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Imagine you woke up this morning to the headline that the reign of Glen Sather came to an end.
Your favorite paper leads with a headline along the lines of "Slats Sacked!" As it turned out, the Dolans expected more of a GM that managed to assemble a team that qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs every year since the lockout. Sure, they reached semifinals twice. But they won't this year, and, to our collective surprise and applause, failure isn't an option for the Dolans, either.
Glen Sather's tenure as the President and General Manager of the New York Rangers ceases to be in this bizarro world. Now what?Wade Redden is still on the payroll for $6.5 million per season until 2013-14. Michal Rozsíval will still provide his $5 million cap hit for 2 more years. Chris Drury's $7 million cap hit will continue to cover up his inspired-but-not-worth-$7 million performance. And all we'd have to show for it is the loss of our scapegoat, now that Sather is out in our alternate universe. Is there another person who could magically undo that unfortunate situation?
Now imagine that the Rangers made the call to give Sather his walking papers at this time last year. At this point, the Rangers had no cap space. Scott Gomez still centered a line for the Blueshirts. That also means Marian Gaborik or any of the other marquee free agents available last July are just pipe dreams because we don't have the cash to spend. Is there another person who sorts out that mess to the Rangers' benefit?
This past season represents the best work of Glen Sather as Rangers GM to date. Slats essentially turned the dead-weight contracts of Gomez and Ales Kotalik and underwhelming performer in Chris Higgins into an expiring contract named Olli Jokinen, a newly-minted fan favorite named Brandon Prust, and a prospect and former first-round pick named Ryan McDonagh. By burying Gomez's contract in Montreal, Sather successfully found the money to gamble on a true top-line talent in Gaborik (which also represents a gamble on Sather's part that clearly paid off dividends for the Rangers' offense in 2009-10).
Meanwhile, Slats acquired Jody Shelley and Alex Auld for a bag of pucks each, giving the Rangers a heavy dose of toughness at forward and a legitimate backup to Lundqvist respectively. He finally did not mortgage the Rangers' farm system and introduced us to the promise of Michael Del Zotto and Artem Anisimov with more help on the way. (And yes, he kicked Blair Betts to the curb in favor of the albatross contract given to Donald Brashear. I said it was his best work. I never said it was perfect.)
I consider this past season a failure for the Rangers, but not for Sather's efforts. Although the team failed to return to the level it performed at just one season prior, you can't blame Sather for the late-season injuries to Avery, Callahan, and Gaborik that may have cost us the extra win or two we needed. You can't criticize Sather for putting his faith in John Tortorella, especially because Torts was the firebrand coach that most of us wanted when we found ourselves frustrated with Tom Renney's sedated, defense-first approach. You can't make a convincing case that Sather failed to try to fix what ailed the team, especially because he remained committed to our team prospects instead of taking a shot at an Ilya Kovalchuk. For once, Sather made moves with the team's future in mind.
And now, the Rangers have a decent amount of scratch to spend this offseason to fortify our offense with the bit players we lacked so often this season. Kovalchuk and Marleau may be pipe dreams and the free agent crop make be weak this Summer, but there are moves out there. Perhaps Slats can pry Paul Martin from Jersey, or Paul Kariya from St. Louis. Perhaps the Rangers can try a "change of scenery" move by rekindling talks for the recently-disgruntled Sheldon Souray of Edmonton, swapping his fat contract for that of Rozsíval or, in a perfect world, Redden.
On Monday, Joe Fortunato struggled with recognizing anyone of Rangers management making themselves accountable for the Rangers ending up a game late and a point short. It sits squarely on Sather's shoulders, as he's changed the coach and the players in recent seasons with little positive effect. And his 10-year track record with the Rangers may provide enough fodder to necessitate a change to a new direction. If you sincerely need a head to roll, the line starts at the GM's office.
Compared to a situation like what Darryl Sutter inflicted upon the Calgary Flames over the past few years, Sather may finally be comprehending the role of the GM in the post-lockout world. Though I remain skeptical of Sather's ability to pay for talent with reasonable contract offers, I do believe he has set up the team for a short-term retooling rather than a long-term rebuild. The title of "Stanley Cup contender" may not be eminent, but neither is a Sherman's March toward hockey's second division.
The moves made by the Rangers during this upcoming offseason could go a long way to fortifying their chances for next year and beyond. It's fun to say some magical GM will appear and make the moves no one else thought of to fix all that holds our beloved Blueshirts back. It's also unlikely. Meanwhile, I'm legitimately curious about what Sather can do for an encore to his first honest attempt at amending the damage he previously wrought. It starts with locking up Staal and deciding on whether Prospal, Prust, Jokinen, Shelley, and others can be part of the future. It continues with building a line as exciting as what we witnessed at season's end by Anisimov-Shelley-Prust.
And it ends with Slats getting one more season to show us all that he didn't get lucky this time.