Not too long ago, the New York Rangers were a punchline.
A franchise who, in the years following a remarkable 1994 season, spent the better part of two decades throwing barrels of money at various overpriced, big-ticket free agents to no avail.
Tenants of the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, where a lone hockey championship banner has been raised to the rafters in the past 74 years.
An “Original Six” franchise, one isolated playoff run away from Chicago Cubs-esque notoriety.
Fast-forward to the present, and here we are.
New York Rangers. Eastern Conference supremacy.
The franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since the 54-year curse was finally lifted 20 years ago.
Four victories shy of a championship parade down lower-Broadway’s aptly nicknamed “Canyon of Heroes.”
Just a single team standing between the Blueshirts—and Gotham-immortality.
Once unthinkable, Rangers fans have general manager Glen Sather to thank for that.
It’s time to give credit where it’s unabashedly due.
Glen Sather Era Commences
Sather was first ushered into his New York office in 2000.
With 658 NHL games played, to go along with four rings in 14 seasons as coach of the Edmonton Oilers under his belt, he assumed the role of Rangers team president and GM.
Between a revolving door of failed coaching experiments—including his own brief return behind the bench—and too many ill-advised personnel decisions to count, Sather’s first several seasons in New York proved tumultuous at best.
I’m not quite old enough to remember much of the spellbinding 1993-94 run, but young enough to vividly remember my excitement when Sather and the Rangers repeatedly landed household hockey names, like Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure.
At the time, I certainly didn’t have a grasp on anything finance related. Had never heard of a career arc before, nor could I name a single prospect, let alone understand their relative value. The inherent flaws in the All-Star Game voting process were beyond adolescent-me .
Lindros and Bure were, just, awesome. Sather obviously wanted them skating in a Rangers sweater—I mean, who wouldn’t?
My dreams of Blueshirt glory were quickly dashed, however, when I realized these weren’t the players I anticipated. They were shells of their prior selves. Past prime, world-class skaters carrying exorbitant salaries that served only to hold the organization hostage.
It became something of Sather’s modus operandi—deceitfully big, expensive, media splashes with ultimately little on-ice impact.
After an NHL-imposed salary cap was implemented, as a result of the the 2004-05 lockout, even Sather’s biggest dissenters had to figure it would put a forcible end to his reckless spending habits.
It surely did not, as it turned out.
He had evidently fallen into the same tantalizing trap that suffocated team finances and continued to stifle roster mobility since his arrival.
What’s more, relative to other high-profile executives in the passionate world of New York sports, Sather was, for all intents and purposes, a ghost.
Fans called for his job. The media called for some sorely lacking accountability.
Most demanded that Sather relinquish his GM duties, at the very least.
Yet, despite plummeting fan confidence; despite misfire after misfire; despite offering little by way of explanation for his history of curious managerial decision-making, Sather was retained.
It wasn’t until the 2005-06 season—after landing another aging superstar, Jaromir Jagr, who proved to have plenty left in the tank—that a Sather constructed Rangers team even qualified for postseason play.
Since then the Rangers have failed to advance to the playoffs only once, when a shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on the last day of the season cost them a postseason birth.
That’s eight postseason births in nine seasons.
For that, you can thank Glen Sather.
So how does an executive—infamously known and, to a large extent, justifiably maligned for a series of draft busts and high-profile disaster acquisitions—turn a franchise with zero postseason appearances from 1997-2004 into a perennial contender?
This is a general manager deemed so inept that a “Fire Sather” rally was orchestrated in 2010, across the street from the arena on Seventh Avenue, demanding his dismissal.
How does a man once so reviled manage to redeem himself?
It wasn’t divine intervention. The embattled GM shifted his gaze.
Something, seemingly, clicked.
His first step, and arguably greatest hurdle, was freeing the franchise from the financial abyss of which he so senselessly left them confined.
The Rangers roster was littered with skaters well past their respective primes. Players presumed genuinely unmovable due to the albatross contracts accompanying them.
But they were moved.
And Sather did more than merely find suitors for the pricey, dead weight on the Rangers roster, astonishingly. In the case of Gomez, he yielded a return of a franchise defenseman and potential Norris Trophy candidate by the name of Ryan McDonagh.
Somehow, someway, the GM accomplished the ostensibly impossible.
At a certain point, it was no longer about recruiting the mesmerizing marquee name. It was about the draft. It was about mindful salary cap management and shrewd contract negotiations.
It was about the emergence of draft picks like Henrik Lundqvist, Chris Kreider, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Brandon Dubinsky.
It was about recognizing the previously undistinguished potential value in players such as Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Mats Zuccarello—irreplaceable cogs in the Rangers playoff run—that other teams failed to notice, and reeling them in for next to nothing as a result.
The onus came down to building an affordable, talented roster from within—a time-tested recipe for prolonged organizational success.
Sather’s philosophy had changed and success has followed, even it hasn’t manifested itself into a championship as of yet.
When scoring was lacking, he used his newfound financial flexibility to add Marian Gaborik to the mix prior to the 2009 season.
When the honeymoon ended in April 2013, the GM seized an opportunity to add depth while shedding salary in the process.
But the team’s core ultimately proceeded to hit an apparent plateau.
Sather responded by dealing from the depth he slowly and deliberately helped build up in recent years—a luxury painfully absent during the first half of his tenure—flipping a bounty headlined by Dubinsky and Anisimov for Rick Nash, a proven game-changer.
The homegrown Del Zotto, once labeled a future premier blue-liner, was later swapped for stay-at-home defenseman Kevin Klein to sure up an uncharacteristically sloppy defensive corps.
When contract negotiations with team-captain Callahan hit an impasse before this year’s trading deadline, Sather shipped off the fan favorite in perhaps the most difficult decision of his tenure.
The deal returned disgruntled Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis whom the Rangers hoped would jumpstart an ailing offense in time for a postseason push.
Since 2009, no NHL player has amassed more points (391) than St. Louis.
The ever-reticent Sather described the acquisition to Newsday’s Mark Herrmann fittingly.
“I think the guy that’s coming in helps us advance a little farther than we expected to this year.”
And again, here we are.
A title-worthy balance of world-class netminding, defensive excellence and scoring aptitude.
An enthralling team identity defined by speed, physicality and creative offensive wit.
A glorious blend of wide-eyed youngsters and hungry, seasoned veterans, passionately rallying around a singular cause and emotionally unified for reasons extending well beyond the ice.
2013-14 Eastern Conference champions.
Take a bow, Mr. Glen Sather.