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Rangers need rookies to play like veterans

by Dan Rosen

Rookie Brandon Dubinsky is being counted on to play at the same level as the Rangers' veterans. Brandon Dubinsky highlight video
Brandon Dubinsky gets it.

The New York Rangers' rookie center knows this has turned into the National Hockey Young Man's League, and in the new NHYML, using the old inexperience excuse simply doesn't fly because rookies are counted on just as much as veterans.

"Look around, not just at our team but every team, because some key players on every team are kids or young guys in their early 20s," said Dubinsky, who makes up a quarter of a quartet of Rangers rookies coach Tom Renney has put on the ice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and will again in Pittsburgh when their Eastern Conference Semifinal series starts Friday (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS).

"With the League that way," Dubinsky continued, "I think the teams are really relying on the youth to mature and understand the importance of providing that work ethic and leadership (and) not get caught up in the whirlwind of the whole playoffs."

The Rangers' crop of rookies -- Dubinsky, forwards Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan, and defenseman Marc Staal -- embraces the demands their organization puts on them.

In the first round against New Jersey, all four scored at least one goal, with Dubinsky leading the charge with three. They combined for six goals, five assists, a plus-12 rating and an average 17 minutes of ice time per game. Staal saw 22:45 per game, which was second on the team only to his defensive partner Michal Rozsival's 24:37.

Callahan scored the winning goal in Game 1 of the first round when he came around the net and surprised New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. Staal netted the winner late in the third period of Game 4 with a hard slap shot from the top of the left circle.

"We all have pride in our own play and put pressure on ourselves even though there are a lot of big names in this room," said Callahan, the only one of the four rookies with experience from last year's playoffs. "From the coaching staff there is an expectation. We have to play well in order for this team to win."

The pressure of being held accountable in the postseason is not new to the rookies. It's only new in the NHL, but prior playoff experience, be it in Canadian major-junior hockey or international tournaments, comes into play anyway.

As Dubinsky said, the stage may be bigger now, but the game is the same.

"In the OHL playoffs the intensity goes up, obviously not as much here in the NHL, but it's the same game so you have to treat it like that," said Staal. "If you go into it thinking 'I have done this before', you make it real easy on yourself."

Renney sees the contributions from his rookies as proof the philosophy the Rangers adopted coming out of the lockout is working. It was then that the organization decided internal development was just as important as selling the program to prospective free agents. So while Scott Gomez and Chris Drury were huge signings that have paid off in a big way so far, the Rangers likely wouldn't be in this position if they hadn't drafted and developed well.

Of the 20 players who dressed for the five first-round games against New Jersey, the Rangers drafted seven of them and one (defenseman Dan Girardi) was signed as an undrafted free agent.

"I think it's a testimony to our philosophy of redefining ourselves a few years ago and choosing to go down that route and live with it," Renney said. "Beyond that, I think it's a testimony to the coaches these young fellows have had before coming to us. With respect to integrating them into our lineup, I think we have done it in a sensible way that allows young people to grow and feel good and sometimes take a step backwards so they can take another run out of it."

Renney later added that the only way to have sustained success in the NHL now is to concentrate on developing your own prospects.

For example, Carolina won the Cup two years ago thanks to impressive contributions from Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Erik Cole, Chad LaRose and Andrew Ladd. Anaheim won it last season with the help of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner.

"The teams that have had success in this League have done it over time," Renney said. "They have held on to their draft picks. They have used their assets intelligently. The more you can pay attention to internal development, the more you can hang on to people and develop a blueprint with respect to how you go about your work."

The Rangers have done that. How far it takes them this season with four rookies in the lineup remains to be seen, but one thing that is an absolute certainty right now is how confident the rookies are entering the second round.

"We played here all year so we have obviously grown as a group with the team," Dawes said. "We'll just keep getting better and better."

Added Callahan: "The young guys are a big part of this team. You can see that with Dubinsky playing with (Jaromir) Jagr and all the minutes Staal is logging back there. So there is an expectation on all of us and so far we have been OK with it."

"They know as well as anybody at this point in time whether they have had a good night or a bad night or whether they can offer up more," Renney said. "I think our young guys are confident. I think they do have a standard to reach every night."

That's because it's not just Dubinsky who gets it. They all do.

"The veterans are relying on us," Dubinsky said. "It's not just us trying and doing our part. They're relying on us to get our job done, too."

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