By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
For the past several seasons, the Rangers organization has viewed its training camp in part as a proving ground to determine which of the system’s prospects are ready to jump up to the NHL.
This intense focus on young talent has helped the Rangers build a strong foundation for the present and future with current Blueshirts goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
, defensemen Marc Staal
, Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto
, and forwards Ryan Callahan
, Brandon Dubinsky
and Artem Anisimov
all earning NHL rookie roster spots on the basis of strong showings at camp.
|Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a 2007 first-rounder, was outstanding at the Rangers' Development Camp for prospects and -- in the eyes of Blueshirts President and General Manager Glen Sather -- has a real chance to start his first pro season in the NHL. |
“Our goal has always been to try and develop our own players to build a core group of players that are going to grow up together,” said team President and General Manager Glen Sather. “It takes time to develop players, and it takes time for them to develop into National Hockey League players. But there are some kids that are really starting to come in the right direction now.”
Defenseman Dan Girardi
, who became a full-time NHL player as the result of a mid-season call-up four seasons ago, and forward Callahan were the first to assume roles as current young-core players for the Rangers. Girardi, an undrafted free agent, has already played his way into the top defensive pairing. Callahan, a 2004 fourth-round draft pick who also made his NHL debut in 2006-07, is now an alternate captain.
Dubinsky, a 2004 second-round pick, staked his claim as part of the youthful core when he recorded 40 points as a rookie in 2007-08 -- the same season that his fellow rookie Staal, a 2005 first-rounder, solidified his spot as a building block for the future.
Last year, Del Zotto and Anisimov, had solid first seasons in the NHL, with Del Zotto being selected to the NHL All-Rookie team. Those two youngsters, along with Gilroy, who spent the majority of his rookie pro season in the NHL, have also joined the organization’s young foundation, complementing young veteran NHL stars such as Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik
The question both Sather and Head Coach John Tortorella want answered now is: who will be next to join this rapidly expanding group?
“I don’t want to paint a picture where I am being a little too enthusiastic, but we have a good group of kids coming along,” said Sather. “There were a lot of players that really looked good in our (prospect development) camp.”Ryan McDonagh
, 21, and Derek Stepan
, 20, signed their first professional contracts this summer, and Sather has stated that these former University of Wisconsin teammates have shots at spots on the Rangers’ roster this season.
Sather said he felt McDonagh, a solid 6-foot-1, 222-pound defenseman, was among the best players at Development Camp three weeks ago. A former first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, he plays a smart defensive game and could prove to be a very valuable asset on the club’s blueline.
Stepan also starred in the prospects camp, in particular when he teamed with talented Russian Evgeny Grachev to repeatedly light the lamp during a mid-week scrimmage. The solid two-way center, a second round-pick in 2008, recorded 54 points in 41 games with Wisconsin last season, and also captained Team USA to only its second gold medal at the World Junior Championships.
“Stepan was terrific during (prospects) camp,” said Sather. “Whether he makes the team at the start of the year, we’ll see. It won’t be easy for him. It might take him some time to develop in the minors, but he’ll get good schooling if he’s down there, and a real opportunity. I’m sure we’ll see him in New York this season at some point.”
Grachev, the 20-year-old power winger, is another player Sather views as having a chance to make the jump to the NHL this season. A 40-goal scorer two years ago in junior, he turned pro last season and had a terrific training camp before being sent to Hartford of the American Hockey League. The 6-foot-4, 222-pounder notched 12 goals and recorded 28 points with the Wolf Pack in what he has called a definite “year of learning.”
“Grachev, in that one scrimmage he played with Stepan, scored four goals, and he was a big goal scorer in junior,” said Sather. “He’s a big kid and he’s been training hard all summer. He’s got a legitimate shot at making this hockey club.”
Of course, not every top prospect within the organization is knocking on the door to the NHL just yet. There are a string of players that Sather foresees to be future members of the core foundation that still require more seasoning, most notably 2009 first-round draft pick Chris Kreider
and 2010 first-rounder Dylan McIlrath
Kreider, a left wing who already possesses elite NHL speed, is returning to Boston College this fall. As a freshman last season, he helped the Eagles capture the NCAA Championship. Kreider is so talented and physically mature that the Rangers organization feels he is ready for pro hockey right now.
|In forwards Chris Kreider, left, and Evgeny Grachev, the Rangers have two of the NHL's top young prospects who might one day play major roles in sustained Rangers excellence over the long term. |
“Kreider has gotten stronger, and he’s certainly a man already,” Sather said of the 19-year-old, who has bulked up to 217 pounds. “We tried to get him to sign this year, but he wanted to go back for another year of college. He’s almost 220 pounds and still as fast as anyone I have seen in the game.”
Although he was the 10th overall selection in the most recent NHL draft, the expectation is that McIlrath, 18, will head back to Moose Jaw for another year of development in junior. He is currently in New York this summer working out with the Rangers’ strength and conditioning staff, building up his body for future NHL competition.
“He’s going to be a good player and a core player here for a long time,” Sather said of the 6-foot-4, 218-pound McIlrath. “He looked very good in (prospects) camp; and we are very excited about him.”
While the Rangers’ front office paid very close attention to Kreider and McIlrath during mini-camp, another youngster also caught the attention of the team’s general manager.
Defenseman Mikhail Pashnin
, New York’s seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft, displayed passion and skill while delivering thunderous body checks and scoring pretty goals during the week at the MSG Training Center. He also oozed personality, something that could play quite well at The Garden in the not too distant future.
Pashnin won’t play for the Rangers this year, because he won’t even be in North America. Instead, the first overall pick in last year’s KHL draft will play out his contract in Russia this season, continuing his development that the Rangers hope one day has him land a significant role in the NHL.
“He reminds me of some other aggressive players that have come over here like (Darius) Kasparaitis,” Sather said of the 21-year-old Pashnin. “Every guy in mini-camp skated around with his head up when (Pashnin) was on the ice. He’s going to be a real good player. Plus, he has a real enthusiasm for the game, as well, with so much spirit and spunk.”
The core is growing. Some parts of the foundation are in place already, while other pieces might arrive this season or in the very near future.
These younger players, in place to “grow up together” now, are the foundation of what Sather envisions as a Rangers team that will contend for the Stanley Cup consistently in the seasons to come.