The New York Rangers roster lacks ‘game within the game’ personality

Sure, the sudden firings should bring frustration, but the New York Rangers’ recent roster construction has been a hockey sin.

Robby Sabo

Everybody remembers the man who headlined the hockey night of May 25, 1994. The Captain, The Messiah, the grizzled vet who took his five cups with Edmonton to New York in the fall of 1991 elevated his status from hockey icon to New York City legend, courtesy of a natural hat trick in Game 6 of the eastern conference final.

Mark Messier guaranteed victory, and victory is what the New York Rangers snagged with the weight of 54 years slowly crushing their chests. Five wins later brought the curse to an end, thus cementing Messier as the greatest leader in sports history.

Everybody remembers Messier’s superhuman feats. Everybody remembers that team. It would take some serious Men in Black memory eraser upgrade to force any hockey fan to leave that out of the brain’s storage.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is remembering how it happened, how it was all set up.

The hard part is remembering the players who win the game within the game on a consistent basis that allow the Messiers of the world to snag legendary status from the ether.

Just prior to Messier’s go-ahead third-period goal against the New Jersey Devils—his second of three in that final frame—one Ranger took it upon himself to set the table in a way only hockey allows.

Esa Tikkanen, one of the more beloved players in franchise history, gladly roughed up Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer.

New Jersey, a team that loved to muck it up with its infamous trap, never wanted to play four on four. Tikkanen knew this. He also knew he and Niedermayer heading to the box was an advantage for the away team (that happened to have just as many if not more fans in the Meadowlands arena that night).

The deed was done. Then, Alexei Kovalev, Brian Leetch and Messier did their thing.

Twenty-seven years later, Rangers fans should be asking one critical question: Where is today’s Tikkanen?

Granted, the man who once blew a kiss Dale Hunter’s way and coined his own language, “Tikkanese,” is a rarity. Such a player comes only a handful of times each generation.

And yes, this NHL is a much different-looking hockey space than the one they filled in ’94. The speed is up, skill is showcased much more regularly, and digging into the dirtier areas of the game is much more a thing of the past.

Still, hockey is a game that relies on effort and personality—two aspects that shine through in this sport much more brightly than any other, and this current Rangers roster’s imbalance is nothing short of a hockey sin.

It’s understandable that the Rangers fan feels frustrated over the recent happenings at Madison Square Garden. John Davidson will forever remain a fan favorite and Jeff Gorton delivered the team the likes of Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin—all of whom are legitimate building blocks.

Hired prior to the 2007-08 season as a scout, Gorton’s front office status grew every step of the way during the organization’s latest golden age. Then, suddenly, Tom Wilson happens. The Rangers then scorch the NHL publicly while calling for Department of Player Safety Director George Parros’s job.

Shortly thereafter, James Dolan drops the bomb that saw both Davidson and Gorton on their way out. While the timing was horrid, the substance makes sense, and much of it has to do with the roster’s overall construction.

Who are the current Rangers who win the Tikkanen-like games? Where is their Brad Marchand or Tom Wilson? Where is their pain-in-the-ass bottom-six forward who constantly gets under the skin of the opponent?

Crickets.

Fourth-line center Kevin Rooney put forth a solid campaign—his first on Broadway. Used as a defensive-first centerman and penalty-kill forward, the former Devil did his part—production-wise, that is. What’s missing from his game are the personality elements that oftentimes fly under the radar yet loom large in the locker room.

Brett Howden could be described in a similar fashion. Defense-first, while knowing his role, the kid puts in the effort on a nightly basis. OK, so he’s not exactly the guy who’ll drive the opponent mad either.

There has to be somebody.

Is it Phil DiGiuseppe? Maybe, perhaps, to a much, much lesser degree. Then again, he’s not even a full-time player.

Ryan Lindgren provides a steady hand defensively but is rather quiet in nature. Mike Zibanejad is all business on the ice, constantly playing his own mental game while blowing hot and cold.

Chris Kreider? Forget about it. While he’s a power-forward whose net-front presence does wonders on the power-play, he doesn’t exactly get the stick up when it’s warranted.

The problem in responding to a Washington Capitals team that should have been playing without Tom Wilson’s services last week, is that the Rangers had nobody who could properly respond.

Credit Brendan Smith; he did his job. As the only capable guy who could stand a shred of a chance against the heavyweight, Smith didn’t hesitate. But again, the veteran wasn’t even supposed to be a part of the 20-man look when the season commenced.

Quite literally, the only player who even resembled wanting to play and eventually win the game within the game was Brendan Lemieux, and he was shipped during the season.

Explaining how the game within the game is played, or even won, is a tough exercise. Some fans use terms such as enforcer and grit to describe what this Rangers team needs, what Chris Drury needs to deliver.

Sure, they could use a bit of that as well. But in this new NHL, that stuff has been drastically minimized. The head games that come with the right hockey personality—while also minimized—are still an essential part of a complete roster.

It’s why Mats Zuccarello was so critical to the Rangers’ success. It’s why Sean Avery actually had a place in the lineup once upon a time. It’s why Esa Tikkanen was required to win that cup.

Frustration over the recent happenings is understandable. Not realizing this roster is incomplete—even for this stage of the rebuild—is unforgivable.

Get ready, Chris Drury; you’re now on the clock. It’s time to find the right personalities that complete this already-skilled New York Rangers team.

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