Jeff Jacobs: Chris Drury has always been a winner, but Rangers' mess his biggest challenge

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New York Rangers Associate General Manager Chris Drury works the bench during the game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on March 17 in New York. Due to the NHL COVID-10 protocol, the Rangers coaching staff was not available for the game.

New York Rangers Associate General Manager Chris Drury works the bench during the game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on March 17 in New York. Due to the NHL COVID-10 protocol, the Rangers coaching staff was not available for the game.

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Since that August day in 1989, when he kept Taiwan off-balance with his assortment of off-speed pitches to lead Trumbull to the Little League World Series title, Chris Drury has been known as a champion.

The truth is Drury already had led the Greater Bridgeport Pee Wee team to the national title earlier that year. He’d become the first to win the Hobey Baker Award as top college player and Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. He won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. Later, as Rangers captain, injuries would dog him into retirement in 2011 without fulfilling the dream of a second Stanley Cup with his favorite childhood team.

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2015, file photo, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2015 inductee Chris Drury poses for a photograph prior to the induction ceremony in Boston. The New York Rangers abruptly fired president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 with three games left in the season. Chris Drury was named president and GM. He previously served as associate GM under Davidson and Gorton. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2015, file photo, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2015 inductee Chris Drury poses for a photograph prior to the induction ceremony in Boston. The New York Rangers abruptly fired president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 with three games left in the season. Chris Drury was named president and GM. He previously served as associate GM under Davidson and Gorton. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Charles Krupa / Associated Press

A year before Brian Burke had been questioned about his selection of Drury to his third Olympic team, and Burke answered all criticism with this remark: “We picked Chris Drury because he’s Chris Drury.”

That’s why James Dolan, the executive chairman of Madison Square Garden Sports, picked Drury as president and general manager of the Rangers in a day that rocked New York sports and the hockey world. Because he is Chris Drury.

This week has been a dangerous clown show for the NHL. When someone like Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson is allowed to run your league, to dictate the course of a great game that so often inflicts injury to itself, it can be described no other way.

Whether or not one chooses to directly correlate the overhaul of the Rangers front office to Wilson’s actions on the ice, it is impossible to separate the narrative that twists like a serpent around the series of events.

Anytime Dolan, who has viciously yet accurately been described as a trust-fund kid with an addiction problem, becomes over-involved with the Knicks or Rangers doom inevitably follows. The good news is Dolan has found sobriety and has stayed away from overinvolvement in his sports toys in recent years.

Until Wednesday. He fired Rangers president John Davidson, who returned to New York in 2019 as good a man as there is in the sport, and general manager Jeff Gorton. With only three games left, it was shocking. After the club sent out The Letter signed by Gorton and Glen Sather to fans in 2018 that it would undergo a reconstruction of its roster, that rebuild had been seen as a success.

The Rangers climbed from the bottom of the NHL standings as draft picks were stockpiled, and an element of luck got them Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko as top lottery picks. They acquired top defenseman Adam Fox along with Mika Zibanejad, Jacob Troubo and Artemi Panarin. They also missed the playoffs again this year and the rebuild evidently wasn’t quick enough for Dolan.

Drury is smart. Drury is determined. He is stable. He is loyal to the Rangers. He could have left to become Penguins or Panthers GM and didn’t. He has put in six years with the organization, including running Hartford’s AHL affiliate. At 44, he is ready to run an NHL team. The question is, is he ready to quicken the timeline to give Dolan what he wants immediately?

Does he fire coach David Quinn? Does he make a huge deal for the likes of Jack Eichel? Major roster moves, or essentially stick with the path Davidson and Gorton were forging and test Dolan’s patience?

The grit vs. talent debate has been hanging over the team’s head. And it became evident in losses to the Islanders, which had to give Dolan Steinbrenneresque annoyance, and Monday’s debacle with the Capitals. The Rangers can use some more fiber to go with their skill. Still, that is entirely fixable and there’s nothing to suggest Gorton/Davidson couldn’t fix it.

This doesn’t mean a goon with no hockey skill. It does mean some resilient, physical players, NHL capable, to give and take hits, win one-on-one-battles, etc. This isn’t croquet.

As someone who covered some wild minor league stuff dating to the 1970s and covered the NHL for two decades, this is no advocacy for brawling. Slapshot is a movie, not a sport. The NHL has matured beyond the worst of it.

Yet until the NHL demonstrates it can adequately police its competitors, we’d be out of our minds not to say it’s a good idea to have a couple of guys who can help teams police themselves. Don’t especially like it, yet when George Parros, the NHL head of public safety, hands Wilson only a $5,000 fine for his idiotic and dangerous actions, what other conclusion can one reach?

Wilson had his stick under Pavel Buchnevich’s neck and with the Ranger facedown on the ice, he punched down on the side of his face. Granted Panarin jumped on his back during the ensuing scrum to try and pull him off Ryan Strome, but Wilson, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, grabbed Panarin, 5-11, 170, by the back of his hair and threw him head first to the ice like a rag doll. If this was the NBA, it’d be Andre Drummond doing it to Steph Curry. Panarin’s lucky he didn’t get a fractured skull.

When Parros’ decision came down, the Rangers were stupefied. In what has been called a Dolan-commissioned statement, Wilson’s actions were called a horrifying act of violence by a repeat offender and Parros was “unfit to continue in his current role.” There have been reports Davidson and Gorton distanced themselves from the statement, yet several reports also insist this distancing wasn’t the reason for their firing. Much is unclear.

Since the teams were meeting again at MSG on Wednesday, what is clear is a modicum of common sense would have made sure Wilson didn’t play in the game. But, no….

A 3-on-3 forward line fight broke out on the opening faceoff. Hanson Brothers style. On Wilson’s first shift, Brendan Smith, perhaps the only Ranger who could lose to Wilson in a fight without getting totally pummeled, went right after him. Smith got an extra instigator and misconduct. Before the first period was over, there were six fights and 100 penalty minutes.

It was a sideshow. None of this would have happened if Wilson was suspended.

Having shown their fraternity, all the Rangers didn’t get the message that enough was enough. Busnevich, who already had taken two stick penalties, including one for slashing Wilson, cross checked Anthony Mantha in the face for a major penalty. Wilson was already ruled out of the game with an upper body injury. Chances are it was for self-preservation, or somebody else’s.

At any rate, after taking a body check from Busnevich, Mantha tapped the Ranger on the back of the leg a few times signaling he wanted to fight. Instead Busnevich jumped up and gave Mantha a suspension-worthy cheap shot. The Caps scored two power-play goals on their way to a 4-2 victory. Busnevich went from victim to villain in 48 hours. It will be hilarious if he only gets a $5,000 fine.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cleared it all up Thursday. Sure he did. He fined the Rangers $250,000 for demeaning criticism of a league executive. Let’s see. Wilson escaped serious punishment. He turned the Rangers into the hottest mess in sports. As a parting gift, he helped get them fined 50 times more than he did. Yep, Tom’s in charge.

Wilson, who has been suspended five times in his career, is a fascinating study, a fascinating dangerous study. He is a good hockey player and leader. Yet so many of his hellacious hits are on the line and one of these times he’s going to be gone. He catches guys with their heads down with the puck or late after they have released it. He often is the second guy in to bury an opponent into the boards. You need to run video back and forth to see if it’s hard and clean or hard and dirty. Either way the result can be injury. What happened Monday, however, wasn’t hockey. It was garbage in a league that often has trouble taking out the trash.

Enter Drury. Among the mayhem he is anti-mayhem. Reserved, humble, sometimes interview averse. A winner. A leader. Someone who coincidentally knows both sides of this week’s story.

While with the Sabres in 2007, he took a shot on goal and absorbed a late, semi-blindside hit from Chris Neil. Drury fell head-first to the ice, suffered a 20-stitch gash and was knocked out. A brawl followed. The NHL did not fine or suspend Neil. Former Sabres owner Tom Galisano howled about league discipline.

Sound familiar?

And this. As the Rangers frantically tried to duplicate their 1994 Stanley Cup — their only one since “1940!” — they spent big money over a decade on the likes of Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Theo Fleury, Bobby Holik, Wade Redden, Scott Gomez and — in 2007 — Chris Drury for a five-year, $32.25 million deal. It didn’t work.

Mr. Drury. You’re move.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123