could be nearly just as well off as we would be with Stevie Y. So then what’s the holdup? I know, I know, there’s teams out there, maybe even Columbus among them, trying to win the Stanley Cup right now, but you get what I mean. When the time comes just hire John Davidson.
There’s a certain tendency in hockey, which I subscribe to broadly, marked by an inherent skepticism of the NHL Old Boys’ Club. I’m not going to go into why I personally think a critical look at things has much to recommend it, but I will say this: as far as results go, it’s one of the easiest stupid mistakes to make. What’s more is that the position one might take in favor of hiring a traditional member of the 200 Hockey Men winds up telling on itself, because it still concedes the premise that the front office should be staffed by the best possible candidates for the job. That becomes problematic however when they conflict and then you wind up wasting three consecutive 100+ point season from a player locked down long-term, and likely plenty more to be wasted beyond just that. Nobody wants to be Edmonton is what I’m saying, that’s the bottom line, and we can all agree there.
The notion I’d like to bring to the forefront though, and I can’t believe that I’m saying this, is that breaking from a traditionalist mindset just for the sake of it is also problematic, and looking towards the way the game is going to be in the future rather than the way it was in the past does not necessarily exclude big name members of the Society of Playing The Right Way. The aforementioned Wizard of Tampa Bay, the man who one of the most historic franchises in hockey is now looking to for guidance back to the promised land, was the former Red Wings captain! Talk about some kind of weird cultural in-group/out-group pseudo-nepotism right? Except he also happens to be a brilliant talent evaluator and trade negotiator, and he built a historically excellent Tampa Bay Lightning team into what can easily be a contender for years to come (still!). I guess maybe I’m a bit less radical in my approach than I’d like to think, but if the Rangers are going to get knocked for not looking outside a narrow scope then we’ve got to give the Detroit Red Wings so flak as well.
Hockey management should be, even if it isn’t currently, meritocratic, a worldview I’d typically be uncomfortable with but for the fact that winning and losing at sports is sort of meritocratic, more or less. The best team doesn’t always win, but the best teams out there optimize what they’ve got, adapt to circumstances, and turn lemons into lemonade. Even then nobody’s perfect, and you’re still going to lose a lot, and maybe you never even win that Stanley Cup, but you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, or something. Anyways, let’s go ahead and evaluate the merits.
JD went to Columbus in 2012 after his time at the St Louis Blues. It was the lockout shortened season, and the Jackets were just regrouping after the Rick Nash trade. There were no real superstars on the team, but the Derick Brassard deal would go down later that season and bring Marian Gaborik out to Ohio. Still, the top scorer for the team in the regular season was 37-year old Vinny Prospal with 30 points in 48 games, followed by Mark Letestu, Fedor Tyutin, and the former New York Ranger himself, Brandon Dubinsky. That last one in there indicates what I think is a succinct way of situating the Blue Jackets as JD found them in broader context: their fourth best scorer was a scrappy power forward in his prime, who rapidly found himself expendable in New York with the rise of guys like Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider.
JD inherited a team run by Scott Howson, so when he got his chance he brought in his guy, Jarmo Kekalainen (this will not be an issue in New York, I can all but guarantee that) as General Manager. One could argue that the Blue Jackets were still not really in a great place until about 2015, at least on the trade front, but since the regime change occurred with Davidson’s arrival, they drafted guys whose names will sound familiar if you’ve been watching TV at all recently. Boone Jenner was already in the pipeline, but Alex Wennberg and Oliver Bjorkstrand were early additions at the draft under the new way of things, and some other names you’ll recognize – Zach Werenski, Pierre-Luc Dubois (remember how we all gasped at that pick? seems like it worked out), and Alexandre Texier being selected in June as well.
Although the fuse took a little bit longer than one might hope to burn, the cannon has now sounded with their first-ever playoff series win over the record-breaking Tampa Bay Lightning in four games. JD and Jarmo (doesn’t quite have the ring of “Sam and JD”) made two massive, absolutely franchise-changing trades in their acquisition of Artemi Panarin in that bizarre back-and-forth Brandon Saad swap and the quintessential “hockey trade” of the past decade, Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones. Adding John Tortorella wasn’t a bad move either.
With the Jackets finally remade in their image the Columbus braintrust decided to throw caution to the wind this past trade deadline and hit the win-now button, knowing full well what likely lays ahead on July 1. They might not be in as good of a place as they would be otherwise in the future, but they also certainly wouldn’t have pulled off one of the NHL’s all-time upsets. It really can’t be overstated: JD knows what he’s doing just fine and is, all things considered, the best person for the job. That’s not just about his roster-building acumen though, because there’s something else that sets him apart.
The same thing that has many thinking JD is just another buddy-buddy candidate is his biggest asset. JD knows the Rangers, and he remains a welcome face around the Garden. In particular he knows the most important figure in this whole process, and that’s James Dolan. Dolan’s history of meddling in his sports franchises is a very controversial one but one way or another, we want the Rangers to keep moving forward. That means whoever steps into Slats’s shoes will need to have as good of a rapport with the other JD as currently exists.
John Davidson will fit that bill, and he’ll be able to navigate a council of elders that includes James Dolan, Glen Sather, Jeff Gorton, and David Quinn, not to mention Gordie Clark and Chris Drury, exceptionally well precisely because he is a Good Hockey Man. It’s the strange contradiction of the debate surrounding JD and the search for a new President of Hockey Operations at Penn Plaza: people who view a trusted voice as the primary factor of consideration with a wary eye are missing that part of his talent is his pedigree, while the ideologically opposing camp concedes implicitly that it is in fact about talent beyond just pedigree. This all takes us to one logical endpoint as far as cutting the Gordian Knot the Rangers find themselves facing. Just hire JD.
As a brief postscript, I’ll also point out that although they hired Steve Yzerman as their new General Manager, the Red Wings also promoted former GM Ken Holland to Senior Vice President. How much will this matter at the end of the day? Probably not a lot, because I’m almost positive that they have the same ideas, in broad strokes, as far how to rebuild. The jobs are the jobs, and Yzerman, as GM, will be the point person in charge of all roster building decisions.
The Rangers also have a GM who will be the main driver of all personnel matters, and that’s Jeff Gorton, not John Davidson. In all likelihood JD will largely be setting the tone, guiding the ship as far as the big picture goes, and most of all collaborating, not dictating. He’ll be aware coming in that there’s been a plan in place, because this isn’t a panic move and Glen Sather is still around. There’s continuity here, and the most important thing is that everyone is on the same page, which comes through people able to read situations on and off the ice. It won’t be hard to achieve this, and it really doesn’t require much thought beyond what I’ve already written about here, if you’ve made it this far.