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Tortorella all fired up for training camp

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
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On the eve of his second training camp as head coach of the Rangers, John Tortorella was upbeat and excited to get to work on the 2010-11 season when he met with local media Thursday at the MSG Training Center.

“I have never been more excited about a camp than right now,” said Tortorella, who has nine years of NHL head coaching experience with the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning. “It’s because of the competition which will push some people to play more consistently and maybe play harder. Entering camp, from what I foresee, there’s a lot of competition. This year is different. The kids will push to be here.”

While acknowledging that there are many veteran players with NHL experience coming to camp with the team, Tortorella emphasized that younger players will be given a fair opportunity to make the opening-night roster, as well. However, he also pointed out the organization is going to do what is best for the long-term development for each prospect.

Rangers head coach John Tortorella said two of the most important issues for the team this season will be its nightly consistency and a determination to capitalize on home-ice advantage at The Garden.
“I make no bones about it, I think youth on this team is a very important thing,” said Tortorella. “I think as an organization we continue to want to add, if warranted and deserved, and bring young kids into our lineup to continue to build that way.”

Tortorella just returned from the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, where he watched the Rangers prospects finish in fifth place with a 2-2 record. He was very impressed with the play of defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forwards Derek Stepan and Evgeny Grachev, stating that all three will be given long looks during camp.

“Out of the teams I saw in the tournament, I thought Stepan was the best player,” said the Rangers head coach. “I thought the kids played well, and Grachev came on as the tournament went on, and McDonagh continues to impress.”

Whether or not any or all of those three players earns a roster spot at the end of the preseason, Tortorella is confident that all three will soon join the young core of players already playing at the NHL level for the Rangers.

That group, featuring defensemen Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto and forwards Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov was solidified even more on Wednesday when defenseman Marc Staal agreed to terms on a long-term multi-year contract to remain with the Blueshirts.

Although pleased with the progress of his young core, Tortorella expects each of those players to improve and carry his own game to another level this season. Most important to the head coach is that each player plays a more consistent game.

Of course, that message is not only being delivered to the young players on the roster. For the Rangers to better themselves this season, the entire team needs to play much more consistent in 2010-11 as opposed to a year ago.

“Consistency is a point of emphasis that I know we are going to discuss as a team, and I want their feedback as to how they think we can be better in that area, too,” Tortorella said of his players. “We had a great start (last season), had a good push, but were terribly inconsistent in the middle part of the year.”

Tortorella also said that the difference between making the playoffs or not, as was the case a year ago, could very well hinge on the Rangers playing better on home ice at Madison Square Garden this season, a point that will also be stressed to the players throughout training camp.

“There’s no question our home play is a point we need to improve on,” stated Tortorella, whose club was 18-17-6 at MSG last season. “You’re going to end up where we were last year if you are a .500 team at home.”

He doesn’t know what his roster, line combinations, or defense pairings will look like just yet, but Tortorella is confident that one of the issues that plagued last year’s squad, that of secondary scoring behind the team’s top scorer Marian Gaborik (42-44-86 in 76 games), will be less of an issue this year.

“I’m really anxious to see who steps up offensively,” said Tortorella, who mentioned Alexander Frolov, Mats Zuccarello, Todd White, and Erik Christensen among the players who he expects to help boost the team’s offense this season.

Tortorella did commit to putting Frolov on a line with Gaborik during the preseason, though that commitment did not extend to the regular season. He said that different centers would join that pair, but that it was most important to see if Frolov, a two-time 30-goal scorer, and Gaborik, a six-time 30-goal scorer, would mesh as linemates.

Frolov’s acquisition was part of what Tortorella called a “very good summer” for the Blueshirts. During the off-season the Rangers signed free agents Frolov, Zuccarello, Derek Boogaard, and Martin Biron, acquired White and defenseman Steve Eminger in separate trades, and signed Stepan and McDonagh to their first professional contracts.

Perhaps the most important of those moves, in the eyes of the head coach, was the signing of Biron, the veteran netminder to serve as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup in goal.

“He’s played in the league; he’s a good teammate; he knows some of the guys,” Tortorella said of Biron. “We are hoping that we can get some work out of Marty to take some of the load off Hank. But it’s not just getting starts from the backup, the backup needs to win. That’s how you make it into the playoffs and maybe get a good seed along the way. We’re excited that Marty is here to take some of the load off Hank and win us some hockey games.”

Three other veterans are vying to earn a spot on the opening night roster, each accepting a training camp invite this past week, and Tortorella is quite familiar with two of the three.

Defensemen Alexei Semenov and Garnet Exelby are in camp on a tryout basis as is veteran forward Ruslan Fedotenko. While Tortorella has never had direct contact with Exelby, he did get to know Semenov in training camp a year ago and calls him “just a great, great guy”. And Fedotenko played under Tortorella in Tampa Bay for four years, including the Stanley Cup-winning season of 2003-04.

Those hungry veterans, along with younger players pushing for roster spots, returning players looking for redemption after failing to make the playoffs last season, and new players acquired this summer will provide the intense competition Tortorella expects out of training camp this fall.

“There is a healthier competition this year than in last year’s camp,” saied Tortorella, who added that everyone has “a clean slate” entering camp.

“Let’s get at it and see where it all ends up”.
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