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Southeast: Tampa Bay's Ranger rides to the rescue

by Robert Picarello

When Paul Ranger first broke into the NHL during the 2005-06 season, Tampa Bay Lightning veteran Dan Boyle, took him under his wing.
When Paul Ranger first broke into the NHL during the 2005-06 season, Tampa Bay Lightning veteran Dan Boyle, currently out indefinitely after a second surgery on his wrist, took him under his wing.

The veteran and the 21-year-old weren’t only paired together for most of that season, they also became inseparable off the ice.

"Right from my first game, Boyle helped me out," Ranger said. "We were roommates the last couple of years and it was great. He taught me a lot, not only on the ice but off as well. I was fortunate enough to play with ‘Boylie’ the last two years and I learned a lot watching him – especially offensively. He's an incredible player and sometimes watching him, I still get stunned by the things he does. He does things out there that make you think he's a forward."

But don't let Ranger fool you. He’s pretty good with the puck, too. Before turning pro, he played four seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals, scoring 22 goals and 91 points in 224 games. He was tops among Oshawa defensemen in goals, assists and points by a defenseman in 2002-03 and 2003-04. In his first NHL season, Ranger totaled a goal and 17 assists in 76 games. Last season, he improved that total to four goals and 24 assists in 72 games.

But even though the offense came somewhat easily for him, Ranger admits it took some time to adjust his defensive game upon coming to the NHL.

"I think the toughest transition I had when I broke into the NHL was the speed of the game,” he said. “Everything came at you quick – bing-bang-bing – much faster compared to the minors and junior. Playing against some of the best forwards in the League is a tough thing to do when you first break in."

But it didn't take Ranger very long to adjust. He picked up pointers from teammates like Boyle in his first two NHL seasons and wound up a plus-5 each season.

"I've learned a lot from the veteran ‘D’ we've had on this club since I've been here," Ranger said. "Like I said, ‘Boylie’ has been great to me. Craig Ramsay (former associate coach) was a great help when he was here. He was our defensive coach and I got along with him really well. Torts (head coach John Tortorella) is a tough guy, but he's fair and that's why I really respect him a lot. This year I'm trying to pick up whatever I can from ‘Kubes’ (Filip Kuba). It has a bit of a different look to it playing with him. We're a little more stay-at-home, but we still jump in on offense whenever we can. It's a fun way to play.

"So far, it's been a very positive experience for me. I've learned a lot since I first came into the League and I'm just really having a great time."

Ranger's happiness can be seen in his play, as he's among the team leaders in plus/minus and scoring. In Boyle's absence, Ranger has picked up some of his ice time, averaging more than five minutes more per game than he did last season after averaging 20:18 in 2006-07. While no one on the Tampa roster can replace what Boyle brings, Ranger's solid play definitely has lightened the team's load in his absence.

"Paul Ranger is a very good young hockey player who should only continue to develop and get better," Tampa Bay General Manager Jay Feaster said. "He has played some important minutes for us over the past two seasons and we expect he will be called on even more in the upcoming campaign. Now that he has become a regular NHL player, we look forward to him continuing to develop all aspects of his game, including contributing more to the team's offense. We are thrilled to have him under contract for the next three years."

Ranger equally was pleased with the contract.

"I was very pleased to sign a three-year deal,” he said. “Not only does it give me a little bit of a comfort level, but it also allows me to improve my personal game over the length of the contract. I'm gonna try to do everything I can to help this team win. I see some of the other guys on this team and their focus, especially the veterans who played on the Cup team. They want to win again and I'm trying to replicate that."

The Carolina Hurricanes and Ron Francis wanted to help a new fan base get accustomed to the game.

Francis does Carolina proud -- Ron Francis had a lot of people cheering for him Monday night when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, namely every single 'Caniac who ever cheered him on when he played for the Hurricanes for a half-dozen seasons.

'Caniacs, you see, always have had a soft spot for Francis. Unlike other pro athletes who jump from city to city, Francis came to Carolina with a purpose. Sure, the club signed the four-time NHL All-Star to a lucrative contract in 1998 for his on-ice skills, but they also wanted Francis to help a new fan base get accustomed to the game.

"I made that decision to come here in '98, and I said at the time – I hate when guys say money had nothing to do with it – I said at the time money had something to do with it, obviously, but I also did the homework and researched the area and it was intriguing for me to come to a so-called non-hockey market and help sell the game," Francis said. "It's a great place to live, a great place to raise your family, and the organization has treated me well over the years. You saw the excitement we had in 2002 when we got the Final, and it's frustrating we weren't able to win it, but again, to be able to turn right around a couple of years ago to come back and win it and just the excitement in the city, I think that went a long way to solidifying this as a hockey market for a long time."

Before Francis got to Raleigh, it was college basketball town first and all else a distant second. By the time Francis played his last NHL game during the 2003-04 season as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raleigh had become hockey mad. The RBC Center became one of the loudest buildings in the NHL thanks to the loud, boisterous and newly educated fans known as the 'Caniacs.

While Francis did a great job promoting the game and educating the Carolina fans, he also did his job very well on the ice. In 472 games for the Hurricanes, Francis scored 118 goals and 236 assists. In 16 combined seasons with the Whalers and Hurricanes franchise, the former first-round pick of the Whalers played in 1,186 games, posting 1,185 points off 382 goals and 793 assists. The two-time Stanley Cup champ played six seasons in Carolina, captaining the team to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, where the club fell to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. Francis went into the Hockey Hall of Fame second all-time in the NHL in assists, third all-time in games played and fourth all-time in points over 23 seasons.

"As a guy who didn't skate very well, I probably relied more on my teammates over the course of my career than most guys who are heading to the Hall of Fame," Francis admitted. "If it wasn't for a lot of great players I got a chance to play with who finished the passes I gave them, then I probably wouldn't be here. This is very gratifying for me, but hopefully there are a lot of guys I played with in my career that take special pride in seeing me go in, too, because they played a big part of it."

Francis' desire to be one of the game's best and his tireless work ethic also played major roles in his success.

"I think my attitude was to always come into training camp in the next season and almost feel like I had to prove myself all over again and work that hard to do that," Francis said. "When you're in it year-to-year, you're almost caught up in the moment and it's not until times like this that you can sit back and look back on things. It was 26 years ago that I started playing in the NHL. It was 16 years ago when I won my first Cup and my daughter was born. I look at her sometimes and just kind of shake my head and wonder where the years went with her, and it's the same thing with my career, I wonder where the time went. It actually feels like just yesterday when I started, but it's really 26 years later."

Last November, Francis returned to Carolina and took a job with the Hurricanes as the club's Director of Player Development. Last month, he was promoted to the assistant general manager's post.

Southeast Quotes -- "I think if you were to ask my wife right at the end of last season, she would probably have said that I wasn't going to play hockey again. I was just mentally fried, physically I was done, my body was completely shut down, and I think I just needed to get away from the game for a while."

-- Carolina's Bret Hedican admitted to

"I'm happy because we need the points. It's not about how many goals you score or how many saves you make, it's about the two points."

-- Atlanta rookie goaltender Ondrej Pavelec on winning three games last week, including his first NHL start.

The week ahead -- Tonight, Atlanta travels to Carolina and Washington is in Tampa Bay. Saturday, the Hurricanes host the Panthers. Monday, Florida is in Washington and the Lightning are in Atlanta.


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