Neil Smith gives his Stanley Cup winning GM perspective on the New York Rangers
When it comes to putting together a Stanley Cup winning team with the New York Rangers, only one man in the last 83 years has been able to do it. Neil Smith was the general manager that constructed the 1994 team led by Mark Messier to hoist Lord Stanley’s chalice high overhead. He presided over a golden era of Rangers hockey from 1989 to 2000, and brought in such stars like the aforementioned captain and Wayne Gretzky to Broadway. So when it comes to winning in New York, he knows a thing or three.
Neil recently joined the Forever Blueshirts Show to provide his unique perspective on the current roster and what it will take to end the second longest championship drought in franchise history.
Neils Smith on current New York Rangers
The Rangers have gotten out of the gate strong this season with a record of 12-3-1, good for 25 points and first place in the Metropolitan division.
“A tremendous start to their season,” Smith began. “I love the way Artemi Panarin is playing. He’s a huge offensive force for them this year. Bringing in Jonathan Quick was a really wise move and I think their D has been upgraded with Erik Gustafsson.”
As the architect of a Stanley Cup winner, Smith believes that once Adam Fox is healthy, the current group is more important than any one offensive player in getting to the promised land.
When Smith was manning the helm for the Rangers, he reshaped the defense via trades and the draft to build around Brian Leetch. Trading for Jeff Beukeboom was integral to the 94 team’s success, but adding Hall of Famer Kevin Lowe to partner with Sergei Zubov gave the team an incredible top 4. Additionally, bringing in players like Jay Wells and Doug Lidster paid off big time during their magical run.
“Defense is what wins for you,” Smith continued. “It’s as good as any top-six in the East. It’ll be interesting to see how far they can go if they can stay away from injuries.”
Before Smith became a GM, he was a scout and understands how difficult it can be to spot talent. One young player that has impressed him is Alexis Lafreniere, who looks as confident as ever. However, it’s hard not to recognize the struggles Kaapo Kakko is still having in his fifth NHL season.
“He may never live up to expectations some people have for him,” Smith said of Kakko. “Sometimes what you project in a player, when he gets into the league just doesn’t pan out. I’m not saying he’s a bust, but I’m also not saying you shouldn’t worry about him. Perhaps you are not going to get second overall statistics from him in his career.”
The Rangers are certainly light on right wing regarding offense. Although Lafreniere is thriving, Kakko and 37 year-old veteran Blake Wheeler aren’t providing much punch. Which brings us to what everyone wants to know: what would Big Deal Neil do?
“I think Chris Drury will do what he has to do,” Smith stated confidently. “Although I would caution them not to look for big cogs to put in the wheel at the trade deadline. I would look for complimentary additions. You don’t need another Panarin, you need another Trocheck. A guy that can win face-offs for you.
“By making sure you are fortified in those checking and grinding roles, and your fifth and sixth defensemen, that’s what is going to win it. You need to have depth players and a lot of them because injuries happen.”
Smith has a point. When the Rangers made their magical run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2022, they added complimentary pieces like Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, and Justin Braun. Last year, it was two superstars in Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, ultimately leading to a first round exit.
“At the time they got Tarasenko and Kane, I didn’t think that’s what they needed,” Smith notes. “That’s not criticizing their moves, but I just felt it wasn’t what they needed at the time. What some fans don’t understand is that if you have a hockey team and add a star, it doesn’t necessarily make you better. Sometimes it does, but other times it takes awhile to get that chemistry. When I acquired Mark [Messier], it was at the start of the season, so he had the whole year to make the team his own.”
Forever Blueshirts would like to thank Neil Smith for joining the show and giving us some of his time.
Note: Benjamin Lefkowitz conducted the interview.