Blueshirts Without a Blueprint

This column was originally published on on Feb. 3, 2010.

The Flames made their recent transactions with a plan. In an attempt to clear cap space, add offense and put an end to some locker room rifts, the Flames moved Dion Phaneuf to the Maple Leafs and Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the Rangers.

Struggling to stay in the Western Conference playoff picture and maintain positive team chemistry, the Flames dealt away a pair of big-name players as part of a plan to fix their franchise. The decision to deal Phaneuf and Jokinen has created skeptics, though it’s hard to argue against any move that shakes up a team with two wins in their last 15 games.

The questions in the hockey world have recently revolved around Calgary’s motives behind its very premature deadline deals, but a more important question remains unanswered after the league’s latest trade: What exactly is the Rangers’ plan?

Glen Sather has received some praise for a deal that, on paper, has the potential to increase the Rangers’ non-existent offense. Sather was able to rid himself of Chris Higgins, an underachiever scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, and Ales Kotalik, the posterboy for the healthy scratch, and in return acquire the former 30-plus goal scorer Jokinen and momentum-changer Prust. In reality, the move was damage control for Sather’s offseason decisions to acquire Higgins and Kotalik through a trade and free agency respectively.

Sure, Jokinen might still have his goal-scoring gift hidden somewhere, and he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but what is the goal here? If Sather’s goal is to pick up expiring contracts, clear cap space and be the NHL’s version of Donnie Walsh, then OK. Someone just needs to remind him that LeBron James can only save one Madison Square Garden franchise next summer.

If Sather is making room for next season, who exactly is he making room for? Any player worth clearing space for has already had his contract extended past this season. The only exception is Ilya Kovalchuk, but the Rangers aren’t the only team rumored to be interested in his services.

If Sather isn’t playing for next season and truly believes that Jokinen could be a difference maker, then Rangers fans might as well stop checking the standings and tracking the playoff picture now.

Since the lockout – when the Rangers rejoined the postseason for the first time since 1996-97 – Sather has made one major move that made sense, which was the signing of Marian Gaborik. Even then, Gaborik’s injury history was a cause for concern. Too many times Sather has rolled the dice trying to rejuvenate the careers of former stars on the decline, and time and time again he has crapped out. If history is any indication, Jokinen will be the latest to join the list of Sather’s failed reclamation projects.

Over the last four seasons, the Rangers have finished sixth, sixth, fifth and eighth in the Eastern Conference. They have been knocked out of the playoffs twice in the first round and twice in the second round. The team has shown no sign of improvement since 2005-06, and if the season ended today, the Rangers would have tee times for tomorrow.

As currently constructed, the Rangers are not a championship-caliber team. They aren’t even a playoff team. Sather has essentially assembled a two-man roster consisting of only Marian Gaborik and whoever is in goal on a given night, with the other 18 lineup spots being virtually unnecessary. The Rangers’ formula for success this season has been simple: When Gaborik scores more points than the Rangers allow goals, the Rangers win; when Gaborik scores fewer points than the Rangers allow goals, the Rangers lose.

On Tuesday night against the Kings, Gaborik had one point but the Rangers allowed two goals and they lost. On Sunday against the Avalanche, he had three points, the team allowed one goal and they won. On Saturday against the Coyotes, he had one point, the team allowed three goals and they lost. The four games before that? Gaborik had zero points combined and the Rangers went 0-4. This isn’t a trend that started after the New Year, this has been an ongoing problem since Game One.

Certainly, a team’s success is ultimately determined by the performance of its top players. In the Rangers’ case, the offense seems entirely driven by one player. When Gaborik gets on the scoresheet, the Rangers win. When he doesn’t, they lose. This is a problem.

Sather doesn’t seem like he is planning for the future, and he certainly didn’t plan for this season. His teams have performed the same since the lockout despite different casts. The status quo apparently represents success for a franchise that hasn’t won a Cup in 16 years.

Maybe the Rangers will find their way into the playoffs as a No. 6, 7 or 8 seed, finishing the season just good enough that their real problems won’t be addressed. They will be forced to face the Capitals, Penguins, Devils or Sabres and they will last one round, two if they are lucky, suffering the same fate they have the last four years.

There is a chance that Sather does, in fact, have a grand plan; that he has carefully crafted a way to acquire Kovalchuk at the deadline and quickly change the fate of the Rangers. Or that he has another blockbuster deal mapped out that will turn the Rangers from pretenders to contenders overnight.

There is also a chance that John Wall returns to Kentucky for his sophomore season, Paul O’Neill starts in right field for the Yankees on Opening Day and I hit a 12-team parlay.

On Tuesday night the Rangers lost to the Kings because Gaborik scored fewer points than the Rangers allowed goals. At the end of the game the camera zoomed in on a dejected-looking Jokinen following a minus-1 debut with the Rangers. He might as well have been Eric Lindros, Bobby Holik, Darius Kasparitus or Wade Redden.