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Gaborik key as Rangers begin to resemble Tortorella

Tuesday, 09.22.2009 / 3:00 AM / 2009-2010 Season Preview

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

When John Tortorella was hired as New York Rangers coach in February, he had a 21-game training camp to see which players could mesh with his style of play and which couldn't.

Offseason roster changes have left a group that better reflects what Tortorella would like to see from a team -- more up-tempo play and a little more offensive flair and creativity.

And while the defense remains a work in progress, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist remains a top-notch fallback plan if things go awry elsewhere.

As Tortorella himself said, "The only guy I know is going to be there and be a starter is Hank (Lundqvist). Other than that, where everybody sits within the picture is wide open."


 
Wholesale changes up front saw the departures of four of their top five scorers from last season -- Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Nik Antropov.

Leading the replacements is free-agent right wing Marian Gaborik, signed away from the Minnesota Wild. When healthy, Gaborik is among the flashiest, most offensively creative players in the game. His health, however, is the biggest reason the Wild allowed him to get away. Gaborik has played more than 66 games just once since the 2005-06 season; last season, he played just 17 games due to hip surgery and other groin and abdominal muscle issues. In those 17 games, however, he had 13 goals and 23 points.

"(Gaborik) is an exciting guy to watch play," said Rangers General Manager Glen Sather. "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."

Also joining the Rangers this season is Christopher Higgins, who came from Montreal in the Gomez trade. The Smithtown, N.Y. native also was plagued by injuries last season; in 57 games with the Canadians, he had just 12 goals and 23 points, following three straight 20-goal seasons. Higgins could join Gaborik on the top line, which could be centered by Brandon Dubinsky.

If Dubinsky doesn't center the top line, the role could fall to another newcomer, Vaclav Prospal. Prospal spent five seasons playing for Tortorella in Tampa, and their reunion in New York could help both men. Prospal scored at least 20 goals three times playing for Tortorella, and the affable Prospal could help get across the coach's message to his new teammates.

Chris Drury is the only one of the Rangers' top five scorers from last season returning. The team captain could benefit the most from Tortorella's arrival. When he played in Buffalo's up-tempo offense, Drury had back-to-back 30-goal seasons.

The Rangers also got tougher up front this summer with the addition of Donald Brashear. Brought in from Washington this summer, he replaces Colten Orr, who departed for Toronto. There was worry in some parts that Brashear -- whose hit on Blair Betts during the playoffs left the fourth-line center with a broken orbital bone and a concussion -- would be divisive in the dressing room, but Drury stopped that distraction before it could start.

"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."

This also will be the first full season together for Sean Avery and Tortorella. Avery played well under Tortorella last season, totaling 5 goals and 12 points in 18 games, but Tortorella also suspended him for one game during the playoffs.

Artem Anisimov and Evgeny Grachev also will be in the running for roster spots. Anisimov, a center, had 37 goals last season in the AHL, and with the Rangers weak down the middle, he could find his way into the lineup. Grachev, a 6-foot-3, 202-pounder, a third-round pick in 2008, had 40 goals last season with Brampton in the OHL.
 

 
The club entered training camp with just four defensemen with NHL experience. Balancing that out, however, is a talented group of youngsters who look ready to make the next step.

Chief among them is Matt Gilroy. The Rangers signed last year's Hobey Baker Award winner and he'll have every chance in training camp to grab a full-time roster spot.

"His game is the new NHL for defensemen," Rangers Director, Player Personnel Gordie Clark told NHL.com. "Joining the play, moving the puck -- it's all about skating and moving the puck and that's what his best two traits are."

Two other players poised to make the jump are Bobby Sanguinetti and Michael Del Zotto. Both are highly skilled offensively, which could offset any defensive-zone inadequacies.

Sanguinetti, the team's 2006 first-round pick, could have the upper hand based on age (21) and experience gained last season in the AHL.

"John Tortorella is looking for a guy on the power play where no one seemed to step up on the back end last year," said Clark. "I would have to put him in the mix."

Whoever makes the team will take their cues from Marc Staal, who continues to improve almost every time he takes the ice. In his second NHL season, he had 3 goals and 15 points while playing all 82 games. He also earned a coveted invitation to Canada's Olympic orientation camp. The minute that ended, however, he jumped in the car and drove straight from Calgary to New York in two days.

"I'm excited to get this going; it's been a long enough break," Staal told the team's Web site. "I want to get back at it."

Helping Staal would be rebound seasons from the other three holdovers from last season -- Dan Girardi, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival.

Girardi, the youngest of the bunch, saw his goal total drop from 10 to 3, and his plus/minus plummet from even to minus-14.

Redden, in the first season of a six-year contract, had a miserable 2008-09. After scoring twice in the season's first three games, he scored just once more the rest of the way, and finished with just 26 points, the second-lowest total of his career.

Rozsival never seemed to find his footing after offseason hip surgery, and he finished with 8 goals and 30 points.

 

 
Lundqvist is good enough to offset any other deficiencies the Rangers might have, and is good enough that if he stays healthy, the Rangers almost assuredly will make the playoffs.

Last season Lundqvist became the first goaltender in NHL history to start his career with four 30-win seasons. His 38 wins last season was a personal best, he had a 2.43 goals-against average, and he allowed just eight more goals in 2008-09 compared to the previous season, despite facing 184 more shots.

Stephen Valiquette should return for his fifth Rangers season as a more-than-capable backup. In 15 games last season, he went 5-5-2 with a 2.84 GAA and one shutout.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.















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