Rick Kozak is one of the Hartford players hoping to reach the NHL.
For the Rangers' veterans, the early days of training camp provide a chance to reconnect with teammates after months of individual training and recuperation from a long NHL season.
For the Blueshirts' up-and-coming prospects, the first days of camp are a chance to make a statement that they belong in the NHL - sooner rather than later.
Some of the prospects in camp this month view the experience as a launching pad to a spot on the Rangers' 2006-07 roster. Others understand they will likely be reassigned to their junior teams or the Hartford Wolf Pack but hope to make an impression on the coaching staff that might pay off in the near future. No matter which of these groups they fall into, all prospects see training camp as a unique opportunity.
Lauri Korpikoski, one of two Rangers first-round draft picks in 2004, is participating in his first NHL training camp this year. After spending the last few seasons with TPS Turku in his native Finland, Korpikoski said he hopes to absorb as much knowledge as he can while proving he belongs in the NHL this season.
"There is so much you can learn from the veterans in camp," said Korpikoski, who turned 20 in July. "They are great, and you can just watch and learn so much from them. But when you play against them, you have to treat them like any other player and try to beat them. ... Of course, always when you come to camp you want to make the team, and that's my goal and I think I've got a good chance. I believe in my chances of making this team."
Another prospect drafted in 2004, Brandon Dubinsky
, is coming off an outstanding performance at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Michigan. Dubinsky is attempting to make the difficult jump straight from major-junior hockey to the NHL without having to spend significant time in the minors.
"Obviously, sticking with the top team is my number one goal," said the 20-year-old center, who turned heads early at camp. "I am going to just do everything in my power to make sure that it happens. If it doesn't, then I won't be disappointed because I know that I have done everything in my power to make a spot on the team and I will just take it from there."
Rangers head coach Tom Renney has promised to keep an open mind when determining which players will make the opening-night roster, and Dubinsky knows he has to play every shift as if it's his last.
"Ultimately I know that in order to have a shot at making the big club I've got to come out here and provide energy and effort," he said. "Basically I can't be subpar, and I can't be the same as anyone else. I've got to try to push and look better than anyone else."
Defenseman Daniel Girardi, 22, signed with the Rangers over the summer after a standout year with Hartford. He says this month marks a remarkable turnaround from where he was just one year ago.
"At this point last year I was sitting at home waiting for a call to see where I would go," said Girardi, a member of the AHL's 2005-06 All-Rookie team. "My agent was looking around at other teams, but I am really happy with my situation here and it's all worked out for the best. ... Now that I am here, I am just trying to work hard every day and show what I've got. There's a lot of good talent here, that's for sure. It's going to be hard to earn a spot but I am going to play hard and see where things land."
Another key player in Hartford last season was 23-year-old center Dwight Helminen, who tallied 32 goals and 23 assists for 55 points. Despite this success in the AHL, Helminen knows how hard it would be to put up comparable numbers in the NHL.
"Coming in here, I had a good season in Hartford," said Helminen. "But I feel that I have something to prove. I am capable of making the next step."
Another player who looking to make that next step is right wing Ryan Callahan
, the top overage player in the Ontario Hockey League last season. Callahan completed a stellar four-year career in Guelph, where he ended up being the franchise's all-time leading scorer.
"I loved Guelph," said Callahan, a native of Rochester, N.Y. "I was there for four years, and it is a great place to play. To leave a mark back there, it's really special."
Callahan is taking part in his second camp, and he said he's looking forward to making a name for himself in either the AHL or NHL this season.
"Realistically, I will probably go down to Hartford," he said. "But I am going to do everything I can to stay with the Rangers. Obviously, that is what the camp is for, so that is what I am going to try to do. Coming in I know what to expect. I am maybe not as star struck as I was last year with all the big names. This year I know I've got to come in and work hard and try to make the squad."
Like Callahan, Dane Byers is looking to jump from major-junior to the professional ranks this season. After scoring three points in the Rangers' final game at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, Byers is adjusting well to his new environment.
"I think the guys are a lot bigger, obviously," explains Byers. "They are a lot older. But I basically have just got to pick up my speed a little bit and do the things that I did to get here. I just have to continue doing that."
Czech prospect Jakub Petruzalek, who attended training camp last season before going to Litvinov in the Czech league and eventually ending the season with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, is looking forward to staying in one place this season.
In 24 games with Barrie, the young Czech prospect scored 31 points (11 goals and 20 assists) along with 28 penalty minutes. At 21-years old, he already understands the importance of chemistry. He said he is using training camp as an opportunity to learn which other players will help him most succeed.
"It's important who you play on your line with," Petruzalek explained. "If you have guys with good chemistry, it just comes easy. Thus far, I've played best with Marc-Andre Cliche. He has a pretty good brain and a lot of the same ideas as me so it was good to play with him."
For New Jersey native Bobby Sanguinetti, the Rangers' 2006 first-round draft choice, these first days of training camp mark the realization of a life long dream of not only playing in the NHL, but being a part of the Blueshirts.
"It's pretty exciting to see all the guys out there and be one of them," the 18-year old defenseman said. "It's pretty awesome. I am just trying to prove myself a little bit, turn some heads, and gain some respect. I've done OK. Obviously you can do a little better and there's room for improvement. I've just got to keep working and hope things turn out the right way."
Another player participating in his first camp is forward Greg Moore. Last year's Hobey Baker finalist as the top NCAA player graduated from the University of Maine in May and is now able to concentrate solely on hockey.
"This is my first experience at main camp, so I am having fun with it," said Moore, who was acquired along with Blair Betts from Calgary during the 2003-04 season. "It's a good feeling not having to grab the backpack and hike to class everyday. Now I get to play hockey everyday, and I am having fun."
Rick Kozak, another player acquired at the 2004 trade deadline, is looking at training camp as a chance to kick-start his career after a fluke injury ruined his first professional season. Just under a year ago, Kozak tore the ligaments in his thumb during the ECHL Charlotte Checkers' seventh game of the season, and the injury caused him to miss three months. Now fully healthy, he is looking to take this camp by storm.
"Last year wasn't really the kind of start I wanted to have for my pro debut," said Kozak. "I want to come here, perform as well as I can, and see what happens from there. I'm going to just let the chips fall in play and keep working."
Kozak's approach to camp is typical of many fellow prospects, and reflects coach Renney's request that every young player give an effort that make it tough to send them back to their junior or minor-league teams.
"All I can do is control what I can control, and I am just going to work day to day," said Kozak. "I mean, you put in what you get out, right?"