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The art of the NHL rebuild
With a bold open letter to the fans, the Rangers embark on a perilous journey back to hockey's primetime

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Saturday, February 17, 2018 – Page S9

'The truth is always the best thing," says Glen Sather from his office in Madison Square Garden.

"It's time to retool," says the long-time president of the New York Rangers, "Now is the time - so we decided to let the fans know our plans."

What Sather and Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton did was pen an open letter to Rangers fans late last week in which they conceded the obvious: their team sucks.

There's a lot of that going around the NHL these days. But no one so willing to admit it as Sather and Gorton.

The Rangers' letter spoke of past successes - 129 playoff games since the arrival of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for the 2005-06 season, a Presidents' Trophy, three conference finals and one Stanley Cup final - but no Stanley Cup and no prospects of one in the foreseeable future.

The candid letter let fans know in no uncertain terms that a redo was on. Some "familiar faces" will be traded away or jettisoned in other ways. Instead of the usual managerial twist of blaming injuries - something the Rangers could easily have done - or firing the coach, the usual first step of scrambling management, the two admitted the team they put together hadn't jelled and had no identity.

"We haven't played well enough," Gorton later told a news conference. "What you're seeing on the ice is not what we'd hoped for. The decisions we will make going forward will be based on the long term, not trying to save the season."

It takes guts to do this in a city hardly known for rational acceptance in sport. "They should be tarred and feathered and sent away," one angry fan said on Twitter. Another calling himself "@FIREGlennSather" continued his campaign to have Sather pay for his 19 years at the top of the Rangers without a Stanley Cup, something the 74-year-old president managed four times when coaching the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. But Sather is hardly worried. He has signed on for another year as president. He operates in a city with such a wide fan base that ticket sales are not a concern, where ownership has deep pockets and broadcast rights regularly fill them even deeper.

What is most curious about this open condemnation of one's own team is that, heading into the weekend, the Rangers were only four points shy of the last playoff wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

"We're in a tough position not to make the playoffs," Sather says.

"Even if we did - how long would it last?" Four Canadian teams - the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks - were well out of any wild-card hopes, their seasons unexpectedly awful.

Surely inspired by the Rangers, the Canucks sent out their own open letter to fans this week. It was far from as candid as the one signed by Sather and Gorton, but team president Trevor Linden did concede that: "In the shorter term we have faced some challenges with injury and inconsistency."

He talked about the prospects being assembled by GM Jim Benning - chief among them top rookie Brock Boeser - and begged for patience: "It's going to be worth it." Then he signed Benning to a three-year extension.

The Canucks are expected to miss the playoffs for the third successive year, yet there is nowhere near the anger, much of it livid, that surrounds the other three staggering, stumbling and stinking Canadian franchises.

In Montreal, Brendan Kelly of the Gazette was calling on the Canadiens to own up to what has been an inarguably miserable year at Bell Centre. "Team president Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin should take a page out of the New York Rangers' playbook and come clean to their fans for the travesty that is the 2017-18 Habs," Kelly wrote. "Better yet, they should concede that their plan has failed and that the time has come to rebuild this team." But that ain't gonna happen, he argued, because the culture of Canadiens hockey is defensive, excuse-driven and never open.

In Edmonton, columnist David Staples took on the Oilers, held to be so promising only a year ago, but a disaster today. The problem, Staples and other commentators say, is a poorly constructed team that is built on old notions for hockey, not today's emphasis on speed and skill. The Oilers may have the game's biggest star, Connor McDavid, but a support cast all the way back to the net that is simply not up to McDavid's needs.

Blame in Edmonton seems to centre on general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan. Fans feel the rebuild has already been done with all those recent top draft picks, including 21-year-old McDavid, but it hasn't worked.

In Ottawa, "travesty" would be a mild term to use in describing the season under way for the Senators, who remarkably came within an overtime goal of going to last year's Stanley Cup final.

Fans in the national capital are furious over $30 parking fees and still steaming over owner Eugene Melnyk calling them out before Christmas for their poor attendance at what is perceived to be, by Ottawa fans, a poor entertainment product.

It is indeed, with coach Guy Boucher pushing a defensive system that, curiously, makes the Senators fun to watch only when they're behind, drying paint when they have a lead.

In an effort to win back fans, a media-relations firm was brought on to get Melnyk back in some public favour. They began the campaign with Toronto media, failing utterly to see that, in hockey terms, the only thing that infuriates Ottawa fans more than the price of parking is being told what is going on by Toronto media.

In the Citizen, columnist Wayne Scanlan offered a fivepoint plan for the franchise to get back in the public's good books.

First, bring back Cyril Leeder as president (the popular Leeder was fired a year ago because of slipping attendance and replaced by Tom Anselmi, who is now also gone. Anselmi's solution to empty seats was to tarp over 1,500 of them to give the illusion of a packed house).

Scanlan also called for lower parking fees, a stop to favouring Toronto media, a town-hall session where fans could air their disillusion.

Senators general manager Pierre Dorion called a news conference to promise changes and a renewed commitment to "scouting, drafting and development."

The following day, the Senators announced that Dion Phaneuf had been dealt to the Los Angeles Kings in a four-player deal that was mostly about the Senators dumping some of the burden of Phaneuf's long-term and expensive contract.

No open letter and none required.

A New York "retool" is clearly on in Ottawa, as well.

Huh? How did I get here?
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