Warning signs were evident long before they began plunging down the Eastern Conference standings, long before fans started calling for heads, long before high-priced superstars fell into prolonged scoring slumps, long before Chris Drury's mea culpa, long before they longed for Sean Avery.
The New York Rangers have been a sham for some time, the reality of their flaws showing during the inevitable downward spirals that come with an 82-game season. It merely took longer for Bill Parcells' theory to ring true with the Blueshirts, but finally they are what they are: average at best.
Count me among the many who thought they had the makings of a Stanley Cup contender. Every year, it seems, the Rangers seduce the hockey world with their big-ticket players only to watch them come up small. Former Sabres captain Chris Drury is included in a crowded group that has underachieved.
"I'm not doing what I was brought here to do," Drury told the Daily News after a 5-2 debacle Sunday against Philadelphia. "I'm not leading the way I should lead, I'm not playing the way I should play. I stand in front of the guys; I'm the captain. If you want to point fingers, boo people, write your stories or whatever, it should start with me."
Fair enough. Drury had three assists Wednesday night in a 3-1 win over the Islanders, but he's been absent for much of the season. He returns today against the Sabres without a goal in 13 games. He had only three assists to show for 17 contests before Wednesday. He was minus-7 during a 1-6-2 stretch.
He returns without Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Brendan Shanahan, veteran players who gave the team great scoring depth on the wing.
Drury has not been the player Sabres fans remember in the first two years after the lockout, but he's hardly alone. Fingers should have been pointed across the dressing room long before the Rangers stumbled, allowing other teams to close the gap with the regular season approaching its final turn.
The Rangers had scored only two more goals than they had allowed through their first 49 games. Their 29-16-4 record was inflated by overtime, shootout and one-goal victories and a 10-2-1 start. Their success disguised deficiencies on defense and granted them false confidence that has been shaken.
New York had a 18-8 record in games decided by a goal -- going 11-4 in games after regulation including 8-2 in shootouts -- leading into a recent stretch in which they lost eight of nine overall. They scored two goals or fewer in each of the eight losses, scored one goal three times and were shut out twice. Their power play has been in utter disarray, their once-steady goaltending spotty along the way.
Heck, they were downright elated after the win over the Islanders, which was akin to beating up on the JV. And that game could have gone either way.
The Rangers have become so desperate, so delusional, that they're entertaining thoughts of bringing back Avery. He's playing in AHL Hartford and could be picked up by the Rangers, assuming no team with rights before them is interested in the trouble-making big mouth. The fact his return is a possibility explains how far they've fallen.
New York's recent slide was made up of one listless effort after another. A tank job at home against lowly Atlanta was followed three days later by a 10-2 loss in Dallas. The Blueshirts scored one measly goal in a loss to Florida, and their response was a dismal 5-2 loss against Philadelphia in a division game that left them fragile and unsure.
"You see when they score a goal, we totally lose our composure and start running around," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after a 2-1 loss Monday in St. Louis.
At some point, the crazy bounces that kept them among the NHL leaders through the All-Star break would eventually even out. Now that they have, people want answers for how this once-promising team can fall apart, how any group with Drury at the wheel could land in a ditch.
Are they finished? Well, not yet. Detroit had a 1-8-2 stretch last season en route to the Stanley Cup. Anaheim won twice in 11 games during a midseason slump the previous year and won the whole thing, too. But there's a sense that these Rangers aren't capable of rescuing themselves like true winners would.
While it's difficult to imagine Drury ever being less than a leader in the dressing room, he hasn't been a $7.1 million player on the ice. He had 15 goals and 37 points and was minus-10 through 59 games this season, putting him on pace for his worst season since the lockout. I can't say enough good things about the guy, but the facts are thefacts.
So what happened to Buffalo's beloved former captain on his way to Manhattan?
Here, he was an established leader before their current core of players emerged. Lindy Ruff played Drury in all situations, found a comfortable spot for him in the left circle on the power play and watched the Sabres grow around him. He accelerated their development, and they made him better.
Drury didn't arrive as the central figure or unquestioned leader in New York. The Rangers were Jagr's team. It appears he has fallen victim to playing on Broadway, where performance rarely meets salary or the expectations that follow. Drury was a big-time player in Buffalo, perhaps because he wasn't a big-city guy.
In typical Drury fashion, he attempted to blame himself after the Philly game in a righteous but transparent attempt to relieve pressure from his teammates, coach Tom Renney and General Manager Glen Sather. Renney and Sather have been under intense scrutiny from Rangers fans, who want them fired.
Scott Gomez, pocketing $8 million, is on pace for 55 points and had no goals during a nine-game stretch before scoring his 11th on Wednesday. Markus Naslund, $5 million, has three goals and eight points in a 20-game stretch. Defenseman Wade Redden, $8 million, the supposed answer to their power play, hasn't had a five-on-four point since Nov. 19. The three, plus Drury, were a combined minus-43.
Lundqvist, who terrorized the Sabres in the playoffs two years ago, hasn't been himself, either. He played well against the Isles but after the game was still rated 17th in goals-against average (2.53) and save percentage (.913). He's making $7.75 million this season.
All told, that's five key players who signed contracts before last season, who are averaging $7.17 million, putting the team hard up against the salary cap. It's about $5 million more than the NHL average salary, a huge pile of money for an average team.