Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire, It's An Asshole I Desire

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

We’re only a few short days into what promises to be a long and arduous offseason, albeit one that should provide a few flares of excitement surrounding both Vegas’ expansion and the NHL Entry Draft. That’s not to mention the July 1st opening bell for Unrestricted Free Agency and the subsequent dog days of summer that could potentially deliver another Brassard-for-Zibanejad-like surprise.

But despite how early we are into the Rangers’ offseason, Larry Brooks is already beating another drum. This one, however, might actually be worth marching to. In a column published last Thursday evening, Brooks notes:

The Rangers are a team predominantly comprised of low-key, buttoned-down, Type-B personalities. There are too many of them for that to be just by happenstance and not by design.

And they’re playing for a low-key coach who delegates authority to the room and isn’t into the type of inspirational speeches delivered by coaches in the movies played by Kurt Russell, Gene Hackman and Billy Bob Thornton that wound up on the video screen of the MSG scoreboard on Tuesday.

The mix creates a placid environment. The Rangers could use a heaping dose of emotion injected into the equation. They need some fire. They need to alter the dynamic as much as they need to adjust the personnel.

He goes on to mention the need to find “a Type-A personality or two to infuse this team with more passion”. Given the whimper the Blueshirts left these playoffs with, it’s hard to completely disagree. While the porous defense is most to blame, the Rangers did seem to lack that extra je ne sais quoi often characterized by Type A personalities that can galvanize groups, especially in the playoffs.

It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of someone who “breathes fire”. A player that takes charge can often have a cult leader effect on a fan base (and his team by way of). The next time you’re attending a game, home or away, just count the number of Messier, Shanahan, or even Avery jerseys you can spot. Messier, above all, is an immortal icon in Rangers folklore. Not just because of the fact he was able to deliver the team’s first Stanley Cup in 54 years back in 1994, but because of the aura of command and determination he exuded. For the fire he played with (most of the time). The same goes for Shanahan. Avery, less so, but his personality was certainly on par with the all-time greats. I mean, I don’t recall ever hearing fans in the Garden chanting to re-sign Ryan Callahan. Do you?

Witnessing the kind of dynamo and charisma these players generally exude is inspiring and tends to rub off well on teammates. Just look out West at the performance Ryan Getzlaf (a young Mark Messier if there ever was one) is putting in with his Anaheim Ducks, or listen to the jubilant sounds of Music City where P.K. Subban’s Predators are anticipating the start of their first Western Conference Final appearance in franchise history. The success of both clubs is both a testament to the quality of their depth as well as a case study in the value of high-profile individuality/star power.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, these types of players are like needles in a haystack, no thanks to how often their outspoken nature, should it make it to the NHL, is met with harsh criticism by pundits/talking heads and a predominantly conservative media group. It’s not just NBC’s often criticized panel of “experts”, either. The elder statesmen at both Sportsnet and TSN are guilty of this, too. Just ask Subban, who was effectively run out of Montréal for the crime of not falling in lockstep. Not even Nashville is a distance too far for that unrelenting judgment not to follow him. Quick sidebar – seriously, fuck off already, Mike Milbury.

The NHL, and the process of getting to it, generally still functions on an old school process that beats magnetism out of a competitor like a drill sergeant whips individuality out of recruits in favor of unwavering team obedience. By and large, the NHL appears to want foot soldiers who will fall in line, and that’s reinforced every time someone like Bill Daly opens his mouth to tell the world that “team sport” is a better way to market the NHL than “individual spotlights”. I’d beg to differ, and the league’s top-selling jerseys would, too, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a tired narrative.

Brooks isn’t wrong this time around, though. This group does seem vanilla, and they could absolutely benefit from one or two spark plug personalities. But finding even one that is still a quality NHL player will be no easy feat. It’s probably why Brooks himself failed to mention a single potential candidate, instead opting for a pragmatic “I can’t give you the name of a player or combination of players who would do that for the Rangers” approach.

Where is the Rangers’ Getzlaf? Where is their Subban? Why isn’t there more focus on adding this element to their roster? I’m all-in on the skill over grit thing, too, but they’re not diametrically opposed (in the same way analytics don’t negate boxcar statistics) no matter how often you fall into Twitter arguments that insist they are. Grit itself does have value. Just not generally in place of skill. The idea should be to add to this group by injecting a player capable of bringing both. Wayne Simmonds. Ryan Kesler. Dustin Byfuglien. Matthew Tkachuk. Despite there not being an abundance of these players in the league, the fact those who do are so highly regarded is an exemplification of their value.

Montréal thought so highly of it, they traded their best defenseman, a Type-A himself, for Shea Weber in a deal most agree they lost or will lose in the long-run. Arguably because they felt Weber was an even greater degree of vocal leader than Subban was (on top of other issues they had with the latter). Weber himself was a non-factor in the Rangers series and his presence was largely unfelt, but the principle behind why the Habs thought as highly of him as they did/do never stopped being true. Truth be told, had they pulled this deal off a few years earlier, I’m not so sure it wouldn’t have worked out better for them.

Fire in Free Agency?

To start, a quick look at this summer’s Unrestricted Free Agent class doesn’t exactly return a rich market of options.

There’s 30-year old Alexander Radulov who had 54 points in 76 games and was arguably the Habs most important player in their first round loss to the Rangers where he scored seven points in six games. Radulov oozes dynamism and plays a hard game both with and without the puck, but at the age of 30, how willing are the Rangers going to be to hitch their wagon to a player that history suggests will only get worse, not better? Especially one who was rumored to be asking for a lucrative, long-term extension with the Habs. Like with most long-term UFA contracts, the first few years aren’t the concern. It’s the back half of the deal (sometimes more) that’s cause for concern.

Joe Thornton, 37, in all his rooster-stroking glory is certainly a gravitating leader and one of the most productive players in the NHL over the last decade in which his 731 points in 774 games ranks fifth among active players. But at the age of 37, having spent the last twelve years of his career in San José, how amenable would he be to a move to the East? Moreover, are the Rangers prepared to offer a multi-year ticket to a player whose most productive days are surely behind him? Not to mention the idea of bringing in a top-six center only compounds the issue of what to do with Derek Stepan and/or Mika Zibanejad. One would need to be traded just to fit Jumbo into the picture. Even for a player of Thornton’s legend, moving a 24- or 26-year old for a 37-year old will never fly with fans in a league trending younger and faster by the day.

Beyond this, there are the ghosts of Shane Doan, 40, and Jarome Iginla, 39, who are surely better off closing out their storied careers elsewhere if not retiring given their serious lack of impact and production these days. I mean, Doan had six goals in 74 games. Six. I know the Coyotes are a bad team, but come on.

And let’s not even talk about the idea of bringing in counter-effective trash talkers like Steve Ott, 34, or Chris Neil, 37. These are not NHL-caliber players. They’re glorified cheerleaders. One can only hope that Jeff Gorton, unlike his predecessor, who once offered Chris Neil a four-year contract worth more than $3M per season, isn’t so easily impressed with bravado and badmouthing so as to ignore the wealth of negatives someone like he or Ott would bring in 2017.

A Trade for Truculence?

If not free agency, there is always the trade market. The Rangers are expected to be active given the threat that Vegas expansion poses on top of any desires they have to improve their roster. The only certainties for next season are Henrik Lundqvist’s status as starting goaltender and the secured futures of Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei. Beyond this is there really a player you’d be floored to see included in a trade? Sure, it’s more likely that an insignificant player is traded than a significant one, but change appears to be the predominant theme on their horizon.

Finding a partner willing to deal a player who matches the caliber of Subban or Getzlaf is extremely unlikely, but looking for a bigger impact role player might net a few options more easily attained.

Perhaps the Rangers look to the Dallas Stars to see what it might cost to acquire the final year of 27-year old Antoine Roussel’s contract that carries an easily managed $2M AAV. The French-born Canadian pest had 27 points and 115 PIM in 60 games last season (0.45 P/GP) and is one of the most hated players in the league. Thanks to playing in the West, he’s someone the Rangers haven’t had to spend much time playing against. Much like the trade that brought Wayne Simmonds to the Flyers years ago, unleashing Roussel’s brand of antagonism on the Metropolitan division might be a worthy cause in their favor. He’s not just a productive and industrious bottom-six winger, but over the last three seasons his score, zone, and venue adjusted 52.98 CF%, 53.8 FF%, and 53.6 xGF% rank fifth, sixth, and seventh respectively among Stars forwards. His minus-8 penalty differential is a drawback, but a manageable one. In the big picture, he’s not a five-on-five liability, despite his role, and his age and contract status are both attractive. He doesn’t have the cache of a high-end impact player, but his in-your-face style of play would give the Rangers an added level of bite in their bottom-six.

If not Roussel, perhaps there’s a deal to be made with the Blue Jackets for rugged veteran Scott Hartnell, should he either not choose to waive his NMC to risk exposure to Vegas, or not be selected by the Golden Knights at all. Hartnell isn’t the player he was with the Flyers anymore, but he’s maintained his reputation as a team leader and hasn’t lost his ability to get under the skin of opponents. His 37 points in 78 games for the Jackets last season is a respectable finish for a fringe top-six player, which is exactly the player he is today. He’s not a great skater, which could be somewhat problematic for an AV coached team, but his production rate is still good enough for a revamped third line. Poor skating isn’t an automatic disqualifier anyway. If it was, Kevin Hayes would already be gone. The bigger problem here would be dealing within the division.

All-in-all, the summer promises to be chock full of periods of excitement, but a genuine lack of Type-A personalities around the league could spell doom for this particular roster desire. At least right now. Still, that shouldn’t deter the Rangers from at least exploring what options do exist. While upgrading the blue line remains the top priority, adding some spice to the soup isn’t an unimportant ingredient and a failure to will surely result in another year of bland Rangers hockey.

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