by Joseph Flynn
It’s the beginning of June, and everything is finally coming up James Dolan.
For the first time since the Cablevision heir took control of Madison Square Garden around the turn of the century, a championship series will be played at the World’s Most Famous Arena. The owner had a feeling about this season all the way back in October and wasn’t shy about declaring this a “championship or bust” campaign to his front office. He just happened to pick the wrong sport, and the wrong MSG tenant.
Dolan made headlines in the basketball world when he told team executives that he expected the New York Knicks to compete for a title. Instead, the Knicks failed to make the playoffs in a historically bad Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, their hockey cousins, the Rangers, bounced back from a sluggish start to the season and a 3-1 second-round series deficit to make their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1994.
These Rangers are the rarest of MSG clubs — an honest-to-goodness feel-good story. They have captured the hearts of even non-hockey fans (and made the cover of Sports Illustrated) thanks in large part to the inspiring tale of Martin St. Louis, who came to the club via a daring mid-season trade and has helped inspire the team in the playoffs by playing through the unexpected death of his mother.
St. Louis provides a wonderful narrative and it certainly fits with Rangers history — a Hart Trophy-owning 400-goal scorer with championship experience comes to New York and vaults the Blueshirts over the top (*cough* Mark Messier *cough*). But there is far more to this Rangers club then yet another big-name acquisition. Their Finals appearance is directly attributable to the presence of young, homegrown talent; an approach that is practically revolutionary for a Dolan-owned team.
Yes, St. Louis has 13 points for New York in the playoffs — including the all-important overtime winner in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals — but that merely ties him for the team lead with defenseman Ryan McDonagh and center Derek Stepan, who also has galvanized the team by playing through a broken jaw.
In fact, five of the eight Rangers to notch at least 10 points in the playoffs — McDonagh, Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Carl Hagelin and ChrisKreider — are no more than 26 years old and have no more than four years of NHL experience.
The real turning points of these playoffs were simple and boring returns to health. McDonagh, who struggled in the first round with a shoulder injury, and Kreider, who missed the first 10 games of the playoffs after undergoing surgery on his left hand, came to life in the middle of New York’s second-round series against the Penguins.
The Rangers are 7-3 since Kreider’s return and have been beating opponents with speed and athleticism. The third period of their Game 6 victory against Montreal was a perfect example, as a Habs team desperate for a tying goal could only muster five shots in the final 20 minutes. Despite having already played 19 playoff games, the Rangers were fresher, flying around the ice and harassing the Canadiens into submission.
McDonagh’s health, though, has really spelled the margin between victory and defeat. The 24-year-old has long since established himself as the team’s best player after all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Fittingly, the Rangers will play for the Cup in the same month their fans will celebrate the five-year anniversary of the trade which brought McDonagh to New York — a deal USA Today’s RickCarpiniello has already crowned the best in the club’s 87-year history.
Not only was the McDonagh deal the best trade for either MSG team since Dolan the Younger took over as owner, it stands out as the very antithesis of nearly every move both teams have made during the bulk of his stewardship. The Rangers acquired McDonagh, who had yet to play an NHL game, from Montreal in a deal for Scott Gomez. Gomez was the epitome of what MSG brass usually covets: a former All-Star free agent who had arrived with much fanfare. (Somewhat in line with their normal m.o., New York moved Gomez to clear cap space for yet another big-name free agent: Marian Gaborik.)
Now compare that to the trade that continues to define today’s Knicks: the ill-fated Eddy Curry deal. In exchange for a gifted offensive center who seemingly didn’t like to play basketball (and liked defending even less), the Knicks surrendered drafts picks which turned into the foundations of *two* 2014 playoff teams: Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and Chicago center (and reigning Defensive Player of the Year) Joakim Noah.
There may be few similarities between building competitive NBA and NHL rosters, but one fact is remains universal in any league with a salary cap: You must find at least some quality young players to fill out a championship roster. The Rangers are far from perfect in that regard — they dealt their 2014 first-rounder for St. Louis and their 2013 first-rounder for Rick Nash — but they finally have built a stable of young talent to augment their splashy veteran signings. Players like St. Louis and Nash are no longer expected to carry the team. They simply need to contribute.
Will the Knicks ever learn this lesson?
They are seemingly handicapped by the fact that Dolan takes a far greater interest in their deals. He hijacked negotiations for star forward Carmelo Anthony in 2011, recklessly tossing in their 2014 first-round pick. He then doubled down on that mistake by dealing away an unprotected 2016 first-rounder for Andrea Bargnani, a player the Toronto Raptors were openly trying to give away. (Currently, the Knicks have no first-round picks in two of the next three drafts, and no second-rounders until 2018.)
The real hope for New York basketball fans seems to lie with the Knicks’ newly-appointed president of basketball operations, Phil Jackson. Like Rangers boss Glen Sather, Jackson has a Hall of Fame pedigree. Sather’s resume seemed to insulate him from much of Dolan’s meddling, even as he struggled with bad free agent signings and coaching hires early in his New York tenure. Will Jackson get that kind of leeway, or will Dolan simply be unable to resist tinkering with his toy of choice? The answer to that question will likely decide the fate of the Knicks for the remainder of the decade.
As for the Rangers, they have a brutal test ahead of them in the Los Angeles Kings, but their young studs aren’t going away any time soon. That should be cause for celebration, no matter what happens in the Finals, and perhaps cause for optimism if you happen to root for the Knicks, too.
@ChinaJoeFlynn is a writer and a recovering ex-pat English teacher. His work has been featured in SB Nation, Bleacher Report and The Classical.