The team was coached by Alain Vigneault, and the team was going nowhere. After years of pushing, pushing, pushing, trying its damnedest to win a Stanley Cup, the team would finish dead last in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, eighth out of eight, and collect a paltry 77 points. The team would fire Vigneault, and it would have to figure out what to do next.

So in early February 2018, the New York Rangers sent a letter, signed by then-president Glen Sather and then-general manager Jeff Gorton, to their fans. It explained that the team would begin rebuilding.

“The decisions we make going forward,” Gorton later told reporters, “will be based on [the] long-term and not trying to save this season.”

If you follow the Flyers, you can see where this setup is headed. More than four years later, the Rangers are in the Eastern Conference Finals and are tied 2-2 in the series against the two-time-defending Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. They won 52 games and racked up 110 points, tied for the fourth-best in the conference, during the regular season. They have a collection of dynamic forwards, one of the league’s best defensemen in Adam Fox, and possibly the league’s best goaltender in Igor Shesterkin.

The Flyers don’t have those things. They don’t have one dynamic offensive player, let alone a collection of them. They have Ivan Provorov, who by now was supposed to be one of the league’s best defensemen but instead has been a player whose quality of play is completely dependent on the quality of his blue-line partner. They have Carter Hart, who hasn’t yet shown himself to be in Shesterkin’s class. They finished in last place in the Metropolitan this season, eighth out of eight, and it likely will take them a long time to climb out of those depths.

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How, then, were the Rangers able to turn themselves around so quickly? What did they do that the Flyers didn’t? A few key factors created the separation between the two organizations.

The Rangers had clear intentions

It might seem an insignificant gesture for a franchise to announce, as the Rangers did with that letter, that it is rebuilding. If anything, Sather and Gorton risked alienating the team’s fans by telling them, Hey, don’t expect us to be good for a while.

But fans are growing more accustomed to the sacrifices and choices franchises in salary-cap leagues have to make, and the honesty of the Rangers’ approach has more appeal than traditionalists might think. More importantly, a public admission that a team has to start fresh can serve as a mission statement, clarifying the purpose and thinking of the organization’s leaders. The Flyers have tried to straddle the line between rebuilding and competing, and they’ve suffered for their indecisiveness.

They benefited from a Flyers-esque mistake

In July 2016, the Rangers traded forward (and future Flyer) Derick Brassard and a seventh-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators. In return, New York got a second-round pick and a player who, since the Senators made him the No. 6 pick in the 2011 draft, had been something of a disappointment.

That player was Mika Zibanejad, and that trade has turned out to be one of the most lopsided in recent NHL history. Brassard, as he has generally been throughout his career, was a solid player for the Senators, who advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in ‘16-17, losing to the Penguins in seven games. But Zibanejad has blossomed into a star with the Rangers. He has averaged 38 goals per 82 games over his last four seasons, and he has 10 goals and 24 points through his first 17 games this postseason.

More to the point, Zibanejad was just 23 when the Senators traded him for a player who, they believed, could help them win now. Those sorts of moves — surrendering long-term promise for potential short-term gain — defined the Flyers for years, and they’re still paying the price.

They showed patience with a player in whom they had invested

After the Rangers selected Chris Kreider with the No. 19 pick in the 2009 draft, they had to wait three years, while he stayed at Boston College, before he joined them. They then waited until February 2020, four months before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent, to sign him to a seven-year contract at an affordable $6.5 million annual cap hit.

Until then, Kreider had been, in the words of one longtime NHL observer, “a good teammate, a guy who showed spurts that he could be a star but was never able to put it all together.” He has handsomely rewarded the Rangers for their commitment, though, scoring 52 goals this season — including 26 on the power play, the most in the league — and another 10 so far in these playoffs.

They read and rode the league’s headwinds

Over time, the NHL has cracked down on obstruction and cross-checking infractions and shrunk goaltenders’ pads and equipment. Scoring has surged as a result. The average game in 2021-22 featured 6.3 goals, the highest such figure since 1995-96.

“They’re doing a great job in letting stars be stars,” AHL president and former NHL general manager Scott Howson said. “That’s what people come to see.”

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Given those trends, it made sense for teams to take chances on players with high-end offensive skills. In Kreider, Zibanejad, Fox (whom they acquired in a trade with Carolina), and Artemi Panarin (whom they signed as a free agent in 2019), the Rangers have swung big and connected. The Flyers lack such firepower.

Great players saw them as a desirable destination

Panarin made it clear he was hungry for the big stage of the biggest city in America. He wasn’t so enthused about coming to Philadelphia. Fox, a native of Jericho, N.Y., wanted to play for the Rangers and, in effect, forced the Hurricanes’ hand to trade him.

They drafted well

Five players — Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil, K’Andre Miller, Kaapo Kakko, and Braden Schneider — contributing to the Rangers’ postseason run were first-round picks by the team between 2017-20. While New York has been hoarding picks and hitting on them, the Flyers have traded away picks in the Shayne Gostisbehere (a second and a seventh) and Rasmus Ristolainen (a first and a second) deals, and they have missed on several draftees: Nolan Patrick, German Rubtsov, etc. Consider two telling examples of this disparity.

One: With the 19th overall selection in 2018, the Flyers took center Jay O’Brien, who, now 22, has yet to sign with them and will remain at Boston University for another year. Three picks later, the Rangers took defenseman K’Andre Miller, who appeared in all 82 games this season and is averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time per game in the playoffs.

Two: Shesterkin, the favorite for the Vezina Trophy, was a fourth-round pick in 2014. The Flyers have had just four of their fourth-round picks from the last 11 drafts suit up for them. Those four players — Maksim Sushko, Connor Bunnaman, Mikhail Vorobyev, and Taylor Leier — have combined to play 146 games and score five goals. None of the four are still with the Flyers organization.