Promise and Potential
Written by Pac Pobric • Illustrated by Keenan Wells
In sport as in life, spotting potential is a special talent. Those who can do it have tenacity, patience, and an obscure ability to draw out the best from others. They see beyond the obvious and into an imagined future they strive to manifest.
In 1994, Stéphane Matteau was a 24-year-old forward for the New York Rangers, a team he joined late in the season from Chicago at the behest of Rangers head coach Mike Keenan. For months, Keenan had been aggressively berating ownership about the team’s lack of grit. It didn’t matter that New York had 44 wins in 72 games by March 21, that year’s trade deadline. They still wouldn't be able to tough it out on a bruising Stanley Cup run, when they would have to play a game every other day.
Matteau seemed an inauspicious solution. Although he wound up with 38 points by the end of the year, he had nowhere near the apparent promise of Tony Amonte, the Rangers forward who scored 76 points the year prior. And Keenan, to the irritation of team management, demanded to trade Amonte for Matteau. For months he persisted, until finally, the general manager gave in to his stubborn appeals and made the move as part of a four-player deal in March.
What Keenan prized was Matteau’s exhausting style of play. He’d seen it when he coached the French-Canadian forward a couple years prior with the Blackhawks. Matteau could be careless at times, and he needed a pit bull barking down orders to steer him right—which was precisely Keenan’s style. “He was a tyrant, a schoolyard bully, an old-school coach who tried to motivate players through intimidation, belittlement, and fear,” one of his former players once said. In that kind of environment, Matteau could thrive. He had the moxie to take his lumps, press forward regardless, and relentlessly wear down the opposition.
Which is exactly what Keenan needed—and exactly why Matteau was the coach’s greatest success.
These days, if youth is your measure, the Rangers have nothing but potential, which means a roster full of unproven players. On Friday, as the team regrouped following a 3–2 loss to the Nashville Predators in their New York home opener, their lineup was conspicuously vacant of the familiar old names of recent years past.
Gone is Rick Nash, the 34-year-old sharpshooter who never quite lived up to his billing, along with Ryan McDonagh, the stalwart defenseman and erstwhile captain who played nearly eight full years on Broadway, both cast off towards the end of last year’s disappointing season. Gone too are Derek Stepan, Dan Girardi, and J.T. Miller, each of whom, at one time or another in the past five years, formed the nucleus of a strong but ultimately unsuccessful team.
In their place, we have a new corps of players mostly on the right side of 30. Of the 25 forwards, defensemen, and goalies listed on this year’s roster, 18 are still in their 20s; one of them, forward Filip Chytil, just turned 19 last month. With their youth comes a relative lack of experience: Chytil has only ten career NHL games under his belt, while Vinni Lettieri, who barnstormed his way onto the team with a impressive showing at training camp this fall, has only 20. Before Thursday, center Brett Howden had yet to play a single major league game.
But Rangers management is unconcerned; this year, team president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton are focusing on the slow rebuilding process and the long run to success. It’s time, they understand, to start over. Last February, as the wheels came off and New York skid into a disappointing finish at the bottom of the divisional rankings, Sather and Gorton wrote an open letter to fans acknowledging the team’s failures and promising to do better: “As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill, and character.”
So much for the players and brass. But a hockey club isn’t just guys on skates with sticks and management with their front offices. It’s also the bench boss who oversees day-to-day operations and mediates between the action on the ice and the expectations and demands of presidents and general managers.
For the past five years, the Rangers entrusted that job to head coach Alain Vigneault, the French-Canadian former defenseman who became the third-winningest coach in New York franchise history. In four of those seasons, he took the Rangers to the playoffs, and even the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, which they lost in five games to Los Angeles. But Vigneault, who had trouble nurturing his young players even before he came to New York, began to lose his grip. The Rangers lost 13 of their last 20 games last season and Vigneault was fired in April.
In his place, the Rangers have hired—appropriately—a rookie. David Quinn, who spent the past five seasons as head men’s hockey coach at Boston University, is now at the helm at Madison Square Garden, his first time as the boss of an NHL team. For a team stacked with budding prospects, the hire makes sense: Quinn knows how to speak with and motivate young players, which is precisely why he was hired. “We wanted somebody that could teach the game,” Gorton, the general manager, said in a recent town hall. “Somebody that spent time [with] and really cared for his players and could grow with them.”
“Grow with them”—that’s important. Quinn, unlike Mike Keenan 25 years ago, was brought on to nurture, not punish, and it will likely be some years before his young group is experienced enough for a serious playoff push. His team would benefit little from Keenan’s domineering, belligerent, stubborn style. Yet the coaches are not completely dissimilar. Like Keenan, Quinn wants his team to be fast, physical, and relentless—precisely the three words Quinn used to describe his coaching philosophy. “There’s a lot that goes into winning,” Quinn said during the town hall. “You don’t have to have the most talent, but you have to have enough talent. But boy, there are certain things you need to have if you're gonna have success. And to me, those three things are non-negotiable.”
Which brings us back to Matteau. He had the potential to be fast, physical, and relentless. He could be a key player, given the right conditions and proper direction. And with Keenan barking at him to play up to his greatest abilities, the forward exceeded all expectations. It was Matteau, in the end, who scored that beautiful final goal against the hated New Jersey Devils in 1994 to take his team to the next round of the playoffs. Without him, the Rangers would never have made it to that next step, which culminated in their first Stanley Cup since 1940—which is exactly why Matteau was Keenan’s great success.
Today, ambitions are more tempered. But is there another Matteau on this young Rangers roster, who simply needs his coach to see the potential? It is now in Quinn’s hands to lead us to the answer.