Prior to training camp last September, Rangers head coach John Tortorella expressed his hope that some of the organization’s top young prospects would step up and secure regular spots with the team this season and begin to form the foundation of the franchise along with more-established younger players like Marc Staal
, Ryan Callahan
, and Brandon Dubinsky
Consider this “Mission Accomplished.”
Defenseman Michael Del Zotto
and center Artem Anisimov
not only spent their entire rookie campaigns competing at the NHL level this season, but both were major contributors to the Rangers and among the top rookies in the entire league.
“We have a really good core of young players,” said Tortorella. “We have to do the best we can to grow that core because, for me, the exciting part of it is the young core, it’s a good one. And Del Z and Artie are a big part of that.”
The 19 year-old Del Zotto led all Rangers’ defenseman in goals (9) and points (37), tying Callahan for fifth overall on the team in point production. He was also the seventh highest scoring rookie in the entire National Hockey League this season.
The Rangers’ first-round pick in the 2008 draft, Del Zotto scored his first NHL goal in his Madison Square Garden debut on Oct. 3 against the Ottawa Senators, one that turned out to be the game-winner, and sparkled offensively much of the season.
“He has a nice strut about him,” Tortorella said of Del Zotto. “But he has to know that he has a long way to go as far as being a pro National Hockey Leaguer. He’s a great kid. He’s got a lot of jam. We just want to make sure he stays down the right path.”
Not surprisingly as a 19-year-old rookie playing a difficult position, Del Zotto had his struggles in the defensive end this season. And Tortorella mentioned on Tuesday that likely the coaches asked too much of the youngster, who averaged nearly 19 minutes of ice-time per game.
“But the way our defense shaped up this season, we had to play him more minutes than we would have liked,” explained the head coach.
For his part Del Zotto considers his rookie season a tremendous learning experience. A player who desperately wanted to make the team out of training camp, Del Zotto approached his craft in a very mature manner this year, soaking up as much valuable experience and information as he could.
“I had the time of my life and it’s a year I will never forget,” said Del Zotto, who appeared in 80 games this season. “This year was a huge learning curve for me with so many ups and downs, fun times and depressing times, a little bit of everything. I learned quickly that it’s not all fun and games.”
While, perhaps, not as high profile as Del Zotto, the 21 year-old Anisimov also lived up to his billing as one of the organization’s building blocks for the present and future with a strong rookie year. Anisimov was the tenth leading scorer among all NHL rookies this season with 28 points, while his 12 goals ranked ninth among the league’s freshmen.
What impressed the Rangers’ coaching staff the most about the 6-foot-4 Russian was his strong defensive play, and his smart play away from the puck. The coaching staff often referred to Anisimov as one of the smartest players on the team throughout the year.
“The reason why we kept playing him even when he wasn’t scoring is because Artie was so reliable defensively and so smart with the puck, making smart decisions,” explained Tortorella.
Anisimov went through several scoring droughts throughout the season, including a stretch of one goal scored over a 19-game span, but played in every single game. He centered all four lines at one time or another, and was a staple on the Rangers’ excellent penalty killing unit.
The rookie centerman really came into his own down the stretch, helping to spark the team to a 7-1-2 finish, playing with rugged linemates Jody Shelley and Brandon Prust
. Anisimov closed out the season with points in four straight games and had two goals and seven points in the final ten contests of the year.
“He’s had such a great development year,” Tortorella said of Anisimov. “We want him to be a scorer. We need him to keep progressing.”
With Staal, Callahan, and Dubinsky all entering their fourth NHL campaigns next season, and Del Zotto and Anisimov now fixtures on the club, the Rangers have the base of what Tortorella was seeking last September. Add to the fact that seven other rookies played at the NHL level with the Rangers this season, and one can see where Tortorella would like to see his roster go in the future.
“I’d like to see us get even younger,” stated the head coach.
Tortorella mentioned players like Dale Weise, Evgeny Grachev, and Corey Potter as top prospects within the organization. Then there are former first round picks Bobby Sanguinetti and Chris Kreider
, the latter of the two who just won an NCAA championship with Boston College as a freshman. Ryan McDonagh
and Derek Stepan
both played for Wisconsin this year and lost to Kreider in the title game, and are on the verge of turning pro and perhaps taking a crack at joining the young core.
And, of course, there is defenseman Matt Gilroy, who spent most of the season in the NHL playing with the Rangers this year. Over 69 games worth of action Gilroy had four goals and 15 points, logged an average of 16:18 worth of ice-time, and finished with an even plus/minus rating.
“He can become part of the core because he is such a great skater,” Tortorella said of Gilroy.
A healthy scratch over the final eight games of the season, Gilroy is motivated to work even harder this off-season to make sure that he is an integral part of the core next season.
“It was a helpless feeling because you want to be part of something, but it was a good learning lesson,” explained the 25-year-old Gilroy. “I learned that I never want to be in that position again.”
Learning curves, and learning to live with mistakes, comes with the territory when young players play vital roles on an NHL team. But Tortorella believes that this is the strength of his the Rangers moving forward, the young core along with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
and sniper Marian Gaborik
, and it will lead the organization down the right path in the future.
“We have to realize what we are as an organization and where we are going,” said Tortorella. “Building with these young guys is the right path I believe.”