|Rangers head coach Tom Renney will have some tough decisions to make at training camp with so many talented and determined players competing for jobs. |
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the opening of the Rangers' 2007 training camp, Blueshirts head coach Tom Renney sat down with members of the local media at the Madison Square Garden Training Center.
The annual get-together was informal as always, with Renney taking center stage a comfortable leather chair in the middle of the players' lounge, and the reporters seated around him on sofas. The questioning was free and open-ended, lasting for roughly 30 minutes.
Renney was clearly in good spirits on the day after watching a team of Rangers prospects beat Columbus 5-1 in the championship game of the Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament. Noting that the Blueshirts had gone to Traverse City with the "objective of winning" the five-day tournament, Renney said that the team performed well in all aspects of the game. He gave special mention to the goaltending performances of Antoine Lafleur and Miika Wiikman, as well a defensive corps that included former first-round draft picks Marc Staal
and Bobby Sanguinetti.
Renney was so impressed with both Lafleur and defenseman Clayton Barthel, a former Washington draft pick invited to the prospects tournament on a tryout basis, that he invited these two players to join the Rangers' main training camp. The additions of Lafleur and Barthel brought the total number of players in camp to 52, a full 12 fewer than what team started with last year.
Part of the reason camp is smaller this year is that Renney feels the coaching staff now has a better picture of where all Rangers prospects are in their development and that some were better served returning to junior following the Traverse City tournament. Others, like defensemen Staal, Sanguinetti and Michael Sauer
, are at the Training Center today, running through their camp orientation with the rest of the veterans.
Although he acknowledged that the Rangers enter this season as one of the top teams in the league, Renney said it's business as usual for the coaching staff, which has been working for years to build a team that fans can be proud of from one season to the next.
"We're going to continue to look at the growth of this team," Renney said. "There's a lot that's been written and said about where we are now and where we should be in the middle of June next year. Where we need to be is in a position to continue to galvanize our place in this league as being a contender. We'll continue to do that by the acquisition of the proper free agents and the good drafting that we've done and the integration of good players when they're ready. And that to me is what stands the test of time."
Renney pointed out that while everyone is confident and determined, all of the Rangers recognize the hard work that lies ahead of them, not just in training camp, but in the many months that follow.
"We play in the best league in the world, and we're certainly in the top half of the league at the very least, and we should make some noise this year again," he responded. "You've got to get certain breaks along the way. You've got to have perfect goaltending, and you've got to have a lot of things going your way. And in some cases there are things you don't control, -- injuries, for example -- I think it's how we feel internally and what we lock onto internally that's really important and how we develop the pursuit of that every day, which is really critical."
During a discussion of last season's late push to the playoffs, Renney was asked if the team would stress getting a big start to the season to avoid being under pressure in the second half.
"It's an 82-game schedule and there's a lot of ebb and flow to a season," Renney said. "They don't hand the Stanley Cup out in September or in January either. But there's an awful lot that goes on between now and then. We have to be strong enough as a group to cope with those things and remember that, first and foremost, it's important to be honest and give what's required of us internally to win and be a champion. That's all that matters."
Renney also offered his thoughts on several players, including captain Jaromir Jagr, who came into training camp with a shoulder injury last year, but is entirely healthy this time around.
"My conversations with him have been excellent," Renney said of Jagr. "He sounds great and gives me every indication that he's ready, as opposed to having to ready himself like he did last year."
Asked about Staal, who enters his first pro season this year after a stellar junior career that saw him earn OHL Defenseman of the Year honors last season, Renney praised the youngster's performance in Traverse City.
"He's a year older and that much more mature," said Renney. "As usual, he seems that much more focused on what he needs to do. The measuring stick for him, obviously, will be training camp. ... There's no reason to think he won't give it a really good shot and get some serious consideration from our staff."
Another question surrounded the competition for the No. 2 goaltending slot behind two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist
. Six other goalies are in camp this year – one more than in 2006.
"I know what I want for Henrik and that's what I sort of envision for games played and the rest that's required," Renney said. "Beyond that, I think it's important that it's a competition. ... There is room for a surprise there."
Renney also answered questions about newcomer Scott Gomez, and indicated that the former New Jersey star might play a more offensive-minded role in New York.
"I think they (New Jersey) deployed him very intelligently for what they liked to do and how they liked to play," said Renney. "Our approach may be somewhat different than that. We hope to capitalize on his energy and his ability to maybe offer a little more. ... There's no question that Scotty Gomez makes our team better, as does Chris Drury."
While the vibe was overwhelmingly positive, and the coach was clearly looking forward to the season ahead, he reminded the reporters that his plans for the Rangers have been a long time in the making.
He said management and the coaching staff remain focused on building the kind of culture that will sustain itself for years and bring the Stanley Cup back to Madison Square Garden on a regular basis. Last year was a part of that development, and the team is eager to build on its success.
"To me, last year was still very much us in this process of being a champion," said Renney. "It's not always pretty and fun to watch, or easy to write about, but it's absolutely essential to have happen."