Nobody in New York seems to care that Mark Messier is 39, or that
his plus-minus rating for his three-season stint in Vancouver was
-37. Those are just numbers. To the overpaid, underachieving
Rangers, for whom he starred from 1991-92 through '96-97, he
remains the Messiah. "Mark told me he may not be able to carry a
team to the Stanley Cup anymore, but he can certainly lead," new
general manager Glen Sather said when he signed Messier to a
two-year, $11 million free-agent deal in July. "And leading is
what I'm looking for."
Sather wants Messier to pull together the disparate personalities
of a club whose members often played as if they'd never been
introduced. In the summer of 1999 the organization doled out $67
million on free agents, and the two most expensive--right wing
Theo Fleury (15 goals) and left wing Valeri Kamensky (32 points
in 58 games)--were total flops. The Rangers, who had the NHL's
highest payroll ($60 million), went 29-41-12-3, missed the
playoffs for the third straight season and got coach John Muckler
and general manager Neil Smith fired. "We had a lot of skill last
year, but we were never in sync," says left wing Adam Graves, one
of only three Rangers, along with defenseman Brian Leetch and
goaltender Mike Richter, left from the Messier-led Stanley Cup
champions of 1994. "It has to come from everyone."
Messier's presence could help several Rangers regain their form.
Most important is Leetch (26 points in 50 games and -16), a
two-time Norris Trophy winner who struggled as the team captain
when Messier left for Vancouver. Another who hopes to benefit is
center Petr Nedved, who led the club last season with 68 points
but was too often the target of intimidation tactics, assaults
that his teammates never responded to. That's a problem Messier,
who centers the first line, has vowed to remedy.
The Rangers aren't Stanley Cup contenders, but with new coach
Ron Low, who brings an up-tempo style of play, they are better
than last season and will become a lot better if Fleury and
Kamensky bounce back as expected. That promise is why Messier's
homecoming is the most anticipated return of a bald man to
Broadway since Yul Brynner reprised his role in The King and I
more than 20 years ago. The King is back. Long live the King.
Theo Fleury suffered the biggest drop in points per game of all
players who appeared in 50 or more games in each of the past two
seasons, from 1.24 in 1998-99 to 0.80 last year.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 15 Fleury hasn't adjusted to grinding style
DEFENSE 16 Unit needs to be more physical
GOALTENDING 11 Solid as long as Richter is healthy
SPECIAL TEAMS 12 Messier, Graves are strong penalty killers
MANAGEMENT 10 Not many general managers savvier than