Killing The “Golden Age” Might Hurt, But It Was Necessary

The memory should be different.

The first memory once you’ve lost something or moved on should always be a good one right?

It’s not. And it won’t be.

My first memory of Ryan McDonagh should be a good one. It should be him jumping backwards with a small fist pump after scoring the overtime game-winner in Game 5 against Washington back in 2015. It should be him jumping off the bench and mobbing Derek Stepan after the overtime goal in Game 7 a few days later. Him clutching Henrik Lundqvist after they won the Eastern Conference Final against Montreal. The day he first skated out onto the ice as captain. Or maybe it should just be this aurora of hope — which he helped usher in for the first time in a decade. Maybe it should be that.

It isn’t.

My first memory of McDonagh are his arms reaching toward the sky as he jumped in the air. For an instant, there’s an explosion of joy. And then it dies. His hands are back down. The shot he thought went into the back of the net in overtime during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final  — a goal that would have sent the series back to New York with the Rangers’ down 3-2 and full of a new life — did not hit the twine. It hit the post. He thought it went in. I thought it went in. In that moment, three thousand miles apart, we both felt the same emotions consecutively: undeniable happiness, followed by a bleak feeling of hopelessness.

You know what happens next. We all do.

That story isn’t an indictment of McDonagh, who was everything and more for a Rangers team that asked so much of him. It’s not an indictment of that core either; that core taught me how to believe in magic again. But it is a reinforcement of the sad reality that close is not good enough. Brushing your fingers onto greatness is not the same as being the best.

The Rangers’ back-to-back runs from 2014-2015 will go down as some of the most fun I’ve had as a Rangers fan. I can think back to those memories fondly. I can close my eyes right now and remember how it felt to walk outside of The Garden in shorts, because it was June and the Rangers were still playing. I remember all of that. I remember looking at my dad when the buzzer sounded after Game 6 against Montreal, that moment between us where he knew what was coming next because of 1994 and the smile of seeing me watch everything with wide eyes. That’s all there.

But so is Lundqvist face down on the ice. So is me being at the first Game 7 the Rangers ever lost as Madison Square Garden. So is watching Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, and Brian Boyle celebrate on my ice when they no longer wore my jersey.

Success in sports is akin to holding water in your hand. If you do it right, you’ll hold the water longer than someone who does it wrong, but it will eventually seep through your fingers no matter what you do. For those two years, the Rangers held the water as much as they could and they came damn close, but close is not good enough.

From there, the success ended up killing the team’s future. The brass refused to stop dancing even though the music had stopped. Lundqvist hid enough flaws that people tricked themselves into thinking everything was okay, but when they finally opened their eyes they saw the rubble we were left with Monday night.

There are two faces to that run: Lundqvist and McDonagh. Lundqvist because he’s an organizational godsend; a generational player that pulled this team from the abyss of failure and into success almost on his own. Right or wrong, his name will be on everything the Rangers do during his tenure, whether it has his fingerprints on it or not.

And McDonagh because he’s the captain. He might not have been in 2014, but he was in 2015 and the years that followed. Like Lundqvist, right or wrong, his face is what you think about when you think back to that group.

The bad taste in your mouth you have from the past two year’s worth of failure aren’t the player’s fault — it lies at the feet of the man who will also have his face plastered to this period of time.

As much as they didn’t get the job done, they weren’t put in a position to. They were over-matched in 2016 (which was on Sather/Gorton), and they were out-coached in 2017 (which was on Alain Vigneault). From that story — which came from me in Prague because I was so fired up after the Rangers lost to Ottawa:

The axe has to fall somewhere and for me it’s target should be the coach. It would be (a little) different if the entire defense fell apart. Vigneault can be blamed for some things, but not for the tools in his toolbox. If his tools had failed him, I’d be more understanding.

But that’s not what happened. Dan Girardi was solid. Skjei and Smith played like a top pair. The power play was stagnant. Guys who did really good things were seldom rewarded for it with bigger roles. He sat quality players for veterans who didn’t perform.

No, I’m sorry, this one is on him. Again. These stories are becoming evergreen.

Vigneault’s extension looks worse now than it did when it happened (and it looked bad when it happened). The Rangers extended a vote of confidence to a guy who routinely turns a blind eye to convention and novel ideas in favor of his own set of rules. The media’s silence has shielded him from a lot of the criticism here, but let’s be clear: he’s the real issue.

Vigneault’s day of judgement is coming this summer. I would be stunned to see him survive, despite my anger at Gorton’s silence the past two years. This blowup, though, seems to signal the Rangers’ acknowledgement that they need a fresh start. Vigneault’s inability to develop players is a reality, and there’s no getting around it now.

But this story isn’t about him. At least, not all about him. In 2014 he was the perfect man for the job, sitting at the helm of a team filled with veterans where he didn’t need to involve himself in roles or player personnel. Veterans weren’t drowning yet. Still, he hit all the right buttons. He had the best fourth line in hockey. Hell, he had the best bottom six in hockey. The best goalie in hockey. It made an enormous difference.

From there, things spiraled down quickly. He got his hands on who he wanted to join the team and Sather seemed to agree. When the veterans he inherited and brought in started failing, he had no way to navigate himself away from the way he had always done things. When the Rangers should have been just beginning to take off into an era of success, they were already beginning to lose altitude. We saw it earlier than most. Some people still don’t see it even now.

The past five years have been the most fun I’ve had as a sports fan. They’ve also been some of the most frustrating. As I said in my recap of all the moves the Rangers made this week:

The charred remains of the Rangers’ 2014 Cup run and an era of success we haven’t seen in decades is the bill for all the failed risks, asset mismanagement, and refusal to see what the team really was. If you’re sitting in the remains of the past, with soot on your face and burns on your hands as you sift through the rubble, remember that this could have been avoided. If even two years ago the Rangers realized they were walking down a very dangerous path, some of this — if not most of this — could have been avoided.

Vigneault is a part of this too, but this also falls on Sather and Gorton. Sather for allowing the key cogs of 2014 to be sent elsewhere, Gorton for making his own “all-in” trades and allowing Vigneault to stay his execution this long.

To give credit where it’s due: the Rangers made the right decision eventually. They could have very easily looked at where they stood this year — despite injuries — and talked themselves into making a run in this mess of an conference. TODAY Boston and Tampa Bay have marked themselves as the favorites, but they did so in part because of moves they made with Gorton. The Rangers saw the truth though, and they moved on it. Whether the directive came from James Dolan himself, as some suggested on deadline day, or not, the Rangers still made the right decision.

Even knowing all of this, it’s sad to see the door finally close. Yes, it’s for the best. Yes, it had to happen. Yes, we all knew this bill was coming — and some (like me) have been asking the team for the check for years. But it’s still hard.

McDonagh was a damn fine captain and a damn fine man. The Rangers anchored his prime to Dan Girardi when he was drowning, and subsequently I don’t think we ever saw the best of him. Nash was a nothing but class, a leader, and he was nearly as underappreciated as Lundqvist is — which nearly impossible. J.T. Miller was one of the young-guns who came in and (along with Chris Kreider) made Rangers’ fans appreciate the farm system again. Michael Grabner was a good soldier. Nick Holden was a victim of poor coaching.

The Rangers aren’t throwing away problem children (although per some reports Miller had work ethic/off ice issues), but they are re-setting. That includes losing players that you fell in love with. We root for laundry (i.e: the name on the front not on the back) and it’s evident right now.

That doesn’t make this any easier.

That also doesn’t change the past. The memory should be better.

It won’t be.

Thanks for the fun, boys, it was a wild ride.