Hi there. My name is Joe Reiter. You may remember me from such posts as "Sather's Greatest Hits" and "Lead Paint: Delicious...but deadly". Wait, that last one isn't mine. Disregard, please.
Quite a while ago, I'd mentioned that I had been noodling around with this idea of a history of the Rangers based on not making a couple of moves in the 1970s, which a couple of people thought was interesting.
And now that it's the all-star break, and since I've wasted way more time on this than I originally intended, I'm going to share this
pathetic time waster stupid idea interesting project with you.
For those not in the know, I'm a writer (see, Reiter rhymes with writer), and whenever I get started on a project, I usually do what I like to call a warm-up exercise to get the brain juices flowing: I'll pick some random topic or idea and just run with it until I feel sufficiently ready to do proper work.
For example: "You've just met with Michael Wilson and Barbara Brocoli and been given free rein to write the next James Bond movie. Go."
(Now THAT'S a whole other story. I hit on this idea for a trilogy of Bond flicks a while ago, the details of which are available to pitch, of course. I'll be in LA for meetings in a couple of weeks, so feel free to call me, guys.)
Anyway, not that long ago I got this idea into my head that, if Fred Shero had correctly traded for Colin Campbell in 1980 to shore up the defense, maybe things would've gone differently in the playoffs that year.
Maybe Campbell's presence on the blue line changes the outcome of the second round series between Philly and the Rangers, maybe the Rangers win out instead of losing in five (doubtful), maybe they push Philly harder, making it a seven game series. Maybe the toll wears on them in their next series, and the North Stars prevail, and knock off the Islanders and prevent their dynasty from starting. Maybe a school of mermaids show up in the East River singing songs that lure street-clogging tourists to their deaths....
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the difference between a championship/contending team and a dog are, besides luck, a handful of decisions, sometimes made years before, that impact the roster and look of a franchise.
Thinking of that, I looked at that 1977 draft and, after cursing Ferguson for skipping Bossy, realized that Emile Francis would never have let a scoring talent like that slip through his fingers twice.
That led to me skipping back a few year into the early-mid 1970s, and looked at some of Emile Francis' moves...more precisely the ones that led to his dismissal and the hiring of Ferguson.
Then I started playing Monday morning quarterback, trying to figure out what the impact would be of not making a move that really happened, or making a move that didn't.
(For reasons of sanity, I didn't go all the way back to the 1940s, when a teenaged Gordie Howe attended training camp for the Rangers, but got homesick and disgusted when some veteran Rangers players mocked him for not knowing how to put on his equipment. A year later Gordie went to camp with Detroit and.....arrrrrgh. Around the same time, the Montreal Canadiens tried trading their ‘fragile' francophone Maurice Richard to the Rangers early in his career. A deal was worked out, but the Rangers backed out at the last minute. Richard went on to dominate through the 40s and 50s, fighting with Howe for the title of best player in the league. Imagine those two on the Rangers in the 40s and 50s. How many Stanley Cups in a row does that team win? Five? Ten? Twenty?)
It got a lot more involved than I really thought it would, but it seemed slightly interesting. I then decided fuck it, and started replaying some of these moves, albeit with the knowledge of what the consequences would be for some of the trades made.
Yes, I know it's grossly unfair, but this was just a mental exercise. Everything that follows the reverse decisions I make below is absolute best-case speculation. Just needed to throw that out there, for anyone who starts shrieking "NO NO NO NO NO NO THIS IS STUPID". Yes, it is stupid, I agree. It's psychotic. But I never claimed to be sane...
And just to qualify this: I'm not using any metrics to determine outcomes (that's George's turf). I don't have the time or money to spend on putting something together that would actually tally outcomes based on the moves below. This is solely based on what the records were, what they might have been had players been on a different team, and how that impacted the league as a whole (which will be notable during the 1981 playoffs, where the Kings, instead of being knocked off by the Rangers in round one, make the finals in my reality because the Rangers were seeded higher and didn't bully them into submission until....ah ah ah....spolers....)
Once more, the criteria: I did this only from 1969-1982. I could've kept going, and I may revisit at some point, but only if someone is paying me. Or I have a lot of free time. Or a mental breakdown.
So without further ado, here is....
An alternate history of the New York Rangers (1970-Present)
June 1969: I'll start here: the Rangers trade (more accurately sell) Harry Howell to the Oakland Seals.
Howell was 37 at that point, but he went on to play another four years with Oakland and Los Angeles, putting up respectable point totals (20 in 1969-70), and while he missed time with the Seals he was durable in his final two seasons with the Kings, missing one game in 1971-72 and five in 1972-73 at the age of 41.
For the purpose of this exercise we'll begin with this move. Playing Monday morning Emile Francis, don't sell Howell to Oakland. Howell stays in New York to continue mentoring the young defense, which will pay massive dividends by the mid-late part of the 1970s.
November 1971: Rugged defenseman Andre ‘Moose' Dupont, the team's first round pick in 1969, is traded to the St. Louis Blues as part of the deal that brings Gene Carr to New York. Gene Carr scored 17 goals in three years in New York; Dupont became a cornerstone of the Broad Street Bullies' blueline, winning championships in 1974 and 1975. He was dealt because Emile didn't think he'd fit in with the finesse team and wasn't a fan of the rough style Dupont played.
This is the point in which I'm going to begin playing Monday morning GM...er...quarterback, for the simple reason that this is what I think is the turning point of this franchise for the next ten years, at a minimum. A big physical presence on the blueline would make all the difference in the world for a Rangers team that came close a few times in the early part of the decade, and then aged rapidly and went into a quick decline, undermined by bad personnel decisions.
This deal accomplished two things: it laid the seeds of the failures to come for the Rangers throughout the 70s, and eventually led to Dupont becoming the linchpin on the Broad Street Bullies teams that won back to back championships.
Besides, with Ratelle and Tkaczuk down the middle along with Bill Fairbairn, the deal Emile Francis made was one that wasn't needed. This was borne out by Carr's short tenure on Broadway.
Additionally, Brad Park would've benefited so much from a defense partner to watch his back.
So kill the deal, keep Dupont in New York, and let's see what happens.
(And again, this is all a best case scenario, trying to stay within the realm of the possible, not the improbable)
1971-72 season: The season unfolds largely as it does in reality, with one major difference: it is Dupont, and not Dale Rolfe, on the ice on that fateful night in March 1972. The shot Rolfe takes that breaks Jean Ratelle's ankle, sidelining him for the remaining 16 games of the season and hampering him in the playoffs, doesn't happen. Ratelle holds off Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, winning the scoring race and the Art Ross trophy. The continued presence of Ratelle in the lineup for the remainder of the month nets 60 goals for Hadfield and 52 for Rod Gilbert, both franchise records.
In the playoffs, the Rangers make the finals, squaring off with Boston. Dupont is deployed to shadow, harass, and throw Orr off his game, as he does in the reality we know two years later in 1974. With a healthy Ratelle, Esposito held in check by Walt Tkaczuk (Espo goes without a goal in the series here as well) and an Orr that isn't able to get completely untracked and run amok, the Rangers with the Stanley Cup in six games, sending the crowd at Madison Square Garden into a frenzy as captain Vic Hadfield skates the ice with the trophy, the Rangers' first in 32 years.
The top four defensemen for the Rangers, Brad Park- Andre Dupont, Rod Seiling- Jim Nielsen, form one of the strongest units in the league for the next two seasons. The presence of Harry Howell mentoring both Park and Dupont has a major impact on both players.
1972 NHL Draft: In the second round, with the 31st pick the Rangers select Denis Herron, with an eye on eventually replacing the aging Eddie Giacomin/Gilles Villemure tandem.
1972-73 season: The regular season unfolds almost exactly as the one we know it, with one minor difference: New York finishes with 109 points, good for second in the East Division. They take home ice advantage into the first round of the playoffs, beating Boston 4-1 as actually happened.
After surprisingly falling behind to Chicago 2-1, Dupont changes the tone of the series with a devastating hit on Stan Mikita. The finesse Rangers flex a little more muscle than normal, emboldened by their hard-hitting defenseman, dominate Chicago for the remainder of the series, winning in six.
Returning to the finals against the Montreal Canadiens, they battle for seven grueling games before losing game seven in Montreal. The champions are dethroned.
1973 NHL Draft: Recognizing the need to replenish the top six scoring talent, the Rangers select Blair MacDonald in the fifth round, 78th overall.
1973-74 season: The Philadephia Flyers' ascent to the upper echelon in the league is tempered without Dupont. The Rangers finish fourth in the NHL and knock off the Canadiens in a rematch of the previous year's finals, 4-2.
Their semi-final matchup against the Flyers is just as brutal as the one known in reality, with one difference: the seventh game in Philadelphia sees Dupont, not Dale Rolfe, squaring off with Dave Schultz.
Dupont holds his own with Schultz in the fight, squeezing out a decision, and the deflated Flyers lose a nail-biting seventh game 3-1 in Philadelphia.
Dupont once again forces Bobby Orr off his game, and Tkacuzk repeats his 1972 finals performance, holding Esposito in check throughout the six game series, won by the Rangers. The Stanley Cup returns to New York for the second time in three years.
For his efforts, Dupont is named winner of the Conn Smythe trophy.
1974 NHL Draft: Dave Maloney is selected 14th overall in the first round. Ron Greschner is taken 32nd overall in the second. Francis' best (real) draft. No reason to mess with it.
1974-75 season: The defense meshes into one of the most feared units in the league featuring two rookies: Park-Neilson, Dupont-Greschner, Maloney-Marotte.
Captain Vic Hadfield is not traded for Nick Beverly before the season, keeping the GAG line intact, although the aging core of the team begins to take a toll during the season, and in the playoffs the Rangers manage to knock off the rival Islanders 2-0 and the Penguins in four straight before falling to the Flyers in a rematch of the previous year.
Evaluating the team, Francis identifies the defense as a strong point of the team, but begins working to replenish the forward ranks with younger players. Rick Middleton and Blair MacDonald are identified as key pieces to build around, along with Greschner and Maloney on defense .
1975 NHL Draft: Instead of taking Wayne Dillon with the 12th overall pick, the Rangers grab Dennis Maruk in the first round with an eye on his playmaking abilities making him the ev/entual successor to Jean Ratelle. Francis can't pass up a guy who'd scored 149 points in juniors, can he?
1975-76 season: An infusion of youth keeps the Rangers from missing the playoffs, though the team is up and down for most of the year. The GAG line suffers when Hadfield suffers a knee injury that, combined with recurring weight issues, forces his retirement after the season. Dennis Maruk makes the team out of training camp and immediately finds chemistry with Rick Middleton on his right and Steve Vickers on the left, creating a formidable second line.
Blair MacDonald joins with Fairbairn and Tkacuzk on the third line, providing scoring punch to the checking group.
While the defense remains as strong as ever, goaltending becomes an issue. Gilles Villemure is dealt to Chicago for Doug Jarrett to add more size to the blueline, and Ed Giacomin suffers through a mediocre season, although Denis Herron replaces the departed Villemure well, but doesn't show enough to solidify himself as the number one.
The team earns 88 points, good for sixth overall in the league, and knocks out the Atlanta Flames in a preliminary round matchup in two games before falling to the rival Bruins in six .
With a pair of Stanley Cups championships under his belt, Emile Francis has more leeway, and is not fired when the team starts slowly. The consequences of keeping Francis and not bringing in John Ferguson will be felt throughout the rest of the decade.
Eddie Giacomin is not released by the team on Halloween 1975 in spite of the slow start, and the trade for Phil Esposito does not materialize as Francis doesn't feel a need to make a panic move.
1976 NHL Draft: Sensing that Denis Herron may not be the long-term answer in goal, Mike Liut is selected in the third round (instead of Mike McEwen). Liut contemplates signing with Cleveland of the WHA, but Sonny Werblin is convinced to pony up a better financial offer. That, combined with the chance to join a contending team, leads Liut to join the Rangers in time for the 1977-78 season.
1976-77 season: MacDonald moves up to join Ratelle and Gilbert, but the trio doesn't have the same chemistry as with Hadfield.
A new captain is elected with the retirement of Hadfield: Brad Park. Park will wear the C for the duration of the decade, and into the 1980s.
The Rangers meander through another up and down season, winning 40 games and making the playoffs as the sixth seed. Once at the big dance, they knock off Toronto in the first round before falling to the Bruins again in a tough seven game series.
1977 NHL Draft: After passing on him once to take Ron Duguay, Emile Francis decides he can't ignore the natural scoring abilities of Mike Bossy and takes him 13th overall. The knocks on Bossy, that he can't play defense and isn't a fighter, concerns Francis enough to ask some of the veteran players to police opposing teams when Bossy is on the ice during training camp. Nick Fotiu appoints himself Bossy's protector.
1977-78 season: With a top line of Ratelle-Bossy-Gilbert and a second line boasting Maruk-Middleton-Vickers, the Rangers boast the second-highest scoring offense in the NHL. Ratelle and Gilbert, playing with the rookie Bossy, are rejuvenated, playing like men ten years younger, and Bossy, playing with the veteran Francophiles, makes an immediate impact. Maruk and Middleton, along with veteran Steve Vickers, become a lethal second line combination. Toughness in the forms of Eddie Johnstone and Nick Fotiu from the bottom lines help keep opposing players honest and ensure space for the top two lines to work.
The defense, led by Brad Park, Ron Greschner, Dave Maloney and Andre Dupont, combines toughness and skill and keeps the crease in front of rookie netminder Mike Liut clear. Eddie Giacomin slides into a role as a full time backup and mentor to Liut. The Rangers win 50 games, claiming the second overall seed in the playoffs, and blow through Chicago and Philadelphia in the playoffs before succumbing to Montreal in six games in the finals.
After dropping numerous hints towards the end of the season, Giacomin announces his plan to retire after the playoffs are finished.
Losing badly in the sixth game, Francis pulls Liut in favor of Giacomin, and the crowd at MSG spends most of the third period chanting his name.
1978 NHL Draft: Without losing their first round pick to the Flyers as compensation for signing Fred Shero as coach, the Rangers select Al Secord with their first round pick, 14th overall.
1978-79 season: Another end of an era: Rod Gilbert announces his intention to retire at the end of the season. The team takes up the mantra of sending him out a winner, and second year goaltender Mike Liut wins 34 games. Bossy scores his 70th goal on the final day of the regular season, and the Rangers enter the playoffs with the third best record in the league.
With a series wins against Philadelphia, they advance to the semi finals against three-time champion Montreal. Liut outplays Ken Dryden, forcing Bunny Laroque into action to avoid elimination. Montreal forces a seventh game with an overtime win in New York, but Bossy scores twice in the decisive seventh game at the Forum. Ron Greschner tallies the game winning goal late in the third period, ending the Canadiens dynasty.
In a rematch of the 1972 finals, the speed of the Rangers proves too much for a stationary Boston defense without Bobby Orr or Brad Park, and the Rangers win the Stanley Cup at MSG in five games. Liut wins the Conn Smythe trophy as a rookie.
Rod Gilbert receives a ten minute standing ovation from the fans at MSG before finally leaving the ice for good, carrying the Stanley Cup overhead.
1979 NHL Draft: Seeking more depth down the middle, Emile Francis drafts center Neal Broten in the second round, 34th overall.
1979-80 season: The pain of consecutive finals losses to Montreal behind them, the Rangers defend their second Stanley Cup of the decade by marching through the regular season. Two key trades are made to shore up the defense: early in the season a multi-player deal involving Mike McEwen, Pat Hickey and Blair MacDonald along with cash is arranged to acquire Barry Beck from Colorado; at the trade deadline, Colin Campbell is picked up from Edmonton to take pressure off Dupont and Maloney from providing the physical play. Brad Park, having missed 40 games with injuries, returns refreshed for the playoffs.
Finishing with 52 wins and the best record in the regular season, the Rangers open the playoffs by knocking off the Edmonton Oilers in three straight, sweeping their old nemesis Chicago in the second round, and hold off the rival Islanders in the semi-finals behind a heroic effort from Liut. In a New York State Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers win their second consecutive Cup, beating the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 in the finals.
Brad Park wins the Conn Smythe, the only major individual trophy of his career.
1980-81 season: In what becomes the final season of Ratelle's storied career, the Rangers do not dominate the regular season, finishing with 41 wins and the sixth seed. They knock off Quebec and Calgary in the first two rounds of the playoffs and survive a seven game semi-final war with Minnesota before advancing to face Los Angeles in the finals. Led by the Triple Crown line, the Kings beat their way through the playoffs, setting up a finals matchup between two of the major media centers in the country. The Rangers prevail in a seven game classic series, winning in Los Angeles.
Bossy shines in the spotlight, winning the Conn Smythe trophy and leading the playoffs in scoring.
The New York-Los Angeles matchup puts the NHL firmly on the map and nets the league a contract with NBC to showcase a game a week, plus select games of the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring.
1981 NHL Draft: Drafting for organizational need, the Rangers select Al MacInnis with the 14th overall pick to shore up an aging defense, hoping MacInnis will eventually replace Brad Park.
1981-82 season: The retooled Rangers boast a new look on their top lines, featuring Broten-Bossy-Secord on the first line, and Maruk-Middleton-Vickers on the second. With Park anchoring the defense, and toughness in the bottom six from Eddie Johnstone, Nick Fotiu, the Rangers finish second in the league, two points behind the Edmonton Oilers despite finishing with three more wins (53).
They knock off the Penguins in the Divisional semi-final and survive a seven game war with the Flyers in the second round before cakewalking through the weaker Cinderella Quebec Nordiques and Vancouver Canucks in the final two rounds. The star of the finals becomes Fotiu, who moves up to the second line to keep the hard-hitting Canucks honest, and winds up scoring five goals in the finals sweep.
Barry Beck wins the Conn Smythe Trophy after netting three overtime winners and finishing the playoffs with twenty points, leading all defensemen.