Rangers rearrange the deckchairs

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With little hope in their final four games of making the NHL playoffs, the New York Rangers decided the time was right to make changes.

The Rangers fired general manager Neil Smith and coach John Muckler on Tuesday in the wake of a five-game losing streak that will likely keep New York out of the playoffs for the third straight year.

"And that doesn't happen in this city," Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts said after the dismissals.

Smith was in his 11th season running the Rangers as GM and team president. He presided over the good times when the Rangers ended a 54-year drought by winning the Stanley Cup in 1994.

But it was also under his watch that the team's payroll grew to a league-high dlrs 61 million, and the wins became tougher to come by.

"It should never happen with this organization, particularly as much as we're willing to spend and go to the mat for it," Checketts said. "It has not worked, that's the bottom line, and the results are what created this day."

The Rangers (29-38-11-3) are five points behind Buffalo in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. New York is 1-8-1 in the last 10 games.

Muckler was in his second full season as New York's coach after getting the job on Feb. 19, 1998. He replaced the fired Colin Campbell, now the NHL's disciplinarian.

Assistant John Tortorella will finish out this season's coaching duties. Checketts will hire a GM, and that person will pick the next coach.

The final blows for Muckler and Smith were blowouts on Sunday and Monday in which the Rangers were beaten 8-2 and 6-0 by Detroit. Fans booed the players and shouted for Muckler's dismissal in his final Madison Square Garden game. They got their wish Tuesday.

"It's going to be a tremendous amount of work, and it's going to require new leadership," Checketts said. "There should be more scoring, more defense, more pride in the Ranger jersey."

If the Rangers fail to qualify for the postseason, it will be the first time since 1963-64 through 1965-66 they have missed the playoffs in three consecutive years.

"At times, things don't work out as planned, and this is one of those times," Checketts said.

As coach of Edmonton and Buffalo, Muckler never missed the playoffs in six seasons. He coached the Oilers to the Stanley Cup in 1990. He was 70-91-24 in 185 games with the Rangers.

After a seven-game winning streak turned the Rangers' fortunes around, the club is 6-15-4 since February's All-Star weekend.

Acquisitions such as Theo Fleury, Sylvain Lefebvre, Stephane Quintal and Tim Taylor, and the re-signing of captain Brian Leetch to a big contract failed to pay off.

Smith enjoyed early success as the Rangers finished first twice - including a Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best team in 1991-92 - and second once, marking the Rangers' three best consecutive seasons.

In the past year, the Rangers' philosophy changed from one of sending away young talent for high-priced veterans, to one of developing a pipeline through the farm system.

Smith refrained from making a deal for NHL-leading goal scorer Pavel Bure, who was dealt last season from Vancouver to Florida. He also did not make any major deals at this year's trade deadline.