Long before a group of young, precocious New York Rangers were even born, The Who routinely spread the word via their music that “The Kids Are Alright”. Now, coming of age under head coach John Tortorella, this group of young players is indeed proving that these kids are better than alright.
|Marc Staal, already one of the top young defensemen in the NHL at age 22, will play a huge role in the Rangers' future. |
Forwards Brandon Dubinsky
and Ryan Callahan
, along with defensemen Marc Staal
and Dan Girardi
, are four key youngsters who were challenged, and ultimately thrived, after Tortorella took over the coaching reigns in late February.
All four players -- age 25 and under -- were already playing important minutes before Tortorella’s arrival. However, the new coach leaned heavily on the foursome over the final two months of the regular season and throughout the Rangers’ seven-game opening round playoff series against the Washington Capitals. And all four responded in positive fashion to not only help the club in the present, but raise expectations for the future.
“I think we have a good group of young guys,” stated Tortorella. “I think there is some good stuff here as far as the youth goes.”
Up front, both Dubinsky and Callahan seem to be perfect fits for the aggressive style that Tortorella prefers his team to play. They are both hungry for the puck, and not afraid to go get it by being aggressive on the forecheck and physical in all three zones of the ice.
The 24-year-old Callahan had the slightly better regular season of the two, scoring a career-high 22 goals (nine after Tortorella’s arrival) and notching a career-best 40 points. Dubinsky, 23, countered with a career-high 41 points, though he recorded only 13 goals.
In the playoffs, however, Dubinsky was a bit more consistent in all facets of the game. He outscored Callahan four points to two, although Callahan notched a pair of goals in the series while Dubinsky scored one.
“I leaned on Cally big-time, and I thought he got tired as the series went on,” said Tortorella. “I saw Dubi go this way (up) as the series went on. But they are both two good young forwards to build around.”
With four goals in his final seven regular-season contests, and stepping up for the injured Chris Drury in the playoffs, Dubinsky’s year ended on a high note despite the team’s first-round series loss to the Capitals.
“(Tortorella) demands a lot out of his players, and that’s good for me because I feel that I am the type of player that will succeed under that kind of teaching and coaching,” said Dubinsky. “I know that the year just ended, but I am excited for the next one to start and to get the opportunity to work with him and help him transform me into the player I know I can be.”
Callahan was a major reason why the Rangers qualified for the postseason, recording 15 points over the final 15 games of the regular season, while also providing tremendous energy with his robust physical game, which saw him lead the team, and rank fourth in the entire NHL, with 265 hits.
“I think his style really helps me out a lot,” Callahan said of Tortorella. “I think the way we’re forechecking and things like that, personally, that’s what I like to do. The way the system works now really helps me out.”
As much as the new coach increased the responsibilities for both Dubinsky and Callahan, Tortorella really raised the expectations placed on his two young defensemen, Staal and Girardi. First, he paired the two on the back line, then Tortorella handed Staal and Girardi the job of shutting down the opposition’s top offensive guns on a nightly basis.
The 22-year-old Staal and his 25-year-old partner Girardi thrived with the increased responsibility, along with the confidence Tortorella showed in the pair. Both Staal and Girardi played smart, physical games, and became known around the league as a true shutdown defensive pairing.
|Dan Girardi, who turned 25 last month, was on the team's No. 1 defense pairing. |
“He doesn’t let his foot off the gas and he’s always on you to force you to be better,” Staal said of the Rangers’ head coach. “You then demand better in your own game. When he has that confidence in you to be that kind of player, that’s nice, and it’s easier for you to go out there and play.”
In the playoffs, Staal and Girardi took turns with the veteran pairing of Wade Redden
and Michal Rozsival trying to shut down Washington’s high-flying offense, led by the league’s most dynamic player and leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin. Results were mixed for the young defensemen, but all involved believe that the experience garnered during the tough seven-game series with the Capitals will greatly benefit both Staal and Girardi next season and further down the road.
One area which Tortorella would like to see Staal raise his level of play is on the offensive side of the puck. Staal did collect a career-best 15 points in this, his second, NHL campaign. But Tortorella sees a far great upside for Staal’s offensive potential.
“He’s a guy that’s really intriguing to me because I think he needs to believe that he can bring offense, and I don’t think he believes that yet,” Tortorella said of Staal. “That is something we are going to push on to him. In the way we want to play, we need to have a guy that’s going to be up the ice and willing to do that.”
Added Staal, “I think I can bring more offense, and I have in Junior put up points. Obviously it’s a lot different here, but I think having him wanting me to jump in more and create more will help me become more of a two-way defenseman instead of being labeled as just a shutdown defenseman.”
|Artem Anisimov stepped into the lineup for Game 7 vs. the Caps. He'll look to make the roster out of camp in the fall. |
Perhaps the best news for the Rangers is that, while Dubinsky, Callahan, Staal, and Girardi are all key components of the team’s plan moving forward, they are not the only youngsters who will be vying to make a positive contribution beginning with next September’s training camp.
Former first-round pick Lauri Korpikoski, 22, just completed his rookie season in the National Hockey League and posted respectable 6-8-14 numbers while serving third and fourth-line roles. A full season under his belt, more will be expected of Korpikoski next year. And the talented Evgeny Grachev, coming off a superb year in junior, might be ready to compete at the age of 19, as well.
In addition, hulking center Artem Anisimov
-- a 20 year-old who led the Hartford Wolf Pack with 37 goals and 81 points, and who played a strong game when called up to replace the injured Blair Betts in Game 7 versus the Capitals -- will certainly be looking for a spot on next year’s Rangers’ squad.
“I really liked the way Artie played in Game 7,” said Tortorella. “I don’t think he was nervous, and I like that he’s a big body. I’m anxious to see him in camp.”
Another young forward who will contend for a roster spot next fall is 6-foot-3 Dane Byers, who was sidelined most of this past regular season due to a knee injury, but came back to score three goals for Hartford in its opening-round playoff loss.
|After a dominating season in junior, red-hot prospect Evgeny Grachev will look to challenge for a spot on the Rangers roster at the tender age of 19. |
“He’s got some bite and some grit to his game, and John likes a player that has some jam,” Rangers’ Assistant General Manager Jim Schoenfeld said of Byers. “I think we have some young players who will challenge, and he’s one of them.”
On defense, the Rangers have stockpiled a talented group of young players, many of whom will be looking to make the step up next season. First-round picks Bobby Sanguinetti (who played in Hartford this year) and Michael Del Zotto
(who starred in junior) certainly head this list, though recently-signed Matt Gilroy, the 2009 Hobey Baker Award winner out of Boston University, and Hartford stalwarts Corey Potter and Mike Sauer will be in the mix, as well.
“We do have people that are knocking on the door, but they are going to write their own story, we aren’t going to squeeze anyone in. They are going to have to earn a job,” said Schoenfeld.
“But where you get better (as an organization) is where you have a group and someone beats someone else out of a job, not because of poor performance, but because this guy is ready to improve your roster by being better,” explained Schoenfeld. “And that usually comes from your youngsters, where all of a sudden they are just ready to play.”