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Friday, May 31, 2013
Will the Rangers choose Messier?

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

Mark Messier
Mark Messier could handle the bright lights of the big city -- guaranteed.

Glen Sather has no way of knowing if Mark Messier, whom he has asked to coach the Rangers before, would be a terrific NHL coach. But the part that is a sure thing is Sather can certainly predict the splash the hiring would make, and the resonance it might have with the Rangers' returning players who felt worn out -- even buggy-whipped at times -- by just-fired coach John Tortorella. And that might be reason enough for Sather to bypass the safer coaching candidates who are already interviewing elsewhere.

If Sather believes the Rangers' greatest problem is their state of mind as a team more than the state of their talent, then Messier should be their man.

(I'd argue the Rangers' problem this past season was both. They're kidding themselves if they think their talent is as good as, say, the final four teams now left in the Stanley Cup playoffs.)

Mark Messier
Messier will always be a captain at heart.

But it's also hard to argue Messier is not as "qualified" for the job as Lindy Ruff, who spent 16 seasons coaching Buffalo, or Alain Vigneault, who had so much success in Vancouver. Messier just brings a different kind of experience. He's arguably the best, most magnetic leader the NHL has ever seen. It's easy to see Sather chewing on a stogie and dismissively growling that all that other stuff -- the X's and O's, and drudgeries such as running a training camp -- are what crackerjack assistant coaches are for.

But taking the job would be a risk on Messier's part, too. He can't know for sure, either, if he would make a terrific head coach or just a mediocre one whose time on the bench would dim his pristine legacy. Being able to influence a game from the bench is harder than when you can take over a game as a player. Just ask Wayne Gretzky, who found that out when he coached the Coyotes before Dave Tippett. Or Isiah Thomas, whose ugly denouement Messier got to watch at the Garden when Thomas coached the Knicks. Many aspects of the job are an unappealing grind.

But Messier certainly has an ego and a sense of drama.

There is the sense that Jeff Gorton has vaulted past him in line to be the Rangers' next GM though Messier has been Sather's special assistant since 2009.

And the part of the coaching job description that does fit Messier perfectly is the idea of taking a group of players who are down and telling them, "Follow me, boys."

That, Messier knows how to do. And that justifiable conceit -- combined with the argument (guilt trip?) that Sather could make to him that the franchise desperately needs him, if only to keep a waffling Henrik Lundqvist interested in signing a long-term contract extension -- might just be enough to get Messier to abandon the reservations that he had about coaching the first couple of times Sather asked him to consider the idea. Or, more recently, when Edmonton reached out to him about coaching there.

Besides, Sather can also play the loyalty card.

Because it's impossible to miss what just happened at the Garden.

It was clear from the moment that Tortorella was fired that those must have been some scalding exit interviews the players conducted with Sather between Saturday, when their season ended so disappointingly, and Wednesday, when Tortorella was let go.

Everything you heard before then was Tortorella's job was safe despite the Rangers' second-round playoff loss to Boston.

Tortorella
John Tortorella's style ultimately wrecked the Rangers' confidence.

But that was before breakup day on Monday featured the extraordinary sight of the Rangers' best player (Lundqvist), one of their highest-paid players (Brad Richards) and their team captain (Ryan Callahan) publicly contradicting their bullying coach's denials that this season constituted a "step back" or, in Richards' case, that Tortorella's benching of him damaged their relationship.

No wonder Sather saw that, called Tortorella in and opened the trap door beneath him, then refused to elaborate why. And how telling was it that Torts was "surprised," according to Sather? Or that Marian Gaborik -- the 40-goal-scorer-turned-scapegoat who the Rangers shipped out to Columbus for more grinders -- tweeted of Torts' firing, "Everything happens for a reason."

It was as if Tortorella thought he could go on picking fights and humiliating everyone with impunity. And in his defense, you can see why. Sather has drawn a paycheck at the Garden for 13 years despite never having much success until Tortorella walked through the door and took the Rangers to the only Eastern Conference finals trip of Sather's tenure.

That was just last season.

But even by the end of that 2012 series loss to the New Jersey Devils, the Rangers looked like a desperately worn-down, hollow-eyed team -- though they denied it. In hindsight, it feels like some seeds for what happened this year were laid then. And having to go through this past season with more of Tortorella's hectoring and grenade-tossing and punitive actions after they made mistakes must have felt excruciating at times -- especially when results no longer came as they did a season ago.

That's precisely the sort of thing that breaks a team's spirit and -- as we saw in the past week -- causes some players to finally rebel.

Playing for Tortorella's 2013 Rangers was not a happy calling.

Messier's presence on the bench could change the Zeitgeist on a dime. It would pump life into the franchise and the locker room. Beyond that, who knows?

To seriously contend, the Rangers are going to recognize they need to improve their talent both offensively and defensively.

But it's always hard to know what anyone at the Garden is thinking. It's even more foolish to think that sound logic will apply to what a James Dolan-owned team decides to do. The return of Mike Keenan rumors are patently absurd. But then, Sather's choice of former Islanders star Bryan Trottier to coach the Rangers years ago was one of the more tone-deaf moves of his career. (What? Denis Potvin wasn't available?)

There is also the matter of how much Sather, now 70 and just recently having undergone surgery for prostate cancer, feels that hiring Messier could have the ancillary effect of buying himself a little time, too.

But Sather doesn't seem like the kind of guy who worries about such things. Or needs to. Dolan has stuck with him beyond reason. So if Sather wants Messier to have the job, and Messier wants the job, Messier can probably have it.

Nostalgia isn't the reason to hire Messier as much as the galvanizing inspiration he will bring. That we know he can do.