What ‘If’

The 1991-92 New York Rangers were one of the franchise’s best teams. What ‘if’ they had beaten the Penguins and won the Stanley Cup that year? We look back while also looking forward at the promising current Blueshirts. AP Photo via Getty Images

It’s been two months since hockey was played. The last batch of games took place on Wednesday, March 11. The Rangers were defeated by the ultra talented Avalanche 3-2 in overtime. The loss left them one point behind the Islanders and two out of the wildcard shared by Carolina and Columbus.

At the time, the Blueshirts had played 70 games during the incomplete 82-game regular season. They made up considerable ground after returning from the All-Star break by going 14-7-1 to pull within two points of the playoffs. While they’d cooled off following a run that included a four game winning streak and five straight victories sandwiched around a 3-1 loss to the East-leading Bruins, they were right there when the NHL paused the season due to COVID-19.

They had no choice. Especially once the NBA was forced to stop following the positive result of Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Eventually, it came out that a few Senators had also been positive for the pandemic that’s altered our thinking and way of life. So many families have been affected by this terrible epidemic. It’s indeed a humbling time for everyone and you have to proceed with caution. Even as the weather improves in mid-May, there remain health risks that have put the four major sports on hold. That includes baseball, who can’t seem to decide when or if to have an abbreviated season of 82 games due to the two sides not being able to reach agreement.

So, here’s where we currently are. Nascar returns this weekend and golf is on deck. Horse racing will be back, but nobody in New York State can attend races. It’ll be virtual viewing for the high stakes gamblers. Can you picture it? Not that I care.

Hockey remains in limbo. Even with Gary Bettman hinting that they haven’t considered shutting down the ’19-20 season, the rumors of a playoff tournament that could include either 20 or even 24 of the 31 teams, doesn’t exactly appeal to me. For two reasons.

1. Even if it were 24, the Rangers would be cut out. There are four divisions. They’d take the top six in each which would leave the 79 point Blueshirts home. But the Sabres, Canadiens, Ducks, Coyotes would all qualify despite fewer points due to where they play. The Metro is the best division. The Rangers are seventh.

2. Having such a unorthodox tournament would tarnish what the sport is all about. What if they crowned a surprising winner? Do they actually get to celebrate the Stanley Cup? It would be strange. It’s the most prestigious trophy in sports. I’m a traditionalist. I wouldn’t have any interest in watching.

A while back, I suggested having play-ins. You could do it for the wildcards and even third place in a division if it’s up for grabs. That would take a week to decide and then they could go on with a traditional postseason. I believe that’s the best way to go.

Of course, the teams would have to have training camps to get the players back in shape. With locations limited, that creates a speed bump. If they did complete the year, you could have a normal off-season with NHL Draft lottery, Draft, free agency, arbitration and buyouts.

I’ve suggested starting 2020-21 in late December or January and having an abbreviated 54-game schedule. They’ve done it before. History proves it can be successful like 1995 and 2013. Two worthy champs in the Devils and Blackhawks were crowned. I think that’s the best way to go. Especially if they need to save face due to the revenue tied to the salary cap.

Now, I’m no expert. I understand that any continuation of the season likely means no spectators, no concessions and limited personnel. There would still be health risks due to the Coronavirus. You’d still have two teams playing with coaches, trainers, doctors, cameramen, engineers, etc. What if someone tested positive? How would they deal with it?

I have to think any broadcast would be virtual to protect our favorite play by play men and color analysts. Why put them at risk? ESPN actually is doing Korean Baseball games by virtual. That’s what it’s come down to. The KBC is the only baseball televised at odd times. No. I haven’t watched. I’m not that desperate.

Over this time, I’ve found myself blogging poetry, music and life over at Hitting Back. I just haven’t had much interest in sports except for the random post on past events like the 90’s Chicago Bulls dynasty due to Michael Jordan Documentary The Last Dance or favorite baseball star Ken Griffey, Jr. Outside of Don Mattingly, Doc and Darryl, Griffey is that player for me with pre-roids Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas in my list.

What ‘if’ there’s no conclusion? There wouldn’t be any point in having awards for either NHL or NBA. It would be pointless. Who wants an MVP trophy without a postseason that their team can compete in? The same applies for other awards even though I bet they’d still do a low-key announcement of who won. Artemi Panarin would likely lose out to Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Nathan MacKinnon would again fall short. Top rookie would be interesting between Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes. Vezina would either go to Tuukka Rask or Andrei Vasilevskiy. Norris would be a coronation for John Carlson.

Would Mika Zibanejad of the five goal game that bested the Ovechkin Caps make an All NHL Team? It still would be tough considering the stiff competition of Draisaitl, McDavid, MacKinnon, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews. Statistically speaking, Zibanejad’s 75 points over 57 games is better than Eichel or Matthews. Undoubtedly, there’s a place for Panarin, who I’d put on the First Team over Ovechkin. That’s how special the Bread Man has been in Year One on Broadway.

The Rocket Richard would be shared between Ovechkin and overlooked MVP candidate David Pastrnak. Both with 48 goals. Personally, I’m more impressed with both Pastrnak and Panarin than the dynamic Oilers duo, who are both minus players despite their prolific scoring. Of course, Pasta is helped by playing on the game’s best scoring line with future Hall of Famer Patrice Bergeron and The Rat, Brad Marchand. Panarin has done it while mostly teamed with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. He’s also gotten some time with Zibanejad on the power play and three-on-three. But his plus-36 rating tops all forwards and ranks only behind ex Rangers farmhand Ryan Graves (+40). Too bad he never even got a look here. Oops.

If you’re talking about the Selke for the game’s top defensive forward, I’d give it to Anthony Cirelli. He’s made a considerable difference for the Bolts in his second year. Everyone always goes with the player that has the highest amount of points combined with five-on-five play and penalty kill, plus face-offs. While that’s usually reserved for Bergeron or Anze Kopitar, I feel Cirelli best exemplifies what the award is all about. He’s put up 44 points with a plus-28 with 37 of his 44 coming at even strength. Teammate Brayden Point has 51 of his 64 points at even strength and also is plus-28. He’s over 51 percent on draws while Cirelli is 47.5. However, Cirelli has gone 54-and-75 shorthanded. Not great, but he’s done a lot of the grunt work on the kill.

If there actually is a postseason, Cirelli would be one of my keys to any success for the Bolts. It’s that gritty style that helps you win. For Tampa Bay, who obviously were the biggest disappointment last Spring after being shockingly swept by the Blue Jackets, it could be another opportunity lost.

All Photos copyright Getty Images via NHL

What ‘if’ the 1991-92 New York Rangers had not lost to the hated Mario Lemieux Penguins in the Patrick Division Final? What ‘if’ Roger Neilson didn’t put an ice cold John Vanbiesbrouck in for sudden death following future Cup champion Mike Richter letting in that awful goal to Ron Francis from center ice? He would never be seen again as Beezer played Games Five and Six, getting victimized by Jaromir Jagr three times including a penalty shot and game-winner to dash any Cup hopes for fans in attendance at Madison Square Garden during a crushing 3-2 loss in the pivotal Game Five.

The Jagr-led Pens closed the Rangers out 5-1 in Game Six at the Civic Center minus Lemieux. The Rangers played the final three games (all losses) without Adam Graves for his controversial slash on Lemieux that resulted in a four-game suspension. Even though the slash that broke Lemieux’s left hand during Game Two, it wasn’t ruled intentional. He was assessed a minor penalty and played the third game before sitting out as the Blueshirts wilted.

That was a great team. They won the President’s Trophy and had Hart winner Mark Messier in his debut season on Broadway while Brian Leetch eclipsed 100 points to win his first Norris. Since then, no NHL defenseman has hit 100 in a season. Only five have done it in league history. Name the other four. Trivia answer to be revealed at the end of this post.

Of course, Lemieux returned after missing six games and led the Pens to a second consecutive Cup. With Lemieux, Francis, Jagr and Kevin Stevens dominating, they swept both the Bruins and Blackhawks to repeat. Meaning they won their final 11 games of the ’92 NHL Playoffs. One that felt like a dagger to Garden Faithful, who truly believed that was the year to erase the Stanley Cup drought.

Instead, Neilson would be fired in a disappointing ’92-93 where Leetch got hurt due to a story that’s been well documented. Let’s just say I’m not going to reveal it. Neilson was replaced by Ron Smith as the team imploded. At least it marked the debuts of key Russian rookies Alex Kovalev and Sergei Zubov. Along with Sergei Nemchinov and Alexander Karpovtsev, they would play pivotal roles in ending the 54-year drought under Iron Mike Keenan in ’93-94.

However, young talent such as Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, Darren Turcotte, Todd Marchant and proven finisher Mike Gartner were sacrificed to win the franchise’s fourth Cup. Veterans Esa Tikkanen, Steve Larmer, Stephane Matteau, Brian Noonan, Craig MacTavish and Glenn Anderson were added as they overhauled the roster. James Patrick was packaged with Turcotte to the Whalers in a three team trade involving the Blackhawks that netted key contributor Larmer and fourth liner Nick Kypreos. Thankfully, all the moves panned out to win the championship.

I do wonder what it would’ve been like had the ’91-92 roster taken care of the Pens. The Bruins were a very good team that were no match for the defending champs in the old Wales Conference Final. It probably would’ve been a good series. I believe the winner would’ve beaten Chicago to win Lord Stanley.

None of that matters now. Here we are some 26 years later and it’s been nothing but frustration, pain and agony for Blueshirt fans during the Henrik Lundqvist Era. Close three times, but no cigar or Kovalev troll doused in champagne. One of my favorite moments of that ’94 team.

At least the franchise is headed in the right direction. With promising young players headlined by new starting netminder Igor Shesterkin with Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil, there’s much to look forward to. A core that includes Zibanejad, Panarin, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo and Jacob Trouba should provide excitement for the present and future.

Decisions remain on Strome, who has been a good fit along with potential UFA Fast with the Bread Man. DeAngelo and Strome are restricted whenever the off-season hits. So is Brendan Lemieux. With Kreider taken care of and Brady Skjei in Carolina, the organization should have enough wiggle room to keep the nucleus together which includes Fast if they feel it’s worthwhile. As much as I like him, he’s replaceable. Lauri Pajunemi possibly? We’ll see.

The future of the blueline hinges on Fox, DeAngelo and Trouba, who must perform better to justify his contract. He can improve. Having a consistent partner would help. Lindgren provides the physical element and edge Jeff Beukeboom did. Mike Sauer was the last Blueshirt to do that. Unfortunately, his career was cut short. The less said, the better.

What about K’Andre Miller, who’s signed and will likely be ticketed for Hartford unless he overly impresses in camp? That’s still a long way away. There’s no need to rush him with proud vet Marc Staal likely to play out the final year of his contract. Will it spell the end of his career? He sure isn’t appreciated enough, reminding me of Dan Girardi towards the end before he concluded an overachieving NHL career in Tampa.

Would Danny G consider a return to the organization in a developmental role? Truth be told, we all appreciate him for what he brought. The same will be true for Staal once he departs. That’s always how it is. New York City is a tough town to play in. We are feisty and very hard on our players. Even Derek Jeter got booed.

Don’t forget that Alex Georgiev is a RFA as well. Given the situation the goalies were in at last check, I have to think they’ll re-sign him on a fair short-term contract that will make him movable. Especially with Tyler Wall signed. It really does feel like the end for Lundqvist, who owns several franchise records and will be remembered for being a great goalie in the Big Apple. Even if he declined as most players do, it happens.

There is the matter of that No-Move Clause and a potential amnesty buyout. That’s for Team President John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton to decide along with coach David Quinn. If he wants to continue his career, it’ll likely be elsewhere. Try Minnesota where he can hangout with loyal buddy Mats Zuccarello, who doesn’t seem to get that sometimes, things change. You would think he would after last year. Regardless, I’ll always be a huge fan of Zucc.

Nils Lundkvist will also arrive for 2020-21. A highly thought of young D prospect, he is climbing the ladder in the rankings. What if they knew Fox would be so poised and DeAngelo would erupt? Would they have done the trade for Trouba? That’s a hefty cap number. Oh well. The Rangers will only get stronger on the back end. Don’t forget Matthew Robertson either. He’s likely two years away.

Where will Vitali Kravtsov fit in? The forgotten first round pick from Russia, who turned his first pro year around after returning to Hartford. Hopefully, he realizes his potential. Kakko will improve. He has to. That means better skating, strength and scoring. Defense not withstanding.

When it comes down to it, we have much to look forward to. We just have no idea when. Stay patient.

Trivia Answer: In 1991-92, Brian Leetch became the fifth defenseman in NHL history to eclipse 100 points by posting 22 goals with 80 assists for a career high 102 points to capture his first Norris Trophy. Who are the other four?

1. Bobby Orr (Bruins): Six. 139 in ’70-71, 135 in ’74-75, 122 in ’73-74, 120 in ’69-70, 117 in ’71-72 and 101 in ’72-73.

2. Paul Coffey (Oilers/Penguins): Five. 138 in ’85-86, 126 in ’83-84, 121 in ’84-85, 113 in ’88-89 and 103 in ’89-90.

3. Al MacInnis (Flames): One. 103 in ’90-91.

4. Denis Potvin (Islanders): One. 101 in ’78-79.

5. Brian Leetch (Rangers): One. 102 in ’91-92.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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