Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hats Off to The Kings and Thank You New York Rangers

20 years ago today, Flag Day, 1994, the New York Rangers hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. Friday night's Game 5 of this year's final between the Rangers and LA Kings went past midnight on the East coast. That meant that when Alec Martinez scored the game and series clinching goal in double overtime, the Kings were carrying the Cup in celebration on Flag Day, 2014.

It ended a dream that Rangers fans have carried since that magical night 20 years ago when team captain Mark Messier hoisted the Cup in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd. It was the first time the Rangers have made it to the finals since that night two decades ago. For a team with only four Stanley Cup wins since in it's inception in 1926, you don't want to let opportunities slip through your fingers.

Unfortunately, the Rangers ran into a powerhouse in the Kings. While the Rangers, with the exception of Game 3, led or were tied for the majority of most of the games, it was the Kings who won four out of five. It was the LA's second title in the last three years.

People will talk about the blown two-goal leads the Rangers held in the first two games, but their opponent was a relentless one. The Kings used their size to slow down a speedy Rangers team, which wasn't shy on size either, but couldn't compare to the linebackers playing for the Kings.

The players and fans are hurting right now, but this was one helluva run. One that was not anticipated during the stretch run of the season. The "only" significant move the Rangers made at the trade deadline was sending captain Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning for their captain, Martin St. Louis. The acquisition of St. Louis was to send a jolt to the offense, but the (reportedly) 5'8" winger managed just a single goal in 19 games.

Then the playoffs started and things changed. The Rangers knew they had the goalie to win a Cup in Henrik Lundqvist, but the remainder of the roster had little Cup experience. In fact, St. Louis and Brad Richards, teammates on the 2004 Lightning team that captured the Cup, were the only Rangers players to previously play for a title.

But the Rangers showed plenty of grit and heart, especially after they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins three games to one in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Their play over the remainder of the Penguins series was remarkable, especially considering the death of St. Louis' mother prior to Game 5. The support of his teammates and the fans seemed to help elevate St. Louis' play and in he, in turn, fired up his teammates.

The Rangers then exorcised some demons in defeating the Montreal Canadiens, a team they have always struggled with in the regular season, in the conference final. Then it was the two major markets playing for the greatest trophy in sports. Unfortunately, Rangers fans will have to hold on to that image of Messier, Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, and Adam Graves a little while longer. While there is encouragement that teams in recent years have gotten back to the finals more often - Kings (Cups in '12, '14), Blackhawks (Cups in '10, '13, conference finals '14), Bruins (Cup in '11, finals in '13) - the Rangers roster could quite different next season.

But in the meantime, thank you New York Rangers for a great ride!

And for a semi-dose of reality...
2014-2015 Rangers

One of the first players that will be looking for a new team next year will be Richards. The unofficial captain after the departure of Callahan, Richards played much better in Alain Vigneault's system than he did under John Tortorella, but he didn't play well in the finals. Richards entered the series with 12 points in 20 games, but only managed to pick up one assist against the Kings. But more than anything it's the absurd contract that Glen Sather signed him to prior to the 2011-2012 season that will cost him his Rangers career. The nine-year deal still has six years and $27MM remaining on it.

Richards will receive an amnesty buyout, which in his case will amount to roughly $18MM. The buyout will not count against the team's salary cap, which the league reduced from $70.2MM to $64.3MM as part of the last collective bargaining agreement. It will be the second and last buyout the Rangers will be allowed after they exercised their first buyout on defenseman Wade Redden last year.

The Rangers have a number of unrestricted free agents as well. Chief among them defenseman Anton Stralman, center Brian Boyle, and center Dominic Moore. Stralman was on the Rangers' second defensive pairing with Mark Stahl and earned $1.7MM this past season. He should be one of the Rangers top priorities this off-season.

Boyle and Moore are two of the players that are easier to replace, but both have been solid for the Rangers. Moore was one of the Rangers best forwards in the finale with this tenacious, gritty play. Boyle is an excellent faceoff man, penalty killer, and has a combo of size (6'7") and speed. But Boyle earned $1.7MM last year and the Rangers are likely to look for a cheaper alternative. Moore earned $1MM this season and would not likely earn much more than that if the Rangers retained him.

Benoit Pouliot showed a scoring touch at times, but after making $1.3MM, the Rangers will let him walk. Dan Carcillo is a question mark. He made $8.25MM this year and played reasonably well until he got physical with a linesman in the Montreal series and missed all of the finals. (He was eligible to play in Game 5.)

Among the restricted free agents (2013-2014 salaries in parenthesis) the Rangers will try to retain are forwards Derick Brassard ($3.2MM), Chris Kreider ($1.325MM), Mats Zuccarello ($1.15MM), and defenseman Justin Falk ($975K). Defenseman John Moore ($925K) would seem to be on the bubble.

Unless you've followed junior hockey or the Hartford Wolfpack, you may not be aware of Danny Kristo, another restricted free agent, who has yet to play in the NHL. Kristo had 43 points for the Wolfpack in 65 games this season. Drafted by the Canadiens in 2008, the Rangers acquired him last season for Christian Thomas.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

RIP, Bob Welch

I was stunned by the news I heard earlier Tuesday evening that former Major Leaguer Bob Welch had died of a heart attack on Monday. Welch was just 57 years of age. One moment and one season will always stand out in my mind about Welch.

The moment I am referring to is, of course, his one on one battle with Reggie Jackson in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. The LA Dodgers had already won Game 1 and led Game 2 4-3 in the top of the 9th inning. Bucky Dent led off the inning with a single off of Terry Forster and Paul Blair drew a one-out walk.

Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda sent for Welch, a rookie at the time, with Thurman Munson and Jackson due up. Munson flew out to right on an 0-1 count, but Jackson and Welch battled through a nine-pitch at-bat. With the count 1-1, Mr. October fouled off three straight pitches before the count evened at 2-2. After another foul ball, Jackson worked the count full. Finally, Welch, the 20th overall pick just a year prior, blew a fastball past Jackson to put the Dodgers up two games to none.

I can see it as if it were yesterday. Jackson's body language expressed his frustration as Welch and his teammates celebrated. (The Yankees would go on to win the next four and in a small measure of revenge, Jackson hit a tape measure home run off of Welch in the finale.)

Welch's 1990 campaign with the Oakland A's was one of the best in baseball history. He finished 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA. It was the most wins since Steve Carlton won 27 for the 1972 St. Louis Cardinals. After he started the season 3-2, Welch reeled off 10 straight wins. He also had five-game and four-game winning streaks later in the season.

Welch won the Cy Young Award and was named to the second of his two All-Star teams. He also finished ninth in the AL MVP voting. He won two World Series rings (1981 Dodgers, 1989 A's) and won 211 career games over a 17-year career (10 in LA, 7 in Oakland). Welch earned a third ring as pitching coach for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

After his retirement in 1994, Welch wrote about a book, with George Vecsey, "Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory". The tome discussed Welch's battle with alcoholism. He is survived by former wife, Mary Ellen, and three children.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

RIP Zim, We'll Miss Ya

Don Zimmer had so many jobs in baseball, he became famous, sometimes infamous, for so many things. His family and his baseball families suffered a loss today when the colorful 83-year old died two months after having heart surgery.

Zimmer's first personna was that of a player in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. He was a member of the '55 "Bums" that finally beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. He nearly died though before he put together a 12-year career, primarily as a reserve. Playing for St. Paul in 1953, Zimmer lost sight of a pitch and leaned right into the ball.

In the days before helmets, Zimmer suffered a devastating head injury. He was unconscious for nearly two week and had to have holes drilled in his head to relieve the pressure. The 170 pound infielder dropped down to 124 pounds and was told he would never play a game. The doctors didn't know just how tough Zim was.

He went with the Dodgers when they moved to Los Angeles and picked up another World Series ring with the 1959 team. He bounced around after that. Taken by the Mets in the expansion draft in 1961, Zimmer had the misfortune of playing on the sad sack Mets squad that lost 120 games in 1962. Zimmer retired from MLB after the 1965 season with stops in Cincinnati, briefly back with the Dodgers, and three years in Washington. There was one more season in professional baseball for Zimmer though, as a member of the 1966 Toei Flyers in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.

Baseball was still in Popeye's blood even though he was no longer a player. He got his first Major League managerial job with the San Diego Padres in 1972 after Preston Gomez was fired 11 games into the season. The Padres were 114 and 190 under Zimmer, who was fired after the 1973 season. The next stop was in Boston to replace Darrell Johnson after 86 games into the 1976 season. In 1978, the Red Sox built up a 14.5 game lead over the New York Yankees. But the Yankees began a Summer surge while the Red Sox swooned. A 163rd game was needed to decide the AL East winner and Bucky Dent ruined Zimmer's and Boston's dreams. Zimmer, unfairly, became the scapegoat for the blown division lead.

Zimmer was let go by Boston near the end of the 1980 season, but got a job the following year as the Texas Rangers manager. He was fired 96 games into the 1982 season. Zimmer's final managerial stint came as the skipper of the Chicago Cubs from 1988 into 1991. The 1989 team won 93 games, but lost in the NLCS to San Francisco in five games.

Zimmer got a new lease on his baseball life when Joe Torre, barely an acquaintance at the time, asked him to be his bench coach for his new gig as the New York Yankees manager. Zim became a lovable character during his time in New York, whether it was from Derek Jeter rubbing his head for luck, donning an army helmet after a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball hit him, taking on George Steinbrenner, or charging Pedro Martinez during a bench clearing brawl.

Zimmer stayed closer to his home in Florida the last 11 years as a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays. Baseball wasn't his dearest family though. That distinction belonged to his wife Jean, better known as "Soot", who he met in the 10th grade. The couple was married for 63 years and had two children, a son, Tom, and a daughter, Donna, who gave them four grandchildren.

Zim's health began to deteriorate and he suffered a stroke in 2008. This past April he endured surgery to repair a leaky heart valve, but never fully recovered. My thoughts, prayers, and condolences go out to his family and friends. Don Zimmer, one of a kind.

Updated 6/5

Derek Jeter reflects back on Zim