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Rangers Look to Make Mark in Traverse City

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Justin Soryal is one of five players on the Rangers' 2009 Traverse City Prospects Tournament roster who also competed in the 2008 event.
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By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com

With under a week to go before the official start of the Rangers' 2009 training camp at the MSG Training Center, the eyes of Rangers fans will temporarily turn to Traverse City, Mich., where a group of Blueshirts draftees and other hopefuls will compete in the annual Traverse City Prospects Tournament.

Play gets under way on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET, when the Rangers face the Carolina Hurricanes at 3 p.m. It will be a true glimpse into the Blueshirts' future, since 16 of the 22 players on the Rangers prospects' roster are youngsters whose NHL rights are currently owned by the team, including 10 players selected in the past two NHL Entry Drafts.

Two years ago, the Rangers won the eight-team tournament with a roster that included current Rangers Brandon Dubinsky and Marc Staal. That team also featured Artem Anisimov, Brodie Dupont, Bobby Sanguinetti, Mike Sauer and Miika Wiikman, who all spent last season with the Hartford Wolf Pack and will vie for roster spots at the Rangers' main camp, which opens on Sept. 12.

The Rangers prospects will play four games in only five days at Traverse City. After Sunday's meeting with the Hurricanes, the Blueshirts will face Atlanta on Monday and host Detroit on Wednesday before competing in a placement game on Thursday. Following that game, the players will return to New York, where some will be asked to remain at the MSG Training Center for the main camp.

Last year's Rangers team was unable to defend its Traverse City title and finished sixth. Five members of that team, including 2008 draftees Michael Del Zotto, Evgeny Grachev and Dale Weise, are returning this year, so the vast majority of Blueshirts' representatives will be seeing their first action in a New York Rangers uniform.

For Grachev, a third-round pick who went on to win Rookie of the Year honors in the Ontario Hockey League, the chance to go back to Traverse City is a big opportunity to show what he has learned after a full season in major-junior hockey.

"I missed hockey very much this summer, so I'm very excited about this tournament," said the 19-year-old Russian who had 40 goals and 80 assists for Brampton in 2008-09. "I haven't had a chance to play a competitive game since the end of my season, so it will be good for me to get some games in at Traverse City before the start of training camp."

Grachev, who is eligible to either play for the Hartford Wolf Pack or return to Brampton this season if he doesn't make it to the NHL level, feels he is miles ahead of where he was at this time a year ago.

"Last year was my first year in North America, so I think Traverse City was kind of hard for me," Grachev said. "Especially in that tournament, guys are going super hard because they want to show all the scouts what they can do. It was hard for me last year, but I know it's going to be easier for me this year."

Del Zotto, a defenseman drafted in the 2008 first round, also had a tremendous OHL season in 2008-09 and will be another key player on the Rangers' team at Traverse City. Both Grachev and Del Zotto arrived at the MSG Training Center well in advance of training camp and have been alongside Rangers veterans both on and off the ice. At the Rangers Season Subscriber Forum on Wednesday, Blueshirts captain Chris Drury mentioned Del Zotto as one of the young players who has impressed him so far.

Marc Staal, who played on Traverse City teams in 2006 and 2007, knows exactly how Del Zotto, Grachev and the other Rangers prospects feel at this time of year. He said his Traverse City experience, which included the 2007 tournament title, helped him a lot on the road to the NHL.

"The thing I liked most about it was that you play three or four games there," Staal said of the prospects tournament. "The games are pretty intense, so it kind of gets you into game shape right away. Because of the intensity and the quickness, you need to make good passes and stuff. So I liked that part of it. Instead of working out and skating all day like I did before my first training camp with the Rangers, I really liked being able to go to Traverse City in my second year. I think it was a really good thing to prepare me for training camp."

Staal said the Traverse City players bond very quickly and the tournament helps strengthen off-ice friendships.

"You're with each other all the time at practice," Staal said. "You do all your pre-game meals and you're in the same rooms. It's not a big group of guys, so it's like having your own team for those few days."
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