For some time now, as his reign over the most important single enterprise on his lengthy list of assets has fed the hot-take, 24-7 news cycle machine at a most reliable rate, some hockey fans have been left to wonder why James Dolan’s toxic energy hasn’t infiltrated their world.
The working theory, I suppose, was that the New York Rangers were more of a footnote in the billionaire owner’s vast holdings portfolio. His interest, therefore, could lean further to the fair-weather side, while he saved his more self-sabotaging habits for the NBA’s New York Knicks.
And you can understand why he would remain fixated on the Knicks, too. This was one of sports’ preeminent franchises globally, and under his watch it had devolved into a laughing stock in the league and around the world.
On the flip side, this whole situation had to be considered ideal for those running the Rangers. There was never any concern about budget or blessing under Dolan, and as the Rangers transitioned from the highly competitive seasons of a previous decade, executive management seemed free to lean on logic to build and sustain a winner in a low-pressure environment under the guidance of one of the most respected hockey men on the planet, Hall of Fame executive John Davidson.
But then, something truly unexpected happened this season.
The New York Knicks started to win basketball games — enough to have them comfortably seeded in postseason position in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
It seems with far less angst being fostered by the failures of the most important organization under his control, Dolan may have found himself jonesing for the opportunity to meddle into some affairs.
It felt right, suddenly, to do with the Rangers what he has always done best.
It was time to interfere.
Dolan’s announcement that Davidson, the Rangers president, along with general manager Jeff Gorton had been fired as show runners for the franchise rocked the hockey world Wednesday afternoon.
It was shocking because, despite missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a shortened season in the most competitive division in hockey, the Rangers seemed well ahead of schedule in a from-scratch rebuild that has seen management attract and draft loads of high-end talent.
But what is most stunning about this abrupt left turn from Dolan is that many believe the decision to fire the two front-facing members of the managerial team stems from, or is at least highly related to, a single on-ice incident — one which left the Rangers momentarily without answers.
On the surface, it very much seems as though Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson set off an explosive chain reaction inside the Rangers boardroom after manhandling several members of the team in an on-ice melee Monday night, before flexing at the bench from the penalty box.
And doing it essentially without punishment.
Since those WWE-level antics, the Rangers shared an unprecedentedly scathing review of the NHL’s department of player safety head, George Parros, after Wilson escaped the incident with a mere fine, words that have since cost the Rangers (or Dolan) $250,000.
Not long after the statement was shared on social media, Davidson and Gorton were axed, and the Rangers took to the ice for the return meeting versus the Capitals, seemingly intent on making a mockery of the game — and the concept of player safety — in a fight-filled first period to kick off a game they would handily lose.
So in no more than 72 hours, a highly respected franchise on the path to building a potential winner in one, if not, the most important market in the league, has been engulfed, it seems, by the turbulence that’s defined Dolan’s career as a franchise owner.
Left now is former captain Chris Drury to appease Dolan as the club’s new acting general manager.
Admittedly, this has been, to this point, an exercise in connecting the few dots at our disposal.
We are without firm information to this point, primarily because Dolan might not be readily available on the rolodex of most respected hockey insiders, while the cone of silence seems to have been placed on Davidson and Gorton, who have every reason to protect the loads of money remaining on contracts that can’t simply be torn to pieces by keeping things in the vault.
Silence, therefore, means we must surmise how Dolan arrived at his decision, and there are really only three options — each of which seem rather senseless.
The first theory, and the spin that seems to be coming out of the Rangers’ camp, is that Dolan is unhappy with the performance, direction and prospects of winning moving forward. While potentially true, this would be incredibly shortsighted and a clear example of mismanagement on Dolan’s behalf.
That’s because in just over three years since the Rangers penned a letter to their fans to explain that a rebuild is on the horizon, the team has negotiated a free agent contract with an MVP-calibre forward in Artemi Panarin, acquired and developed a Norris Trophy candidate in Adam Fox, transitioned out of the Henrik Lundqvist era with two exciting goaltending prospects, and drafted Alexis Lafreniere and Kappo Kaako No. 1 overall and No. 2 overall, respectively, without having to scrape the bottom of the barrel for more than one season.
Maybe there is a little disappointment that the Rangers missed the postseason while competing with Washington, Pittsburgh, Long Island and Boston in a tough division further bolstered by realignment, but you simply cannot elevate a team from the depths quicker than the Rangers have done. At least in a manner considered sustainable.
What’s also a possibility is that ownership and management butted heads over the criticism of the NHL after Monday’s meltdown. It’s been reported that Davidson and Gorton were blindsided by the $250,000 statement from the Rangers, and it’s not hard to see why something so explosive would cause an issue in the ranks.
Dolan’s history would suggest that he’s petty enough to fire one of the most respected folks in the game, and his understudy, over a disagreement.
See: Dolan’s handling of Knicks great Charles Oakley.
So perhaps there’s something there.
But the last theory might have more to it, as perhaps a mixture of the two ideas already discussed. Perhaps it’s possible that Dolan didn’t like the type of team Davidson and Gorton were building, and that the Wilson incident thrust that underlying issue under the spotlight.
Legendary former Rangers captain Mark Messier, who may or may not be campaigning for a role with the organization, weighed in, and may have shed some light into Dolan’s rationale.
“In my opinion, if you’re going to win, you got to be able to win in the street and the alley,” he said, via Mollie Walker of the New York Post. “I particularly would not have built the team that didn’t have answers in this regard.”
What Wilson managed, if anything, was to expose a perceived weakness in the Rangers roster.
There was not a single skater who could police Wilson in the moment, let alone acquire his own pound of flesh after Panarin was dumped onto his head.
Based on the events that preceded the actual game play in the rematch, it seems obvious that this was a discussion inside the Rangers camp, as six players volunteered to fight, while several others made attempts. In the end, it was Brendan Smith tasked with exchanging punches with Wilson, who won yet another confrontation against a player in a weight division below his.
That right there alone could be the reason Davidson and Gorton are without a job today.
It seems insanely foolish — mostly because so much had been accomplished in three short years, but also because the process of building the roster was far from complete.
Winning fights doesn’t equate to winning hockey games, but Davidson and Gorton probably could have learned from the Wilson incident themselves, if given a chance.
But Dolan has acted on less, and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised.
Even if it’s taken him this long.
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