The start of the New York Rangers’ ascent to the top of the Eastern Conference this season didn’t begin with a move that was made during the off-season. It didn’t begin with the hiring of head coach John Tortorella in February of 2009, and it didn’t begin with Vezina-frontrunner Henrik Lundqvist’s debut in New York in 2005. No, the Rangers climb began with a collection of moves at the end of the 2003-04 season, including the trade of one of the greatest players in franchise history.
To say Glen Sather’s first four years as Rangers general manager was a disappointment is an understatement. With a collection of veteran mercenaries who were starts past their prime, the Rangers missed the playoffs in every single one of those seasons. With Sather behind the bench for the first 62 games of the 2003-04 season, the team was unable to come together as a unit, and the empty seats at Madison Square Garden reflected the frustration of the fans, who were about to watch their team miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season. It was at this point that the Rangers’ model for building a team was completely changed.
With the Rangers well out of the race in 2004, the Rangers made a number of moves at the trade deadline, essentially overhauling their current roster. The Rangers would give up Alex Kovalev, Petr Nedved, Chris Simon, Matthew Barnaby, Martin Rucinsky, Vladimir Malakhov, Greg DeVries, and Brian Leetch, who at that point had played his entire seventeen-year career on Broadway. When the trades were made, Sather said, “It’s difficult to make any moves of this magnitude. We’re obviously rebuilding and we have to do what we can do to help this club proceed and be successful in the future,” (USA Today). The return for these players wasn’t overwhelming. The Rangers got six draft picks back for these players, as well as a collection of young players. Only one of the draft picks the Rangers received in these deals is still on the roster, Michael Sauer, who was taken with one of the two draft picks the Toronto Maple Leafs sent to New York to acquire Leetch.
And while many of the returns of these trades never panned out long-term for the Rangers, the ripple effect of the trades is what made the Rangers better in the long run. This happened because it forced the Rangers to be better with their draft picks, and it forced the team’s philosophy to be centered around guys who the Rangers already had in their organization, and not players who came to New York because of the Garden’s deep pockets.
That’s not to say that the Rangers haven’t made big splashes in free agency since the lockout (see Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Wade Redden, Brad Richards). However, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the identity of this team comes from the players who came through the organization (via the draft or a trade for a prospect), and made their NHL debuts as Rangers. And the man to thank for that is the same one who has been booed for most of his twelve seasons as the Rangers’ general manager.
When Rangers owner James Dolan spoke to the New York media a few weeks ago (the first time he had done so in almost six years), he mentioned how he and Sather decided to change the strategy for running the organization. Although there were struggles in previous years, including a win on the last day of the season to just make the playoffs last season, the organization never wavered on its philosophy.
Now, the Rangers are reaping the benefits, thanks in part to the trade deadline moves of 2004.