Ya Gotta Believe
Written by Pac Pobric • Illustrated by Keenan Wells
What began with a whimper ended with one too.
On March 23, after nearly six months of uneven play, defensive lapses, offensive weakness, and growing pains for a team full of youngsters, the New York Rangers were officially eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was bound to happen. Expectations were always low. Even before the regular season began, no one really thought New York would contend. They were too green, too undisciplined. They’d already shipped away their best players. And anyway, this was another selling year, one in which New York general manager Jeff Gorton finally traded away the few remaining pieces that once formed the core of such a promising hockey club.
But what a shame that it had to happen like this. On the very night they were unceremoniously cut from the postseason weeks before it even began, New York skated off the ice in Toronto with an overtime win against the Maple Leafs, ostensibly one of the most dangerous teams in the league. The mood should have been bright. The Rangers had finally snapped a five-game losing streak. Backup goalie Alexander Georgiev stopped 44 of 45 shots. Ryan Strome, a relatively recent import from Edmonton, scored the game-winning goal to prove that he could earn his keep.
But a seemingly unrelated event 340 miles away in Montreal—a win by the Canadiens against the Buffalo Sabres—meant that, mathematically, in the National Hockey League’s quirky playoff format, the Rangers’ season would be done in early April. So the team packed its bags, went back to New York, lost five of their final eight games, and prepared for a long, long summer.
What the Rangers need is a narrative. And despite all the tangible progress they’ve made under first-year head coach David Quinn, who’s taken inexperienced players like Filip Chytil and Tony DeAngelo and made them into budding forwards and defensemen, they still don’t have a clear story to tell. Yes, there are certain through-lines you can follow, like the open question about whether Georgiev can fill the enormous shoes of Henrik Lundqvist, our steady but aging goaltender. Or if defenseman Neal Pionk, whose productivity and usefulness have fluctuated wildly this year, can even out into a dependable and steady player. Or whether Mika Zibanejad, New York’s points leader this season, will blossom in a bonafide All Star.
But the Rangers are not a team of absolute marvels. Aside from Lundqvist, there is, as yet, no game-changing player on this roster. We don’t have an Alex Ovechkin, nor a Sidney Crosby, nor a Connor McDavid. What New York has instead is a group of players with uneven talent and experience who need to maximize their ability to play together to win.
And to play together, this team will need a myth around which to rally, which every successful organization has been able to invent. On Long Island, the story is that a club once led by John Tavares, the player who was supposed to deliver the Islanders to the promised land, really doesn’t need him to win at all. In San Jose, it’s that a team led by a 39-year-old alternate captain can make it to the conference finals even after playing two seven-game series. And in Carolina, it’s that a bunch of jerks that no one ever believed in can—and has—made it to within eight wins of a Stanley Cup.
Thus far, the Rangers have spun far less compelling yarn, offering only that, with a little luck, they’ll build from the ground up and do their best in the years to come. It seems their focus is elsewhere, and doubtless the club has many, many needs. They have to close defensive gaps, ramp up scoring, and quickly maximize the potential of their prospects and draft picks. Those are quantifiable goals. But a clear set of aspirations and a sensibility about what kind of team this is are must-haves for any serious organization. Quinn has done his best to offer some messaging on these points. Grit. Resolve. Tirelessness. Those are his values. But the team’s play has not exactly embodied those qualities, and the front office has offered little in the way of additional messaging, which altogether leaves it to others to determine the team’s story. So how painfully appropriate, then, that on March 23 two other clubs decided that New York would not be making it to the playoffs.
About New York sports, it’s best to be pollyannaish. And almost with exception, fans in this city are. Even when they’ve given up, they still haven’t given up. There is always some cause for cautious or even unbridled optimism. Although the city has had relatively little athletic success these past ten years—one championship for the Yankees and another for the Giants is simply not enough in a place where any guy on the street knows for a fact that he’s a better general manager than Brian Cashman or Dave Gettleman—every new season brings with it the potential for success.
So it’s best to close out Matteau Matteau on a hopeful note, with a reminder that the Rangers have drawn the second overall pick in the 2019 draft. It’s likely that one of two players—American forward Jack Hughes or his Finnish counterpart, Kaapo Kakko—will be selected by the team at the event in June. According to scouting reports, either would be ready to jump into the NHL immediately. Perhaps that would help make a difference in New York. And even if not, there’s always next year—and then the one after that. So hold steady, Rangers fans, even though nothing will come easy. As they say in Queens, ya gotta believe.