The 2013-14 season was in many ways an era-defining landmark for the New York Rangers. Not only did they advance to the Stanley Cup Final, but personnel decisions set the stage for the Alain Vigneault era.
The New York Rangers approached the 2014 trade deadline fighting for playoff seeding and with question marks surrounding some key players. As it turned out, captain and pending free agent Ryan Callahan was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Martin St. Louis in a blockbuster that set the stage for the Rangers’ Cup run that spring. Additionally, defensive mainstay Dan Girardi was due a new contract, and then-General Manager Glen Sather pulled the trigger.
Girardi was signed to a new six-year, $5.5 million contract, and the Rangers’ defensive core was affected for years to come.
The Stralman effect
Yes, this is beating a dead horse.
The extension of Girardi all but spelled the end of Anton Stralman’s Ranger career. Despite posting stellar possession and shot suppression statistics, Stralman was stuck on the Rangers’ second pair. Months later, he was shown the door to free agency.
There is no doubt that Sather coveted Dan Boyle, and that also led to his unwillingness to deal with Stralman. But if Girardi is traded, as was repeatedly rumored that spring, Stralman would have immediately jumped to the top pair with Ryan McDonagh.
As history has shown since Stralman’s tenure in Tampa Bay, that would have been a fantastic move for New York Rangers.
While the Rangers probably don’t beat the Kings in the 2014 Cup Final, these moves would have set the stage for better things down the road. (And who knows: if Dan Girardi isn’t there to whiff on a puck in overtime in Game 1, maybe that series goes completely differently.)
The 2014-2015 season was in many ways a dream for the New York Rangers.
Rick Nash was healthy and came back with a vengeance after a disappointing 2014 playoff run. His 42 goals paced the Rangers. Rookie Kevin Hayes was outstanding. Henrik Lundqvist was his usual impeccable self. The Rangers cruised to a league-best record.
The playoffs were bumpy after an easy ousting of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Mats Zuccarello went down from a fluke injury. The Rangers needed an epic comeback from down 3-1 to beat Washington in the second round.
But it was in the Eastern Conference Final that the Rangers came undone. Injuries to Keith Yandle and Ryan McDonagh had to be ignored, because players like Girardi and Marc Staal were playing so poorly. The culmination of that series was a Game Seven shutout in which Vigneault played seven defensemen, three of whom were injured.
Meanwhile, Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman had an outstanding series.
We can question what-ifs all day long, lamenting injuries to key players. But even with those injuries, the Rangers took Tampa Bay to seven games. Switch the best shutdown defenseman in the series with the worst, and the Rangers probably win.
Though thinking of the possibilities may drive one to seek liquid solace, the fact is that the simple signing of Girardi set the Rangers back years with their defensive group. Additionally, it robbed them of their best shots at winning a Stanley Cup in Lundqvist’s prime years.
Swing and a miss
And this isn’t to speak of the rumored return for a 2014 Girardi trade. Many sources claim that the Anaheim Ducks were willing to part with Sami Vatanen and a prospect. Names like Rickard Rakell or Kyle Palmieri floated around.
Sather’s unwillingness to read the writing on the wall with Girardi was a colossal mistake. It was even more egregious for the General Manager who pulled off a trade with Montreal a few years earlier.
It can be argued that the 2014 season defined Sather’s career as Rangers GM. The Callahan-St. Louis trade was a tremendous maneuver, one that paid off immediately and down the road. But choosing to extend Dan Girardi was an unparalleled blunder and it cost the Rangers in more ways than one.