Like many Rangers fans, I was a bit surprised and disappointed immediately following the first round of this years draft. After hearing the hype surrounding this seemingly deep draft class, it was shocking to see some of the big names still available at ten, and upsetting to see some of the big names we all wanted to fall to 10 already taken. It was somewhat anti-climactic then, when the Rangers chose McIlrath with their first pick, considering some of the other talent still out there. I think it was quite natural to see some of those negative emotions arise for many of us at that point. After thinking and reading more about this draft though, I've come to terms with what transpired, and feel much better about it. I know some of you feel the same, and I hope more of you will soon.
The upside of this draft for the Rangers, in my opinion, is that it provided evidence that the organization is moving in the right direction. There has been a lot of support for the youth movement on this site, and a lot of calls for drafting and developing players more effectively. Some have said that the Rangers should even model themselves after an organization like the Detroit Red Wings. It seems like we actually are starting to do those things for the first time in the Glen Sather era.
What first got me thinking about this was a solid article written by Jim Cerny at newyorkrangers.com. You can find the article here: http://rangers.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=533025
The article describes this draft as an attempt by Gordie Clark and Glen Sather to deliberately address the lack of size, toughness, grit, and character in the Rangers system. When looking at it that way, not only was this a successful draft, but it was also an important indicator of the direction of the organization. For most of the Sather era, the Rangers have gone after the big names and the best talent available without any real plan for building a quality system. This is evidenced by the long list of over paid free agents and draft busts since the late '90's. It created a mish-mash of shit, that may have sounded strong, or looked good on paper, but was never solid. It was a bunch of random pieces that didn't fit together, and a ton of spare parts. That seems to be changing.
Since Gordie Clark came on, the Rangers talent evaluation and drafting has become very strong. Not only that, but there seems to be an attempt to put together a well-rounded, fluid, efficient, and successful organization. That word, organization, didn't really hold any meaning for the Rangers for quite some time, because there didn't seem to be any vision, or any plan for the future. There was also no identity or real character to the team and the organization in general. That is also starting to change; the past few drafts, and this years, are proof of that. They've drafted players with qualities that are vital for creating a winning team and a successful system; players that have skill and speed, but who also have a great work ethic, and a lot of character; leaders, players who can complement each other, and players who will stand up for each other. Now we don't see this on the ice just yet, but I think we will within a few years. And that's the key, that there is a vision for the future of the team and the organization.
McIlrath represents this, because he fills an important void in the Rangers system. So do some of the other players drafted this past weekend. The Rangers had a goal for this draft, an important one for the future of the team, and they accomplished that goal. We all know what they've got in the system already, in guys like Stepan, Werek, Grachev, etc... McIlrath adds to that, and rounds it out. When you think of it this way, its easy to get over that sting of not getting a scorer that might make the team in a year and have an quick impact. Because in the long run, the bigger impact will be made by the fact that the Rangers system will have all the pieces necessary to put together a successful club.
This draft also tells us something about the players currently in our system. It shows that the Rangers staff has a lot of confidence in what's coming up, because they did not take big risks on guys like Kabanov. They must feel that the crop of young guys they'll see at camp this week will pan out at the NHL level. If they didn't then the holes they were addressing with this draft would have been different. They think we've got some scorers, some playmakers, some puck-moving D-men. And to some extent we have to trust Gordie Clark.
This change is also evidenced by Tortarella and Messier. Many of you might disagree with this, but there may be a fair bit of truth to it. Tortarella can be a jerk; we all know that. But one of his best qualities is his ability to recognize character in players. Whether we agree with all he does or not, he does have a good idea about what a team needs in order to win. He knows what type of leadership and work ethic the team needs, and he knows how to spot that in players. I think he may actually be helping to change the culture of the organization, even if it is moving very slowly. At the end of the day, he is handcuffed to an extent regarding players like Redden. But if you look at how Anisimov progressed this year, becoming a more responsible two way player by season's end, I think you have to recognize Torts' role in that.
With regards to Messier, I know many are scared of having him become GM; the thought is that he's part of Sather's good 'ole boys club and that he's being mentored by a guy whose made some mistakes that drive us crazy. However, no one will ever question Messier's leadership qualities and his character. If there is any positive side to him becoming GM, it's that he knows what type of character goes into a winning team; he knows what types of players we need to be successful. I honestly believe that his leadership will be a step in the right direction for the culture of this organization. How he'll fare with the business side of things, I have no idea.
There are a lot of signs all pointing to the fact that the organization is improving. The system is filling out very well, and they've seemed to put together pieces that will work - not just spare parts. They seem to be building a team the right way for a change. But obviously, the end result remains to be seen.
If this years draft has taught me anything, it's that sometimes targeting the big name, or the biggest talent available isn't the best way to build an organization. In order to create a more well-rounded system, you have to address your needs effectively, and the Rangers may have done a bit of that this past weekend.