LOS ANGELES – When New York Rangers GM Glen Sather speaks publicly – and he does that these days with the same frequency as a lunar eclipse – he does so with the air of a grandfather who undoes his belt after Thanksgiving dinner and starts rambling on without a care in the world.
With one of his teams in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 24 years, Sather pretty much had to speak on eve of Game 1. Asked what a GM does during the Cup final, Sather responded thusly: “It’s really complicated. Today it took us about three hours to figure out which golf course we were going to play on this afternoon, then later on this evening we have the question about dinner, what are you going to watch on TV tonight? Is Game of Thrones on? It’s tough.”
This is indisputably Sather’s team that is on display here. It took him far longer to get to this point than anyone would have thought given his track record with the Edmonton Oilers, the Rangers budget and New York’s status as a prime destination for free agents. Through it all, it almost seems as though the Rangers were constantly being put through a blender. Some of the ingredients were moves of genius, others lazy, predictable acquisitions that turned out to be disastrous. But the final product in 2013-14 is the product of three moves Sather made that turned out to be downright uncanny.
And you could make a pretty good case that he lucked into all three of them.
One of them was effectively swapping coaches with the Vancouver Canucks, bringing in the calm and steadying hand of Alain Vigneault after the turbulence of John Tortorella. The results speak for themselves. The combustible Tortorella self-destructed in Vancouver and the Canucks will be paying for that mistake for a long, long time. And Vigneault turned out to be exactly what the Rangers needed.
Because of the renovations to Madison Square Garden, the Rangers went 3-6-0 on their first road trip and lost their home opener to earn six of a possible 20 points in their first 10 games of the season. Just imagine how Tortorella would have handled that. But Vigneault showed an enormous amount of patience with the group and convinced them they could play their way out of their malaise.
“I expected after losing a lot of games early on, to have someone really rattle us and be patient and be upset,” said all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist. “AV showed a lot of poise and patience with the group and it was refreshing to see and I enjoyed seeing that, how he handled everything.”
Is that an indictment of Tortorella? You bet it is. Ranger players also pointed to a meeting Dec. 29 before a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers were 18-19-2 at the time and in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. Vigneault told his team it would have to win seven of every 10 games from that point on to make the playoffs and that he thought it would take about 94 points to make the post-season. It ultimately took 93 and the Rangers finished with 96, going 27-12-4 from that point on. “He was pretty much bang on,” said defenseman Dan Girardi.
Another move was the absolute larceny of defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has treated these playoffs as his personal coming-out party. McDonagh has been mentioned as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate and future Norris winner and is a Ranger because Sather had the good sense to listen to his staff five years ago when McDonagh was still playing at the University of Wisconsin. The fact that he managed to get McDonagh from Montreal for Scott Gomez also nicely papered over one of the worst moves Sather has ever made as a GM. Just ridding himself of the Gomez contract would have been a great move. Getting McDonagh in return was sheer genius. Or sheer luck.
“I had never seen him play,” Sather said of McDonagh. “I had no idea other than seeing the name on the paper. You don’t give the managers credit for that. It’s the people that work in the field that do those things for us.”
And the one that has been the most important was one of the first he made with the Rangers. In his first draft with the team in 2000, three weeks after he took the job, the Rangers picked Lundqvist in the seventh round, 205th overall, which was 204 picks after the New York Islanders took Rick DiPietro. There’s a pretty good chance Sather had never seen Lundqvist play either, but listened to his scouts again and allowed them to do their jobs. Nothing a scout does is more important than finding gems such as Lundqvist late in the draft.
Sather said Brad Richards has emerged as the team’s de facto captain, but in reality, the Rangers look to Lundqvist for their inspiration and leadership. And he has provided that with his play through the playoffs. If the Rangers win the Cup, Lundqvist will fill two massive holes in his resume. He’ll almost certainly be the playoff MVP and he’ll have a Stanley Cup, which will look very favorable on the Hall of Fame application.
“Now it’s not different than earlier years,” Lundqvist said. “This is something I’ve wanted for a long time. And it doesn’t change when you get closer. You always have this feeling going into the season and going into the playoffs. But over the past couple of days at our training center, seeing that (Stanley Cup celebration) photo from ’94…I’ve been walking by that photo every day for nine years and I’ve seen myself being there. It’s been a dream for a long time.”