Ranger fans are optimists at their core. And with a team made up predominantly of hardworking overachievers, there is no reason for us to be anything but optimistic -- even when the Rangers lose, as they did twice over the weekend, they continue to show their resilience, thanks to the development of good young players that is sure to carry over into the future.
But the pair of one-goal losses to Montreal and Philadelphia, coming as it did on the heels of the rousing 1-0 win over Vancouver, the NHL's top team, is testing our optimism. You can wonder where the Rangers were in the first half of those contests, falling behind 3-1 and 3-0 respectively. But they were, as usual, right in there in the third period, fighting back but coming up one goal short.
And you knew exactly what they needed to close the deal. A goal -- a goal by Marian Gaborik, more specifically. And you pretty much knew it wasn't going to happen. Last night [vs. Philly], in fact, there was almost no chance of it happening because coach John Tortorella kept Gaborik on the bench, giving prime ice time to the guys who were actually generating scoring chances.
The conventional wisdom is that Gaborik hasn’t had a complementary center since playmaker Vinny Prospal went down to a knee injury last season. But I don't buy that theory -- what I saw last season was Gaborik making his linemates, including Prospal, better players, rather than him feeding off of them.
My observation is that Gaborik is just not the same player he was before sustaining a pair of injuries that seem to have slowed him down. The laceration that resulted from a collision with Henrik Lundqvist during practice last season, and the exacerbation of his chronic groin problems that resulted when he compensated for that injury, has slowed his foot speed. We just don't see those bursts of speed that left us in awe early last season.
Worse perhaps is his loss of hand speed. When the Great Gabbo was piling up goals by the bushel during his first 58 games as a Ranger, what really grabbed my eye was his lightning-quick shot. Never in four decades as a Ranger fan had I seen anyone get such velocity out of such a quick release when shooting a puck that was so far in front of him.
In other words, Gaborik didn't need to draw his stick back to get a lot of mustard on his shot. Some players caught goalies off-guard with a quick release, while others powered the puck through them or past them with a hard shot. But Gaborik was able to do both at the same time, a deadly combination.
Not any more. That shot just doesn't have the zip it used to have. He no longer has the hand speed to pull it off, and he doesn't have the foot speed to get himself the time and space to make it that much more lethal. What’s missing is just a half-step, maybe even less than that, but at the NHL level it’s just enough to cost him that split-second that froze opposing netminders.
Is it a lingering result of his early season shoulder injury? When Jaromir Jagr lost his scoring touch in his second season as a Ranger (and the power play tanked as a result just as it’s doing right now), there was a lot of talk about his loss of confidence. But he ultimately admitted that his shooting ability had diminished after the devastating shoulder injury he suffered during the 2006 playoffs.
Gaborik's injury was nowhere near as bad as Jagr's. But again, in the NHL, an infinitesimal difference can be magnified by the world-class caliber of the competition. So Gaborik has gone from scoring once in every two games before the Olympics to once in every three games for the remainder of last season after the Olympics to once in every five games so far this season.
And so, while the optimistic fan waits for Gaborik to bust out and bolster the unexpected offense we have gotten from other precincts, we witness instead an inevitable drop-off from those unlikely sources, with Gaborik unable to ride in for the rescue. We have gone from last season's one-man team to a team that is missing just that one man.
There is nothing that can be done about any physical problems that may be hampering Gaborik – and Tortorella flatly denied physical problems were the issue last night after benching his superstar scorer. But even if those problems are the issue, a bona fide playmaking center can help create time and space Gaborik needs and perhaps can no longer create for himself. And for once, the Rangers have the cap space to make it happen.
When the Rangers traded Michal Rozsival for Wojtek Wolski, the simple cap calculation was a reduction from Rozsival's $5 million to Wolski's $3.8 million, a savings of $1.2 million. But Wolski replaced Alex Frolov, out for the season with a knee injury that broke up the Rangers' $10 million fourth line. And Ryan McDonagh took Rozsival's spot. The cumulative cap reduction was $2.9 million -- or as much as $3.325 million if McDonagh's bonuses aren’t realized or are deferred to next year.
Had the Rangers immediately turned around and traded for another player, they could have taken on one with an annual cap hit of $3.325 million to offset the savings. But they didn't. Instead, they are banking those cap dollars. With every day that passes, with 90 days left in the season since the trade, the salary the Rangers are capable of taking on increases by 1.1% given the way the NHL prorates salaries for cap purposes.
So one week after the Wolski trade, the Rangers are now capable of acquiring a player with a salary of approximately $3.6 million. By the time the trade deadline rolls around, the value of that cap space will be equal to a player earning more than $5 million. Add in long-term injury exceptions that will amount to around $7.5 million and the Rangers will be able to take just about anyone who is available at the dealine, if not sooner.
As fans who value the Rangers’ rebuilding process more than anything else at this moment, we would be loath to see another hired gun come in and displace a promising young player. But with the Rangers unexpectedly vying for decent playoff position, a truly premier playmaking center who can get Gaborik going would be worth it.