The Big Apple.
The City That Never Sleeps.
The most densely populated city in the entire United States of America.
Across the four major sports (and soccer), New York is home to 11 different franchises - two each in the NFL, NBA, MLS and Major League Baseball, as well as three in the NHL if you count the New Jersey Devils (who play in nearby Newark). Fans of each organization have suffered through their own various highs and lows, but it seems like the most desperation can be felt within those cheering for one particular team: the New York Rangers.
Despite being one of the oldest franchises in the NHL, the New York Rangers have been far from one of the league’s best. Founded in 1926, the Rangers, along with the Bruins, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Canadiens, and Blackhawks make up the league’s original 6 franchises. Out of all the original 6 teams, they’ve won the fewest number of cups, with 4, and they’ve never had what can realistically be considered a dominant dynasty in their 91 year history. They’ve only been to the Stanley Cup Final twice since 1979, once in the magical 1994 season, where they won their first cup since Hitler was in power, and once in 2014, where they were beaten in 5 games by the Los Angeles Kings.
The Rangers have also done a poor job of drafting and developing star players. Since the year 2000, very few of their first round draft picks have developed into impact players. First round busts like Jamie Lunkmark (1999) Hugh Jessiman (2003) and Bobby Sanguinetti (2006) have set the franchise back years. Granted, it's incredibly difficult to crack an NHL lineup, no matter how high a player may have been drafted - development in the minor leagues, NCAA/CHL, or overseas in the various European pro leagues in is key, and the Rangers have had a tough run of luck with their prospects. Consecutively, while chasing the ever-elusive cup, management has repeatedly traded away a number of high picks, which hasn’t helped. Management traded away four straight first-round draft picks from 2013-2016, and they’ve been very unlucky about finding star players in later rounds. Except in one case, but we’ll talk about him later.
When you think of the ‘big name’ players the Rangers have had over the years, your mind instantly goes to Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. Two truly generational talents who played good years for the Rangers, but both of whom broke into the league with the Edmonton Oilers, and were in the twilight of their careers by the time they got to NYC. Sure, the team picked franchise cornerstone players like Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, but since they both retired in the mid-2000’s, the Rangers hasn’t selected a skater who’s really been a game-changer. The jury’s still out on recent picks like Brady Skjei, ‘Boo’ Nieves, and Pavel Buchnevich, all of whom have shown flashes of being consistent NHL players, but none of them have taken the sport by storm in their first couple of seasons of big-league action.
In recent years, the team has chosen to balance high-priced contracts given to unrestricted free agent signees like Kevin Shattenkirk and Brad Richards with the cheaper entry-level deals offered to unsigned college players such as Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes, whose lower salaries offer them much needed cap flexibility.
The one shining example of a fantastic homegrown talent falling into the lap of this "down on its luck" franchise would be the selection of Swedish goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in the seventh round of the 2000 Draft. After dominating in Sweden for a few years, Lundqvist took over in the New York crease in 2005, and has been one of the league's most dominant netminders ever since. Just to show you what a complete fluke his selection was, the team spent its first round pick the very next year on a goalie, Dan Blackburn, who only played for 4 years and was never a competent starter. Lundqvist, or ‘King Henrik’ as he has been nicknamed, was nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender in his first three seasons in the league before finally winning the award in 2012. He currently holds the record for the most wins by a European-born goaltender. He’s the Tom Brady of hockey, but without all the postseason success. Unfortunately, it’s starting to look like Lundqvist might have to eventually leave the Rangers in order to finally win a Stanley Cup.
What has the team done to surround their future Hall of Fame goalie with talent? Very little, actually. The team has been without their first round draft pick 4 times since 2012 by trading it to bring in veteran talent that hasn’t worked out in the long run, or has done just enough to get the team into a deep playoff run, but not enough to capture a championship. (See Rick Nash and Keith Yandle) They seem to be waiting for lightning to strike twice with their picks and prospects, but it just hasn't worked out for them. The Rangers continually sneak into the playoffs without completely bottoming out, leaving them to draft in the dreaded "middle ground" where the talent isn't quite generational and the selected players need the proper development that hasn't been evident in New York. I don't think the team - or the fans, for that matter - would sit idly by and watch a year in the twilight of Lundqvist's career burned off in an attempt to select at the top of the draft, so they're essentially stuck where they are.
Strangely enough, despite their on-ice woes, the team has a ravenous fan base. Also, a recent Forbes study listed the Rangers as the most valuable NHL franchise worth $1.5 billion dollars, just edging out the Toronto Maple Leafs. I wish, for their fans’ sake, that the Rangers were a better franchise. Having the NHL team based in the largest city in the United States be a constant Stanley Cup contender would be great for hockey, but until they get serious about finding and developing talent, they’re not going to be lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup anytime soon. Good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to be a serious threat in their division, which is a shame.
The Big Apple deserves better. (And it got better, see the Islanders dynasty in the 80’s, but that's a story for another time!)
For a hockey team in the city that never sleeps, the Rangers sure do look drowsy for long stretches.