The word “rebuild” is being thrown around RangersTown these days like a slur.
People say it with venom or fear. They’re annoyed, angry, or simply upset. It’s hard to recognize the end of an era — specifically one that simply didn’t end the way you wanted it to. So people say it and spit. They sneer. “The rebuild,” they’ll say, emphasizing “rebuild” with the same negative connotation you would use if you saw someone being mean to a puppy.
It started last year at the trade deadline, but was the easy part. It was fun. It was like deciding to renovate your kitchen, but doing the demo yourself to save some money. Destroying something has a cathartic feel to it, and can be done without thought or care. Ripping out cabinets is easy when you don’t give a damn about how they come out, just that they come out. It’s the cleanup and the fixing that’s hard, because you have to be careful and mindful . There are instructions; pieces need to fit into one another. Yes, the fixing is always harder.
The Rangers’ decision to sell, then their actual selling, was largely met with glee. Sure, people were upset about some of the returns and there were still a few stragglers who thought the Rangers could make “one or two more runs” with that core, but for the most part everyone stood in the kitchen, torn sheetrock under foot, surrounded by bare walls, and felt a sense of purpose.
The Rangers traded Rick Nash, Nick Holden, Ryan McDonagh, and J.T. Miller. They walked away with Ryan Spooner, Vladislav Namestnikov, Matt Belesky, Ryan Lindgren, Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, Igor Rykov, and (now drafted) K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, Olof Lindbom, Joey Keane, and at least Tampa Bay’s second round pick next year.
The hard part, for some, was July 1st. We watched Jeff Gorton do nothing, as he presumably sat in his office and scrolled through Twitter as his counterparts locked up, or anchored down, large portions of their salary cap space in knee-jerk moves that might help for a year or two, or might hurt right now.
People waited for the other shoe to drop.
They waited to Gorton’s secret play to lure John Tavares to New York, and when it became clear that wasn’t happening, they moved their sights onto Erik Karlsson. They hopped onto speculation about Ryan O’Reilly just a week before they flocked toward rumors surrounding the potential trade of Artemi Panarin. They just didn’t want to clean the mess up.
Reality has set in now, though. 2018-2019 will not be a year of expectations for the Rangers. And that, my friends, is beautiful.
After Tavares spurned the Islanders, I read an article on Lighthouse Hockey about how tough it can be to blog through your love of a team and how much it takes out of you. And while I have no emotional ties to Tavares or the Islanders, I do have a connection to how sometimes hockey isn’t fun when you’re in the weeds day after day, keeping the site afloat. How sometimes bad decisions are magnified because you know you’re going be focusing on that for the next year or two — and Jesus, Glen, do you know how much digital ink I now need to waste because of that crappy decision? Think of the little people will you?
So I finished reading that article and thought long and hard about the last time hockey was pure fun for me as a blogger. It was 2014, as the Rangers made that unexpected run to the Cup. Yeah, the loss shattered me in a sense, but damn did I have fun that year. I hadn’t had that much fun since I was a college freshman watching the Rangers dismantle the Atlanta Thrashers 7-1 in Game 3 of that year’s opening round.
Well, the side effect of an unexpected run is ... well ... expectations. 2015 wasn’t “let’s see what happens and go from there,” it was a damn job. The Rangers were expected to win, there were (supposed) ramifications if they didn’t, and the pressure and stress was uncomfortable because it was new. It was also uncomfortable because I made a personal jump into understanding analytics, so the lack of logic behind the moves made that summer left a feeling of (now proven) foreboding.
As amazing as Derek Stepan’s game-winning, Game 7 OT winner was, the quiet of the Garden after the Rangers lost their first Game 7 at home in organizational history the next round was worse. It sucks to be a part of that too. Where the loss in 2014 was “this is just the beginning,” the shuffling out of the Garden in 2015 was more “that was our shot wasn’t it? This feels like the end.”
I was right. So was everyone else who realized the window was closed by the team’s own hand. Only the Rangers didn’t see it that way.
They didn’t see it after the Penguins dismantled them on national television, nor did they see it the next year when their shockingly inefficient coach did exactly what he had done the year before and tanked his own team’s success. Impending decisions filled my days with dread. I lost sleep over them. Spent hours writing articles about them. Put my heart and soul into this space only to have people tell me I’m negative, stupid, and don’t know anything — to then keep their own mouths shut when, well look at that, we were right to be skeptical all along.
Last year felt like a breaking point. The Rangers had extended Alain Vigneault the year before and they hadn’t even entered that part of the deal yet. The team looked the same way they did before, and the year before that, and the year before that. Henrik Lundqvist was being hit with pot shots from the coach to the media, the kids weren’t playing, and the Rangers weren’t actually good. And yet, there we were, on the roller coaster again, even though we knew how it would end, again. That wasn’t fun. That was stress. Pressure. Work, in a way.
The truly insufferable part of the lead up to the blow up was the fact that rays of hope were suffocated out intentionally. Youth wasn’t served, it was held to unreasonable expectations. Creativity was a fast-pass to a seat on the bench. The environment and atmosphere around the team was toxic, as proven by all the players not having anything positive to say about Vigneault after he was gone.
But now, there’s a new coach in David Quinn. If nothing else, Quinn represents a breath of fresh air. He talks about developing youth — and prioritizes it. He has his flaws, yes, but all coaches do; at minimum, Quinn is going to do what the Rangers should have been doing for years. There’s a joy in that, at the very least, because there’s nothing quite like home-grown youth budding through the soil.
Close your eyes for a minute and think about next year. Do you feel that pressure on the back of your neck? That pit in your stomach? No, you probably don’t, because there are no expectations. Hockey is going to be fun again.
I’m a new father, my daughter just turned seven months old. I have taken remarkable joy in watching her do the simplest of things. She’s developed the ability to hold things now and is learning to bring them to her mouth. She’s starting to crawl and is strong enough to stand so long as you help her keep her balance. It’s incredible.
The Rangers are much like my daughter Kaylin. They’re babies. They’re learning their way around the game, finding out who and what they are. Part of what made 2014 so special was I remember Derek Stepan’s first game, Chris Kreider’s first goal (a playoff goal no doubt!), Henrik Lundqvist emerging onto the scene, the excitement about the Ryan McDonagh trade, the thrill of the Brad Richards signing, and the joy of Derick Brassard. We watched that team grow, the right way. We were a part of it, the same way I’ll feel a part of it when Kaylin takes her first steps.
So get ready for Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei to take the next steps under a coach who cares about the way they develop. Ditto for Kevin Hayes. Get ready for Vitali Kravtsov, Miller, and Lundkvist, as well as Hajek, Howden, Rykov, and maybe even Lindgren.
Are you ready for the Rangers to make decisions about the future? To not sacrifice the lifeblood of the team for short-paying risks we all know won’t work? I am.
Hockey may not be good in New York, but it’s fun again.
Enjoy it while you can.