The New York Rangers are a playoff team. Sit back and say it. Say it again. Five years is a long time and while some may say that the 2020 Stanley Qualifier was the playoffs, it really wasn’t. The benefit of that three game beatdown is it gave the team a taste although ultimately, it was a bad one.
For lifelong Ranger fans, this was tied for the fourth longest playoff drought in franchise history. For those who recently became fans when the Rangers made the playoffs 11 of 12 years, this was an eternity.
What’s interesting is when you compare the roster for last year’s team and the current squad. How many players are gone from the team that finished the season in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division, four games over NHL .500? Not that many. Pavel Buchnevich, Brendan Smith, Brett Howden, Colin Blackwell and Vitali Kravtsov are the biggest names. Fundamentally, the turnover was pretty standard. We’ve got almost the same personnel as last year’s team, especially looking at the core.
What’s worse is how the 2020-21 season ended. Although the Rangers were in wild card contention with a few weeks left in the season, they folded like a tent after being manhandled by the Capitals and Islanders. That was a broken team, physically intimidated and unable to compete. Never mind the retaliation against the Capitals after the Tom Wilson episode, it was needed, but accomplished little.
So, it is fundamentally the same core of players that has become an NHL powerhouse this season How and why did it happen?
Gorton and Davidson
There is no denying that Jeff Gorton was the architect of the Rangers’ revival. John Davidson came in and had an impact. The problem was that although they recognized the need for the team to be “tougher to play against” after their debacle against the Hurricanes, the answer was to move up in the draft to get Braden Schneider.
Is there any wonder that ownership was unhappy with the pace of the rebuild? After the humiliating losses to the Islanders and Capitals, dramatic moves were needed and for Jim Dolan, the answer was a wholesale change in management.
We will never know what went on in the executive offices of the Madison Square Garden Corporation. The biggest question is whether the future of David Quinn was a big reason for the shakeup. We’ll get to Quinn shortly.
The one definite result of the firiing of Davidson and Gorton was it put their successor, Chris Drury, on the clock. He needed to make immediate changes and solve the issues that plagued last year’s team.
So what did Chris Drury do? He targeted Barclay Goodrow as the marquee free agent signee. He signed free agents Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt and Greg McKegg. He traded Pavel Buchnevich for Sammy Blais. He traded for Ryan Reaves.
In essence, he acquired five bottom five forwards and a third pair defenseman. Not only that, but he traded away a top six forward in Buchnevich. But with those moves he changed the DNA of the team and made them “harder to play against.” But the biggest move that Drury made was on May 12 when he fired David Quinn and then followed that up by hiring Gerard Gallant on June 14. Let’s point out the obvious. He hired Gallant on the anniversary of the Rangers winning their last Stanley Cup.
Coaching, the key ingredient
So, we’ve determined that the 2021-22 Rangers personnel is not that different. The single biggest change has been behind the bench. Gallant’s greatest quality has been his perspective, win or lose. While he has called out the team when they play really badly, he recognizes that the season is 82 games long and there will be good and bad.
Gallant hasn’t called any one game more significant than another. His approach has been one game at a time and that has permeated the entire organization. There are no emotional highs on this team, the same way that there are no lows. It’s a big reason why the team hasn’t lost more than two game in a row in regulation all season.
Furthermore, he has fiercely defended his players and has never singled out a player for criticism. As a veteran of over 600 NHL games, he knows that players have bad games, young players make rookie mistakes and puck luck is a factor. The worst he would say all season is that a line made “some mistakes.” If the defense has a bad game, he deflects any comments, saying he has to talk to defense coach Gord Murphy.
It was clear from day one that all he asked for was an honest effort and commitment.
After they clinched the playoff spot, we got to hear some interesting perspectives from current and former Rangers.
There was no champagne in the locker room. As Ryan Strome put it, “Long ways to go…obviously now the fun stuff starts and the work begins, but this is a good night for our team and our organization and a real good reward for the guys who have been through a lot.”
Strome spoke about Gallant’s impact. “We’ve been focused every day. We’ve come to the rink and we’ve just focused on the next game. I don’t think we’ve dwelled on bad performances or been too high on good performances. We try to come with the same mindset. From the top down that’s what Turk (Gallant) kind of does every day and it rubs off on us…We’ve just been focused every day on getting better.”
Chris Kreider’s fabulous year has be credited partially to the change in attitude. He echoed Strome’s sentiments about the qualities of the team. “Resilient, focused, I’ve said it a lot, complete buy-in up and down the lineup, pushing towards that one goal.”
Perhaps the most interesting comments came from Henrik Lundqvist after the win. As a former Ranger, he was in the locker room for the first three years of the rebuild. He looked pretty envious of the current squad. But he also reflected on Gallant and what’s going on behind the scenes.
“One of the most important things for a head coach in this league is to analyze games the right way, not overreact and get on players after a bad performance. I feel like all year long he’s been very steady, protecting the team always…for the most part, looking after these guys and analyzing every performance the right way. I think it makes the players feel very comfortable and it looks like the players really enjoy playing…that’s a huge part in letting yourself go and play the game and not overthink it.”
Ryan Strome alluded to it as well, saying “Times were tough. Last few years haven’t been the most fun.”
It’s easy to take potshots at David Quinn, but if you read between the lines in Lundqvist’s comments, while Quinn was coach there was overreaction and he did get on players after a bad performance. A current player will rarely criticize a former coach, but from what Strome said, the inference was that the Rangers locker room was not a fun place.
For that reason alone, if Gorton and Davidson had remained and they were not going to make a coaching change, they had to go.
It’s important to note that the vast portion of the Rangers’ success this season came about before the trade deadline. It was the excellence of the team that gave Chris Drury the reason to go all in and trade for Copp, Vatrano, Motte and Braun.
They have all fit in and filled the holes in the Ranger roster. Now, the ingredients are there and with Gerard Gallant at the helm, they could go far. There’s one guarantee. No matter what happens he and the team will take it one game at a time.