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Monday, February 23, 2009
Updated: February 24, 6:37 PM ET
If Renney's gone, Sather should be next

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Before we examine Monday's firing of New York Rangers coach Tom Renney, let us first ponder this question: Is there a more overrated person in the entire game of hockey than Rangers GM Glen Sather?

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1997, three years before he began his assault on Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan's checkbook and the Rangers' franchise, Sather on Monday ran off the third coach since he landed in Manhattan with all those Stanley Cup rings from Edmonton. Ron Low, Bryan Trottier and now Renney have been shown the door. Take into account the lockout year and a stint behind the bench himself, and that's a lot of turnover during a short period of time.

Glen Sather
Glen Sather took over as president and GM of the New York Rangers in June 2000.

Makes you wonder what all the fuss was when Sather left the Oil patch.

Talk about living on your past laurels. Or is that merely living in the past?

Sather arrived with the Edmonton Oilers out of the wreckage of the World Hockey Association in 1979 and coached them to four Stanley Cup wins and was GM for another. Since his arrival in New York in 2000, though, Sather has made it seem as though all of that success in Edmonton was somehow a fluke, like labeling the winner of the Powerball lottery a financial genius because, well, he has lots of dough.

After his arrival in New York, Sather presided over four straight nonplayoff seasons and four straight fourth-place finishes in the Atlantic Division (although he did deliver some of the most ill-advised contracts in the history of the game).

The big question in the wake of Monday's firing of Renney was whether Sather did it by e-mail or text, or did he actually emerge from his Madison Square Garden bunker to do the deed?

It's a fair question given the fact he is so rarely available to answer for the decisions he's made in regards to this team (one of the few times was Monday night, when he talked to reporters about Renney's firing via conference call). We recall his behavior at the general managers meetings during the Stanley Cup finals last June. Reporters gathered to cover the event, wanting to ask him about the future of his captain, Jaromir Jagr.

"Not today, boys," Sather announced as he scuttled into an elevator. Did an important tee time await him? He surely wasn't hurrying off to build a better Rangers team.

"Not today, boys" might well be Sather's motto with the Rangers, or not tomorrow or not the day after that.

The Rangers emerged from the 2004-05 lockout with their prospects looking to be no different than before the lockout, but there were differences with this team once Renney officially took over at the start of the 2005-06 season after coaching the final 20 games of the 2003-04 season on an interim basis.

Star forward Jagr embraced Renney and the coach's style of play and once again became one of the game's most dynamic players. Jagr finished second in NHL scoring to San Jose's Joe Thornton and second to Thornton in Hart Trophy balloting in 2005-06. Henrik Lundqvist emerged as a topflight netminder and the Rangers defied all prognosticators by making the playoffs. They did so again in 2007, sweeping Atlanta before being bounced by Buffalo in the second round.

They were in the playoffs for the third straight season last spring with Scott Gomez and Chris Drury having joined the fold, but were upended in the second round by a faster Pittsburgh Penguins team that was too deep down the middle for the Rangers to handle.

This season, Sather lurched out of his bunker and rolled the dice and remodeled the Rangers.

He refused to entertain the idea of bringing Jagr back even though the five-time NHL scoring champ wanted little to do with playing anywhere else and ended up in exile in Russia. Super-pest Sean Avery wanted to return, but Sather wouldn't ante up, even though the team's record was dramatically better with Avery in the lineup than when he wasn't in Rangers blue. As it turns out, Avery could be back in a Rangers uniform in the next week or so after a disastrous turn in Dallas.

Sather had no time, either, for future Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan, who is now looking to help the New Jersey Devils win an Atlantic Division title the Rangers once coveted, but which is now a mirage.

Instead, Sather forsook character and what he knew for flights of fancy.

• Hoping to get more skill and speed, he acquired Nikolai Zherdev from Columbus and signed Markus Naslund away from Vancouver for $8 million over two years.

• One has to wonder if Sather mistakenly watched game tapes from 1996 instead of 2006 or 2007 when he brought in Wade Redden from Ottawa and signed the defenseman to a six-year, $39 million deal that may be among the worst handed out in the history of the NHL.

• He signed Michal Rozsival to a four-year deal worth $20 million to patrol the blue line with Redden.

These deals came on top of the big contracts given to Gomez and Drury the season before.

And then, Sather retreated to his lair and waited.

The result has caromed from shocking to embarrassing to disastrous.

The Rangers have won just twice in their past 12 games. Their leading scorer, Zherdev, has only 45 points and has scored just four times in his past 25 games. The skilled forward has one power-play goal in his past 27 games. The team does not boast a 20-goal scorer.

Redden, 31, has just two goals and hasn't scored a power-play marker since the team returned from Prague, where it opened the regular season with two wins over Tampa Bay.

Naslund, who appeared out of gas in Vancouver the past couple of seasons, has reinforced that notion with four goals in his past 22 games. Over that period, he's been a plus player just three times.

The Rangers rank 29th in goals per game, last in the Eastern Conference, and are 28th on the power play.

Yet, throughout all of this, Renney had continued to instill a sense of defensive responsibility in this team. They have the second-best penalty-killing unit in the NHL, best in the Eastern Conference, and are seventh in goals against per game. And until the end, he managed his duties as coach with class and dignity.

Renney deserves some of the blame, naturally.

Did he do enough to coax offense from this group? Should he have used Petr Prucha more? Did he use Redden too much? Was he too stuck in using Sather's highly paid players as opposed to using lesser players who might have produced more?

Sure, those might have been contributing factors.

So, yeah, go ahead, fire your coach. What better way to try to cover your own mess than by placing it at the feet of someone else.

Sather said Monday night people may second-guess his offseason signings, but that those players have had a history of playing well in the past and he is confident they will play well again for the Rangers. He said he is likewise confident the team can get back to playing the up-tempo style it showed early in the season.

"I think we all have to take responsibility for this," Sather said.

Will John Tortorella, who was named Renney's replacement Monday evening, be able to turn this ship around?

Maybe. Tortorella is a fine coach and has a Stanley Cup ring from Tampa to prove it. Still, with this team's lack of edge and personality, it's hard to imagine it won't drive the combustible Tortorella around the bend.

But here's what makes this firing so unseemly.

If Tortorella manages to coax some more offense out of this team and it continues to get great goaltending from Lundqvist, the Rangers could sneak into the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed. Heck, they started the day in sixth place in the East, so it's not as if they have to jump over four or five teams to get into the mix.

But let's be honest. What are the chances this Rangers squad could do anything but have its lunch handed to it by Boston or Washington or New Jersey in the first round even if it manages to hang on to a postseason berth over the final 21 games of the regular season?

The only thing such an outcome will accomplish is effectively covering Sather's butt on this fiasco. If he ever deigned to offer some comment on the team he manages, he would be able to say, "We made the playoffs. What more do you want?"

But this isn't a one-off thing. Firing Renney may cover the mistakes, but it doesn't fix them. And the problem for the Rangers is these mistakes are too big, too long term to be fixed anytime soon.

There is little in the way of top-end talent coming through the Rangers' system, which you can thank Sather for as well, and too much overpaid, underachieving weight on the big league roster.

As one GM told ESPN.com on Monday, "Who's going to take those contracts?"

That's a recipe for misery at the NHL level, and it's the stew Sather built.

If there were any accountability in the Rangers' boardroom (and the fact Sather has managed to consistently squander Dolan's money all these years suggests there is none), then the moment this season ends, the search would begin for someone who can make things right in a place that has gone so wrong, and will be wrong for a long time coming.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.