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Rangers prospects eye big tournament

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Grachev Looks Ahead to Traverse City Watch
Stepan on Making First Trip to Tournament Watch

Pregame Notes: Rangers vs. Columbus
PHOTO GALLERY: First Practice
Traverse City Roster
Traverse City Schedule

By Dan David,

Three years ago, the New York Rangers sent a team of prospects to the annual Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., and that group -- which featured Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, and Marc Staal -- came home with a championship.

The 2007 Rangers prospects were a strong team, but they were in fact a surprise winner at the time and were coming off a fourth-place finish in the previous year. The victorious group included 16 players whose NHL rights belonged to the Blueshirts and six players invited to take part in the tournament. To get to the 2007 final against Columbus, they had to win a very tough 3-2 game against the host Red Wings, who are always among the tournament favorites.

It's a different story entering the 2010 tournament, which begins on Saturday when the Rangers once again face Columbus prospects. This time around, however, the Blueshirts must be considered a favorite on the heels of the organization's impressive third-place run last year as well as The Hockey News' 2010 survey of scouts that ranked the Rangers No. 5 in the NHL as far as the prospects in the pipeline.

Ryan Bourque and Evgeny Grachev skated on the same line on Friday at the MSG Training Center before leaving for Traverse City, Mich. Both were members of the Blueshirts' 2009 third-place team.
Indeed, of the eight teams entered in this year's Traverse City event, only the St. Louis Blues -- whom the Rangers beat in last year's third-place game -- have a higher ranking at No. 2 overall in that Hockey News Future Watch list.

As the Rangers prospects gathered at the MSG Training Center on Friday for their flight to Traverse City, forward Evgeny Grachev, making his third trip to the tournament, was very clear about the group's intentions.

"We expect to win this tournament as a team," said the 20-year-old Grachev, whose three trips to this tournament tie Tomas Kundratek for the most of any players on the 23-man roster. "That is our goal."

Grachev spent last season in the American Hockey League with the Hartford Wolf Pack, where he played under head coach Ken Gernander and his assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller. He'll have a big comfort factor in Michigan, since the same Hartford coaches will be direct the Rangers prospects team.

Having been to this tournament more times than any teammage, Grachev is one of eight members of last year's squad that won three in a row to close out their stay in Traverse City. Only an opening-game loss to eventual tournament champion Carolina prevented them from taking their second championship in three years.

Forward Ryan Bourque, another returnee, said he learned a lot from last year's tournament and will apply those lessons this year. On Friday at the Training Center, Bourque was the left wing on a practice line with Grachev, the No. 21-rated prospect in Future Watch, and center Derek Stepan, the Rangers' highest-rated Future Watch player at No. 16.

"The more pressure you put on yourself, the worse you're going to play," said Bourque. "They are all good players there (in Traverse City), so keep it simple and good things will happen. You're playing with older and stronger guys, so just try to keep your game simple, and things will fall into place.

What makes the Rangers such a strong contender in 2010 is not just the potential of a top line that features names like Bourque, Grachev, and Stepan. The Blueshirts' greatest strength is their overall degree of big-game experience coming into Traverse City. Of the eight teams in this tournament, the Rangers have the most players (seven) who have competed in a World Junior Championships, including last January's gold medalists Bourque and Stepan. The Rangers also have more players drafted or signed by their own organization (18) than any other team as well as the most players (10) who were taken in the first three rounds of an NHL Entry Draft.

Only two teams in this tournament have three Future Watch Top-75 players on their roster, and the Rangers are one of them (Stepan, Grachev, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh). The only other team with three is St. Louis, which has the top-rated prospect in defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

Defensemen Dylan McIlrath and Ryan McDonagh -- both first-round draft picks -- give the Blueshirts plenty of strength on their blue line at Traverse City.
The strong roster for the 2010 prospects team is a tribute to Gordie Clark, the Rangers Director, Player Personnel, and his team of scouts, who have managed to find players such as Stepan in Round 2, Grachev and Bourque in Round 3, and Roman Horak in Round 5. This will also be the first opportunity for hulking defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the team's first-round pick last June, to show the impact he can have on a big game. McIlrath is one of five 2010 draftees on the Rangers squad along with second-rounder Christian Thomas, third-rounder Andrew Yogan, fifth-rounder Jason Wilson, and seventh-rounder Randy McNaught.

The Rangers will play in the tournament's Gretzky Division along with Columbus, Carolina and Minnesota. If they win the Gretzky group round-robin, they would play the winner of the Howe Division, which features St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Detroit. Seven of the eight teams are returning from last year's tournament, while Tampa Bay is back after a one-year absence. A showdown with the host Red Wings, sure to pack the house for every game since Traverse City is the site of their main training camp, would not happen until the placement round, if at all.

Many of the players participating in Traverse City will be invited to the Blueshirts' main training camp, which begins on Sept. 17. All of them recognize the opportunity this tournament provides as far as making an impression on Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather and head coach John Tortorella, who are both in Traverse City.

"I was fortunate enough last year to come into main camp after Traverse City, and I think it really helps you for that, too," said Bourque. "Going from one step in juniors to a higher step and then even a higher step at main camp. I think the whole experience is just great for your development and it's great to have one year under my belt coming into this year.

Keep an eye on throughout the tournament for up-to-the minute coverage on the progress of the Traverse City Prospects Team, including in-game reporting.
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