When it’s all said and done, which may or may not be in the foreseeable future, Glen Sather will have had quite the run in two very different hockey towns.
Edmonton and New York. Linked in culture and history only, really, by the many famous hockey players that have played in both towns, from Wayne Gretzky to Mark Messier to Glenn Anderson to Kevin Lowe, and so on.
Oh yes, and by Sather.
For him, there was glory and more glory at the beginning a long time ago in Alberta, enough that he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame 18 years ago.
After that spectacular start, things got pretty darn awful in the middle of Sather’s career, including the end of the Edmonton years and his beginnings in Manhattan. New York, in fact, was lousy to the extent that other hockey executives would probably have been fired. Perhaps only the idiosyncracies of the James Dolan regime in New York seemed to save him.
And now, as Sather nears the end of his career, there is great success again. And perhaps more glory.
From the beginning to the end, or wherever he is at this moment, he’s done it his way. First, he built the fastest, most talented team in hockey and coaxed and prodded that group to five Cups in seven years. Nobody, really, played the way Oilers played, because nobody could and only Sather seemed to imagine the game played at that speed.
Now, he has built the Rangers in a completely different way, a team that is a complete contradiction of the way teams are supposed to be built in the salary cap era.
Maybe only Sather could see this as well.
The Rangers, for starters, aren’t built through the draft at all, at least not their own draft. A major part of the strength of their team has been acquiring undervalued young assets drafted by other teams — Ryan McDonagh, Derrick Brassard, Kevin Hayes — and turning them into very good to excellent NHLers.
New York doesn’t have a true No. 1 centre like Chicago, Pittsburgh or Los Angeles. They have Derek Stepan, a nice player, a reliable two-way player, but not a point-per-game player. In all, 28 NHL centres had more points this season, although most played more than the 68 games Stepan did.
Finally, the Rangers have aggressively traded away draft picks and futures, not hoarding and treasuring them like other teams. They haven’t drafted in the first round the last two years, and they won’t again next month. The last time they drafted in the top 10 was 2004, and the player taken, goalie Al Montoya, doesn’t play for them.
At the same time, you can’t say Sather didn’t develop this team. It just took him 14 years, apparently, to construct it around goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was drafted by the Rangers 205th in the same month back in 2000 that Sather was hired. It’s unlikely Sather was aware who Lundqvist was, or that he would be the star that would ultimately allow the Rangers to shine again on Broadway.
Over the years, this seems from the outside to have been a haphazard process. Try this. Fail. Try that. Fail again. Hire Bryan Trottier to coach. Fire him. Acquire Eric Lindros. Let him leave to Toronto. Bring in Wade Redden. Buy him out. Sign Scott Gomez, then somehow convince Montreal to take Gomez off his hands. Go through the whole Sean Avery nonsense. See him leave, then bring him back. Try Marian Gaborik on for size. Get rid of him. Flip John Tortorella for Alain Vigneault. Hey, that’s good.
This is a plan? A philosophy?
It could be both, but if so, both the plan and the philosophy are shrouded behind a thick fog of contradictions, mistakes and grand gestures. Basically, it looks from the outside like Sather has been playing a giant game of Scrabble, continually exchanging tiles until finally he came up with great letters and an obscure word for a triple word score.
Or, put another way, if you throw enough (excrement) against a wall, some of it’s gotta stick.
Even with this year’s group, the curiosities abound. One might theorize Rick Nash would be at the very centre of the Rangers’ charge through the first two rounds, doing this year what he didn’t do last year. That’s why Sather went out and got him in the first place, right?
Instead, Nash has two goals in 12 games, and now has accumulated six goals in 49 playoff games as a Ranger, a shockingly low total.
But again, like everything else Sather has done that has brought the Rangers to this point, it’s working, at least working well enough.
There’s certainly a team spirit and feel about this Ranger team, particularly in the last two years under Vigneault after escaping the Tortorella shot-blocking-above-all tyranny. Indeed, Tampa Bay decided last summer that one part of finding a path to a championship might be to pilfer Ranger players, so they went after Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman as free agents. With the Lightning, they joined former New York captain Ryan Callahan.
The Rangers themselves, meanwhile, are taking big swings these days, sacrificing massive chunks of the future to get players like the aging Martin St. Louis and inconsistent Keith Yandle, and a cynic might wonder if that’s easy to do for Sather since he won’t have to pay the cost down the line. He’s 72 now, and there’s lots of speculation assistant Jeff Gorton is poised to succeed him as New York GM, which is why the teams that would like to interview Gorton about other jobs aren’t being given permission to talk to him.
Maybe Sather’s future will be decided by whether the Rangers win it all this spring. It’s been years since he was the quotable executive loved by scribes for his candour, so few seem to have much insight into what he’s thinking, or what he’s planning.
Whatever decides it, however, matters less than the fact that Sather will make the decision. His hockey career has touched five different decades, and he’s been the best and he’s been worse than ordinary and he has survived.
The prize for all of that? He gets to say goodbye when he wants to. Not one second before.