Conventional wisdom about building a hockey championship contender revolves around the draft. The thinking is that you build through the draft and then supplement the roster via free agency and trades. Building through free agency is typically a fool-hardy move.
But good luck convincing the longtime general manager of the New York Rangers, Glen Sather, of those ideals.
How the Rangers have gotten to this point of being annual contenders in the East and now reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years is rather atypical. Look at the other top teams across the league and their cornerstone players were all draft picks: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, etc., etc. There's a reason why it's viewed as the right approach to building a winner.
It just doesn't mean it's the only approach. When you look at this Rangers roster, there is really only one player that you can call a cornerstone player at this point who was drafted by Sather and company. That would be a seventh-round pick all the way back in Sather's first year in 2000 named Henrik Lundqvist.
Certainly the Rangers have picked up other very key components in the draft to this Eastern Conference champion roster such as former first-rounders Marc Staal (12th overall in 2005) and Chris Kreider (19th in 2009) along with Derek Stepan (second round in 2008) and Carl Hagelin (sixth round in 2007). Undoubtedly, these players have all been crucial to the Rangers' success and they wouldn't be half the team they are without them.
Don't mistake the fact that the Rangers have just six players (the sixth is J.T. Miller) on the roster whom they drafted and have stayed with them for the fact that they have gotten nothing from the draft. Truth be told, they actually haven't drafted all that poorly in a relative sense, it's just that Sather used his assets to acquire other assets.
Sather is the type of GM who isn't afraid of a good trade and he's made plenty of them. Two of the biggest deals that have had the biggest impact on this roster actually came with the same team and within the same calendar year.
In one deal the Rangers went for broke and landed Rick Nash, the missing scorer they thought they had to have, from the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was definitely costly as the Rangers gave up Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick. Given that Nash's numbers have dipped some since coming to New York with his hefty price tag of $7.8 million against the cap, the trade hasn't been viewed all that favorably since. Not only has Nash been a bit of a lightning rod but they gave up some of the depth that made them successful.
Fast forward a year and Sather called up the Blue Jackets again, this time sending the star player to Columbus for depth. In that deal Sather sent away Marian Gaborik, a deal that is looking pretty nice for the Rangers these days. In return they landed Derek Dorsett, Derick Brassard and John Moore, three players who have been regulars in their lineup.
Then there was the big trade this deadline to land another big-time scorer, Martin St. Louis. Sather was pretty much gifted St. Louis given his trade request in Tampa and a desire to pretty much only go to the Rangers but he still made it happen. It cost him his captain Ryan Callahan -- who was likely on the outs anyway -- and two first-round picks but St. Louis has become instrumental in these playoffs.
"It was a bit of a chance but it's worked out well," Sather said of the trade on Tuesday. Indeed, it has, but not quite as well as another trade he made.
Who could forget the trade years ago that not only allowed the Rangers to get rid of Scott Gomez and his contract but also netted the Rangers Ryan McDonagh from Montreal? Of all the deals Sather has made in New York, that one will likely forever be the steal.
The funny thing about that deal is that really was a stroke of luck more than genius. Sather admitted on Tuesday before the Final that he had never even seen McDonagh play before making the trade. Hey, whatever works, right?
Don't forget about the team's depth, either. Also brought to this team in trades were Brian Boyle, Kevin Klein, Dan Carcillo and Raphael Diaz. Trades have been perhaps Sather's favorite tool for construction of his roster, the big names and the smaller ones.
Almost like an experimental cook, Sather built this roster with a dash of draft picks, a pinch of trades and a smattering of signings. Spending on free agents is always a very risky proposition but the Rangers have fared pretty well in this department, at least from this current team. Keep in mind that free agency is very much a big bust or boom territory.
The big fish was Brad Richards as the Rangers won the sweepstakes for 2011's biggest free agent. It would be a lie to say that deal has worked out from the beginning. He's still signed for another six seasons after this for a robust $6.67 million per season and it's led to a lot of compliance buyout speculation. But credit where it's due; Sather elected to not use his remaining buyout last summer on Richards and he's responded with a better season, even if it's still not quite the production you expect for that salary. But he's gone from being scratched in the playoffs to having 11 points in 20 games this postseason. Still, Sather will have a decision to make on Richards this summer.
Add recent UFA signings Anton Stralman, Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot and this Rangers team has used the free-agent market rather successfully. The Rangers were always very active in free agency and usually it burned them with big, burdensome contracts but try enough times and you're bound to get the right mix for a Cup run when you have the resources the Rangers have.
The real signings that have had the biggest impacts, though, have been the undrafted guys. It's somewhat ironic given how the Rangers have received a relatively small showing from their draft picks, but they've identified key players who went unselected in drafts.
With all of the big names the Rangers have it was actually Mats Zuccarello who led the Rangers in scoring this season and yet he was a shrewd signing by Sather out of Norway. That's also how they got top-pairing defenseman Dan Girardi (not out of Norway but the undrafted ranks). A partner to McDonagh, Girardi was locked into a long-term contract earlier this season to remain a Ranger for years.
You can't talk about the Rangers' make-up, though, without addressing the big decision that Sather made last offseason. That wasn't to bring in this player or say good bye to that one but instead to dismiss John Tortorella and replace him with Alain Vigneault behind the Rangers bench. The team still has the defensive touches Torts left behind while adding more of an open and line-rolling game under Vigneault. It's been a move that has worked out incredibly well for the Rangers as Vigneault has already gotten this team to a place Tortorella couldn't.
"It did work with Torts for a while," Sather said. "I just think coaches run out of time, it doesn't mean they're a bad coach."
Sather has been in New York for 14 years now, some saying he was living off his reputation from the Oilers dynasty days for far too long. Go back to 2010 and there were rallies being held, asking for Sather's removal from the role.
Given the volatile approach of building largely through trades and signings, the Rangers have had a lot of turnover in recent years, this isn't entirely a group that has grown together into being a Cup contender. But finally, after 14 years of work, Sather got the right mix of a team that has strong defensive qualities, good speed and possession skills and just enough of a scoring touch to get them back to the Final.