By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
The six-day trip to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament is always an eye-opener for young Rangers hopefuls who have gone to Michigan over the past five seasons in the week before the team's training camp opens.
This year's trip to Traverse City was an eye-opener for the Rangers scouts and executives, too.
"Coming into this, we didn't promise any of these kids that they would go to the (NHL) camp at all," Gordie Clark, the Rangers Director, Player Personnel, said on Wednesday after the Blueshirts ended the tournament on a high note with a 7-2 rout of Dallas. "These kids knew you have to earn it. Because of the way they played here, there will be a bigger number of them going than we might have thought."
|Andrew Yogan, a South Florida native drafted by the Rangers in the third round last June, scored the first goal of the game on Wednesday and assisted on the eventual game-winner by Jason Bast. |
The entire Rangers organization had reason to smile after the prospects, ranging in age from 18-year-old Christian Thomas
to 25-year-old Chris McKelvie, played their best game of the tournament in dominating the Stars. The victory gave them fifth place in the eight-team tournament with a 2-2 record.
"I saw some pretty good things there especially in terms of how they played with the lead and managed the score," said Hartford Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, who coached the Rngers prospects. "They were watching out for one another and everybody had one another's back. I think these kids did a good job of playing as a team tonight, and hopefully, in the future they will play together quite a bit."
Earlier in the tournament, both Rangers losses were by one-goal margins, including a 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild prospects who went on to beat host Detroit for the Traverse City title on Wednesday night. Although the Rangers came into the tournament with one of the younger teams, they outscored their four opponents -- Columbus, Carolina, Minnesota and Dallas -- by a combined 16-12 margin.
"We weren't great in all three games we played before this one, but we were good in them," said Ryan Bourque
, a 2009 third-round draft pick who won a gold medal with the 2010 U.S. World Junior team and averaged a point per game at Traverse City. "We wanted to come to the rink today and see how we could play at our best, and I think we played a really solid game all-around, and it showed. I think every player from the forwards to the defensemen to the goalie played their best."
The prospects put on a clinic against the Stars, getting goals from seven different players. The scoring parade featured Andrew Yogan
and Derek Stepan
in the first period, Jason Bast and Sam Klassen
in the second period, and Jason Wilson
, Evgeny Grachev and Ethan Werek in the third. The Blueshirts jumped out to a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period and went up 3-0 on Bast's goal before Dallas finally got one past Rangers netminder Scott Stajcer
, who finished the afternoon with 25 saves.
While Stajcer was sharp throughout, the Rangers made it a long night for his counterpart, Tyler Beskorowany, in outshooting Dallas by a wide 41-27 margin. Stepan, who turned in a truly masterful afternoon with a goal and two assists, had a game-high seven of the shots and finished in a tie for the tournament scoring lead with Carolina's Jeff Skinner.
"We knew that we weren't a team that needed to be losing one-goal games like that," Stepan said. "We were right there and just missing chances here and there. We knew that we needed to finish up strong. We wanted to be 2-2 when we left this tournament. We didn't want to leave on a loss, and we wanted to be able to enjoy the flight back. All 20 guys played well. Even when it got a little chippy here and there, guys stood their ground. So it was a good day all-around."
It was a great day for Stepan in particular. The No. 16-ranked NHL prospect in the 2010 Hockey News
Future Watch edition, Stepan used this tournament as a launching pad for the next step in his hockey career. The 20-year-old, who left the University of Wisconsin after his sophomore season to sign with the Rangers over the summer, had a four-point game in the prospects' 5-4 win over Columbus last Saturday and a three-point game on Wednesday.
Well-known to scouts as the leading scorer and captain of the U.S. World Junior team that included Bourque and fellow Rangers prospect and Boston College star Chris Kreider
, Stepan stepped up in a similar fashion in this tournament, where he was one of the best players on the ice.
"I felt in the zone all week, to be honest," he said. "I think it was just from signing this summer and then itching to get back into playing games. You play summer hockey all summer, but it's just not the same. You've got to be able to play against guys with different jerseys on and stuff like that. I was just itching to get back in the game and it was a great tournament to get my feet wet."
At the World Juniors, Stepan joined a very short list of elite players who have been both the captain of a gold-medal winning team and that prestigious tournament's leading scorer.
There was one moment on Wednesday that seemed to underline his NHL potential even though it didn't lead to a goal.
During a Rangers power play with the Blueshirts leading 4-1 and under two minutes to play in the second period, Stepan took control of the puck in the left corner parallel to Dallas goalie Beskorowany. Looking to his left, Stepan fired a perfect pass in the other direction -- all the way across the ice to defenseman Brandon Manning, who was pinching in from the right point.
Stepan's perfect timing found Manning in stride, and the 20-year-old, who joined the Rangers prospects on a tryout invitation, fired an uncontested shot that was robbed by Beskorowany on one of the Dallas' goalies best saves.
The Stepan no-look pass to Manning literally drew gasps from a sea of seasoned NHL scouts on hand to watch the game.
"His (Stepan's) passing is all really top-end -- under sticks and between skates to hit the right man that's open all the time," said Clark. "Everybody is watching the game, but Derek sees way more than all of us that are watching. Before he even gets the puck, he's got a guy that he's going to."
Stepan got plenty of help from his linemates Bourque and Grachev, whose four goals were tops in this year's tournament and made him the Blueshirts' all-time leading goal scorer at Traverse City with seven goals in three trips.
Grachev also made a pass from along the goal line to find Stepan in the slot for a 2-0 led at 17:39 of the first period.
"It was a great goal off a great pass by Grachev, who usually is the recipient of Stepan's passes, so it was nice that he sort of gave him one back," said Clark.
Bourque, who had the other assist on Stepan's goal and later set up another with a nice drop pass to Jason Wilson
, said it was a pleasure to play on a line with both Stepan and Grachev.
"When you're playing with those two players, it's easy. You've just got to do your job and work hard, and the puck will find you," Bourque said. "All three of us had a pretty solid game."
Stepan, Bourque and Grachev will now turn their attention to the main training camp, where they will look to carry over their Traverse City success. Bourque said participating in the tournament gives NHL camp attendees a big lift coming in.
|Rangers goaltending prospect Scott Stajcer, 19, stopped 25 of 27 shots in the Blueshirts' 72- victory over the Stars on Wednesday in Traverse City. Stajcer, who plays in the OHL, will move on to the team's main training camp, which opens on Friday. |
"I think it helps put you into game shape for when you're going to scrimmage there and even when you do the testing," he said. "If you have the opportunity to be fortunate enough to get some exhibition games in, you're already into game shape. It is a rookie tournament, but obviously you're going at 100 percent. So you're going to be playing in game form, and it helps that and shows that when you get to camp."
Another player who will be in the training-camp rookie spotlight is defenseman Ryan McDonagh
, who had an outstanding tournament with three assists and a plus-4 rating. McDonagh, a 2007 first-round pick by Montreal, played for the entire tournament alongside 2010 first-rounder Dylan McIlrath
, who also finished at plus-4 and more than held his own at age 18,
McDonagh, 21, joined his friend and college teammate Stepan in leaving Wisconsin this summer to take his first shot at the NHL. The two players drove from their homes in the Midwest to New York last week to attend some of the informal workouts with Rangers veterans at the MSG Training Center.
"It was a big thing for me and Ryan," Stepan said of joining the veterans early. "We felt it was important to get out there and at least get our feet wet with some of those guys. To work in the facilities and get settled in before we left. It makes things more comfortable, and when you're more comfortable, you can play your game."
Stepan said that both he and McDonagh truly benefited from being on the ice with NHL players for a few days before coming to Traverse City.
"The first couple of shifts with them, it was a little bit like 'OK, holy cow, I've got to just relax a little bit.' But once you settle in, those guys are out there to help you because they want to better the team, too," said Stepan. "So I was just there kind of having fun and trying to learn from them. It was a good week before to get out here and helped us even for playing in this tournament, too."
Knowing that he turned so many heads at Traverse City, Stepan said he is just grateful that a new season is here and will be "more than happy to end up wherever I'm going to end up."
"When I signed this summer, I knew I was going to at least get a look," said Stepan, whose father, Brad, was also drafted by the Rangers five years before Derek was born, "Being younger and stuff like that, it's a little bit different, but I knew that I was going to at least get a sniff. I'm just excited to get there and get this first training camp underneath my belt. I want to start learning from the older guys and start picking their brains and stuff like that. And just starting to develop that pro mindset. I'm just really excited to get there."
Even before the game against Dallas, Clark was praising Stepan for his work in the tournament and suggesting that training camp could present a real opportunity for such a player.
"We are still looking for a center for the No. 1 line with Gaborik and maybe Frolov on the left wing," said Clark. "I've got to say that from what we saw here, it will be interesting to go and see if he (Stepan) can handle that level. And he's going to probably get every opportunity to do it."
Virtually all of the prospects who performed at Traverse City managed to raise their stock, which is why the main training camp roster will expand. Clark said that as an organization, the Rangers are committed to rewarding the youngsters for their hard work and will be happy to see many of them on Friday when camp opens.
"I personally like the kids to go in and see how the pros do it," Clark said. "It opens their eyes when they see the size of these guys and how mature they are and how they move the puck in the practices. Certain guys will get released back to junior, while others stay a bit longer and get more experience. And there are three or four guys here who are going to get a look at earning a spot with the Rangers."