by PuckStopsHere on 05/31/14 at 11:18 PM ET
The news from Thursday is the New York Rangers will be in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. I think it isn't too controversial to say that they are not an elite team. The fact that they finished in 12th place in the regular season should be sufficient proof for anyone. The salary cap has brought us an era where there are no elite teams so we consistently see Stanley Cup finals without them. It is a significant loss to hockey fans.
The CBA has worked. The NHL has the situation they want. The most important thing the last two CBAs brought in is increased player movement. Liberalizing free agency by reducing the age of unrestricted free agents has led to more player movement. The best players who become free will be able to wind up in the market of their choice. Sure there is a salary cap to prevent one team from buying all of these players, but that is a smokescreen. You only need to buy some of those players to make a team. The bigger markets tend to get these players and the smaller markets tend to lose them. The NHL has a dream Stanley Cup final. The biggest city in the country will play against either the second or third biggest city in the country. They couldn`t ask for better.
The fans lose out. We have one Stanley Cup finalist who is clearly not an elite team in the New York Rangers. Historically nobody will look back on the 2014 Rangers as one of the great NHL teams of all time.
I have long held a necessary but not sufficient definition of an elite team. This definition has to be independent from success in a given year. A league with no quality teams will still have a team win and that team is by no means elite. An elite team necessarily has some very good players. Without that it cannot be an elite team. Historically there must be at least three players who are on track to have Hall of Fame careers and these players must be close enough to their prime that they are not aging role players who are barely holding NHL jobs. There is no necessary division of positions required among this group except that goaltending is so important that they must have a top level NHL goaltender. The goalie must be among the top group of goalies in the league (top five or so - when you rank the talents of players there are usually natural breaks in achievement and if it turns out there is a group of four or six top goalies then I would use them as the top NHL goalies). This goalie may be on the list of Hall of Fame tracked players but it is not necessary. There aren't five future Hall of Fame goalies in the NHL at any given time. This definition is necessary but not sufficient. That means that a random group of top players does not make an elite team in and of itself. The team must still play like an elite team, but without the elite players they cannot be an elite team.
How do the Rangers stack up to the definition? Clearly they have the goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist. He is one of the best goalies in the NHL and is on a Hall of Fame track. The only other player on the team likely to be a Hall of Famer is Martin St Louis. I think he will make it regardless of what happens in the rest of his career. The Rangers do have two other forwards who once looked to be on Hall of Fame tracks but have fallen off the pace enough that it looks very unlikely they will ever get there. Brad Richards is 34 years old and put up 51 points this year. His last point per game year was 2010/11. In 2004 when he won the Lady Byng and the Conn Smythe Trophy he certainly looked like a future Hall of Famer but it doesn't look likely any more. His best hope at this point is if he stays healthy and producing for at least half a decade further and significantly clears 1000 career points. That is looking like a poor bet at this point. Rick Nash is in a similar situation. He turns 30 this summer and is coming off a 39 point season. If he stays healthy and productive for the better part of a decade his career numbers could make Hall of Fame levels, but it is also a poor bet.
It is hard to find another player on the Ranger roster worthy of discussing in terms of the Hall of Fame. Ryan McDonagh might be next. He is a good defenceman, but there is no reason to believe he is a future Norris Trophy candidate and he would have to be to be a future Hall of Famer.
The New York Rangers are the kind of team that wins in today's NHL. They are a big market team that is attractive to available players. They have been able to use that muscle to bring in Brad Richards as a free agent and trade for Martin St Louis and Rick Nash. A smaller market would not have acquired those players. It gives the Rangers a solid above average extra line of forwards that they can use and that does a lot to differentiate them from the field but it doesn't make them an elite team on any historical level. Elite teams don't seem to exist anymore and that is one of the biggest problems in today's NHL. This is something NHL fans should be up in arms about but largely they are not.
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