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No lack of drama in setting roster for opener

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Training Camp Roster

By Jim Cerny,

In sports, when a player is referred to as “being on the bubble” it means he is right on the verge of either earning a roster spot or not. Professional athletes walking -- or in the case of hockey, skating -- along that thin line, trying to make sure that the bubble does not burst, can often be a major story line as training camps come to a close and coaches are forced into making final roster decisions.

At age 19, defenseman Michael Del Zotto can play in nine NHL games before the coaching staff would have to decide whether to return him to junior or keep him in the NHL for the entire 2009-10 season.
Such is the case with the Rangers, who are now less than a week away from wrapping up camp and starting the 2009-10 NHL season on Oct. 2 in Pittsburgh. The Rangers currently have 23 players remaining in camp, meaning likely that one or two more could be reassigned before the regular season commences. But those final decisions are going to be very difficult ones for head coach John Tortorella and his staff.

“I think by Tuesday the team that will be practicing is the team that will be here,” said Tortorella. “But as far as what decisions we are going to make, I can’t tell you. We just don’t know yet.”

The Rangers currently have 14 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goalies left in camp. Evgeny Grachev, Brian Boyle, Aaron Voros, Artem Anisimov, and Enver Lisin have been the forwards battling it out for the final opening-night roster spots up front. Tortorella, though, indicated after Friday’s practice that it is likely that both the 21-year-old Anisimov and the 23-year-old Lisin will start the season with the NHL club.

“Right now (Anisimov) has the inside track, and I don’t mind saying that at all,” the head coach said of the Russian center who has totaled three goals during the preseason.

Of Lisin, who also has three goals in pre-season action, Tortorella said, “I’m pretty sure he’s going to start here. We want him around us to teach him. Where he sits within the team as we go through depends on how he learns from it all.”

Tortorella has also had complimentary things to say about the other three forwards. The head coach has repeatedly praised the 19-year-old Grachev for his battle level and willingness to compete in such an intense fashion. And he has been very much impressed with Boyle’s work killing penalties and in winning faceoffs.

The biggest surprise might be the praise that head coach has given to Voros, a player who was scratched in 19 of the 21 regular season games coached by Tortorella to close out last season. Tortorella is most taken with Voros’ dedication to remaining a New York Ranger, which is best exemplified by the 28 year-old winger’s daily workouts at the MSG Training Center that began last June and carried throughout the entire summer.

“I put in a lot of work, and I knew what I had to do here, and I know what I still have to do to be a part of this,” said Voros, who recorded eight goals and eight assists during his first season with the Rangers last year. “Every team has a numbers game. Coming off the year I had last year, I knew I had to reestablish myself. I need to get back to playing my game, what got me into this league, and got me to this organization, which is a dream organization. I don’t want to let it go.”

Among the defensemen, it seems as though 25-year-old Matt Gilroy has separated himself and earned a spot in the top six. Gilroy, who has impressed with his confident and often-scintillating play during the preseason, was named the recipient of the 2009 Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award, which is presented to the top Rangers rookie in training camp.

With Gilroy joining established defensemen Wade Redden, Michal Rozsival, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi, Tortorella can opt to carry one more blueliner for the minimum of six, or two more and carry an extra defenseman on the roster.

Alexei Semenov, who has appeared in 211 NHL games for the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, and San Jose Sharks, and Michael Del Zotto, the club’s first-round selection in the 2008 draft, are the other two remaining defensemen currently on the roster, and both have played very well to this point.

Tortorella has expressed on several occasions his admiration for Semenov, an NHL veteran willing to come to camp on an invite with no guarantee of a roster spot or contract. He has also been impressed with Semenov’s sturdy defensive zone play.

“I don’t understand why someone would be afraid to come in (and earn a contract),” stated the 6-foot-6 Semenov. “That’s part of your job. You’ve got to come in and show you belong here and that you can play here. I had other teams that were interested in me, but I wanted to come here and take the chance. And I think it’s been going good, really good, so far.”

Del Zotto, like Gilroy, has caught the attention of the coaching staff with his beyond-his-years confidence in leading the rush and making quick, smart decisions with the puck. Perhaps somewhat of a long-shot to make the team entering training camp because he is only 19 and still has junior eligibility left, Del Zotto has earned the right to still be with the varsity with less than a week to go before the regular season gets under way.

“It’s nice to know that the numbers have narrowed down a bit, but still nothing has been accomplished because it’s still my goal to be here all year,” said Del Zotto. “I am taking it a day at a time and will continue to do whatever it takes to stay here.”

Should Del Zotto make the opening-night roster, the Rangers would be allowed to play him in up to nine games at the NHL level before deciding to send him back to his major junior team in London, Ontario. If Del Zotto plays in a 10th NHL contest, he could not be sent back to junior and would have to spend the entire season on the NHL roster.

Deciding what is best for the development of young talents like Del Zotto, Grachev, Anisimov, Lisin, and Boyle, while also trying to field the best 20 players for the NHL squad, that makes Tortorella’s decisions so tricky to make.

“I just think that development for this organization is just so important with our young guys,” said the head coach. “It’s one of the most exciting things for me right now, some of the young guys and the talent level they bring. But we have to be very careful in our decision making. What is best for them? You can’t be shortsighted. You have to also look to the future.”

Tortorella and his staff will get one more preseason look at the players sitting on the bubble when the Rangers skate against the Washington Capitals down in the nation’s capital on Sunday afternoon, the club’s final preseason contest.

After that, Tortorella has promised to make his final roster decisions.
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