Tuesday, October 14, 2008

New York Rangers Retirement Community, Pt. 2

Last week we took a little trip down Memory Lane, recalling the Rangers' long and colorful history of taking broken-down old hacks and using them to sell a few tickets before their hips gave out. Today we'll wrap up our retrospective with a look at the Rangers' reclamation projects of the post-expansion era.

You might note that the shot-callers in New York were a little more cautious about taking huge risks during the 1980s and early 1990s, but once the money started flowing in the late '90s the discipline went out the window and next thing you knew they were swapping high-priced assets that had virtually no actual value... wait, what were we talking about?

Phil Esposito - Little to say about Espo's days as a Ranger that New York fans haven't already kvetched about. The Bruins, sensing a decline in their franchise forward's game, traded him for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle in a league-altering deal. Though Esposito was still an elite forward -- he led the Rangers in scoring in every full season he played there -- the critics smelled blood and neither Espo nor the Rangers ever really lived the trade down.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: In 1979 Esposito became the second player, after Gordie Howe, to score 700 career goals.

Bobby Hull - "Wait a minute... Bobby Hull never played for the Rangers!", you say. Not so fast... while he never played an NHL game for the Blueshirts, Hull suited up with them for 4 games as part of the super-obscure, slightly-embarrasing Dagens Nyheter Cup in 1981. This preseason tournament, named after a Stockholm newspaper and pitting NHL teams against unpronouncable Swedish clubs, was an early effort at putting roots in Northern European markets (sound familiar?). There is virtually no record of these games online -- perhaps for the best that this unfortunate attempt at a comeback is not remembered by posterity (are you listening, Petr Nedved?).

Marcel Dionne - In a sad postscript to his career with the Kings, Dionne delivered an ultimatum to GM Rogie Vachon in 1986: either improve the quality of the team or trade Dionne to a team interested in winning. Vachon shocked the hockey world by calling Dionne's bluff, cynically trading the Kings' greatest player to the painfully mediocre Rangers. Dionne managed 30 goals the following season, but trudged through his experience in New York and finally retired in the IHL.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: In 1988 Dionne became the third player, after Howe and Espo, to score 700.

Guy Lafleur - Perhaps the saddest attempt at a Rangers-style "comeback" is that of Lafleur, who was already enshrined in the Hall of Fame with an untouchable reputation when he decided to give it one last spin in 1988. Inexplicably, Lafleur left the Canadiens organization in favor of a brief stint with the Rangers, where he scored 18 goals in 67 games before suffering a knee injury. Lafleur mitigated the damage and signed with the Nordiques for the next two seasons, scoring a total of 24 goals in Quebec City before mercifully retiring for good.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Played his 1000th career game as a Ranger.

Jari Kurri - Though he established himself as the greatest Finn of all time in Edmonton and Los Angeles, Kurri went through a late-career "utility" phase that probably eroded his legacy to the bandwagon fans of the late 1990s. It began in 1996, when he was traded from the Kings to the Rangers in anticipation of a deep playoff run. As it turned out, the Rangers won only 5 playoff games and Kurri immediately signed a contract with a team called the Mighty Ducks (at the time this was like your prom date sneaking out the back door of the gym with Rick Moranis).

Wayne Gretzky - Nothing says "Late 1990s NHL" like Gretzky signing with the Rangers. As part of a bizarre scheme to reunite the 1988 All-Star Team, the Rangers acquired Gretzky in an offseason signing with the aim of pairing him with Mark Messier, Luc Robitaille, and Pat Lafontaine. But the aging Gretzky no longer dominated, scoring only 9 goals in his final 70 games with New York. Though it sold a lot of jerseys and provided a bigger stage for the career-records phase of Gretzky's career, this career move provided a sad microcosm of all that had gone wrong with the franchise and the league.
Milestones Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Considering Gretzky owns nearly every significant career scoring record, it goes without saying that nearly all of them were accomplished as a Ranger. These include the all-time records for goals, assists, and points.

Pat Lafontaine - Nobody likes playing hockey in New York State like Pat Lafontaine. The only player ever to spend his entire career playing for the three NY teams (the Isles, Sabres and Rangers), Lafontaine spent 67 games in the blue jersey in 1997-98. It was a strange move, considering Lafontaine's career was cut short by recurrent concussion problems, which arose from a dirty hit by the Rangers' James Patrick in the 1990 playoffs. Lafontaine clearly did not remember the incident, or he would also have remembered a crowd of Rangers fans trying to turn over his ambulance on the way to the hospital. Ironically, Lafontaine's career ended after he collided with another Ranger, this time a teammate, and was forced to retire.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Lafontaine joined the 1000-point club as a Ranger.

Esa Tikkanen - Rangers fans remember Tikkanen most fondly for his key role in their 1994 Cup run. But let's fast-forward 5 years -- after playing less than a full season each in St. Louis, New Jersey, Vancouver, then back with the Rangers, then Miami, then Washington, and then back with the Rangers again, Tikkanen found himself in the role of quintessential journeyman-refusing-to-hang-'em-up-before-it-gets-embarrassing. Considering he didn't score during his 32-game stint with the Rangers, the only imaginable upside to this signing is that he could talk trash in several languages on the subway.
Milestone Achieved in the... um, Right Jersey?: I will go out on a limb and say that no other player has ever had three separate tours of duty with the Rangers, interrupted by stints with other teams.

Theo Fleury - One of the great hockey tragedies of the past 20 years is the career of Theo Fleury. The like-able, diminutive forward couldn't outrun his problems with substance abuse. His career took a swan dive after the turn of the century, and he found himself in the league's most tabloid-oriented market at just the wrong time. Amid chants of "Crackhead Theo" from the fans at Nassau Coliseum, Fleury struggled back up to the 30-goal plateau before simply burning out. He finished his career in Europe.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Jersey: Scored both his 400th goal and 1000th point, and played his 1000th game as a Ranger.

Pavel Bure - As part of a bizarre scheme to reunite the 1998 All-Star Team, the Rangers acquired Bure in a draft-day deal with the aim of pairing him with Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury. Bure's career never really recovered, and he scored only 31 goals in two seasons for the Blueshirts before calling it quits.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: You realize how much potential Bure left on the table when you see that he played his 700th career game as a Ranger, two games before retiring.

Eric Lindros - You just knew this one had to happen. Once the league's most feared player, Lindros was an empty shell by 2001 due to numerous concussions and an open feud with Flyers management. After sitting out much of a season, he finally pressured a trade to New York for a boatload of top prospects and earned nearly $10 million per season with the Rangers. Though he looked to be on the right track with 37 goals his first season in New York, his game eroded quickly and his 8th concussion sealed the deal. After building a veteran squad around aspirations of a Lindros-led juggernaut, the Rangers cut ties in 2004.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Lindros scored his 800th point with the Rangers.

Jaromir Jagr - To Jagr's credit, he waited three years before delivering on the inevitable "off-ice sideshow" routine that we all expected. He dominated early in his Rangers career, scoring 54 goals in his first season -- before dropping off sharply to goal totals of 30 and 25. By the end, we all knew what was coming... Pouty Jagr replaced Determined Jagr and next thing you knew, he was off to Europe to (presumably) finish his career. All things considered, he left his bridges relatively intact compared to his exits from Pittsburgh and Washington.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Jagr scored his 600th goal with the Blueshirts, and left the team only one point short of 1600.

Brendan Shanahan - The eminently respectable Shanahan has resurrected his career several times over, so it was no surprise to see him end up on 7th Ave. Though he's certainly lost a step as a sub-30 goal scorer, his biggest obstacle is simply whether the Rangers can afford to keep him on the roster. As of the second week of this season, Shanahan remains unsigned and rumors are beginning to swirl that he'll soon find his way across the Hudson to finish his career in the grazing meadows of Newark.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Tied the record for most career re-inventions, having been a cornerstone player in no fewer than four franchises.

Future Rangers Prospects: Mats Sundin is looking for a team....

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