The letter of intent from the president to his team’s season ticket-holders left no room for doubt.
“There are no shortcuts for building a team the right way,” he wrote. “It will require patience and a long-term view, but it is important for you to know that the process will be well worth it when we get there.”
The letter was from Brendan Shanahan and delivered to Maple Leafs’ season subscribers in March of 2015, nearly one year into the president of hockey operations’ tenure, as Toronto was about to miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons while extending a Stanley Cup drought about to reach 48 years.
Already having begun the process after taking command, Shanahan’s Maple Leafs continued to clean house. They fired Dave Nonis as general manager. They fired Randy Carlyle as coach. They traded Phil Kessel. They traded Dion Phaneuf. They dealt Jonathan Bernier. Of the roster inherited by Shanahan at the end of 2013-14, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Nazim Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak are the only survivors.
And in the interim, the Maple Leafs have become one of the most engaging teams in the league, poised to mount a run at the Cup, if not this year, then certainly a year from now, and on firm footing for an extended run at contention.
They did it by transforming the mindset and the operation, in hiring Mike Babcock as coach in advance of hiring Lou Lamoriello as GM. Before that, in 2014, they drafted William Nylander eighth. In 2015, they selected Mitch Marner fourth. And then, of course, they hit the lottery jackpot in 2016 by getting Auston Matthews first in the draft.
Good and lucky enough. Shanahan didn’t merely have a plan; he and his front office have been able to execute it. The first part is easy enough. The second part is not easy at all.
And so, three years later, this in large measure becomes the model for the Rangers, whose Thursday declaration of purpose to the media and letter of intent to their season ticket subscribers were as forthright as they come. But good intentions are not going to be enough to carry the day for this franchise that has made it to three conference finals and one Cup final over the last six years but hasn’t paraded up the Canyon of Heroes since 1994 and has won it all once in the last 77 years.
This could not have been an easy call for ownership/management in a year where the conference middle is soft as pudding and a playoff berth might have been attainable by doing the same old, same old by sacrificing the future for the present. This could not have been an easy call for Jim Dolan, with the Knicks all but out again and Rangers’ first-round playoff gates potentially worth $4-to-5 million per.
But it was the righteous one for an administration that made its share of mistakes over the last half-decade, but shouldn’t have to apologize for pushing all its chips to the middle of the table in pursuit of the chalice.
(And an aside: there is no law against an unencumbered post-deadline team, with Henrik Lundqvist at his best, making a run at the playoffs.)
But now comes the heavy lifting. Again. Dolan, president Glen Sather and Gorton might be the men with the plan, but it is on the executive staff and hockey department to execute it by making the correct calls not only on trades, and not only on draft picks, but on the coach.
It is imperative for the Rangers to hit a home run somewhere along the line and not just string together a bunch of solid base hits as they remodel the roster. They can’t swing and miss here. They are going to need quality rather than quantity in return for Ryan McDonagh (now or at the draft) and for Rick Nash (now).
They’re going to need, if not a Matthews, then at least a Nylander to join an expected holdover core featuring Lundqvist (Repeat after me: N-o-t G-o-i-n-g A-n-y-w-h-e-r-e), Chris Kreider, Kevin Shattenkirk, Pavel Buchnevich, probably Brady Skjei, probably Jimmy Vesey, probably Mika Zibanejad, Marc Staal (if healthy), Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, with everybody else up for grabs. Oh, hello Ilya Kovalchuk.
That doesn’t mean that the Rangers are going to throw J.T. Miller and/or Kevin Hayes out with the bathwater, but with expensive contract decisions coming up on the pending restricted free agents, they sure are going to listen if offered comparable assets.
There is going to be some pain here. The Rangers and their fans should be prepared for it. That comes with the plan.
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