The Rangers should reject the urge to retool so that they can
Were New York a country village and Madison Square Garden a
neighborhood pond, were Rangers fans patient and Wayne Gretzky
not an icon, New York general manager Neil Smith would have an
easy job. Instead of feeling uneasy because of the clamor for
him to bring every available big-name star to Broadway--"We want
Bure!" the Garden faithful shouted earlier this season before
Canucks winger Pavel Bure was dealt to the Panthers; "We want
Fleury!" the fans screamed last week, calling for Flames forward
Theoren Fleury--Smith could follow the Rangers' plan. "Our
priority," he says, "is to build a team that will contend for
the Cup in two to four years."
However, New York also has what Smith calls "a second priority."
At 23-27-7 through Sunday, the Rangers were six points from the
final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The faint hope of
reaching the postseason is undermining New York's long-term goal;
instead of totally embracing a youth movement, the Rangers are
staying in the hunt by relying on older stars. Of the players who
regularly receive significant ice time, 10 are 30 or older; only
three are younger than 26.
Burdened with the desire to put a competitive team around
Gretzky and aware that each home playoff game guarantees more
than $1 million in gate receipts, Smith has been forced to
straddle two divergent lines. New York has made a move toward
the future by acquiring youngsters such as Todd Harvey, 24, and
defenseman Stan Neckar, 23, within the past year and by giving
extensive playing time to 21-year-old center Marc Savard. Yet
Smith's boss, Garden president Dave Checketts, is wary of the
consequences of giving up the present for the future. "We want a
younger, better team, and we'll suffer pain to get there," he
says, "but you can't have a bad team in New York for long."
Checketts doesn't refute speculation that Smith could lose his
job, which he has held since 1989, if the Rangers miss the
playoffs, as they did last season. Though New York is one of
only four teams to have won a Cup (in 1994) and also reached a
conference finals ('97) in the last five years, fans and some
media have afforded Smith little leeway since Mark Messier
bolted as a free agent two summers ago. Still, Smith was wise
not to sacrifice potential future stars such as goalie Dan
Cloutier, 22, and center Manny Malhotra, 18, in a trade for the
27-year-old Bure. Nor should he deal young talent to get the
30-year-old Fleury or anyone else for a short-term gain.
Several older New York players have value to teams eyeing a run
at this year's Cup, and the best thing Smith can do is trade
some veterans for more young blood. The Rangers will become
contenders sooner if Smith resists the lure of playoff sirens
and steers directly toward his top priority.
Defenseman Steve Smith
The Flame Is Still Burning
Game nights were rough for Steve Smith last season. While Flames
players pulled on their sweaters and laced their skates, Smith
would knot his tie, smooth the sleeves of his suit and walk the
concrete runway toward the ice to take his place behind the
Calgary bench as an assistant to coach Brian Sutter. With each
night he grew increasingly glum. "I missed playing so much," he
says. "A coach can't make things happen the way a player can."
This year Smith, 35, is making things happen much as he did
during his stellar career as a defenseman for the Oilers and the
Blackhawks from 1985-86 through 1996-97. Through Sunday he had
played in 56 of 57 games, averaged nearly 23 minutes per match
and been Calgary's best blueliner. "I can't wipe the smile off
my face," Smith says.
Not long ago that grin was a grimace. In 1996-97 Smith's
chronically ailing back so pained him that he appeared in just
21 games for Chicago before retiring to take the coaching job
with the Flames.
Smith began extensive back therapy last June and found that he
hadn't felt better in years. During the season he has maintained
his health by eschewing practices and working daily with a
medicine ball. "He still has the ability of a top defenseman,"
says Kevin Lowe, Smith's teammate on three Stanley Cup-winning
Edmonton clubs in the late 1980s. Lowe made a seamless
transition from player to coach when he closed out his 19-year
career last spring to become an Oilers assistant. "I don't miss
the NHL games the way Smitty did," Lowe says, "but I play
three-on-three shinnies with the guys every chance I get. Hockey
is a joy. Who wants to give it up?"
Top Prospects Game
Give It an All-Star Try
The fourth annual all-star game for the 40 top Canadian junior
players, the Top Prospects game, unfolded in Calgary last week in
typical high-energy fashion with a third-period goal deciding the
4-3 match. This was the first time the prospects game was played
outside Toronto, and though it drew 14,114 fans, the game should
be returned to its roots next year.
As we've stated before (INSIDE THE NHL, Jan. 26, 1998), the
prospects game would be an exciting addition to the NHL's
All-Star Weekend, which for all its star-studded sheen is bereft
of true competition. The league has resisted that recommendation
because it fears that organizing and selling an added event
would be difficult. Next year, though, All-Star Weekend will be
in Toronto, where nearly 12,000 fans turned out for the
prospects game at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1997. The NHL skills
competition and the All-Star Game will take place at Air Canada
Centre on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, so staging the
prospects game on Friday night would cause little disruption and
give the stars of tomorrow a high-profile stage on which to
showcase their skills.
COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Cloutier, only 22 and a potential No. 1 goaltender, is the sort of player New York should retain.
BUST AND BARGAIN
RW ALEXANDER MOGILNY
1998-99 salary: $4.2 million
In his fourth season playing for Vancouver, this erstwhile high
scorer (76 goals in 1992-93) had a meager six goals in 38 games
D ADRIAN AUCOIN
1998-99 salary: $857,670
In his fourth season playing for Vancouver, this erstwhile low
scorer (career-best five goals in 1996-97) had an impressive 14
goals in 57 games.