Call them the Strangers. New York will begin the season with a
23-man roster that could include as many as 10 new players. The
Big Apple turnover is a dramatic, expensive effort to reshape
the team in the aftermath of Wayne Gretzky's retirement and two
straight seasons of missing the playoffs, the club's longest
drought since the mid-1970s.
Given all that new blood, Rangers loyalists had better buckle up
for a season that could be as full of twists and turns as a New
York City cab ride. Six of the newcomers are thirtysomething
veterans who are free-agent pickups, the best among them being
5'6" All-Star right wing Theo Fleury. Feisty and dynamic, he has
scored 374 goals in his 11-year career, and his three-year, $21
million contract is a big chunk of the $67 million the Rangers
spent this summer. Fleury seems destined to win the hearts of
Manhattanites with an impishness not unlike that of established
Broadway icon Annie: He too believes the sun will come out
tomorrow. When asked if the Rangers can win the Stanley Cup this
season, Fleury says, "I don't see why not."
Whether they even qualify for the playoffs will depend largely
on how well signees such as steady defensemen Stephane Quintal
and Sylvain Lefebrve, fleet winger Valeri Kamensky (he averaged
27 goals the last four seasons), checking center Tim Taylor and
backup goalie Kirk McLean meld with the rest of the team. Coach
John Muckler will experiment with various forward combinations,
trying to assemble a solid second line to complement a top unit
that will be centered by the gifted Petr Nedved.
The scariest sight in training camp was goalie Mike Richter
lumbering around with his chronically spasmatic back packed in
ice. Richter is a top-tier netminder and one of three players
left from New York's 1993-94 Stanley Cup championship team.
(Defenseman Brian Leetch and forward Adam Graves are the
others.) Even with the off-season shopping spree the Rangers'
talent is still middling, so they will need Richter to carry
them at times.
"You hope that for the first 10 or 20 games we get the
goaltending and the defense to keep us over .500," says Leetch,
who signed a four-year, $34 million contract in May. "Then we
should get much better as the season goes on. Of course, when
you have this many new players, you never know how things will
If the Rangers fail to make the postseason in 1999-2000, it will
mark the first time since 1965-66 that the Blueshirts have
missed the playoffs three straight seasons.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 11 Should be explosive with free-agent pickups
DEFENSE 20 Older group with skill, but can be
GOALTENDING 13 Richter is more than solid in nets
SPECIAL TEAMS 12 Led by Leetch, power play should be excellent
COACHING 20 Muckler must regain magic he had with Oilers,