TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- If you think the New York Rangers' hierarchy hasn't been paying close attention to the young players at the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament this week, think again.
In addition to Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark and assistant coach Benoit Allaire, the Rangers' on-site evaluators include Adam Graves (Hockey and Business Operations), Mark Messier (Special Assistant to the President), Jim Schoenfeld (Assistant General Manager) and Glen Sather (President and General Manager).
And there's no reason to think they haven't been pleased with the play of the team's top offensive line in the tournament, which consists of Ryan Bourque, Derek Stepan and Evgeny Grachev. Through two games of the five-day event, the trio had combined for 4 goals, 4 assists and a plus-3 rating while generating 15 shots.
"It's awesome when you're playing with guys like that … they make it easy for you," Bourque told NHL.com. "Stepan is one of the smartest players I've ever played with and great in the faceoff circle. As long as you get him the puck, he'll make things happen. Evgeny is a big forward who skates really well and has an unbelievable shot."
All three likely will be returned to their junior team or the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford for additional development this season. Grachev was the closest to making his NHL debut last September against the Washington Capitals when Ryan Callahan suffered an injury, but that never materialized.
Bourque, the son of Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque, is coming off one of the top seasons of his career. He had 19 goals, 24 assists and a plus-12 rating in 44 games in his first season with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, Sask.
"Ryan is excellent on the forecheck and with creating turnovers and recovering loose pucks," said Ken Gernander, the coach of the Rangers' AHL team, the Hartford Wolf Pack, and also leading the club's prospects here. "It remains to be seen (if they earn NHL time this season), but they're showing themselves very well in this (Traverse City) tournament and that's what we're looking for right now."
Stepan signed an entry-level contract with the Rangers in July after two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. In 81 collegiate games, the 20-year-old center had 21 goals, 66 assists and a plus-10 rating. He had 12 goals and 54 points last season as Wisconsin advanced to the national title game.
Stepan also captained Team USA to the gold medal at the 2010 WJC, and in the process became the first Rangers draft pick (second round, 2008) to lead the WJC in scoring (4 goals, 14 points in seven games) since Doug Weight (11 goals, 21 points in seven games) last did it in 1991.
"It was a special feeling and I couldn't have done it with a better group of guys," Stepan said of his WJC experience. "The 20 of us are really tight and we had fun. It was a great way to finish by winning gold."
"Derek has a real good overall game," Gernander said. "He sees the ice so well both offensively and defensively."
Stepan is hoping to parlay his international success and a strong performance in Traverse City into an even greater role with the Wolf Pack this season. He leads all scorers in Traverse with 4 points through two games.
"Anyway you look at it, you just have to go out and play," he said. "If I end up in Hartford, it's not going to change my mindset. I'm still going to play the same way I would have played in New York, so I'm just going to make sure I can control the things I can control. Play my game, and wherever the organization feels it's best for me, that's where I'll go."
Stepan was happy to learn that Gernander inserted him at center on a line with Grachev and Bourque.
"Me and Evgeny gained some chemistry at development camp and Bourque has always been able to fit in with me," he said. "All three of us clicked … it's been really good so far."
Grachev remains a work in progress, but the 6-foot-4, 222-pound Russian is making strides. After earning the Ontario Hockey League's Rookie of the Year in 2008-09 with the Brampton Battalion and then impressing at last year's Traverse City tournament, Grachev mustered only 12 goals and 28 points in 80 games in Hartford.
"I wasn't satisfied with my game," Grachev said. "My plus/minus was pretty bad (minus-13) and that's important to me. You don't want to be the guy on your team who was on the ice for every goal. Guys are working hard and you have to be on the same page with them … help them win the game. It's all about team and I'd like to get more points. So plus/minus and point production are two areas I want to improve."
Grachev's minus-13 rating was the lowest on the team in 2009-10. But he isn't about to give up. In fact, Grachev spent May and June skating hard in Russia before joining his agent for some hardcore training in the mountains of Colorado in July.
"It was for a couple of weeks," Grachev said. "My agent took me there to show me what it's like to work out on a mountain. That was an experience. We went up the hills and did some regular workouts and it was much harder because the air is thinner, but it was fun. I hope it helped ... I guess we'll find out."
Gernander still believes Grachev has the goods, but he just needs to prove it on a consistent basis. Grachev scored a beautiful wrist shot from the top of the left circle in the tournament opener for his team with just 6.7 seconds remaining in the third period to give the Rangers' 5-4 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets' prospects.
"He scored 2 goals in our first game (in Traverse City) and had a good start to the tournament, but we hope he can bring that every night," Gernander said. "It's all part of learning to become a professional."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale