The Rangers have a lot in common with many long-running Broadway
shows. The Blueshirts are an expensive operation (their payroll
should approach last season's league-leading $44 million);
they're stocked with veteran talent (17 players on their
training camp roster were age 30 or older) who could fill
several tables at Sardi's reminiscing about the good old days;
and though the cast members won't score onstage as often as they
used to, they might hit enough high notes to keep the show
interesting. "Our future will revolve around how much our stars
go back to being stars," says general manager Neil Smith.
The Rangers were punchless (2.40 goals per game), slow and
uninspired in 1997-98, and they lost a large chunk of what
little offense they had when Pat LaFontaine, who tied with Adam
Graves, Wayne Gretzky and Alexei Kovalev for the team lead in
goals with 23, retired. Smith needs to make some deals; right
winger John MacLean, a 33-year-old free-agent acquisition, will
help, but only if the former 40-goal scorer bounces back from
his 16-goal, 43-point season with New Jersey and San Jose.
Coach John Muckler will also lean on 18-year-old center Manny
Malhotra, New York's No. 1 draft pick in June. Malhotra is smart
beyond his years, and by midseason he could be the second-line
center. "In six or seven years the Rangers will be building the
team around him," says the 37-year-old Gretzky, one star who
came through last season. (Gretzky and Vancouver's Pavel Bure
finished tied for third in scoring with 90 points.) Adds
Gretzky, "Everybody realizes this team was embarrassed last year
and can't get into that situation again."
That situation was missing the playoffs. The Rangers' hopes rest
with leading men Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, both of whom
flubbed their lines last year. Richter was statistically sound
(2.66 goals-against average) but prone to lapses in
concentration, and Leetch, a defenseman, has to rebound from an
abysmal season (-36). If those two old troupers come through,
the Rangers should qualify for a postseason curtain call.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
Four players tied for the team lead in goals scored last year,
with a modest 23. Excluding the lockout season of 1994-95, the
last time New York's goal-scoring leader had fewer goals was
when Nick Mickoski scored 20 in 1950-51.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--Enigmatic forward Alexei Kovalev must finally have a breakout
season, something that should happen with John Muckler behind
the New York bench.
--The Rangers need team toughness because individually they're
one of the league's least-imposing clubs physically.