It wasn’t all that long ago the New York Rangers spent gobs of money to bring in a laundry list of players to try and mish-mash together a Stanley Cup contender.
In 2001-02, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Bryan Berard and Matthew Barnaby were added to a team that had, in recent seasons, acquired Theo Fleury and repatriated Mark Messier.
In 2002-03, Bobby Holik was signed to a five-year, $45-million deal fresh off a 54-point campaign with the Devils and Darius Kasparaitis inked a six-year $25.5-million pact. Alex Kovalev was also acquired from the bleeding Pittsburgh Penguins during the season.
During that period, the Rangers’ game plan didn’t seem to have any method to its madness – just keep throwing money at the problem and the playoffs will come.
But they never did. From 1998 through to the lockout the Rangers were shut out of post-season play despite the plethora of recognizable names they had acquired. Their strategy changed post-lockout as they focused more on drafting well and developing their young players, which brings us to Monday’s Michal-Rozsival-for-Wojtek-Wolski trade.
“We like our young defense,” GM Glen Sather said on the conference call. “We think they’re all progressing very well. We know it’s a little risky, but the opportunity to do something here with a 24-year-old guy who has been an obvious goal-scorer and pretty high talent, we thought it was too good of an opportunity to turn down.”
In trading away the 32-year-old Rozsival, the Rangers moved their oldest, most experienced defenseman. Steve Eminger is now their oldest D-man in a group led in on-ice minutes by Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Rozsival is a good defenseman who brings a strong work ethic and a durable past to the rink, which fits in nicely with Phoenix’s veteran-youth mix on “D” where Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris are setting the example for youngsters Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle.
The tipping point for this deal was the season-ending injury to New York’s Alex Frolov. Already dealing with the losses of Ryan Callahan, Erik Christensen and Vaclav Prospal, the Rangers’ front line was beginning to thin out and they recognized adding bulk up front was necessary to stay in the playoff hunt.
But Wojtek Wolski? As much as this trade is a vote of confidence to New York’s young defensemen, it’s also a knock on Wolski’s consistency.
The 21st overall pick from 2004, Wolski put up 50 points as a rookie straight out of junior. His totals slowly dipped over the next three years with Colorado before he was dealt to Phoenix for Peter Mueller and Kevin Porter at last season’s trade deadline. Wolski answered by scoring 18 points in 18 games, plus another five in the opening round playoff series against Detroit, but has managed only 16 points so far this season.
“Things haven’t been going as well as he probably expected in Phoenix and I think Donny wasn’t as happy with him as he was last season when he got him at the deadline,” Sather said.
So 10 months after sending two pretty good and young players to Colorado for Wolski, Coyotes GM Don Maloney was ready to bail on him for a 32-year-old defenseman with a $5-million cap hit this season and next.
By all accounts, Wolski has the natural talent to succeed in the NHL. One Western Conference coach noted he’s a “top-six talent who can play all three forward positions and will hurt you if you’re not paying attention.” Sather pointed out Wolski’s size, shot and past offensive success, so why has his production dipped and why has he been traded twice by the age of 24?
The Coyotes lost Matthew Lombardi, a key piece to their roster, to free agency last summer, so that should have opened up a chance for Wolski to step into a more prominent role. Instead, his time on ice has gone down by nearly four minutes per game.
“If you look historically back at some of the deals that are made for players that are in this age, I think you’ll find you’re not going to get a player like this at this stage in his career unless something’s gone wrong,” Sather acknowledged. “And part of the ability of our coaching staff to rehabilitate these guys and get them to play the way they projected to play when they were drafted, I mean that’s part of the deal.”
It is worth noting Eminger, the 12th overall pick from 2002, was traded four times before his 27th birthday, but seems to have found a spot deep on New York’s defense corps under Tortorella. Brian Boyle, the 26th overall pick from 2003, was acquired in 2009 for next to nothing after only playing 36 games with the Kings. He’s now got 22 points and averages 15:15 of ice time per game.
In Tampa Bay, Dan Boyle first broke out as an effective defenseman as a 25-year-old under Tortorella after the Panthers let him get away for nothing. Martin St-Louis went from 40 points to 70 points and beyond under ‘Torts’ after Calgary let him loose. Heck, even Fredrik Modin enjoyed his best years under Tortorella in Tampa Bay, who acquired Modin from Toronto for Cory Cross. Oh ya, and they won a Cup, too.
While the Rangers shave a little more than $1 million off the cap, opening up other possibilities as the Feb. 28 trade deadline nears, New York made this move believing their coach could get Wolski back on track. While Phoenix knows what it’s getting on their end, the Rangers are waiting to see if their coach can work his magic on another misfit.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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