The number of adjectives that could be applied to describe the 2020-21 New York Rangers season is insurmountable. In fact, most of the occurrences this season seem too bizarre to even be true. Yet, in this shortened season, it all happened. In the midst of the unimaginable events, the Rangers navigated these issues with class, with fervor, and unwavering bravery.
Since the season start in mid-January, the young Rangers tackled adversity in its many forms. Most would presume their biggest challenges would be guiding the youth through the ups and downs of being an inexperienced hockey club. While it’s been a busy season, these events will unequivocally impact the organization for seasons to come.
Tony DeAngelo Placed on Waivers
The catalyst of it all occurred Jan. 31 when news broke that defenseman Tony DeAngelo was placed on waivers. While the talented but mouthy defenseman had a history of suspension for prior behavior in the Ontario Hockey League and eventually issues with professionalism and social media use as a Ranger, no one saw this severance coming.
Though DeAngelo’s inappropriate use online plagued the reputation of the Rangers for several seasons, the final straw was an altercation between goaltender Alexandar Georgiev and DeAngelo himself following an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As reported by New York Post’s Larry Brooks, DeAngelo couldn’t resist making a rude remark to Georgiev as the team headed off the ice in defeat. Georgiev replied with a punch and rookie defenseman K’Andre Miller broke up the altercation.
Despite being thrust into the situation, Georgiev maturely reflected, “I don’t want to elaborate on what happened. I just want to keep it in the past. Emotions happened, and that’s all I can say. I wish Tony the best moving forward.” (from ‘Rangers’ Alex Georgiev on Tony DeAngelo tussle: ‘Emotions happened’’, New York Post, 2/9/2021)
DeAngelo was a well-liked player on the team, in fact. Even the season prior he put up 53 points for the Rangers in 68 games and was considered a top offensive defenseman in the league.
Despite this, DeAngelo was ultimately not picked up by another team while his contract was up for grabs. The defenseman was just extended during the offseason to a two-year agreement worth $9.6 million. However, the staff was collectively staunch that DeAngelo had no shot at a future in New York on any level.
“I made that statement to him, something happened [Saturday] and I pretty much have to stay true to my word here and the organization’s word that it was time to move on. That’s what it is. We feel like moving on from Tony is the right thing to do. It’s about winning and we feel like this is a move we had to make in our room to put us on a path to winning,” former general manager, Jeff Gorton, firmly stated.
After years of what felt like waiting for the pot to boil over, DeAngelo was finally let go.
Russian Hit Piece on Artemi Panarin
Not too much later on Feb. 22 another bombshell dropped. Star forward Artemi Panarin found himself in the center of accusations that detailed his alleged assault on an 18-year-old woman in 2011 in Europe. Panarin and his team vehemently denied the allegations from the start, and proclaimed it was an intimidation tactic deployed from his native country, Russia.
Around the time of the claims, Panarin voiced his opinions on the recent political events in Russia that involved Vladimir Putin. The fabrications originated from devout Putin supporter, Andrei Nazarov, Panarin’s former coach in the Russian Hockey League (KHL). The undeniable suspiciousness of circumstances led the team to quickly release an airtight statement defending the winger.
The swift release of such statement stirred up appropriate criticism for how they handled previous statements such as weakly condemning racial attacks directed towards Miller. There was an additional instance when the organization issued a statement in an untimely manner regarding “racial injustice” last August.
The severity of the circumstances forced Panarin to take a leave of absence. The timeline of such absence was not solidified and was speculated to be two weeks. At the time, the talent led the Rangers in points and assists. Needless to say, it was a major blow to lose Panarin and to such an odd and transparent fate.
March 10, Panarin rejoined the team on the road for practice, but did not immediately jump back in the lineup. Support for the accusations never materialized and the Rangers were able to receive their best player back. It was reported he had family members residing in Russia at the time of the surfaced allegations, which greatly heightened concern.
Coaching Staff Out With COVID
On March 17, yet another digital statement was released by the club — it was announced the coaching staff would be unavailable. Head coach David Quinn was announced absent to comply with COVID-19 protocol just before the night’s game.
Assistant coach Jacques Martin, David Oliver, and Greg Brown were also out. The Rangers summoned the coaching staff from their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Hartford. Under Kris Knoblauch, Hartford assistant Gord Murphy and associate general manager Chris Drury, the Blueshirts went 4-2 with Quinn out.
Interestingly enough, the team was in a bit of a slump before Knoblauch stepped in. The Rangers lost four of their prior five games, but went on to put nine goals up on the Philadelphia Flyers and walk away with an exhilarating shutout under their temporary coach.
March 28 was Quinn’s first game back, which resulted in a 4-5 loss to the Washington Capitals. It was an abrupt “welcome back” for the coach, who used the time away from the bench to recalibrate.
“I think you give yourself the chance to do some self-evaluation. It was a good opportunity for me to kind of reset and watch things from a different light,” Quinn said of his absence. (from ‘David Quinn returns to Rangers’ bench after COVID-19 absence’, New York Post, 3/28/2021)
The Rangers completed this season relatively unscathed by COVID-19 and the league protocols.
Brendan Lemieux Wants Out
On April 1, following the unforeseen trade of gritty forward Brendan Lemieux to the Los Angeles Kings, it was revealed by The New York Post that the move was actually initiated by the player himself. Though New York City is arguably the hardest city to play in front of, it’s not every day an athlete wants to be sent out of the Big Apple. (from ‘Brendan Lemieux requested trade before Rangers dealt him to Kings’, New York Post, 4/1/2021)
On March 27, the Rangers announced the swap — Lemieux in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. Surely the team would have jumped at the opportunity to clear some cap space, but 25-year-old Lemieux was also a proud contributor to the team’s scarce physicality.
Without hardnose play, you run the risk of exposing the stars and the young players. Lemieux was aware of his edgy style and wanted to take that elsewhere, where he could play a larger role.
Though Lemieux lacked in point production, he had no hesitation taking the bait for a scrum. While not a huge loss on the scoresheet, the team did seem a little exposed at times. With or without Lemieux, the team is not sufficient in that area, enough for sustained runs at a Stanley Cup title.
The New York Rangers and Tom Wilson
After an eerily quiet couple months out of the headlines, the Rangers once again emerged into the spotlight. On May 3, their fourth-to-last game against the veteran Washington Capital and feared Tom Wilson stirred up much controversy. For Wilson, it was just another scrap added to his long list of previous offenses. To complete this year’s theme, the Rangers organization spoke up.
A little over halfway through the game, 6-foot-4 and 220-pound Wilson went after Pavel Buchnevich next to the Washington net. Linemate Ryan Strome saw and jumped in, which led to a congregation and rapid escalation of violence from Wilson when Panarin attempted to pull him off Strome.
Wilson then lashed out at Panarin, laying punches on the already compromised player without letting up. This is nothing shocking from Wilson. Panarin had to exit the game and it was eventually announced he would be unable to return for the rest of the season while Wilson was able to participate just fine in his subsequent shifts that night.
May 4, the Rangers spoke out to challenge the infamously inconsistent and nonsensical rulings of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety (DoPS). The only punishment extended to Wilson was a $5,000 fine for an act that calls for suspension. Thus, another statement was posted:
The scathing statement, which also spoke on behalf of player safety for the whole league, once again displayed the club’s boldness and integrity. As outspoken as the Blueshirts were, the condemning statement came as a surprise, but ultimately as a call for much-needed change.
Firings Within Management
Just three days ago, the plot twists kept rolling in. The team announced beloved team president John Davidson and crafty general manager Jeff Gorton were fired. Though conjecture arose that the double firings stemmed from the statement, owner James Dolan explained the stupefying move.
“We want to thank JD and Jeff for their contributions to the organization. They are both great hockey professionals who worked hard for the Rangers, however, in order for the team to succeed in the manner our fans deserve, there needs to be a change in leadership,” Dolan stated.
Davidson, a former Ranger himself, joined the organization two years ago and not once attempted to stifle his pride representing the team. Gorton, the credited mastermind for the team’s tear-down and rebuild over the last six years, will be unable to see his efforts pay off firsthand.
The jarring news confused both followers of the NHL and those in the industry as the team is just about closing the rebuild chapter. To have such important leaders removed from the organization seemed rash, but Dolan explained it had been a contemplation for some time. Former associate general manager, Chris Drury, was handed the reigns.
A highly sought-after member of the organization, Drury reiterated the vision after his promotion. “To all the Rangers fans out there, I obviously take this very, very, very seriously. My goal is to bring a Cup to MSG, period.” Drury was a part of the organization with Gorton and Davidson and knows the ropes very well.
While Gorton made a lot of key acquisitions, like Panarin, and drafted wisely, this could be a pivotal move for the organization. Regardless, these changes will impact the team for years to come.
League Responds to Rangers With a Fine
In the midst of processing the staffing changes, the Wilson-Rangers-DoPS saga was rehashed on May 6 when this statement was posted:
The message sent here is that the department does not take kindly to criticism, but will continue to operate under circumstances that beg for criticism. To further intensify the situation, Buchnevich was later suspended following a high-sticking on Washington Capitals forward Anthony Mantha. If the long history of inconsistent calls does not prove the DoPS guilty, this particular instance might.
Moving Right Along
The Rangers meet the Boston Bruins for the final game of their season today. It is another season missing the playoffs, but the young team shows real promise. Yet, for a work a progress, the Rangers have been a pleasant surprise — they proved they can hang in with the rest of the division.
Because some of the breaking events this season are still fresh, we will all stand by for further developments. Hopefully, the team has a smoother season next year, but after this unpredictable set of games, the players can use this time to prepare for the big season ahead.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.