A new coaching staff. A changed, younger roster. Different organizational priorities. Sure, the start of the 2018-19 season was a change of scenery and the start of a brand new era of Rangers hockey.
If most fans are being honest, the first puck drop on opening night in Madison Square Garden against Nashville last October activated the clock. No, not the game clock, but a different clock. One that counted down until hockey started to have a purpose again.
Sure, there were some entertaining distractions to look forward to. First full NHL seasons for Filip Chytil and Brett Howden. Breakout years for Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. A head coach who cared to be publicly personable. Those within the organization had many logistical and interpersonal tasks to work on and accomplish.
When looking at the big picture, though, the major goal of the 2018-19 season was really just to get it over with. Everyone knew the Rangers weren’t making the playoffs, or even going to be a competitive team. Multiple long-tenured veterans were standing around, waiting to find out to which teams they were being traded. Other players knew they were there to fill a quota until the “real” players came at a later date. Henrik Lundqvist had an existential crisis and literally cried. It was a new era, but the team was still paying its debts to a past era. The Rangers were newly single but still stuck in a lease with an ex and could do nothing but sell off the furniture and wait.
Now mere hours from the opening faceoff for the 2019-20 season, the dues have been paid. The Rangers took their lumps, accumulated assets and cap space, and parlayed it all into a number of meaningful building blocks. The roster has been completely transformed. Eight of the 20 players expected to be in tonight’s lineup weren’t on the roster at this point last season. It’s not just about quantity, but quality. Multiple franchise-changing players are currently preparing for a competitive game.
This isn’t the end goal. The team has a long way to go until it can seriously contemplate winning the Stanley Cup. With such an intense focus on that goal and the process it requires, it is easy to forget to enjoy the journey itself.
Professional sports are extremely unforgiving and uncharitable. There are 31 — soon to be 32 — NHL teams and only one can win the Stanley Cup each year. Half the league is eliminated by early April, while 15 more teams have their hearts shattered in the following few weeks. The Tampa Bay Lightning are as impeccably put together as any team in recent memory, and yet The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn still gives them an 84% chance of ending the season in disappointment.
The Penguins have been as successful as any team in the league post-lockout. Yet they’ve won “only” three Stanley Cups in that time. That leaves 11 seasons where they didn’t. Sometimes, failure was an agonizing Game Seven loss in the Stanley Cup Final. Other times, it was a swift and embarrassing first-round exit. There have been needed roster overhauls, management changes, Sidney Crosby injury concerns, and dreadful contracts. Crosby was called a coach killer. Evgeni Malkin trade rumors are a summer tradition.
That’s the best-case scenario. Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals had to deal with 13 years of perpetual agony, barrages of criticism, and roster turnovers just to finally grasp the Cup once. It was a similar story for the St. Louis Blues, who were literally last in the league halfway through last season and nearly blew it all up before rallying to win the first Cup in franchise history.
That’s assuming a Stanley Cup even happens. In the last decade, it was or has been close but no cigar for the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Rangers fans understand this all too well, whether it was the late-70s teams or this past era. Let’s not even get into the likes of the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres, who are in never-ending rebuilds.
Even in the best outcome that President John Davidson can possibly dream up, where this iteration of the Rangers becomes a legendary dynasty, there’s going to be a hell of a lot more failure and disappointment than success and elation. Not every player currently on the roster or in the future is going to live up to expectations. Draft picks will bust. Bad trades will happen. Seasons will end sooner than expected. That’s not a critique of management or the organization, but just the inherent nature of sports. If your enjoyment hinges on winning it all, then you’re going to spend at least 80% of your time miserable; more likely, that number is closer to 99%. That’s not healthy. One must find meaning and gratification along the way.
Tonight is a milestone. It’s a genesis, Day One of realizing the fruits of past suffering and seeing the tangible product stand on MSG ice. With lenient inclusion of the Stepan trade, nine of the 20 players in tonight’s lineup were acquired either during the liquidation efforts or using pieces acquired during those endeavors. Another two - Kaapo Kakko and Artemiy Panarin - were acquired indirectly via the process.
The clock that started last season — or really, when Jeff Gorton submitted that letter to the fans 602 days ago — is about to run out. Once the linesman drops the puck tonight soon after 7 pm, the hourglass will flip over and start anew, with new failures and disappointments to come. But in-between the organization and fans find themselves in the eye of the storm. They are reborn and optimistic, yet to be hurt by the world around them.
As PA announcer Joe Tolleson announces every player one-by-one as they skate out to center ice, fans should appreciate the dread and anticipation it took to get here and embrace the actualizing of hope, however naive, for the future. If this leads to a championship (or multiple) down the road, then Rangers fans would be wise to catalog their emotions tonight for the sake of nostalgia and remembering where it all began. If it doesn’t, well, sports offer few moments of unconditional joy. It’s it’s all the more reason to embrace this euphoria while they can.