STATE OF THE UNION
If one player in the New York Rangers organization was wondering what coach John Tortorella would be like in his first full season as coach, the answer came quite clearly, as in the first day of the club's prospect development camp in June.
"I think we're soft," Tortorella told reporters. "I'm not trying to insult anybody physically or anything like that, but I think we're soft thinkers, and that's where it all starts. I think we need to grow in what we feel we have to do in preparation, our practice habits, and that leads us to the game to being a tougher team to play against. That's not being soft physically, that's being soft thinkers. That's a huge part of winning, your mental toughness. That's something we are going to try to improve on, and if it isn't there, someone else is going to get an opportunity."
Tortorella later added, "The only guy I know is going to be there and be a starter is Hank (goalie Henrik Lundqvist). Other than that, where everybody sits within the picture is wide open. And I'm not afraid of youth."
It certainly will be an interesting mix for the Rangers in 2009-10. Of last season's top six scorers, only team captain Chris Drury, who was third with 56 points, currently is under contract. Leading scorer Nik Antropov left for Atlanta, Scott Gomez was dealt to Montreal, Markus Naslund retired and Nikolai Zherdev became an unrestricted free agent after the club lost his arbitration hearing and opted to walk away from the one-year, $3.9 million deal the player was awarded. Brandon Dubinsky is a restricted free agent, but likely will get a new contract.
To spark the up-tempo offense Tortorella favors, the Rangers spent big for free agent forward Marian Gaborik. The Slovakian right wing has been better than a point-per-game player each of the last four seasons, but he's played just 207 of a possible 328 games in that span.
Hip surgery last season limited Gaborik to just 17 games, but he had 13 goals and 23 points in that span. In 2007-08, though, he had career-highs of 42 goals and 83 points in 77 games.
"(Gaborik) is an exciting guy to watch play.He can skate, and he does a lot of great things. He's a great player, and he's young. I certainly think he's in the top 10 in this League."
-- Rangers General Manager, Glen Sather
Also hoping to bring more offense to the club are Christopher Higgins and Ales Kotalik. Higgins came over from the Canadiens in the Gomez deal. He had 12 goals in 53 games last season, but had at least 20 goals in each of the previous three seasons, including a career-best 27 in 2007-08. Kotalik, a four-time 20-goal scorer, could play on a line with Chris Drury, his teammate in Buffalo.
The Rangers also will get a full season from uber-pest Sean Avery, whose dealings with Tortorella should continue to be interesting to watch. Tortorella suspended Avery for Game 5 of the club's first-round playoff series against Washington and likely won't hesitate to pull Avery out of the lineup again if his antics begin adversely affecting the team.
And to add toughness, the team signed Donald Brashear away from the Washington Capitals. Brashear is best remembered for his devastating hit on Blair Betts that left the Rangers' fourth-line center with a fractured orbital bone and a concussion. Brashear was suspended for six games, but Drury said any bad blood needs to be washed out immediately.
"I don't think one guy in here had a problem with it, or is going to have a problem with it," Drury told the New York Daily News of Brashear's signing. "And if anyone does, they can come see me. ... He's one of us now, and he's going to play just as hard for us as he did against us."
Marc Staal leads an average defense that will play in front of Lundqvist, who became the first goaltender in League history to start his career with four straight 30-win seasons.
The key for the Rangers, though, will be scoring goals, not stopping them. And that's where the additions of Gaborik and Higgins will weigh so heavily.
"I know one thing, we are a lot better team with Gaborik and Higgins than we were at the same time last year," said Sather.
Tortorella said he's entering his first training camp as Rangers coach with a blank slate.
"I'm going to be as objective as possible," he told NHL.com. He added that he has no problem going with a younger team than the Rangers have traditionally fielded.
The club has a nice group of talented players ready to emerge; here's a look at five of the best:
Artem Anisimov -- The 6-foot-4, 194-pound center had a tremendous season with AHL Hartford, finishing fourth in the league with 37 goals and fifth with 81 points. "I would say that he's got a position on the team that's his to lose," Rangers Director, Player Personnel Gordie Clark told NHL.com. "He's not coming in to try out ... we have our top three centers -- (Chris) Drury, (Brandon) Dubinsky and Anisimov."
Matt Gilroy -- Last season's highly coveted Hobey Baker Award winner could be in the lineup opening night. The 25-year-old defenseman is older than most prospects, and he'll need that experience to bridge the gap from NCAA hockey to the NHL. "His game is the new NHL for defensemen," Clark said. "Joining the play, moving the puck -- it's all about skating and moving the puck and that's what his best two traits are."
Bobby Sanguinetti -- For the 2006 first-round pick (No. 21), last season's goal was continuing to mature physically in his first pro season. He was the second-leading scorer among AHL rookie defensemen, and his in-season conditioning had Clark calling him Hartford's best defenseman during the playoffs. With the Rangers lacking a power-play quarterback, Sanguinetti could find his way onto the NHL roster this season. "John Tortorella is looking for a guy on the power play where no one seemed to step up on the back end last year," Clark said. "I would have to put him in the mix."
Michael Del Zotto -- The 2008 first-round pick (No. 20) has impressed by not sulking after being passed over for Canada's 2009 World Junior team as well as the 2010 junior team evaluation camp. "It's good character to see from a kid who you really thought had it," Clark said. Del Zotto had 30 points in 28 games with the OHL's London Knights following a midseason trade, and 19 points in 14 playoff games. Clark said Del Zotto's play matched the level of talent around him. "When he got traded to London ... he got to play with high-caliber players and his mind works better paying with those kinds of people," Clark said. "The way he was moving the puck and leading the power play and competing on defense was a real pleasure to watch."
Evgeni Grachev -- The 2008 third-round pick (No. 75) had an easy adjustment to North America last season, finishing with 40 goals and 80 points for the Brampton Battalion and winning the OHL Rookie of the Year Award. The 6-3, 202-pound left wing looked good at the club's prospect development camp in June and will compete for an NHL job in September. "He's going to push a lot of people for those jobs," Clark said. "Someone is going to have to be very good to keep him out."
The Rangers are in the market for a top-line center, and while that player likely won't come from their 2009 Entry Draft crop, they hope it won't take long for one of the four centers they selected to mature into the role.
"We know there is a goal-scoring concern, and addressing that was the No. 1 priority for us at the draft," Clark said. "We wanted to get goals and get faster as an organization, and I think we accomplished that."
Here is a quick look at the seven selections the Rangers made:
Chris Kreider -- The Boston-area native was the first high school player drafted. The 6-foot-2, 201-pound center had 33 goals in 26 games with Andover Phillips Academy. "When you watch this kid play, he's probably one of the fastest kids in the draft, if not the fastest," Clark said.
Ethan Werek -- The Kingston Frontenacs center had 64 points in 66 games as a rookie in the Ontario Hockey League. What led the Rangers to pick him in the second round (No. 47) was the work ethic that went along with the skill. "Everything he did was with maximum effort," Clark said. "Now take that work ethic and throw in the fact we think he's a goal scorer, plus he's like a sponge learning how to become a pro from (Kingston coach) Doug Gilmour, and we think he's going to be a real good player."
Ryan Bourque -- The son of Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque, the Rangers chose the 5-9, 163-pound center in the third round (No. 80) after he scored 20 goals in 48 games with the United States National Team Development Program. He'll play for the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts this season. Bourque and Kreider went to the same middle school together in Boxford, Mass.
Roman Horak -- In the fifth round (No. 127), the Rangers selected the Czech center, who will play this season for the Chilliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League.
Scott Stajcer -- Later in the fifth round (No. 140), the Rangers took the 6-3, 180-pound goalie from the OHL's Owen Sound Attack. Stajcer's big moment was at the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game in January, when he stopped all 26 shots he faced from Canada's best draft prospects.
Daniel Maggio -- A knee injury limited the 6-3, 198-pound defenseman to just 14 points in 44 games with the OHL's Sudbury Wolves last season, making him available in the sixth round (No. 170). Playing a full season in 2007-08, Maggio had 20 points in 64 games.
Mihail Pashnin -- Taken in the seventh round (No. 200), the 5-11, 187-pound defenseman had 16 points in 36 games with Mechel in Russia's second division, and 2 points and a plus-6 rating for Russia at the 2009 World Junior Championship. CSKA Moscow made him the first pick in the first Kontinental Hockey League draft.