Pat Riley, the former coach of the Knickerbockers among others, is credited with saying, “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
There’s something to that, and it certainly applies to the NHL, where Nos. 1 through 30 (and soon 31) are separated by a relatively slim margin, where you can be riding high for a year or a number of years, and then get caught from behind.
It happens every season, teams going from the outhouse to penthouse — or vice versa — in a league where there hasn’t been a repeat champion since Scotty Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98 (Pittsburgh can repeat in this year’s Cup Final against Nashville, which began Monday).
And in a league where the 16th-seeded team can reach the Cup final, as Nashville has. A league where loser’s points and bonus points for skills competition victories skew standings.
More proof: Nearly half the field of 16 that competed for the Cup this springtime didn’t make the playoffs last spring. So there’s that.
Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Detroit, the Islanders, Florida, Los Angeles and Dallas were replaced in the tournament this season by Columbus, Toronto, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary.
So you have to get better or you’ll get worse because somebody else will be getting better.
Which brings us to the Rangers.
I thought this year’s team, with its still-developing youth, and the three new rookies, and with much more depth and speed up front, were better than the year before. The product on ice for what amounted to 94 games, well, might not have been a lot better because some of the veterans had challenging seasons.
They went one playoff round longer this season – aided by their slide over to the Atlantic Division bracket and a first-round matchup with Montreal rather than Pittsburgh or Washington. If it was an improvement, it was slight. And arguably.
As noted, things can change quickly, and will. Teams are going to have to make hard decisions around the salary cap, around the expansion draft, and for other reasons.
Maybe the most interesting case will be Washington, where it just hasn’t worked despite all the talent, multiple coaches and GMs.
The Capitals are going to have to blow up a portion of their roster anyway because of the salary cap-explosion of unrestricted free agents (Kevin Shattenkirk, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Daniel Winnik) and restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, plus backup goalie Philipp Grubauer.
The Cup finalist Predators are going to have to make a move with one of their top four defensemen or lose one for nothing to the expansion draft. Ottawa has 11 unrestricted free agents, though none of them of the major variety.
Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton has to maneuver his protected list for the expansion draft – and still likely will lose a player he wants to keep. Then he has to do some upgrading, most notably on defense.
No doubt they would love to get Smith re-signed. He will come with a pretty hefty price tag: A 28-year-old, in-his-prime defensive defenseman with bite in his game who, despite being a lefty, is very comfortable on the right side; and one coming off a strong playoff performance in a league where everybody needs defensemen.
Glass, who just completed his three-year contract and spent a lot of the last two seasons in the minors, you’d have to think will be allowed to walk.
Mika Zibanejad, who made $2.625 million last year and is arbitration eligible, is their most notable restricted free agent along with Jesper Fast (a bargain at $900,000 last year) and Oscar Lindberg ($650,000).
Gorton’s got work to do. The Rangers have been one of the league’s best teams since 2011-12. They have room to get better in 2017-18. Or they can get worse.
ABOUT LAST NIGHT
Some bizarre Game 1 of the Cup Final – Pittsburgh has an early Nashville goal disallowed by micro evidence of a video challenge, gets a 5-on-3 goal, gets a goal off a Predators’ knee, and goes 37 minutes without a shot on goal, blows a 3-0 lead, somehow breaks a late 3-3 tie, and wins 5-3. Nashville’s got to have gained a lot of confidence from that game. Pittsburgh, up 1-0 in the series, needs to destroy the video.
Since the Cup Final became a best-of-seven in 1939, the Game 1 winner has won the Cup 77.9 percent of the time (60 of 77 series), including each of the last five Cups.
TALE OF TWO CUP COACHES
Not only is this the first Stanley Cup Final between two American-born coaches, but also the two Cup coaches both came, to small degrees, through the Rangers. Mike Sullivan, of course, was John Tortorella’s assistant here.
Peter Laviolette played 12 NHL games (no points, six penalty minutes) as a Ranger during the final year of the Phil Esposito–Michel Bergeron regime, 1988-89. I believe that myself and Helene Elliott of the L.A. Times are the only remaining NHL journalists to have covered his entire career.
I never really got to know Sullivan, who is 7-0 in playoff series as Penguins coach. That’s just the way it is/was during the Tortorella regime. The news media never got to interact with Sullivan, other than the one time he was up for some head coaching jobs and Torts let him speak to us. I got to know pretty much every other assistant coach to some degree over the years, including Tortorella when he was an assistant to John Muckler. But not Sully.
Speaking of the first Stanley Cup Final between two American-born coaches, did you know the Penguins have 10 American players on their roster; Nashville just three?