2011-12: The Year In Review
It’s hard to believe we’re in the middle of summer already and it’s been almost a full year since we were eagerly looking ahead to the 2011-12 season (my preview, which did predict an ECF berth and loss, can be found at http://rangers.lohudblogs.com/2011/08/22/guest-blogger-afrey94/). I had titled that post “The Renaissance” to indicate the expectations that the season would see a significant change in how we viewed the Blueshirts. Just as The Renaissance brought about widespread change and bridged the gap between the Middle Ages and the Modern Era, so too did last season serve as a watershed moment for the Rangers. Going into the season fresh off of squeaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed and being summarily bounced in five games, the team was expected to improve with contributions from its evolving young core and one major free agent addition. In that sense, the season can be viewed as nothing less than a complete success. Now that we are somehow facing the possibility of yet another protracted lockout, let’s look back on the year that was; the successes, the failures, and what indications it offers on the future of our beloved Broadway Blueshirts.
2011-12 was going to be a memorable year no matter what, with the team being featured on HBOs 24/7, playing in the NHL’s Winter Classic, and adding to a strong and developing young core by landing the prize of the NHL’s annual free agent derby, Brad Richards. The question was simply whether it would be memorable in a Landon Donovan scores to beat Algeria sort of way, or a Billy Cundiff misses a chip shot (and is subsequently murdered by Ray Lewis) sort of way. Through a painful season opening roadtrip across Europe and North America while Garden renovations were taking place, the team struggled out of the gate. The North American opener in Uniondale, which I was supposed to go to but ended up watching at my brother’s place with pizza and margaritas (no complaints), was an embarrassing 4-2 loss which put me in a mild depression and raised some serious questions about their capabilities as a team. However, once they found themselves and started playing as we knew they could, they never looked back. I am unfortunately too young to clearly remember the euphoric splendor that was the 1994 Cup year, so for me this was the first time I saw a team that was at the top of the standings for most of the year. Most years, when we look at the upcoming schedule during the season we mentally peg certain games as likely wins, some as probable losses and a few toss-ups.
This was the first year I can remember where I truly expected the Blueshirts to win every single game I watched. Now this is not to say I expected them to go 82-0 because the fickle bounces of fate march to the beat of their own drummer, but there was no reason to doubt their ability to win any game. It was more than just having the ability, however, because there are plenty of teams with far more talent who couldn’t match the Rangers’ accomplishments this year (cut to bitter Penguins fans shaking their fists). I hesitate to call it swagger, but it was obvious that they truly believed they could win any game, no matter the circumstances. Down 2-0 to Philly in the second period of the Winter Classic? No problem. Playing a Boston juggernaut that, at the time, had scored the most goals in the league AND allowed the fewest? Let’s win that one on a buzzer-beater just for fun. And, down a goal to Washington with 25 seconds left on this handsome writer’s birthday? Let’s give it to Brad Richards and send the Garden into a frenzy the likes of which I’ve never seen (I could’ve sworn, at one point, some guy in the section next to me was throwing a baby in the air while the crowd went wild). This team started the season as a hardworking but ultimately middle of the pack team from whom not much was expected from the majority of the hockey world; in fact, some writers even predicted they’d miss the playoffs entirely. That they will go into next season as a consensus top five Eastern team and with anything less than a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals being a mammoth disappointment is a testament to the progress that was made.
What was it that made this team so successful? Quite simply, it was a combination of big steps up from key contributors coupled with one of the finest coaching performances I’ve ever seen in any sport. To start, Torts had that team ready to play every single game of the season and instilled a workmanlike attitude which made them a terrible pain to play against. For the first time, you would hear mentions of their fine team play and glowing comparisons from other teams broadcasters on Center Ice, and every ounce of it was deserve. The departed Brandon Prust embodied the essence of this spirit with his motto of “It’s just pain.” This begins and ends with the coaching staff laying out a vision for the players to follow, and it’s a testament to Tortorella. In Tampa Bay, we’re all aware that his strategy was “safe is death,” an easy one to implement when you’re rolling Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St Louis on the reg. However, the mark of a good coach is knowing your team and catering your approach to best utilize the personnel you have at your disposal. As much as I love the Rangers, it’s obvious that this team simply did not have the personnel to play that sort of firewagon hockey. Tortorella realize that where the team was strongest was in a deep, developing defensive core and an all-world netminder between the pipes and, in a complete 180 from the Tampa days, he preached defensive responsibility and got the most out of his guys. He gets a lot of heat for being testy with the media, but I don’t think anyone could argue that he wrung every win he could out of a young, raw team and provided us with some great HBO moments to boot (my personal favorite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biZlEtaXbw8).
Coaching is an integral part of any successful team, but at the end of the day it comes down to the guys on the ice, and this team would not be close to where they ended without big years from several players. A bounce-back year from Marian Gaborik gave the Rangers the bona fide scoring threat they were missing for the greater part of last season, and Henrik Lundqvist had arguably the best season of his already stellar career, culminating with a much deserved Vezina Trophy to take back to Sweden. However, in my opinion, the single most important contribution to the team came from defensive horse Ryan McDonagh. In addition to serving as a constant reminder to Rangers fans of one of the greatest trades in team history and rocking some fantastic facial hair during the playoff run, McD stepped up in Marc Staal’s absence and established himself as the premier defenseman on a team built from the blueline out, no easy task for a 22-year-old with less than one season under his belt coming in. His offensive game began to come along while his defensive prowess was truly something to behold. At this point, there are maybe five defensemen in the entire NHL for whom I would trade him straight up, and it’s a list of guys who aren’t going on the block anytime soon.
Now that’s not necessarily to say that I think, at this moment in time, he’s a better player than a guy like Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber. However, when you factor in the age difference and the fact that McD is likely just scratching the surface of his potential, I wouldn’t trade him straight up for either and we should thank our lucky stars everyday for the temporary insanity that allowed Bob Gainey to send him our way. Del Zotto’s return to form and surprisingly responsible play (most of the time) was absolutely vital after the losses of Marc Staal and Mike Sauer. If you can believe it, he even got three Norris Trophy votes (not as many as McD or Girardi, but nonetheless a huge step up from last season’s AHL demotion). The playoff addition of Kreider and his surprisingly effective play will hopefully continue to progress and give us the big power forward we’ve been looking for since the days of Adam Graves. And finally, don’t underestimate the impact of a guy like Carl Hagelin. First, let’s recall that the three games he missed in the playoffs yielded two losses (one an unacceptable shutout at home) and one 1-0 win made possible only by a generous contribution by the Henrik Lundqvist foundation.
Second, even if you (as I do) believe he’s a second liner at best, its unbelievably important to be able to develop those guys yourself as opposed to having to pluck them from other teams. Think of it this way; if the Rangers were to acquire a player absolutely identical to Hagelin in every way save for his age and possibly his Swedish good looks, do you really think there’s any chance they could get away with paying him less than a million? In the zero-sum game of the salary cap world, those saving add up to important pieces whose acquisition and implementation on the roster can be the difference between winning in six games or losing in seven. If the Rangers can find one more such diamond in the rough, they can use him to create three solid scoring lines or package him for one more elite talent to put them over the top. As this excellent piece (http://hockeyrodent.com/R2570.HTM) from one of my favorite NYR writers delineates, they were ultimately done in by fatigue due to a combination of brutal scheduling and over-reliance on a few key players. Adding one or two more pieces coupled with the upward trajectory we can reasonably expect most of the young guys to continue on gives us a chance to improve on a season where only two teams ended up doing better.
In light of all the fantastic times this Rangers team gave us and the groundwork they laid for the coming years, it’s hard not to think of this year as a success. Sure, we didn’t win the cup, but following a team sport is about more than that. I stated as much in my season preview that following a team in such a passionate way cannot simply be about wins and losses; otherwise, everyone would be dejected right now save for our friends on the west coast. Sports truly is about the journey, not the destination, and this was one of the most satisfying seasons I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. People in general are unfortunately predisposed to remembering how something ended without reminiscing on the good times in between, the positive memories that were made and the growth that took place. By way of example, it is impossible for every single relationship we enter into to run completely smoothly and go exactly the way we’d imagine it; the odds are stacked against us, things happen, life gets in the way, etc. But, the hope is that you enjoy the ride and that it allows you to grow, develop, and learn something along the way that will make your next romantic endeavor, be it with someone different or the same person, all the more successful.
I’m reminded of a quote from one of my all-time favorite television shows, Lost, in which two characters are discussing the nature of humanity and, in response to a comment about how “it always ends the same,” Jacob remarks “it only ends once; everything that happens before that is just progress.” The year may not have ended with a storybook wedding or with us getting off the island, but I think we can all agree it’s far better than being stuck in the dark ages.