The Traverse City Prospect Tournament was the culmination of a whirlwind summer for forward Ryan Gropp, which set the tone for what has thus far been a successful season in Seattle of the Western Hockey League.
Gropp, 18, whom the Rangers selected in the second-round of June's NHL Entry Draft, said that tournament in mid-September was an eye-opening experience.
"In Traverse City, it makes you realize there's tons of good players out there," Gropp recently told BlueshirtsUnited.com from his home in Seattle. "You need to ramp up your game and round out your game" to get to the next level. "It makes you realize how much work you have to do and how much stronger you have to get."
A groin injury limited Gropp in the tournament and at the Rangers main camp the following week back in New York, but the Kamloops, B.C.-native still soaked in the experience and took the positives back with him to juniors.
"That was the coolest part for me, just seeing those NHL guys on the rink, seeing how they practice on the ice was really cool," Gropp said of being part of the team's training camp.
"I tried to use [the injury] as a time to learn as much as I can."
The 6-foot-2, 187-pound Gropp is off a strong start with the Thunderbirds, notching 18 goals and 14 assists for 32 points in 30 games. After recovering from the groin injury, Gropp struggled a bit out of the gate, scoring just two goals in his first seven games.
But since Oct. 27, Gropp has 16 goals, including a hat trick on Nov. 20.
To get out of his early slump, Gropp said he did the mature thing: he just stopped thinking and got back to having fun on the ice.
"I think for me I'm just not thinking as much," Gropp said, adding that was a problem at the start of the year. "Maybe putting too much pressure on myself. One year older in the league; obviously you're not going to turn everything around in one game," he added. "You have to be mentally tough" to have success.
Gropp said that he felt that was a problem early on, perhaps believing he had to do more than he had in the past after being drafted in June. With that said, he believes he's found that balance of just playing his game while being a leader on and off the ice.
"You have more experience [after] being drafted," he said. "You want to become more of a leader, lead by example and be more vocal in the dressing room and make my play on the ice keep improving."
Thus far, Gropp said he's pleased with his play away from the puck, namely on the backcheck and being more aggressive on the forecheck and along the boards.
That work has not gone unnoticed.
"Ryan is now playing a more complete game," said Rangers amateur scout Tom Thompson. "Prior to this season, [Gropp] had demonstrated NHL speed, NHL hands and NHL scoring ability. Since returning from his early season injury, his intensity level has taken his game to another level. He has become an elite level player in the Western Hockey League and a key component of the hottest scoring line in the WHL."
Part of that line includes Mat Barzal, Gropp's friend and roommate who was taken by the New York Islanders in June.
When the two teams met in Brooklyn earlier this month, Gropp said there was most definitely a friendly rivalry in the air.
"We watched the end. Obviously it was pretty cool being rivals," Gropp said with a laugh.
Gropp said he's been in constant contact with Rangers brass, including two former Blueshirts now working in the front office.
"They've been in contact quite a bit," Gropp said, who said he's already met with Adam Graves and will be seeing Rangers Director, Player Development Chris Drury in January. "They let you keep your ground but you need to talk to them once in a while. They're people I can lean on for advice all the time."
The Traverse City tournament may have been the finale on Gropp's summer, but it's just the beginning of what he and the Rangers hope is a successful stint in the Big Apple.