Sports Nut

Can a Small-Market Genius Save the Rangers?

The recent announcement that Glen Sather had accepted the position of general manager for the New York Rangers was greeted with the kind of euphoria usually reserved for the Stanley Cup or a bench-clearing brawl, neither of which have been seen in Madison Square Garden for some time. Most sportswriters and people in hockey saw the deal this way: In Sather, the Rangers get one of hockey’s foremost minds, the architect of the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty of the 1980s. In the Rangers, Sather finally has an organization with a market and budget large enough to match his genius for the game. Even Wayne Gretzky, now a part-owner of the rival Phoenix Coyotes, applauded the deal.

There is another way to look at it: Sather is just the kind of general manager the Ranger organization doesn’t need, and he’s in for a very rough five years, if he lasts that long. The problem isn’t character, it’s economics. Or, more precisely, it’s how economics shape character.

Like baseball, hockey suffers from a widening disparity in team payrolls between small-market and big-market teams. Sather is widely regarded as hockey’s premier Small-Market Genius. Last year, he squeezed a competitive season out of the Oilers on a payroll of $23 million, the eighth-lowest in the league. (His new team, the Rangers, spent a league-leading $61 million and missed the post-season.) But being a SMG doesn’t prepare you to run a big-market team any more than running an Internet startup out of your garage prepares you to be the president of GE.

Let’s look at Sather’s strategy over the past 10 years. Realizing he couldn’t compete with large-market teams, he molded the Oilers on a cheaper model made up of speedy, crashing forwards, rushing defensemen, and an acrobatic goalie to clean up the mess in the team’s own end. It was essentially the same formula he had used with his Stanley Cup teams of the 1980s, except that, instead of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, and Fuhr, he had Doug Weight, Ryan Smyth, Boris Mironov, and Curtis Joseph.

Sather’s formula worked. In a decade full of mediocre, trap-laden hockey, the Oilers teams were young, exciting to watch, and they had absolutely no hope of winning. But they kept fans coming through the turnstiles, critical for a team that relies on gate receipts rather than TV revenue.

There are Small Market Geniuses in other sports, particularly baseball, which, like hockey, has no salary cap in place. Managers like Tom Kelly of the Minnesota Twins and Felipe Alou of the Montreal Expos are judged not by wins or losses but by how long they can keep their franchises alive and by how many players they can bring to maturity before trading them to contenders. In the last few years, Alou has lost players such as Pedro Martinez, Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, John Wetteland, Delino DeShields, and even his own son Moises. For those losses, Alou has become a kind of secular saint among SMGs: Every player lost is another sign of his holiness.

SMGs tend to have the same set of management skills, which are different from those of their competitors. Successful large-market coaches and managers like Joe Torre of the Yankees or Bob Gainey of the Dallas Stars tend to be good at exploiting high-priced talent, adept at sharing power, and sentimental when it comes to established players. By contrast, Sather is very good at nurturing young talent (although he’s not good at spotting it: Sather’s failures on draft day are legendary), adept at grabbing power within the organization (he was made coach, general manager, and president of the Oilers at the age of 37), and ruthless at the trading deadline (of the five core members of the ‘80s Oilers, only Mark Messier played for the organization past the age of 30). And Sather is a master at managing the press. He has preserved the team’s reputation through several drug and paternity-suit scandals. When Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, the team owner was burned in effigy in the streets of Edmonton: Sather’s reputation was hardly singed.

It’s hard to see how those skills will help him in New York, where the press is far more adversarial than in Oilers-friendly Edmonton. The Rangers are built around aging veterans (Graves, Leetch, Richter) and some overpriced free agents (Hatcher, Fleury). Sather complained about the financial restraints of Edmonton, but he has always disliked big contracts, not just because of the money, but because he believes that they ruin the player’s incentive to perform. Even before the money crunch hit the Oilers, Sather tried to keep salaries low, often by using mildly dirty tricks, such as going behind the backs of agents to deal with the players directly or misrepresenting the salaries of other players in the organization.

Saving a couple of million dollars won’t satisfy the Rangers management, which has never been shy about spending money, or the Rangers fans, who waited 54 years for the last Stanley Cup and aren’t willing to wait much longer for the next. (The organization already spat out last year’s coach, Sather protégé John Muckler.) There will be tremendous pressure on Sather to spend money on free agents such as Claude Lemieux or to further decimate the farm system by trading for high-priced damaged goods, like a shaky Eric Lindros or Senators malcontent Alexei Yashin. Already, sportswriters are urging Sather to bring back Messier.

Spending money isn’t Sather’s game. He’d be much better off joining his old friend Gretzky in Phoenix. As for the Rangers: Is it too late for Joe Torre to learn how to skate?