What Glen Sather Learned from Donnie Walsh

When you run a sports team in a media-centric city like New York, there aren’t a lot of places to hide if your team isn’t successful. Sure some, most notably the Yankees’ Joe Torre when he coached here, could parlay past success into a fairly consistent waiver from criticism, but other than that, if you’re running or managing a New York team, just about every move is a reason for the entire city to call for your head.

There’s never been an exception to this until recently. When Donnie Walsh took over the Knicks last season, he announced he was getting the team under the salary cap so the Knicks could make a run at LeBron James in 2010. ‘But isn’t it highly unlikely that James will leave Cleveland?’ the city asked. ‘Sure,’ Walsh said. ‘But if he’s not available, we’ll find someone else. We’ll be under the cap. We’ll be able to sign whoever we want.’

And that’s all Walsh has done. Dump salary and not take on more salary. And everyone loves it. The Knicks are still a horrible team, but there’s this idea that the cap space creates the potential for success. Obviously, it’s unrealized success, but the fans and media have been happy to wait two seasons for the Knicks to start moving forward.

Now the Knicks and Rangers are owned by the same family. And I’m sure Rangers GM Glen Sather has noticed that just about any Walsh move is forgiven if it creates or does not add cap space. So when he had the opportunity to trade away Scott Gomez and his awful contract for a solid player, a solid prospect, and a throw-in, he went for it. And everyone loved the move. Even the fans. Sather wasn’t making the team better, but he was creating the idea the team could become better. And apparently just the potential holds fans and media members for quite a while.

People are saying the Rangers now have the cap space to make some major moves. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sather take this very slow, though, as he seems to have learned from watching Walsh that moves will always be criticized unless you can hide behind the idea of creating cap space. If Sather doesn’t make many moves and keeps some cap space, the idea of the next big move being right around the corner will comfort people. No one will call for his job since they don’t know what he might have up his sleeve.

Now this probably seems crazy to people in smaller markets, where cap space often represents unfulfilled potential; players that will never play for your team. But here in New York, a restrained payroll is a very new idea and the fans and media have really taken to it. They see cap space not as a limitation but as a blank canvas.

If Sather is smart, he has put away his paint for the time being.