Rangers boss Glen Sather, in a move reminiscent of the NHL's pre-cap days, stepped quickly and boldly into free agency in July and spent nearly $87 million to bring Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to Broadway.
Oh, baby, what an offense this was going to be, right?
Uh . . . you might want to hold that answer.
The Blueshirts finally won again Thursday night, beating the Devils, 2-0. Finally, some good news, a fine start to a six-game homestand that last night had the troubled Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden. The two goals, both scored by little-known Nigel Dawes, ended a 126-minute scoreless streak. Dawes's first goal, his first this season, also was the first even-strength goal for the Rangers in more than 182 minutes.
Not exactly the goal-scoring machine envisioned by Sather and coach Tom Renney. The Rangers have been surprisingly good on defense, allowing 17 goals in their first nine games (3-5-1), while scoring only 15. Little wonder they woke up Friday morning among the also-rans, tied for 12th in the Eastern Conference.
The root of the problem, no surprise, is that Jaromir Jagr once again just hasn't found that right fit to work as his pivot. Sometimes it's Drury (6 points in nine games). Sometimes it's Gomez (3 points in nine games). And thus far, neither of the new centers has come close to striking up the kind of magic and chemistry Jagr shared last year with Michael Nylander, the ex-Bruin center who eventually made his way back to the Capitals after Gomez and Drury signed their lucrative pacts.
We have seen this before, of course. Just as in Boston, where we've learned to live with the Manny-being-Manny reality, it has been that way for both Capitals and Rangers fans with Jagr, the superstar Czech winger. Partnered with the right center, he is often the game's most dominant force. When not paired with the right give-and-go associate, he looks stagnant and lost, sometimes petulant and brooding.
It was that latter look that finally caused the Capitals, who once pinned the franchise hopes on him, to deal Jagr to the Rangers in January 2004 while continuing to underwrite about 50 percent of his deal - a practice no longer allowed in the league's collective bargaining agreement. There are no more pay-to-go-away deals, unless a player is bought out and only during the offseason.
Truth is, the Capitals still haven't recovered from their 2001 decision to make the then-29-year-old Jagr their guy. Now he's 35, and part of Sather's motivation in lavishing all that money on Drury and Gomez was to try to win the Cup now, with Jagr still engaged after great back-to-back seasons in which he averaged nearly 110 points. But thus far, he has been a recreation of his old Capitals self - nothing but a train wreck for the Rangers.
Now, how do the Rangers get it going? Part of the answer could come in 10-14 days, when the rabble-rousing Sean Avery is expected to return from his shoulder injury. Imagine that, Avery - maligned for his vile mouth and surly attitude with the Kings, who couldn't wait to get rid of him at the February trade deadline - now stands as a would-be savior.
Another slight ray of hope could be Dave Scatchard, 31, who played a decade ago for Renney when they were in Vancouver. Scatchard, who had a very short stay in Boston after the lockout, came to New York on a tryout earlier this month and then, less than two weeks ago, signed up for a formal audition in Hartford, the Rangers' top American Hockey League affiliate.
Scatchard, prior to signing his four-year, $8.4 million deal in Boston, almost took similar money to sign with the Rangers.
"They looked good on paper," Scatchard said recently, reflecting on why he opted to sign with the Bruins in 2005. "I made the wrong decision."
Scatchard ended up in Phoenix, flipped for David Tanabe, and continued to not impress. This summer the Desert Dogs bought out the remaining two years on his deal, at a cap hit of $700,000 over each of the next four years.
So now the Rangers are down to a dash of Avery and possibly a pinch of Scatchard, a couple of quirky ingredients that might get this stew right, or at least palatable.
Meanwhile, the 35-year-old Nylander, who averaged better than a point per game (83 points in 79 games) with the Blueshirts last season, has been off to a tepid start with the Capitals, who eyed him as a hand-in-glove fit with budding superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Headed into weekend play, the two led in team scoring, but Ovechkin had only 9 points in eight games, and Nylander but 6 points in the same stretch.
For two seasons the Rangers averaged 97 points and outscored the opposition by an average of 29 goals. Now, with one lost pivot and more than $87 million committed to replacing him, Nylander looks as if he was the one best chance for the Rangers to win now.
Grand men of the game
Ex-Bruin Bryan Smolinski, now wearing the CH in Montreal, his eighth city of NHL employment, played in his 1,000th career game Monday night, and it came against the visiting Bruins. It made the Toledo, Ohio-born Smolinski, now 35, hark back to his first game (1992-93 season), when he wore Black & Gold on Causeway Street.
"Walking through the crowd at the old Boston Garden," mused Smolinski, "you had to be humbled by it."
Earlier this season, fellow Hab Roman Hamrlik played in his 1,000th game. The millennium mark must be catchy in Montreal. Another Hab, Alexei Kovalev, also hit the milestone Friday night in Carolina.
Calgary's Owen Nolan, who entered the league as the franchise centerpiece in Quebec, played his 1,000th game the same night as Smolinski.
Smolinski, who also played a short time with Chicago, has played for three Original Six clubs, along with Pittsburgh, the Islanders, Los Angeles, Ottawa, and Vancouver.
Of those four players, Smolinski (136 games for the Bruins) spent the least amount of time with the club that drafted him. Kovalev leads the way with 402 games for the Rangers, followed by Hamrlik (377 with Tampa Bay) and Nolan (268 with the Quebec-Colorado franchise).
Bruins losing ground in local popularity contest
Paul Kelly, the highly successful Boston attorney and former Needham High hockey coach, officially took office last week as the NHL Players Association's executive director. On his first day on the job, he noted that his hometown Bruins are among the NHL clubs that have to do a better job on the ice and in marketing their product.
"In Boston, where I come from, for example, we've got the Red Sox, we've got the Patriots, and we've got the Celtics with some new players - and the Bruins have kind of become a whole lot less relevant," noted the 52-year-old Kelly. "There's a lot of work to be done, but I want to see the Bruins get back so they are on par with the Red Sox and Patriots. And that's just one city."
Mired in a decade and a half of futility, the Bruins now have a season-ticket base, full packages, of only some 4,000 seats, according to one Causeway Street source. The figure represents nearly a two-thirds drop from when the Bruins moved into their new building more than a decade ago.
The Blues bottomed out around 4,400 season tickets last season, but doubled it this season, in part because of the return of Keith Tkachuk and the acquisition of Paul Kariya. By recent expansion standards, a city would not be awarded an NHL franchise if it had only 4,000 season-ticket subscriptions.
John Ferguson Jr., general manager of the Maple Leafs, sat squarely on the Blue & White hot seat last week amid his club's tepid 3-4-3 start. One minute it was former Leafs exec Bill Watters suggesting on local radio that it was time to cashier team captain Mats Sundin (17 points/10 games) for a treasure trove of kids and draft picks. The next minute it was Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons calling for Fergie's head. The Sun headline: "Time to Pull Plug on JFJ." The loss that tipped the public sentiment was a 5-4 shootout defeat at the hands of the hapless Thrashers.
Punch needed in lineup
Brighton-born defenseman Noah Welch, Harvard Class of 2005, got himself an extra 4-5 weeks of vacation after tangling with Montreal's Tom Kostopoulos. The fight left the 25-year-old Welch, originally a Pittsburgh draft pick, with a dislocated shoulder in need of surgery. It also left GM/coach Jacques Martin seeking an enforcer to protect some of his skilled Panthers. Goons with a little bit of game may forward résumés and audition tapes to Sunrise, Fla.
Ex-Bruin coach Pat Burns, who has been battling colon cancer for some 3 1/2 years, was a recent visitor to Causeway Street, having wrapped up his offseason home in New Hampshire and pointed himself to his winter digs in Florida. "Feeling pretty good," said Burns, who won the Cup behind the Devils bench in 2003 and remains a scout/consultant for New Jersey. "I've got a lot to thank [Devils president/GM] Lou Lamoriello for, I can tell you that. A guy in my situation, I'm not sure there would have been a lot of GMs in this league who would have stuck with me the way Lou has - he has been unbelievable." Burns, after stopping in Newark for the club's home opener in the new downtown rink, will spend much of the winter scouting NHL clubs as they make their stops in Tampa.
Names for Flames
Burns and another ex-Bruins coach, Mike Sullivan, have been rumored as potential successors to Bob Hartley in Atlanta. For now, GM Don Waddell remains behind the dasher. Ex-Leafs boss Pat Quinn, 64, who played five seasons for the Atlanta Flames (prior to the franchise shift to Calgary) also remains on the rumor roster, along with AHL candidates Randy Cunneyworth and John Anderson. Meanwhile, the Tampa Tribune reported that Sullivan, John Tortorella's associate coach with the Bolts, is not allowed to consider other coaching jobs until the offseason, and then only in a defined time period.
New line for Lindros?
The NHL Players Association, as part of its extreme makeover, will appoint at least one ombudsman, a person who will act as the rank-and-file's closest connection to the executive director. Early rumors out of Toronto have the ready-to-retire Eric Lindros poised to be the ombudsman. While they're at it, the PA should also appoint an ombudsman to work between the players and media - a vital connection that players, owners, and administrators (team and league) often fail to embrace and only rarely understand.
They're wild about Koivu
The Wild became the last NHL squad to register a loss in regulation time, turning a 3-0 lead in Calgary into a 5-3 loss. Meanwhile, it looks as if Saku Koivu's lesser-known brother, Mikko, finally is blossoming into a Saku-like elite player, something the Wild envisioned when they picked him No. 6 overall in the '01 draft. Mikko is 6 feet 2 inches, 200 pounds, a giant next to his pint-sized brother, but he skates with the same Koivusian DNA - composed aggression and confidence. "You like him?" Wild coach Jacques Lemaire asked reporters last week. "Well, I like him, too. How couldn't you? Look how he plays."
The Coyotes waived the Swiss Miss, David Aebischer, and assigned the tender to the San Antonio Rampage. For now, the Desert Dogs will go with Alex Auld and Mikael Tellqvist as their stoppers . . . The where-will-Peter Forsberg-land? sweepstakes continues to play out, with rumors that Foppa will make a decision on his return within two weeks. No doubt he wants to be with a serious contender, and ideally where he has a close pal - which makes Ottawa (Daniel Alfredsson) and Vancouver (Markus Naslund) high on the suspect list. But don't discount Detroit, where fellow Swedish icon Nicklas Lidstrom could provide a convincing twist on one of Forsberg's arms. With Foppa's injury history, Lidstrom would have to hope that he wouldn't hurt his countryman . . . Betting remains that the league soon will announce that the 2008-09 regular season will open with a couple of Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh tilts in Prague (similar to the Ducks and Kings opening this season in London). A Prague promoter would prefer the Rangers, with favorite son Jaromir Jagr, but it could be too late (i.e. too costly) for that . . . Bill Clement, long one of the game's top TV commentators, especially during his 15-year hitch with ESPN, signed on last week with the Flyers broadcast crew. An ex-Broad Streeter from his playing days, the astute Clement began his broadcast career with the Flyers . . . In need of roster support, the Wild reached down to the minors for the first time this season and called up Cal Clutterbuck. Now is that a hockey name or what? No knowing whether the Clutterbucks, from Ontario, are provincial pals with the Quackenbushes.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.