Part I (7/18/21): Hand to God, I Wrote Most of this before They'd Even Exposed Blackwell
When James Dolan fired Jeff Gorton and John Davidson, the general reaction was confusion. Sure, Gorton deserved to get canned, but JD hadn't been around long enough to make a difference one way or the other. And Gorton, for all his many and manifest faults, had by luck and savvy set the Rangers up to come out of their rebuild competing for Cups. There's a universe in which the two of them are still are in charge, didn't rock the boat too much because the team lost a couple of games to the Islanders, and entered this season with a (desperately needed) new coach to guide a young, emerging core deep into a surprise playoff run. Swapping Quinn for Gallant, strengthening the bottom six and the bottom pair, and then loosening the reins on the young guns - Chytil, Kakko, Lafreniere, not to mention Lundkvist - probably would've vaulted the team into legitimate contention for the division title. That's not to say the team was without problems - would you like to spend one-third of the team's cap space on Trouba, Kreider, and Zibanejad? - but they were mostly solvable and also the kind of problems you'd prefer to have.
Ol' Jimmy D blew it up for reasons we'll never be privy to. (My supposition, based on long experience, is that the dumbest explanation you can think of is probably closest to the truth.) In walked Chris Drury, lately of Team USA and the Hartford Wolfpack. As most of us know, many ownership groups have been circling around Drury for a GM job in the last number of years. Instead, he's stuck with the Rangers in one of the better gambles he's likely ever made. He is now the team's general manager.
If the author was a different person, he might object to this whole procession of events for a silly reason, like that Chris Drury has literally no experience whatsoever, or that hanging around a front office for a while and having your colleagues say nice things about you to the media isn't a great indicator of whether you're any good at your nebulous job. I'm not that person - Drury, frankly, has sparkling credentials for a GM job. He's from Trumbull, Connecticut, for one thing. I've been there; it's nice. He used to play hockey, and he went to Boston University, though internet searches have thus far not been able to provide any information about what degree he received. He now lives in Greenwich, which is really nice; lots of rich morons live there and commute into the city, as I imagine Chris will. He's put together some not-so-good teams in Hartford and for Team USA. Objectively, this is excellent prep for being a general manager, a job where no failure is too great, no ridiculous trade or contract can ever get you fired, and the only way into the fraternity is through a hidden black magic hockey man ritual so shrouded in secrecy that I risk my own safety simply by mentioning it here.
Cherry on top? This guy's a winner. You name it, he's won it. The Little League World Series? Check. Hobey Baker? Check. Hockey East Defensive Forward of the Year, Hockey East Player of the Year, Beanpot? Check, check, and four times check. NCAA Championship? You betcha. Calder Trophy? He's got one. Stanley Cup? You guessed it - won one with the Avs. To get oddly specific, he's even one of the few men to ever win a Silver Medal in Ice Hockey at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. How 'bout that?
Now, that other writer might make a point like...what does any of that have to do with building and running a winning hockey team? Again, I'm not saying something like that.
What I'm saying is much worse. Chris Drury is a Hockey Man. Some of us figured this out a long time ago, when Chris Drury was instrumental in bringing about Andrew Desjardins' short stint in blue. It's taken other folks longer, and that's understandable because hope is sometimes good and useful - to quote the worst movie ever made, "[h]ope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it, you'll never make it through the night."
Didn't we just have a hockey man in charge? Isn't John Davidson a Hockey Man? No. JD is just a Hockey Guy. It's different. The fact that Chris Drury is a Hockey Man should strike fear into the hearts of Ranger fans everywhere.
I know what you're thinking. Hyperbole, Section! Hindsight! You had the same reaction to Quinn getting hired! Trouba's contract! Kreider's contract! You lost your mind when the Rangers spent second round draft picks on Ryan Gropp and Brandon Halverson without ever having watched a QMJHL game! You can't remember how to spell Braden Schneider!
A week ago this would've been fair. Drury hadn't done anything yet, besides have pow-wows with beat writers. But we have now witnessed the power of a fully armed and operational Hockey Man, capable of destroying whole rebuilds with a single signature. It started with the protection decision - Kevin Rooney over Colin Blackwell. Now, maybe Seattle could've screwed up and we got to keep Blackwell. (Their much vaunted analytics department was clever enough to take Blackwell. Shockingly.) In any case, that was revealing, deeply so - nobody with internet access should've made that mistake. All you needed to do was visit evolving-hockey.com and you would've made a better decision than a professional hockey decider man. What was the damage? About one win. 4-6 goals. 2 points in the standings. Blackwell produced more WAR last year than Kevin Rooney has in his career. It wasn't exactly a marginal call, more a blindingly obvious one that you can only get wrong if some kind of virus infects your decision-making process.
The objective loss, the drop-off from Blackwell to Rooney in terms of on-ice value...in and of itself, that was a big issue. A full win, concomitant salary implications. Even for the eye test it's hard to be that wrong. But it's much worse than it looks - worse than protecting Rooney at Blackwell's expense, you have consider what possible reasons could underwrite that kind of decision. There are three, precisely: Rooney is taller, Rooney is heavier, and Rooney plays on the fourth line, plays a grittier game. This is the deranged way Hockey Men think, and Chris Drury thinks this way.
It's just one bad call! Maybe they have a side deal with Seattle where they give up some pick or something to secretly protect Blackwell because...argle-bargle. This, again, maybe could've been sort of plausible if you were hopeful and didn't want to acknowledge that getting simple stuff wrong is a reasonably good predictor of getting complicated stuff wrong. Then the Rangers traded for Barkleigh Goodrough. Collars were adjusted nervously. It was only a seventh. Those reports were planted by his agent. Six years? Ha-ha! No one would ever—
Then the Rangers signed Barkley Goodcolumn. It was the kind of deal that makes your eyes roll out of your skull; children wept; Edmonton Oilers beat writers look at it and go "This will put New York over the top!;" deep in your heart, the hope dies — because the money and the term and the whole choice are bad enough, indeed, so bad that I'm going to dedicate a punctuationally complex, Henry-Jamesesque sentence to it — but the implications are even worse, so frightening and concerning that the possibility of trading Pavel Buchnevich for Bo Horvat (yes, really; did you think I'd forget?) landed with a sudden thud like a bird off a window and then flew off a moment later, the implications are so bad and so plain that if you're still following me the poison fruits of this cursed tree are unmistakable: this is just the beginning.
I'll let the man speak for himself: "He's a winner. He's able to walk into our locker room and talk about what it's like to play in the playoffs and win Cups." Holy Hell. You try to beg, plead, reason — didn't you win a Stanley Cup, Chris? Doesn't Madison Square Garden have elevators? Walk down there! Tell them yourself! It's fruitless. Chris is going to keep going. They're thinking about trading the first rounder. Nothing is out of bounds. This team is going to get fatter. They're going to take more penalties, somehow, or at least try to. They're not going to learn anything. Is Chytil moving to wing? Strap in. This rebuild is set to launch like a Boeing Starliner test flight.
Part II (8/3/21): Additional Commentary Regarding Certain Unmentionable Events
How bad could it get? That was question on everyone's mind. Local doomsayers were investing in canned goods and Carolina Hurricanes jerseys. The Sunshine-and-Rainbows brigade had an answer, as ever - it was just one bad contract! You have to admit the Rangers - who led the league in fights - weren't gritty enough! Goodreau isn't like Tanner Glass or anything, he's actually good! He won a Stanley Cup.
Remember that thing about trading Pavel Buchnevich for Bo Horvat? The truth was so much worse than that. Chris Drury's trade of beloved Ranger forward "Captain Happy," an in-prime and strangely undervalued top line forward the team drafted in the third round many years ago, was one of the darkest days in recent memory. Buchnevich's current AAV of 5.8 million is too pricey, but the Rangers will not spend the money they "save" wisely. It's an idiotic move. That's before we get to the return.
The Rangers received a second round pick and something called "Sammy Blais" in exchange for their cost-controlled top-line winger. Rasmus Ristolainen was traded for the 13th pick in this year's NHL draft. This sent many, including myself, into a pronounced spiral of mental anguish. It was so bad that I can hardly recall what happened after Drury doubled down on dumb and sent a third rounder to Vegas for the league's most expensive MMA fighter, who was for some reason immediately given a contract extension.
In my distress, I undertook a vision quest. I felt a deep, inexplicable need to reconnect with nature, to center myself and align with the rhythm of the Earth. I did not, at the time, understand why I needed to purchase a paddleboard. I only knew that I was irresistibly drawn directly to the center of a nearby lake. Upon reaching it, I laid atop the board and stared directly into the sun for nine hours, irreparably scorching my eyes. On shore, I placed two black eyepatches over my scarred pupils and realized what I had gained from my journey: the ability to see the world like Chris Drury.
Immediately, and surprisingly, I found myself on evolving-hockey.com once again. I hadn't lost sight; I'd gained it. I began to breathe like a Hockey Man. (Through the mouth.) I pulled up last season's stats. I adjusted various presets until I was looking at 5-on-5 box score figures. I organized everything by hits per minute. Out stood names, old and new: Ryan Reaves, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais, Kevin Rooney. Jared Tinordi. And just sliding in to the top fifty, one Patrik Nemeth. This, I knew, was what the analytics department of the most valuable hockey franchise in the world had spent its summer doing.
Why sign Nemeth, who is roughly as good as Smith, to a lengthy and more expensive deal when the team has Adam Fox to sign and an embarrassment of defensive-prospect riches? He's tall. He hits. He's a winner. Why commit any money at all to more defensemen? He weighs 230 hard-hittin' Swedish pounds. Jared Tinordi? Simple.
This is the mind of a Hockey Man, unrestrained by the better judgment of wiser advisors. The Rangers brain trust now consists of James Dolan, Glen Sather, and above all, Chris Drury. They are going to build a team so gritty that they will, I admit, beat the other team. It will just be with their fists. The rebuild is over.
What happens next? I don't know. There aren't many UFAs on top of the hits list left to sign. What I do know is that Kaapo Kakko is probably going to need to win three Selkes if this team wants to compete for championships. And I hope he's up to it.