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For Better, Not Worse, the Rangers are All In on the Rebuild

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How James Dolan’s remarks reinforce the organization’s resolve in seeing it through to completion

Madison Square Garden Celebrates Finish Of Multi Year Construction Project Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Let there be no doubt any longer: the New York Rangers are rebuilding, and they’re doing it the right way. No short cuts. No half measures. No fence-sitting. Just an unbreakable dedication to the course they set for themselves since last season’s pre-trading deadline declaration to the fans.

If ever there was a soul still left questioning the sincerity of that intent, the comments of Madison Square Garden Company CEO, James Dolan, to Larry Brooks of the New York Post that ran on Tuesday morning have surely put them to bed.

“The stew has just gotten on the flame, so like everybody else, I’m waiting to see who we’re going to be,” Dolan said to multiple reporters after watching his team practice on Monday. “I’m very happy with our coach, he’s a teaching coach, a development coach who understands how to work with kids, bring their level up and build a team.

“I’m very happy with how the organization is organizing itself around development. We’re staying the course.”

Had Dolan said nothing else, those four final words could have served as a resounding affirmation of the Rangers’ plan to see this through to the end. Instead, he continued on, building an even stronger case for the perception of organizational unity; an inarguable requirement for a successful rebuild.

“I’m pleased that we’re following the strategy we agreed on,” Dolan continued. “I don’t want them lunging for the playoffs. Nobody’s job depends on whether we make the playoffs or not, although the team still believes we can make it.”

The team, of course, is highly unlikely to actually make the playoffs. Ten points out of the final Wild Card spot in the East, the Rangers are a miserable 3-5-2 in their last ten games, and 5-10-5 in their last 20 in which they have picked up a measly four regulation or overtime (ROW) wins. They own the biggest gap between wins and ROW in the league, and are dead last in ROW (12) among all 31 teams. They’ve also been collectively outscored 78-47 over their last 20 games, while owning a 27th-worst goal differential (minus-29) on the season, and are bested only by the lowly Ottawa Senators in 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage this season (45.16).

Chart via HockeyViz

David Quinn’s first year behind the bench has also seen his club particularly plagued on the road, as Shayna Goldman detailed at length for The Athletic on December 27:

”It wasn’t until their sixth road game that they collected a win this season. Before this recent seven-game stretch, they had just three wins on the road — in San Jose, Anaheim, and Columbus — each of which came in a shootout.”

While the club isn’t the worst road team in the league — the Senators and New Jersey Devils currently have fewer victories — Shayna went on to note that the Rangers were the only team in the NHL with a big fat zero in the ROW column on the road.

But despite all of their ills — and there are a lot of them — Dolan isn’t wrong to project a positive spin on things. Even as things remain far from positive at the moment.

Rebuilds are generally years-long affairs. The fewer the better, but years-long nonetheless. And the Rangers are only truly entering their first full year of what they likely hope is a handful more before things begin to look noticeably brighter. But consistently losing can quickly poison the well, no matter how virtous the intentions of the front office are regarding optimizing their draft position.

A quick glance at any number of the NHL’s perennial basement dwellers can illustrate the difficulty in getting losing teams back on track despite numerous cracks near (or at) the top of the draft.

Chart via HockeyViz

In numerous cases, like with the Edmonton Oilers or Florida Panthers, the “losing culture” became itself an unintended enemy of righteous intent.

As I mentioned this past summer, “rebuilds often put a heavy focus on the most skilled young players, but the conditions those fledglings are groomed in is of equal, if not greater importance.”

With the right combination of luck, strong drafting, rookie development, free agent signings, and spirited coaching, it’s plausible for a club to have both rebuilt and avoided the dreaded middle across a multi-season reset. So long as the organization remains unwavering in its dedication, there’s likely no better path to seeing one through properly.

This was particularly borne out by Dolan’s concern for the “emotional development” of his team as he confirmed his club’s steadfast position on not tanking for the best odds at Jack Hughes despite their woes:

“None of my teams are going to tank,” Dolan said. “I’ll never tell a team to lose. I think teams that tank are giving away something really big. I think they’re giving away that emotional development for the team. You can see how important that is.

”...when you go in and tell a team, even if you’re just telling the coach, to lose the game, you’re dispiriting your team. That hurts more than getting a better draft pick helps. It’s hard to reignite the spirit of the team.”

Taking a generational talent at the top of the draft can dramatically alter the fortunes of the team lucky enough to select that player. The math doesn’t lie. Just look at the Toronto Maple Leafs or perhaps more appropriately, the Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals. The latter (though in Washington’s case it sure took quite a while) landed their franchise player(s) and a Stanley Cup (or two) because of them.

But the math might fail to account for proper context, like the culture and attitude of the team that player is stepping into, or how management will proceed with building a team around them. It’s here that draft victory can unintentionally become Pyrrhic, potentially opening a whole new can of worms for an organization to figure out while valuable months or even years tick off on their would-be franchise player(s) like one big self-defeating prophecy.

The years-long nature of rebuilds is trying for all parties involved, but an unflappable commitment to seeing it through can make a huge difference in the outcome. Especially if part of that recipe doesn’t involved prolonged periods of dread.

The good thing for the Rangers and their fans is that the franchise is all in.

While there’s still plenty of work to be done ahead, including a second-straight liquidation sale set to begin any day now, fans can surely take refuge in the unified vision and promise of patience that’s been echoed from the top on down. It’s going to take a concerted effort from all involved, but with the right ingredients, and the proper care, this “stew” can come to feed everyone’s dream of another Rangers ride down the Canyon of Heroes.

Stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.