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Grit, Grudges, and Gurus: What to Make of the Rangers’ Shocking Week, and the Team’s Future

James Dolan stunned the hockey world this week by firing his beloved top two executives. And even before that, the Rangers made headlines for the Statement. Where did all this come from—and where does the team go from here?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer Illustration

At the start of his 6 a.m. shift Thursday morning, WFAN talk show host and former New York Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason sounded like the only guy in town who wasn’t surprised by the latest New York Rangers news. “I told you,” he said to his cohost, “guys were going to start losing their jobs.” With three games left in the season, Rangers owner Jim Dolan had just made a seismic shift in the organization: he let go of respected president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton, and internally promoted former NHLer Chris Drury into both roles.

The move was beyond strange, for multiple reasons. The Rangers—who are in the midst of a broadly admired rebuild and boast an enviable roster of young, skilled talent—sit in the top half of the NHL standings, a respectable result that most fans would have felt good about at the start of the season. Gorton had been with the Rangers since 2007, climbing the ranks from scout to assistant GM before being named GM in 2015, and in the years since he had pulled off slick trades and made the most of some dumb lottery luck. Davidson, a beloved figure in New York thanks to his time as a Rangers goalie and broadcaster, had been hired less than two years ago. His first season at the helm of the organization came in the midst of a global pandemic. And his second—and now last—did, too.

But that wasn’t even all of it. The Rangers had already made headlines this week with a different announcement, one that people quickly took to calling the Statement. In a rather apoplectic note posted on Twitter on Tuesday, the organization castigated the league’s Department of Player Safety in the wake of a Monday night game in which Capitals provocateur Tom Wilson ragdolled Rangers star Artemi Panarin and went unsuspended for doing so. The Statement—which used phrases like “dereliction of duty” and “unfit to continue in his current role” to single out George Parros, a former NHL enforcer who now leads the DoPS—had been a wild enough ride on its own. But combined with these sudden personnel changes, what could it all mean?

Most people around the hockey world—both inside and outside Rangers circles—seemed genuinely shocked by the timing of these developments. My Rangers group text became an avalanche of question marks and WTF?s almost instantly, and my Twitter timeline was the same way. These sentiments were even echoed by higher-ups within other NHL organizations. “Some of the responses I’ve gotten from other NHL team execs about what happened with the Rangers,” tweeted The Athletic reporter Sean Shapiro, “include ‘wow’ and ‘holy shit.’”

In the dizzying hours and days following the announcement(s), untangling all of this information has felt like a combination of learning string theory and tacking actual strings onto a conspiracy corkboard during an all-nighter. There are no timelines, only recursive loops. My brain has suffered paper cuts from all the un-filed mental index cards upon which are scrawled things like “Glen Sather = Isiah Thomas?” and “the Code” and “too many men (in the penalty box)” and “Mark Messier on The Michael Kay Show” and “100 PIM” and “Boomer 4/20.”

That last one might sound like a joke about escaping all of this mess by getting high, but it actually refers to April 20, the date of a recent Rangers-Islanders game during which the Rangers, playing on the road but in front of their owner, experienced some new lows. As Esiason explained in his Thursday show, in order to understand what on earth just happened with the New York Rangers, it might be useful to look back a few weeks to that game, one which illuminates how the pursuit of grit, the harboring of grudges, and the reliance on gurus may have played a role in these latest personnel changes.

For the Rangers, the worst part about losing to the Islanders on April 20 wasn’t so much losing on the road in Nassau Coliseum—although that was certainly bad, particularly because Dolan, a Long Island resident, was in attendance. It wasn’t even losing 6-1, though that was also humiliating. Esiason remarked that the worst part, in Dolan’s eyes, came when the Islanders’ Matt Martin demolished Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba in the first period and left him with a season-ending injury.

“[Dolan] was pissed,” said Esiason on WFAN, that his team was both figuratively and literally getting its ass beat. “You could see it.” (Esiason is a big Rangers fan, but Martin is, incidentally, his son-in-law.) This was reminiscent of what had happened in the odd pandemic playoffs last fall, when the Rangers weren’t just swept by the Carolina Hurricanes, they were manhandled. And it was why Esiason wasn’t particularly surprised when he learned there was an imminent leadership change taking place at MSG: He knew Dolan hadn’t been happy for some time.

On the one hand, this Rangers season has had plenty to hang one’s hat upon, from the play of defenseman Adam Fox, a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate, to the exciting development of rookie K’Andre Miller, to the reassuring resurgence of Mika Zibanejad following a struggle with post-COVID symptoms. But the organization has also had a bizarre past few months. There was the Tony DeAngelo chapter, in which a defenseman meant to give the team some grit instead gave everyone headaches with his outspoken MAGA content (he was ultimately waived after getting in a fight with a teammate). Then there were the two weeks that Panarin was absent from the ice as he dealt with an assault investigation that may or may not have involved a vindictive Russian government.

Not long after the disastrous April 20 game on Long Island, the Rangers would be shut out in back-to-back games, 3-0 and 4-0, by the Islanders, which only made matters worse. And while their record remained good enough that it would qualify them for the playoffs in several other NHL divisions, their chances of making the postseason out of the difficult East were approaching nil.

This past Monday night, against the Washington Capitals, New York was officially eliminated from playoff contention. But once again, that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was when a scrum near the Capitals goal resulted in a trademark act of Wilson aggression, which rendered Panarin unable to return to the game and set off several days’ worth of retaliations, name-calling, drastic decisions, and punishments that the Rangers insist are unrelated to the eventual firings of two of their top employees. But that can’t really be separated out quite that easily.

Following the firings on Wednesday afternoon, former Rangers captain and Cup winner Mark Messier called into The Michael Kay Show and suggested that the team needed a little more oomph. Or, as he put it: “In my opinion, if you’re going to win, you got to be able to win in the street and the alley.” This was similar to what Sean Avery, another former Ranger who was so annoying on the ice that the league named a goalie-protection rule after him, had to say on Wednesday when someone on Cameo asked him about the Wilson hit.

“I would dump the puck in slowly so that Braden Holtby or whoever the goaltender was for the Capitals had to come out and play the puck,” Avery said, “and I would run through him like a fucking bulldozer. And that would send a message; that would let the Washington Capitals know that there’s repercussions. When you take out our star player, you’re going to feel it. It’s as simple as that.” It’s no wonder that sometimes the NHL feels like déjà vu: again and again, visions for its future are narrated most loudly by voices from the past.

That night, before the Rangers faced the Capitals for the second time in three days, the NBC Sports crew spoke in similarly glowing terms about “the Code”: the shorthand for the NHL’s unwritten rules around fighting and on-ice vigilante justice. Keith Jones fondly recalled the time Scott Stevens held him by his throat so hard that he thought he would die; he said he found it effective messaging to never mess with Stevens again, though he also appreciated that Stevens didn’t actually kill him. Patrick Sharp talked warmly about a time that Kevin Bieksa had come close to breaking Sharp’s nose. (To its credit, the show did also present footage of the time Todd Bertuzzi essentially ended two careers, his and Steve Moore’s, when he broke the latter’s neck with a punch. As always, the line in hockey between physicality and straight up assault is a blurry one.)

When the game began, the Rangers chose to operate differently than Avery had suggested, although maybe no less performatively: right off the opening puck drop, nearly everyone on the ice dropped their gloves and started fights. That spectacle felt almost circus-like, with the penalty box serving as a clown car, and the gesture ultimately rang pretty hollow. Wilson opted not to return to the game after the first period. The Capitals easily handled the Rangers 4-2, with Washington’s T.J. Oshie scoring a hat trick just days after the death of his father. The Rangers’ Pavel Buchnevich, fed up with [gestures vaguely at everything around him], unleashed a high stick that later earned him a suspension from Parros. And the league announced Thursday that it was fining the Rangers a quarter of a million dollars for the Statement. So many people trying to send messages; so few of them received.

Years before there was the Statement, there had been the Letter: a memo signed by Gorton as well as Glen Sather, the cigar-chomping longtime Rangers executive who had stepped back from roles as GM and president in recent years to transition to the more shadowy sinecure of “advisor.” The Letter was released to Rangers fans shortly before the 2018 trade deadline in order to properly manage everyone’s expectations: The team was, at the time, still vaguely in the chase for a wild-card playoff spot, but the reality was that the roster’s best days were in the rear view mirror. As the Letter outlined, eking into the postseason wasn’t really the goal; “reshaping our team” for “the years to come” was. “This may mean we lose some familiar faces,” the Letter said, “guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy.” Not long after, New York traded away captain Ryan McDonagh and splashy once-acquisition Rick Nash, among several others, and began developing the team with an eye toward its next iteration.

Rangers fans were, by and large, understanding of this road map, and hires such as Davidson’s in 2019 lent additional credence to the team’s plan. Sure, it certainly was an enormous boost when some lucky lottery ball bounces gave the team the second pick in 2019 and the very top slot last year—which the team used to take thrilling forwards Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere—but those also felt less like luck and more like good old fashioned karma: signs that the hockey gods approved of the Rangers’ prudent moves and felt like helping those who helped themselves. (Free agents like Panarin, Trouba, and Fox ostensibly agreed.) The general aura of patience and good faith that followed the Letter was never going to last forever, but you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that it should have stuck around longer than it did.

Wednesday’s news didn’t shatter the goals outlined in the Letter, nor did it even represent some complete cleaning of house. Drury, the Rangers’ new GM and president, has been with the team for years, after all, and head coach David Quinn (whom Drury was instrumental in hiring in 2018) remains employed, albeit tenuously so. But the sudden personnel changes this week did feel like they removed certain guardrails, making the path ahead feel a bit more uneasy. It’s clear that Dolan, for example, is intent on dialing up the roster’s physical tenacity, but will it be at the cost of players like Kakko or Vitali Kravtsov? And Sather always has gotten along well with Dolan, but it’s hard to see his conspicuously opaque level of influence these days or internalize Dolan’s description of him as “the Godfather of the Rangers” and not get flashbacks to Dolan’s one-time personal Rasputin, Isiah Thomas.

On Thursday afternoon, the New York Post’s Larry Brooks published an interview with Dolan that, I’m surprised to admit, actually did make me feel marginally better about this weird week. Some of the things Dolan said in the interview—like the fact that Drury reminded Dolan of Yankees skipper Brian Cashman—felt like a bit much. But it makes sense to want Drury in place for exit interviews next week. And the thrust of Dolan’s advocacy for his new head executive actually reminded me of the Letter: Drury may no longer be an on-ice player, but he’s still an ascendent NHL talent, one publicly sought after by other teams around the league. And to get him in position to shape the Rangers for years to come, the team had to lose some familiar faces. (Did one of those faces have to be Sam Rosen’s best friend, though?!)

Still, there was one Dolan answer that made me stop short with fear. When asked why he’d made such a drastic move now, Dolan told Brooks: “Honestly, we have enough talent now to compete for a Stanley Cup. But other owners, other general managers have been telling me for a year that they can’t believe how stocked we are with talent, but talent alone doesn’t do it.”

Setting aside the visual that I have of these rival GMs and owners walking away from Dolan, removing their wigs, and being revealed as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, I also can’t shake the thought that the last time Dolan sounded this hungry for a title was in 2012, when John Tortorella was coach and Dolan jinxed him so hard that Tortorella was forced to denounce the man. (“We just have to go about our business,” Torts said then. “I had my owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup, and that’s a bunch of bullshit.”) It seems like yesterday, and also like so very long ago. In the NHL, everything has a way of coming all the way back around.