You Decide: All-Time New York Rangers Team
The New York Rangers are a franchise that has been part of the Big Apple sporting landscape since 1926. The Rangers are a New York City institution preceded by only the Yankees and the Football Giants. Their history is 92 years long and in those nine plus decades of competition, the Rangers have had their share of good hockey players, fan favorites and all-time greats.
If I could start my own version of my beloved hockey team and I could choose the best players by each position, these would be my choices. In the spirit of transparency, I won’t go as far back to the pre World War II years as none of us were alive when the likes of Frank Boucher, Ching Johnson and Bill Cook starred on Broadway. I’ll keep my list as close to contemporary as possible.
Let’s start out with the most important position in hockey and arguably, the most important position in all of sports:
The Rangers have been blessed with a plethora of quality goalies during the last 60 years. Eddie Giacomin, Mike Richter, John Vanbiesbrouck, and Gump Worsley are all considered royalty in Rangerstown. However, when it comes to royalty and when it comes to the rich tradition of outstanding Ranger goalies, one much esteemed net-minder stands out above the rest and that is “The King” Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist has re-written the goalie chapter in the team’s media guide. Lundqvist holds every important Ranger goalie record there is. Lundqvist has backstopped some bad teams to the playoffs, mediocre teams to the second round and average teams all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Yes, I know. I know. He has never won it all and for that reason, some will always hold Mike Richter above the man known as “Hank” in stature and success. I look at the Richter VS Lundqvist argument from this perspective…if Hank was the goalie on those great Ranger team from the 1990s, would they have still won the cup in 1994? The answer is an emphatic, yes! And, with that collection of leadership and talent, one could state with confidence that, with Lundqvist in net, those 1990s teams could have been a full-fledged dynasty. Let’s leave it right there because this piece isn’t about the much drawn out and rhetorical Lundqvist versus Richter debate.
When I think of the talented Rangers to play the left wing position, two very similar players immediately come to mind. They are Vic Hadfield and Adam Graves. Hadfield and Graves are virtual carbon copies of one another. Both were as talented as they were tough. Both were great leaders and invaluable teammates. Neither would hesitate to drop the gloves and step in to protect a line-mate who was under duress. Also, these two bulls-in-a-china-shop were the first Rangers to ever score 50 goals. Having to choose between these great Rangers is like choosing between a perfectly cooked steak and a big bowl of pasta smothered in the best tomato sauce in the world with the right amount of Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. I am giving the slightest of all edges to Adam Graves.
While it’s true that the man known as “Gravey” is my personal all time favorite Ranger, my selection is not solely based on popularity. I am basing my decision on the fact that Graves came to New York as an obscure fourth line player in Edmonton whom Neil Smith signed to a modest restricted free agent contract with the rugged Troy Mallette going back to Edmonton as compensation. Graves worked his way up from a fringe NHL player to being Mark Messier’s running mate on the team’s number one line for many many years. Graves became a 50 goal scorer, an all star and an vital cog of the Ranger team that won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
As was the case with the left wing position, when I think of Rangers centerman, two great players immediately come to mind. Jean Ratelle and Mark Messier. If I were basing my selection simply on statistics, Ratelle would get the nod hands down. Ratelle has more games played, goals, assists and points in a Rangers uniform than Messier. Ratelle’s stat line in the 1971-72 campaign still stands as one of the greatest offensive seasons in team history. He scored 43 goals and tallied 63 assists totaling 109 points in just 63 games. Folks, that’s an average of 1.73 points-per-game. If he hadn’t suffered a broken ankle in March of 1972 abruptly ending his regular season, his point total for 1972 could have been upwards of 140 (if he stayed on the same trajectory).
With all due respect to the player who had his number 19 finally raised to the Garden rafters last season, I have to give the nod to Mark Messier. When Messier refused to join his Oiler team for the 1991-92 season and demanded a trade, he insisted to his GM Glen Sather that he wanted to be traded to the Rangers. He knew all too well about the 1940 curse and he wanted to be the player to defeat the monster. How many players, in any sport, have we seen come to New York only to wilt in the pressure and crumble in the spotlight? Messier wanted, desperately, to come to the Rangers and he demanded that Sather trade him only to New York. The rest as they say is history.
There is no debating on this one. Mike Gartner, Andy Bathgate, Jaromir Jagr and everyone else takes a back seat to the man who has become synonymous with New York Rangers hockey and that is Rod Gilbert. Gilbert is the team’s all time leader in goals and points. Gilbert played every one of his 1,065 NHL games wearing his familiar #7 in the red, white and blue uniform. Gilbert has remained in the Rangers family acting as a liaison and an ambassador for his beloved franchise. Simply put, Rod Gilbert is the greatest Ranger forward of them all. Every conversation regarding the Rangers begins and ends with the Montreal native.
One defense choice was easy. One was difficult. The simple choice, as I am sure you’ll agree with, is Brian Leetch. From the time Leetch was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 1986 draft, he was pegged for greatness, stardom and glory. There were Bobby Orr-like comparisons for Leetch on each level that he played at. High school, college, USA Olympic team-everywhere Leetch went, the Orr similarities followed him. Leetch did not disappoint. From the moment he made his NHL debut in 1988, Leetch skated his way into Rangers lore and the hearts of Ranger fans. Leetch won the Calder Trophy, Norris Trophy (twice), Conn Smythe Trophy and of course, the Stanley Cup. He was the perfect combination of talent, skill, hard work, desire and toughness. If Rod Gilbert is the greatest forward of all time, Leetch is certainly the best defenseman in team history. Period.
As for the other defeseman, let’s see, let’s see. There certainly are several qualified candidates to choose from. Ron Greschner, James Patrick, Brad Park, Rod Seiling, and Dan Girardi are worthy enough to be in this discussion. All had long stints patrolling the Ranger blue-line. All had respectable careers. All have solidified their place in team history. But my choice is a player a bit before most of our times. He is the Rangers all time leader in games played with 1,160. He won the Norris Trophy in 1966-67. He had his number 3 jersey retired in 2009. My defense partner for Brian Leetch in none other than the great Harry Howell.
Based on everything I’ve read about the hockey hall-of-famer, Howell was the best player on some really bad Ranger teams throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Unfortunately, Howell was traded to the California Golden Seals in 1969 right before the Rangers became a legitimate cup contender. So, he never got to experience winning here in New York. Be that as it may, Harry Howell is, in my view, the second best defenseman in team history and the perfect compliment to the offensive juggernaut and stalwart Brian Leetch.
Who will be the bench boss for my all time Rangers team? The obvious choice is the patriarch of the franchise, Lester Patrick. However, I said I would keep this as recent as possible, so I will pick a coach more fresh in people’s minds. The candidates are Mike Keenan, Emile “The Cat” Francis, Fred Shero, Alain Vigneault and Roger Nielson.
Keenan, Shero, Vigneault and Francis all took a Ranger team to the Stanley Cup Finals. Even though Roger Nielson only went as far as the second round with his teams, he will be my pick to guide my theoretical Rangers team. Nielson was a coach light years ahead of his time. Nielson was a great technician, a master motivator and a wonderful bench boss. If that infamous Ron Francis goal from the 1992 playoffs didn’t happen, I truly believe the Rangers would have won that game and the series against Pittsburgh and would have went on to win the Stanley Cup. We can hardly blame the coach for Mike Richter’s lowest point of his NHL career.
My team: LW-Adam Graves. C Mark Messier. RW Rod Gilbert
D-Brian Leetch. Harry Howell
The fun part about these articles is the subjectivity. I would love to hear other Ranger fans choices, feedback and comments