I had originally intended to use this space to highlight how this Rangers training camp has unexpectedly become highly competitive in the battle for roster spots, only that was before the team forgot to compete in Saturday night’s 5-3 exhibition defeat to the Islanders in suburbia.
Actually, let’s amend that. Saturday is when, pretty much for the third time in the club’s four preseason matches, the Blueshirts’ varsity lettermen failed to show.
For better or worse, exhibition game results do not resonate. They don’t count. The Rangers once beat the Flyers 10-3 at the Spectrum in the opening game of the 1973-74 exhibition schedule in Bernie Parent’s return to the NHL after a season in the WHA.
Eight months later, Parent would win the Conn Smythe and the Flyers would win their first Stanley Cup after eliminating the Blueshirts in the semifinals. Schultz! September of 1973 had been a long time ago. By June of 2024, September of 2023 won’t even be a distant memory.
But, as they say.
When head coach Peter Laviolette reprimanded the team for its lack of commitment and work ethic in the postgame press conference, it reminded me of the sentiment expressed by Gerard Gallant, Laviolette’s predecessor behind the bench, five months earlier.
Let’s play, “Guess Who Said This?”
Was it Gallant who said, “Backchecking is a universal language … finishing your checks and competing for pucks is a universal language?”
Was it Laviolette who said: “Talent doesn’t mean a thing … it’s great to have talent but you’ve got to play together and with work ethic?”
Was it Gallant who said: “It’s unacceptable … it’s not who we are or want to be?”
Or was it Laviolette who said: “I love to have talent but you love to have work ethic and more forecheck?”
Could it have been Gallant who said: “At the end of the day, we’ve got to work hard … that’s got to be the standard?”
Most of you will recognize that I have put Laviolette’s words in Gallant’s mouth and vice versa. But the bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter, does it?
Again, this was an exhibition game Saturday in which the Islanders cruised to a 4-0 lead before three Rangers goals in the third period. That was a Game 7 playoff elimination defeat in New Jersey. Different stakes.
And perhaps some of Laviolette’s reaction was performative whereas Gallant’s was raw. Saturday might have served as a method for the (latest) coach to get his message across to the team, though Laviolette does not strike me as a man who needs a third party to act as an intermediary.
We get it. Veterans go at their own pace during the preseason. Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin have already missed time because of minor injuries. They may be being appropriately cautious. They are not the only two lettermen choosing September safety over valor.
But still. The overriding consistent message from Laviolette, beginning with his introductory press conference in mid-June, is that playoff-type hockey habits must be ingrained on a daily basis beginning with training camp. The practices have been good. The exhibition games have not been lousy.
And Laviolette’s words Saturday should remind everyone that there was and is shared blame for Gallant’s departure after two seasons in which the team recorded 110 and 107 points, respectively. That blame is shared by the players who are left behind.
Will Cuylle continues to play like he belongs. Brennan Othmann is making it difficult for the Rangers to send him to Hartford. These are guys who are trying to kick the door down. Alexis Lafreniere, he doesn’t even seem to be politely knocking on the door marked opportunity, does he?
Cuylle is fighting for a spot. Othmann is fighting to make an impression. Lafreniere is supposedly fighting for a top-six role but his three exhibition game performances have ranged from meh to bleh. Yes, again, things that happen in September tend to stay in September, but wouldn’t everyone like to see much more from Lafreniere? Maybe some fire at times?
Laviolette is calculating. His words — both delivered to the media in public and to the players behind closed doors — should have an impact. The Rangers need to take the two remaining exhibition games — unfortunately back-to-back, at New Jersey on Wednesday and then at the Garden against the Bruins the following night — more seriously.
That means every one of them.