Rangers Generally Manage to Get Bigger, Tougher

They're talking about temperature humidity indexes in the 100s. The chestnut vendors on 33rd Street don't need no steenkin' grill. Hot? It was so hot you could see the Rangers' playoff chances heating up.

Rangers? Ivan Rodriguez? A Rod? Now THAT's hot, mister.

You're scratching your head...and you hear something mumbled on the local news about the Rangers making a couple of key moves.

And than it clicks in...Wha'd he say again? Kenny Rogers? I. Rod.

Except the general manager up there is not the Texas variety, John Hart, but his New York namesake, Glen Sather.

And now, you the displaced hockey fan snap to attention. It has been half a decade since your Blue team has sniffed the playoffs and what you WANT to hear is change, change, change.

So when ol' Slats Sather camps behind the usual thicket of microphones, you're all eyes and ears.

"We think Mess is gonna come back," you hear. The ageless one. A latter-day Johnny Bucyk, a guy who bleeds Broadway blue. But no, you don't envision Mark Messier joining 20 other Rangers' names on the 2003 Stanley Cup. "He's away fishing for three weeks," you hear.

Well, while MM is down testing the salt waters of the Bermuda Triangle, Sather is busy landing two big -- no, HUGE -- pieces of the 2002-2003 New York Rangers puzzle.

Bobby Holik.

Darius Kasparitis.

Nahhhhh, can't be, you tell yourself. Huh? Two guys I wanted to set their uniforms on fire? Particularly Holik.

Well, if Eric Lindros could drag his 88 ninety five miles north from Broad Street, why couldn't a former Islander/Penguin/Maple Leaf and former Ranger antagonist who toiled 9 miles away in the Jersey Meadowlands find their way to Broadway?

Within 24 hours, they did.

"I'm so thrilled," Kasparitis told reporter John Dellapina of the New York Daily News. "I can't even understand what's going on with me right now."

What's going on Rangers-wise is the Broadway Blueshirts suddenly get a whole lot tougher on defense. Six-feet, four-inches, 230 pounds worth of wrecking ball.

With the acquisition of Holik, who some Jersey peeps called the heart and soul of the Devils' offense, the Rangers got more size. At 6-4, 235, and a likely centerman for the Lindros, Holik will assure New Yorkers there will be a bit less Lindros-bashing going on.

"I think we're certainly a lot bigger and more aggressive," Sather told the Daily News. "We've got a big center iceman now that can take a lot of the load off other guys.

"We've got a defenseman that's physical and is going to make other people keep their heads up.

"And with the other people we have here, we think we're going to be in pretty good shape."

Translation: OK, we're a quite a bit slower, but we've got some muckers who can dig the puck out of the corners and create scoring chances, eh? And while other general managers are up at cottage letting fly on the lake, I'm here talking hockey in July.

The general consensus is the Rangers aren't completely done in the marketplace, even tho they put out $70.5 million to cover the nut for Kasper (six years/$25.5 million) and Holik (five years/$45 million).

The issue that may truly decide whether New York enjoys this hockey winter resides between the pipes. Mike Richter wants to remain a Ranger but is hanging out there...And when the high-priced musical chairs game unfolded following Dominik Hasek announcing his retirement shortly after the Redwings won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, the Rangers were sideliners.

Justthisquick, the Wings hustled Curtis Joseph out of Toronto and inked him to a 3-year/$24 M pact and the Maple Leafs rebounded from that torpedo shot to snatch Dallas Stars goalie Ed Belfour and sign him to a 2-year, $13.5 M deal.

Bottom line? The Rangers improved themselves, no doubt. But as skilled offensively as Holik and Lindros are, the Zamboni machine outskates them at times. Giving Brian Trottier his first extended shot at head coaching was old Slats at work. Terrific move.

But...

The Washington Capitals gratefully signed Penguins free agent Robert Lang, a multi-skilled Czech winger, which will give the Caps a high-speed, high-skilled first line led by a guy named Jagr.

The Flyers stew and growl. You've found friendlier IRS auditors than GM Bob Clarke. But if they solve their goaltending...and they've made a couple of key off-season moves as well.

But maybe this winter, there will be enough aggression and enough defensive intensity to ease the Rangers up the divisional ladder. Which would be a welcome change for the 18,000 Garden regulars.

Three things are mortal locks, assuming the Rangers, not the youngest team in creation, can stay out of the trainer's room. With Trots behind the bench and Kasper hitting everything that moves, and the Islanders on the ascendancy, the old rivalry is back.

With Holik, who did everything but skate around the Garden with a bulls-eye with the hated Devils, and Kasper likely to lock horns with John Madden and Scott Stevens more than once, you don't need to think July 4 for your fireworks.

And even a year-plus removed, the Flyers-Lindros matchups will continue to compel.

It's a pretty safe bet, as you crank up that balky air conditioner one more time: This winter should heat the Garden up like none since the mid-90s.

And that ain't all bad.



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