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Big picture the big issue for prospects

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Exclusive: Sather on the Prospects

Complete Traverse City Coverage

By Dan David,

The finish the Rangers had hoped for at 2010 Traverse City Prospects Tournament will not be available to them when the tourney concludes on Wednesday, but the trip to Traverse City, Mich., has been more than worth it for the Rangers executives, scouts, and prospects who arrived here as a group last Friday.

A 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild's prospects on Tuesday afternoon made it impossible for the Blueshirts to reach the title game. Instead, Minnesota finished the Gretzky Division round robin with an unbeaten, 3-0-0 record, and the Wild will play tournament host Detroit (2-0-1) for the championship.

The Blueshirts, 1-2-0 in the tournament with an opening-game win over Columbus and a pair of one-goal losses to Carolina and Minnesota, placed third in their division and will play for fifth place in the eight-team tournament on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. Their opponent will be the Dallas Stars, who took third the Howe Division ahead of St. Louis.

The Rangers prospects wore the home blue version of the Blueshirts jersey for the first time in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament on Tuesday.
With the Rangers' main training camp set to open Friday, prospects recognize that their game against Dallas is one more chance to make an impression before they turn their attention to the next step.

"You just want to win the hockey game first," said alternate captain Derek Stepan. "We don't want to end up with a losing record. We want to try to go home with a 'W' after tomorrow night."

Having lost 1-0 to the Hurricanes in their previous game on Sunday, the prospects rediscovered their offense with four goals Tuesday afternoon, although the final goal by Ethan Werek with Blueshirts goalie Cam Talbot off for an extra attacker didn’t find the net in the game's closing second. The other goals were scored by Hartford Wolf Pack signee Kelsey Tessier, 2010 third-round pick Andrew Yogan, and 2008 third-rounder Evgeny Grachev, who now has three goals in three games at this tournament.

The Rangers worked hard against the Wild, fighting back from a 3-1 second-period deficit to tie the game on Grachev's goal just 19 seconds into the third period. But just as soon as it all came together, it quickly turned around on them again. Minnesota's Jarod Palmer responded to the Grachev goal on the very next shift -- scoring 52 seconds later to restore the Wild's lead for good.

The Wild outshot the Rangers 27-26, as both Talbot and Minnesota’s Matt Hackett had 22 saves.

Against the Wild, the Rangers were confronted with a more experienced roster than they had already faced. The Wild had three players who have appeared in at least three NHL games, compared to none for the Rangers. Among the top-six Rangers forwards, there were four players under 20 and only Grachev had played in the AHL. Minnesota, on the other hand, had five of its top six forwards over age 20 and four with least some AHL experience.

Talbot, a 23-year-old who spent some time in Hartford after completing his college career at Alabama-Huntsville last spring, could see Minnesota's "veteran" presence.

"They seemed to be a little bit more mature and they seemed to know where the puck was going all the time. They had a good read on what they were doing. It seemed like they had been playing together, and you could tell they had a lot of guys that had played on a high level," Talbot said.

Younger players on the Rangers roster also could feel a difference in the makeup of the teams.

"You could kind of tell with their composure and how they set up plays that they were a little older with more experience, but that's not really an excuse for us losing out there," said Yogan, an 18-year-old drafted in this summer's third round. "But you could definitely tell, and when we get more experience, we'll definitely beat a team like that."

Minnesota's experience paid big dividends for the Wild, who managed to shut  the Rangers' top line of Stepan, Grachev, and Christian Thomas for most of the night. But Stepan refused to count the age and experience factor as an issue in the game.

 "Anytime you go on the ice, you just try to play your game. You can't really worry too much about what the other team is doing," said Stepan. "Maybe they were matching a defenseman with us here or there, but the bottom line it comes down to is that you just have to out-compete anybody who is on the ice.”

The Wild were also helped by a rash of Rangers penalties -- Minnesota had seven power-play chances compared to only one for the Blueshirts -- and lot of fortunate bounces. Tessier, who played a strong game with a team-leading goal and assist, hit a third-period post on a shorthanded attempt that would have put the Rangers in striking distance for the last several minutes. The Blueshirts were unable to control rolling pucks that would have led to scoring chances.

Penalties took a big toll as well, particularly when Minnesota's Casey Wellman scored on a 5-on-3 advantage at 5:36 of the middle period. Wellman's score was preceded by an outstanding defensive play from Ryan McDonagh, who blocked a shot before the puck skittered over to Wellman.

"It was just bad luck because the puck ended up on that guy's tape and he put it far side. So that was just a good shot," said Talbot. "We defended it well, but we had a bad bounce off our guy."

Alternate captain Derek Stepan said the prospects are determined not to finish the Traverse City tournament with a record below the .500 mark.
Werek agreed that the Wild got a lot of help from plays like that one.

"They were a good team, but I thought we definitely outplayed them," said Werek. "Some tough bounces cost us our fate, but we're obviously disappointed with where we're going to finish here, but we're going to finish up our last game and hopefully leave here on a high note."

The final score was a disappointment, although it was clearly less important than the overall progress of 24 Rangers prospects looking to participate in the team's main training camp. After Tuesday's game, Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Development, hinted that many of these players won't have to wait until next year's Traverse City tournament to see such a high level of competition again.

Clark pointed out that both Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather and Head Coach John Tortorella -- who have attended all three of the prospects' games together -- have expressed an interest in capitalizing on the scouts' work over the past few years. Clark and his team helped the Blueshirts gain a No. 5 ranking in the 2010 Hockey News Future Watch edition, a prestigious annual survey of all 30 NHL teams' scouts to determine which has the best players in its pipeline.

In other words, the door to this year's NHL roster might be open wider than ever for youngsters -- assuming they are capable of beating out more established veteran players for jobs.

"I think probably this year more than any year, Glen, on the management part, is really pushing the youth movement, and our head coach is also pushing the youth," said Clark. "I don't think they are going to have any problem, and if some kid here outplays somebody in that position, he's going to get it (a roster spot)."

Clark spoke highly of several players on Tuesday, including the defense combination of prospects captain Ryan McDonagh and 2010 first-round draft pick Dylan McIlrath, a duo he called the tournament's "best pair by far". Clark noted the work ethic of 19-year-old center Roman Horak on the third line, as well as the overall performance of Tessier, a graduate of the QMJHL who played for Moncton in last season's Memorial Cup Tournament.

"He doesn't have size, but he's a very, very skilled hockey player," Clark said of Tessier, who scored the Rangers' first goal to tie the game 1-1 early on the second period before making a great play to set up Andrew Yogan  near the end of that period. "He can certainly play at the AHL level."

Hartford Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, serving as head coach of the Rangers' Traverse City team, also noted that tournaments such as this one aren’t necesarily only about where any team finishes in the standings.

"Every game they play against better competition is going to make them better prepared, hopefully, for training camp, whether it's with the Hartford team or the big club in New York, or even if they go back to junior," Gernander said. "All of these games with better competition and better teammates should make them better prepared for their upcoming seasons."

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Evgeny Grachev Derek Stepan Christian Thomas
Andrew Yogan Ethan Werek Ryan Bourque
Kelsey Tessier Roman Horak Randy McNaught
Jason Wilson Jason Bast Chris McKelvie
Left Defense Right Defense
Lee Baldwin Sam Klassen
Ryan McDonagh Dylan McIlrath
Brandon Manning Dan Maggio
Goaltenders: Cam Talbot, Scott Stacjer

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