Picking the best nine Rangers centers in their 90-year-history presented a challenge I was delighted to meet and complete.
My criteria included Hall of Famers, Stanley Cup-winners and players who delivered in the clutch.
In addition to listing the nine best, I have included contemporary Rangers who play most like those on the All-Time list.
Naturally, I expect some disagreements and welcome other suggestions. Let’s drop the puck and go.
Later to become coach of the 1940 Cup-winners and subsequently manager of the club that went to the seventh game of the 1950 Final, Boucher was clean and crafty.
The Ottawa native was so clean that he won seven Lady Byng Trophies over an eight-year period. That inspired Lady Byng herself to give her silverware to Boucher and have another trophy made for other NHLers.
Centering right wing Bill Cook and left wing, Bun Cook, Boucher paced the Rangers to Stanley Cup victories in 1928 and again in 1933. In his rookie year as coach, “Boosh” masterminded a Stanley Cup Final win over Toronto in six games.
PRESENT RANGER COMPARISON: DEREK STEPAN.
Centering his brother Mac on the right wing with Alex Shibicky on the port side, Neil was the top man on the unit dubbed “The Bread Line.” Neil led all skaters in assists (seven) during the Rangers’ 1940 run to The Cup and tied with teammate Phil Watson for most points, nine.
All three enlisted in the armed forces during World War II and when the conflict ended only Neil returned to stardom; but in an unusual way. Moved from the forward line to defense, Colville excelled until his retirement in 1949.
A two-time Second All-Star — first at forward and later on the back line — Neil was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1967. Not many Rangers can say they starred at both positions and then made it to the Pantheon of Puckdom. P.S. He briefly coached the Blueshirts for the 1950-51 campaign.
PRESENT RANGER COMPARISON: MICHAEL GRABNER
Once reviled as a member of the Boston Bruins, Espo came to New York in one of the NHL’s biggest trades. Along with defenseman Carol Vadnais, Phil moved to Seventh Avenue on Nov. 7, 1975. In exchange, the Bruins received defensemen Brad Park and Joe Zanussi along with center Jean Ratelle.
Phil’s start in Manhattan was less than glorious, but he had found his groove by the 1978-79 season. Facing the heavily favored Islanders in the third round of the playoffs, Esposito paced the Blueshirts to a six-game upset.
Although the New Yorkers were eliminated by the Canadiens in five games, Esposito finished that playoff run with 20 points in 18 games. His eight goals put him at third overall in the post-season. The Hall of Famer concluded his career in the 1980-81 campaign.
PRESENT RANGER COMPARISON: RICK NASH
Rangers GM Neil Smith had tried to bring The Great One to Seventh Avenue for several years. He finally succeeded for the 1996-97 season, teaming Gretz with his former Edmonton teammate, Mark Messier.
He spent three full seasons wearing Broadway Blue, serving as an alternate captain to Messier and posted superior numbers at the end of his playing career. During his first two seasons with the club, Gretzky did not miss a single game and racked up 97 and 90 points, respectively.
Although his numbers as a Ranger were not as high as they were with the Oilers, Kings, or Blues, Wayne still contributed admirably, considering that he was near the end of his playing career. The greatest offensive center in NHL history average more than a point per contest while with the Rangers.
After a slower season in 1998-99, Gretzky left the Rangers and retired from the playing side of professional hockey. His Hall of Fame credentials was certified in 1999.
For years during World War II, Rangers general manager Frank Boucher desperately tried to woo Laprade from the amateur ranks. Known as “The Bearcat On The Prowl”, Laprade finally signed with the Blueshirts for the 1945-46 season and immediately won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.
A smooth skater and expert stick handler, Laprade betrayed one shortcoming — a terribly weak shot. He frequently would find himself in scoring position only to shoot inefficiently.
Laprade starred for the Rangers in their vain try for the Stanley Cup in 1950, scoring three goals and five assists in 12 Stanley Cup games. He retired following the 1954-55 season .
PRESENT RANGER COMPARISON: MATS ZUCCARELLO
If sheer popularity proved to be the barometer in determining THE best Rangers center, The Big M would top most non-alphabetical lists. One Gotham-based poll of all-time favorite New York sports heroes even had Messier on top — ahead of New York Yankees iconic shortstop Derek Jeter.
From his Hart Trophy season with the Rangers in 1992 to his immortal guarantee before Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Final, Messier delivered when it mattered the most. After 54 long years, Mess helped end the Cup drought and brought Lord Stanley’s hardware back to The Garden on June 13, 1994.
The former captain tallied 691 points in 698 career games on Broadway in two separate stints with the team and is considered one of the best leaders in all sports, not just hockey.
General manager Frank Boucher pulled off one of the best trades in Rangers history in the summer of 1947. Dispatching defenseman Hal Laycoe, plus forwards Joe Bell and George Robertson to Montreal, Boucher obtained defenseman Frankie Eddolls and center Buddy O’Connor from the Habs.
The steal of the deal was O’Connor. During the 1947-48 season, “Hockey’s Lightest Player” — 142 pounds — was also the NHL’s best. “Buddy is smooth, rhythmic and deceptive,” explained Boucher. “He puts pucks on teammates’ sticks with the weight of a feather.”
Until O’Connor arrived, the Rangers had missed the playoffs for five straight years. This time, he not only powered his club into the playoffs, but won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s premier performer. Buddy thus became the first Ranger to achieve that honor since the club’s inception in 1926.
Buddy’s value was underlined when he finished second in NHL scoring in 1947-48, won the Lady Byng Trophy and received the West Side Trophy as the most valuable member of the Rangers.
PRESENT RANGER COMPARISON: J.T. MILLER
Raleigh’s game resembled the smarts we saw for many years in Brad Richards. Plus, “Bones” centered one of the NHL’s best lines, doling smooth passes to left wing Ed Slowinski and Pentti Lund.
In addition, Raleigh captained the New York sextet and holds the distinction of being one of the few players who played professional hockey in Brooklyn. As a 16-year-old Rangers prospect, Raleigh skated for the Brooklyn Crescents in the old Eastern Hockey League when Brooklyn was a Rangers’ farm team.
Raleigh got his nickname from the New York Journal-American — American hockey writer Barney Kremenko. As it happened, Kremenko won some money at Belmont race track betting on a horse named Bag of Bones. That night, Raleigh had a big game and Kremenko decided to call him after his winning horse, shortening it simply to “Bones”. And that’s how the lightweight Ranger was known until he retired in 1956.
A fan favorite throughout his all-Rangers career, Raleigh was well-remembered by those who viewed his exploits.
PRESENT RANGER COMPARISON: MIKA ZIBANEJAD
The one word that best befits this center’s game it’s “smooth.” Groomed in the Rangers’ Junior farm system at Guelph, Ontario, Ratelle’s rise to stardom required patience and fortitude, of which he had a surplus.
The nickname “Gentleman Jean” perfectly described Ratelle. Quiet to a fault, he soon developed into the team’s best center between Boucher’s retirement and Messier’s arrival.
Emile Francis, who had coached Ratelle in Juniors before taking over the Rangers, once said, “Ratelle was the closest thing I had ever seen to Jean Beliveau.”
The analogy made sense. Both were tall, rangy centers who were swift skaters, deft passers, and accurate shooters. Like his boyhood friend and longtime linemate Gilbert, Ratelle overcame major back surgery to become an NHL star.
One of the loudest and longest ovations in Garden history was heard on February 27, 1972, when Jean became the first Ranger to score 100 points in a single season.
PRESENT RANGER COMPARISON: KEVIN HAYES