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Rangers reaping benefits of focusing on draft

by Dave Lozo

The celebration that followed a beauty of a goal by 21-year-old Michael Del Zotto was a gathering of five New York Rangers who epitomize the youth movement of a franchise that once was defined as one of the oldest and least successful in the League.

Greeting Del Zotto was a grinning Derek Stepan, the 21-year-old forward who threaded the perfect cross-ice pass that set up the goal. Also in the pack of wide-eyed youngsters was 23-year-old Artem Anisimov, who started the rush up ice after the 28-year-old Dan Girardi -- middle-aged by current Rangers standards -- blocked a shot in his own zone.

The fifth and final person of note in the pile was Marian Gaborik, who is now the rarity on the roster and not what was the norm during Glen Sather's first five seasons as general manager. The 30-year-old Gaborik joined the Rangers in 2009 as a high-priced free agent, signed away from the Minnesota Wild for five years and $37.5 million. Along with the 32-year-old Brad Richards, who is ancient in relation to the rest of the team, they are the only two big-ticket items on the Rangers who weren't signed or drafted by the club.

Michael Del Zotto
Michael Del Zotto
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 9
SOG: 34 | +/-: 0
"It's been a couple years coming now," said Rangers 27-year-old captain Ryan Callahan, who made his debut in 2006 at the age of 21. "We've tried to stick with this young core and build up with them. We've made some additions to it, but at the same time we've stuck together and we've learned the system together and it's starting to come together. You can feel it coming the past couple years here."

Of the 16 teams in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Rangers are the second-youngest team at an average age of 26.0 years. It's one thing to have a roster filled with players who have a better-than-average of chance of being carded at a liquor store or R-rated movie; it's another to have those players making immediate contributions to a winning team.

Richards and Gaborik lead the team in scoring in the playoffs, but of the next nine leading scorers, only three are older than 26.

Since the work stoppage of 2004-05, the change in philosophy to focus more on building from within and depending less on aging free agents has paid dividends. The Rangers have missed the playoffs just once, losing out on the final playoff spot in 2010 when Olli Jokinen -- a veteran rental acquired at the trade deadline -- failed to score during a shootout on the last day of the season against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Rangers have averaged 43.4 wins per season since the work stoppage, topped by 51 wins in 2011-12, the second-most in franchise history. It's even more impressive when you look at the youth of the team.

"It's big. It's a good learning process for them," Gaborik said. "They're doing good and playing with confidence. [Defenseman Ryan] McDonagh is probably one of the best players in the League. Whether it's killing penalties, playing on power plays, it's good for them."

As wonderful as this renaissance in Manhattan has been, it wasn't that long ago when a youth movement would've been considered laughable.

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After two decades of mostly glory with the Edmonton Oilers, Sather took the reins in New York in June 2000. Famous for telling anyone who would listen that if he had the Rangers' money and resources, he'd win the Stanley Cup every year, he finally got a chance to prove it.

The Rangers missed the postseason for three consecutive years before Sather arrived, and throwing money at the problem didn't solve anything. They would spend the next four seasons watching the playoffs from the comfort of their homes -- and based on the money Sather was spending, those homes likely were very comfortable.

The list of failed signings from 2000-04 is a lengthy one, but some of the lowlights include 31-year-old Bobby Holik for five years and $45 million in 2002, and 28-year-old Eric Lindros for four years and $37 million in 2001, when he was coming off his sixth concussion in 27 months. The Rangers' payroll ranked first, third, first and second during Sather's first four years, and was devoid of young talent.

"This is a young man's sport. There's no denying it," said Mark Messier, who returned to the Rangers in 2000 as a 39-year-old and remained with the team until retiring at the age of 43. He's currently a special assistant to Sather. "You have to be young and hungry to play and put in the time and training that the game brings to be successful. It looks like a lot of fun and it is a lot of fun, but it's also a lot of hard work at the same time."

From 2000-04, the Rangers averaged 32 wins a season and bottomed out in 2003-04, when they won just 27 games with a team that had an average age of 30.6 on opening night.

Not only were the Rangers swinging and missing on almost every big-name veteran they signed, the draft also was littered with disappointments. Sather hit a home run in the seventh round of the 2000 draft by grabbing franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but of the other 39 players selected during those four years, the three most notable players still active today are Marek Zidlicky, Fedor Tyutin and Dominic Moore, none of whom currently are with the Rangers.

The youth so desperately needed by a franchise in need of energy just wasn't there.

"Drafting nowadays is probably the most important aspect of the sport because of the salary cap," Messier said. "You have to not only draft well, but also develop. So drafting and developing have become paramount in our sport, and youth is obviously a big part of that. From your minor-league system right through to the development of your young players at the NHL level, it's absolutely critical to success. We've seen that being played out in the post-lockout era."

We're also finally seeing it play out with the Rangers today.

A new era brings a new philosophy

If there's anyone who understands the importance of grooming and staying patient with draft picks, it's Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark. He was hired in 2002 as a scout after spending six years with the New York Islanders as an assistant coach and director of player personnel.

"A lot of people thought in New York you had to just get all the big-money players, but in the end, they wanted a really hard-working team, and that's what we decided to work toward. It was going to be younger." -- Gordie Clark

During the work stoppage, when Clark had been promoted to head amateur scout of the Rangers, he sat down with Sather and vice president of personnel Don Maloney to chart a plan for the team's future, one that was sure to have a salary cap. To hear Clark tell it, his time in the Islanders organization served as a cautionary tale for the Rangers.

"Obviously that happened on the Island, and that was one of the reasons I left," said Clark, talking about a team losing patience with its young players and dealing them away. "[Zdeno] Chara was gone. [Roberto] Luongo was gone. [Todd] Bertuzzi was gone. That's when it was changing and you could see it. We were set pretty good on the Island of waiting for that to all happen. Then all of a sudden they were being traded away and that's when I decided to make my move."

During that year without hockey, Clark realized he was with an organization that was going to value its younger players.

"I sat down and talked to Don and talked to Glen, and that was the time they changed their philosophy, and that's the way they wanted to go," Clark said. "A lot of people thought in New York you had to just get all the big-money players, but in the end, they wanted a really hard-working team, and that's what we decided to work toward. It was going to be younger."

Clark became director of player personnel in 2005, about two years before Maloney left to become general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes. Clark has had a big influence on the Rangers' drafts since then, which have included Marc Staal, Michael Sauer, Carl Hagelin, Del Zotto, Stepan and Anisimov.

Chris Kreider, the 19th pick in the 2009 draft, joined the Rangers before the start of the postseason and has been a factor. He has three goals, among them the game-winning goal in Game 6 of the first round against the Ottawa Senators, with the Rangers facing elimination.

Of the Rangers' top 11 scorers entering Game 2 of the conference finals, six were added during Clark's tenure.

When trying to pinpoint what changed in the way the Rangers have gone about judging talent, Clark said the makeup of the players has become just as important as their skill.

Chris Kreider
Chris Kreider
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 6
SOG: 21 | +/-: -3
"There's ability in there, but the one common denominator is the character," Clark said. "The culture of the players is the biggest change in the type of player we've decided to bring into the Rangers. It's a special place to play, and it had been special for the wrong reasons, with more guys in the later parts of their careers. Well, we're going to get them in the beginning part of their careers. It's special for the right reason now."

The cupboard that was so bare thanks to dreadful drafts from 2000-03 suddenly was full. Now it was just a matter of Sather and the Rangers allowing the kids some time to develop, and that patience finally is paying off. Throw in quality free-agent signings in recent years -- most notably Gaborik and Richards -- and the Rangers have a good thing going.

"I think that's very important the past few years here, in keeping our young guys and Glen allowing us to develop them," said Rangers coach John Tortorella, who came on board at the end of the 2008-09 season. "I think that was the first step of the process in trying to build the team. I think this summer we go to the next step when you add a Richards -- a little bit more experience, a quality center. But the kids stayed here. As far as Glen's concerned, that's been fantastic."

Yes, there is the six-year, $39-million contract given to Wade Redden in the summer of 2008 that hangs around the neck of the team like a gold-plated anchor, but all those draft picks and young players have allowed the Rangers to excel even with that contract hurting them in a salary-cap world.

The youth movement is in full swing. Last season, the Rangers' top four scorers were ages 24, 25, 28 and 20. In the first season after the work stoppage, with the Rangers still in the early stages of developing their youngsters, the four leading scorers were ages 33, 33, 33 and 34.

Remember that Rangers team in 2003-04 that had an average of 30.6 on opening night? The League average age that year was 27.9. This year's team had an average age of 26.6 in the regular season. Despite the perception that the NHL is a "young man's" League, the average age at the start of 2011-12 still was 27.9.

In this day and age, drafting well and bringing along those players is paramount for success. It took a while, but the Rangers finally have figured it out.

"Especially with a cap world, you have to develop your people within, and it goes back to Glen," Tortorella said. "It's been great that he stayed with the kids. Although we trade for McDonagh, you look at Girardi, you look at Sauer, Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, who's really taken steps in the right direction here. Especially at that position, you don't want to give up on them too early and make too many quick decisions on defensemen.

"As far as our whole team, I think that's a big plus for the Ranger organization."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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