It was the summer of 2011, the Rangers had snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season before being quickly extinguished by the Capitals in the first round.
The roster was littered with has beens and never will bes such as Wojtek Wolski, Bryan McCabe, Chris Drury, Vinny Prospal, Ruslan Fedotenko, Erik Christensen, Sean Avery (kills me to say it) and Matt Gilroy. The team was going no where fast as they hadn’t made it past the second round since 1997.
The Rangers were in desperate need of a rebuild. There were pieces in place to begin a successful makeover as Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh just completed productive rookie seasons, Chris Kreider was only a junior year at Boston College away from joining the organization, while blue collar youngsters such as Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi were on the cusp of entering their prime. And of course they had Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes.
It was time to trade Marian Gaborik for top prospects, while giving highly regarded draft picks such as Evgeny Grachev and Ryan Bourque a chance to grow at the NHL level. I was fully prepared to take a step back to take two steps forward.
Instead, what we got was more of the same. Grachev was traded at the draft. Brad Richards was signed to a ridiculous contract. Mike Rupp was acquired to fill the Rangers requisite failed enforcer role. While the aging Ruslan Fedotenko was brought back for another season as was the mediocre Steve Eminger.
All that remained was for Sather to trade away young assets at the trade deadline for a fools errand run at the Stanley Cup as they began their annual ascent from 10th place to barely qualify for the postseason.
My dream of Sather building a perennial Stanley Cup contender from within was dead.
Or so it seemed.
While thoughts of another early 2000s playoff drought danced in my head, what inexplicably began to happen was the infusion of more youth into the 2011-12 lineup. Rookies Michael Del Zotto and Carl Hagelin were given important minutes, Artem Anisimov found himself with a larger role and Kreider was added to the postseason roster.
And the results? A magical run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
To my surprise, Sather wasn’t continuing the mindless shopping spree that had brought some of the darkest days in franchise history, he was finding the perfect balance of incorporating help from outside the organization with homegrown talent.
And while it was tough to see guys like Dubinsky and Anisimov traded away ahead of the 2012-13 season, Sather made up for it with the Gaborik deal which added depth and additional young skill. Meanwhile, Mats Zuccarello was also finally being given a chance to prove himself.
The much maligned Sather was not only keeping the Rangers competitive, he was building a foundation based on youth. Not to mention his uncanny ability to sign every available stud college free agent, which has allowed him to trade away first round picks to fill needs.
Then came the climax last season. Not only did former first rounders JT Miller and Dylan McIlrath as well as 2010 sixth round pick Jesper Fast receive NHL action, but the team gave us a miracle run to the Stanley Cup Finals to boot.
Now this is the point where most teams who haven’t stockpiled NHL ready prospects would be forced into the cap busting decision of overpaying for valuable but replaceable commodities such as Beniot Pouliot, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle or attempting to fill those voids by throwing good money at lesser players. Either way, it leads to the steady decline back to mediocrity. But not our New York Rangers.
Instead, an impressive group of skilled youngsters lead by Miller, Fast, Oscar Lindberg, Kevin Hayes, Ryan Haggerty, Danny Kristo, Bourque, Anthony Duclair, McIlrath and Connor Allen are chomping at the bit to win those spots on the cheap. Sure veterans such as Dan Boyle, Lee Stempniak, Matthew Lombardi and Tanner Glass were acquired to compete for those vacancies, but, other than Boyle, they’re all going to have their hands full not only fighting off those prospects to win spots on the roster, but also keeping them when/if they’re earned.
Three years ago I could not have seen this coming. Somehow Sather has pulled off the rebuild I was begging for without having to take a step backward.
The Rangers are no longer an organization where youth is passed over for veterans looking for one last payday before sailing off into the sunset. Instead, elite NHL talent is forcing their way to Broadway, while collegiate players are recognizing the Blueshirts have produced a climate that rewards successful prospects with NHL playing time.
I always found myself gazing longingly from afar at the Detroit Red Wings. I found it fascinating how they were able to reload every season and could only wish my beloved Blueshirts could do the same. While the Rangers aren’t at Hockeytown’s level just yet, I do think they’re on the precipice of something special.
So get excited my friends, this is what we’ve been waiting for. No, the Rangers aren’t going to find themselves in the Final every season, but you can be assured they’re setup to legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup for the foreseeable future.