How ironic it is that D-Day for the National Hockey League and Decision Day for the electorate of the United States of America will come somewhere around the same time of year? After all, we’re talking about two events with some eerily similar characteristics. At the end of the day, there is one side claiming a set of “new” ideas not unlike the ideas that already exist, and there is another side trying to stick to a course that may or may not actually work. While a Presidential election happens (a little bit) more frequently than NHL labor strife, when you juxtapose these two events, we are in so many ways comparing apples to apples.
When you break down the coming Presidential election and NHL lockout to its most basic parts, what you have are two sides trying to sell us a bridge … two sides that will somehow end up richer than ever before, and a third side (the middle class – in hockey terms, the fans) who will likely land on the short end. It’s all politics, when you think about it, and – in another twist of fate – the stakes have never been higher surrounding the outcome of both events we may experience this fall.
For the NHL, will Gary Bettman and his right-wing ownership compatriots rule the day by capping spending even tighter than before to balance finances across the board? Or, will Donald Fehr and his liberal, share the wealth ideology, score the win, forcing ownership to breed prosperity by raising capital for the common good, eliminating the evil major markets, and allowing the little guys to sign players to generational contracts? Stay tuned – September 15 is right around the corner.
Like the race to the White House, we do not know right now who will win the 2012 edition of the perpetual NHL labor battle, but what we can rest assured is that regardless of the result of either event, the rich are going to get richer. In our market economy, if you are a millionaire, you are going to become a multi-millionaire no matter which side of the political spectrum rules the day. And regardless of whoever dictates the new NHL CBA, the top NHL franchises will likely continue to benefit, and most remaining franchises will remain right where they are; at the bottom of the NHL standings, and top of the post-season draft board.
For those who cheer for the New York Rangers, all of this lockout mess means one thing no matter what - good news. The question is, which labor scenario will benefit this team the most; labor peace or a lockout? The Rangers were a huge winner of the NHL off-season, basically stealing Rick Nash from Columbus, and not suffering any major hits via free agency. Add to the mix that a young team that made the NHL Final Four this past spring will feature even more depth and talent, plus another year of experience for their young core, and some could argue that a quick end to negotiations and a new CBA that allows for a full regular season will help the Rangers in their quest for a Stanley Cup.
On the surface, this appears to be true.
But when you dig a little deeper, the Rangers could actually benefit if the NHL goes into a lockout and the season is shortened. If the 2011-12 season is any indicator of a pattern for this organization, a shorter schedule could very well be the key for the Rangers to take that last step towards finally raising the Stanley Cup once again. Let’s take a look at why a lockout would only benefit this team....
1. Two words - Marian Gaborik:
So many people thought that Marian Gaborik was a goat during the 2012 playoffs, only to find out that he was a hero of sorts for playing much of the post-season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, an injury that will keep him out of action until sometime around Thanksgiving. A lockout that extends into the regular season will easily help Gaborik, pushing the start of the season closer to his return date. Whether Gaborik is the Slovakian sniper on the ice, or simply dead weight when his scoring touch disappears for games at a time, his presence on the ice only helps this Ranger team. Think about it: The Rangers were two wins from the Stanley Cup Finals with Gaborik almost literally unable to score goals. If he is on the ice, others have a chance to score, and when he is 'on', Gaborik is almost unstoppable. The Rangers need an effective Gaborik to win six more games than they did this past season and earn the Stanley Cup, so if the coming season starts a little later than usual, this only helps the Rangers.
But, the Rangers also need a healthy Gaborik to win, and while Gaborik’s numbers could eventually be Hall of Fame caliber if his career extends deep into his 30’s, his proclivity to become injured is about as consistent as his scoring touch. Now entering his fourth season on Broadway, Gaborik has – for the most part – lived up to his billing. However, there are serious questions as to whether or not Gaborik can physically withstand an 82-game regular season, and four rounds of playoffs, and produce effectively throughout. There likely is no such thing as an NHL player who can go through an entire season and playoffs unscathed, but for Gaborik, can he play a full season and be an elite scorer deep into the post-season without serious injury? Based on what we have seen to this point, the answer is no.
Without a lockout, Gaborik’s injury is actually a good thing for him as it allows his somewhat fragile physique a chance to not get banged around for a while. With a lockout and potential shortened season, Gaborik’s injury prospects during the 2012-13 season are lowered, and the chances of Gaborik being effective into June are strong. Removing the lockout prospects and Gaborik’s injury, the Rangers are better off playing Gaborik a bit less during the regular season anyway.
2. (Between the) Pipe Dreams: During the 2011-12 season, New York Rangers Head Coach John Tortorella made a lot of terrific coaching decisions, and was by all means deserving of a Coach of the Year award he ultimately did not receive. Perhaps the best decision he made to contribute to the Rangers success was to put Henrik Lundqvist on a conservation plan, and stick to the plan regardless of how the Rangers were playing. Few NHL teams can boast a back-up goaltender of the quality and experience of Martin Biron, and while Biron was shaky at times, he also provided the Rangers with several quality starts, while allowing Lundqvist to gain some much-needed rest. Ultimately, Lundqvist proved to be fabulous during the regular season, earning the Vezina trophy … but he was merely great during the playoffs, while Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings was superhuman while leading Los Angeles to the Stanley Cup. The last two years (and many more) have proven that a superhuman effort between the pipes is virtually a prerequisite for a Stanley Cup run, and last year presented concrete evidence that Lundqvist can provide the Rangers with such an effort in the post-season if the regular season can be a bit less of a grind.
Enter the lockout. If, hypothetically, the NHL lockout happens, and the regular season is shortened to, say, 65 games, Lundqvist automatically has less of a grind to get through to lead the Rangers into the playoffs, while playing refreshed hockey once the post-season arrives. Add to the mix the presence of Biron, who would likely make 10-12 starts during a shortened season, and the playoff grind would likely not be as taxing for Lundqvist as it would be during a full season. Assuming Lundqvist is playing at his usual elite level, the prospects of Lundqvist leading the Rangers to 16 post-season wins would not be nearly as daunting as it would be after a full compliment of regular season games.
Of course, this line of logic exists for every NHL goaltender, but if the 2011-12 season proved anything regarding Henrik Lundqvist, it proved that he was merely a handful of spectacular saves away from leading the Rangers to the Stanley Cup.
3. The Rangers are built for a sprint: It is a simple fact that had the 2011-2012 season been shortened by a lockout, the Los Angeles Kings would never have won the Stanley Cup. Not only did the Kings start the season slow enough to fire their head coach shortly after the opening faceoff of the season, but they spent much of the first half of the year out of the playoff race. They were the classic team that found its stride at the right time, got hot for the playoffs, and rode the wave to the Stanley Cup.
In other words, the Los Angeles Kings won a marathon. For the New York Rangers, if the 2012-13 regular season becomes a 60-65 game sprint, they are built to hit the finish line first. During the playoffs, the forecheck becomes to the NHL what the pass-rush becomes during the NFL playoffs; a weapon that makes the difference between a championship trophy and an early off-season. No team attempts to employ a forecheck the way the Rangers try to make it a part of their system, and when you add to the mix the almost obscene level of conditioning that John Tortorella demands of his squad, the Rangers are almost better off with a shorter season. The Rangers ‘system’ is pretty transparent – they grind, forecheck, pursue the puck relentlessly, and block shots. They play a blue-collar brand of hockey that is more of a mentality than a system … and the players know it even right now as this column is being written. A prolonged lockout only gives the players time to work-out on their own, and show up in the best possible shape, and also think about their role in Tortorella’s system.
While other teams have to spend training camp and the early season learning the proverbial ropes, the Rangers have the goods to hit the ground running, and a shorter season means that many teams will have to play catch-up when it comes to system acclimation. By the time the playoffs come, after a shortened regular season, there may not be a team as prepared for a playoff run as this Rangers team, while a shortened season will not necessarily help anybody else the same way.
4. Youth: There are entirely too many younger Rangers to list here, but while the likes of Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist, and others are the key cogs for a Stanley Cup run, it is the younger Blueshirts who will provide the team with the sum of the parts to bring home a Stanley Cup. The reality is that the long grind of the NHL season takes a lot to get used to, and although younger Rangers such as Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, and Chris Kreider gained valuable minutes during the 2011-12 season, they may not be quite yet ready to play 80+ regular season games, and perform at an elite level come the postseason. This is particularly true for Kreider, who gave the Rangers some fantastic minutes during the 2012 playoffs.
But what about a 60-65 game regular season for some elite young players who were reared playing a more limited number of games per year at lower levels of the sport? Could players like Hagelin and Kreider be better playoff performers if the regular season were shorter? Conventional logic says yes, and a lockout could make the playoffs less of a grind for the Rangers young core. Once again, the same logic could be applied to several NHL teams, but the Rangers have some serious superstar appeal, and their young core is among the best in the League. Add to the mix the Rangers' system and superstar goaltender, and a shortened regular season could give their younger talent the requisite rest to play at their very best when the playoffs come around.
Ultimately, there are few – if any – benefits of another labor stoppage for the NHL, regardless of who makes the work stoppage happen. However, with that said, during a scenario containing a shortened regular season, it is the team put together the best that will benefit the most. The Rangers were ever so close to the Stanley Cup during the 2011-12 season, but there were a few cracks in the armor that were exposed during the playoffs, and ultimately led to the team’s downfall. The Rangers did a lot to address these cracks during the off-season, but some flaws remain nonetheless. A shortened season due to a lockout could benefit this team more than any franchise in hockey, and turn one of the most adverse circumstances a team can face into a source of strength. The Rangers' flaws cannot be eliminated by a long lockout, but they certainly can be avoided. Is this to suggest a lockout would be a good thing? Absolutely not. However, for the New York Rangers, if a lockout is handled properly internally, it could very well become the event that locks the Rangers in … to a Stanley Cup run.
** Follow Michael Spinner on Twitter: @MichaelSpinner **