For the first time in recent memory, when the Wolf Pack open the season in Hartford tonight, it will be loaded with talent. The team has a lot of new players, so things may take a few weeks to get going, but the talent that is on this roster should interest any Rangers fan. Yesterday, I even suggested that you part with a few shekels and sign up for AHL live, because the team has the makings of a Calder Cup contender. It does, but there is one caveat–the personnel on this team are high end and will be difficult to juggle. The coaching staff’s approach will have to be different from what it has been in the recent past–and much of the team’s success will depend on that adjustment.
So, let’s look at the team.
Cam Talbot and Jason Missiaen are a very strong netminding tandem. Talbot will handle the bulk of the AHL duties to start and is really ready to spot in New York, if there is an injury or if Marty Biron needs more personal time off. Talbot is expected to be one of the top AHL goaltenders this year, and he should help save a rather young defense when they make mistakes early in the season. Missiaen, who at 6’8″ looks huge in net, spent most of last season as the AHL backup, and has generally looked very good this pre-season.
Scott Stajcer was also listed on the roster that was published Monday night, however, Stajcer is still recovering from hip surgery and is not expected to play for awhile. When he is ready to play, expect him to be sent back to the ECHL to continue his development.
The Wolf Pack are carrying seven defensemen (Conor Allen, Stu Bickel, Tommy Hughes, Aaron Johnson, Dylan McIlrath, Brendon Nash, and Danny Syvret), all of whom, except for Nash, have contracts with the Rangers. Nash, Bickel, Johnson and Syvret are AHL veterans, and McIlrath will be in his second season. Allan and Hughes are rookies.
Nash has proven to be able to provide decent offensive production from the blueline in the AHL, while playing solid D in his own zone. The two-way defender has not yet been able to raise his game to make it at the NHL, so he agreed to an AHL contract this past August. Another experienced stable two-way blueliner is Johnson, who at age 30 has been able to put up the points in the AHL, but had less success in his 291 games in the NHL. Johnson can also play a tough game if necessary. Both Nash and Johnson are coming off injury last season and should provide stability and some points on a young blueline.
Bickel, who is more of a defensive blueliner, spent a good portion of last season with the Rangers (his potential is mostly as the seventh NHL blueliner). At this level, he is very steady and very big; he should be able to provide protection to the smaller more skilled forwards.
Finally, among the AHL veterans, is Syvret, who has really been able to put up offensive numbers in his previous AHL seasons. The 28-year old Syret has posted an average of 41 points in his last two seasons in the AHL, and while defense can be an issue for him, he should provide some offense from the blueline and quarterback the power play (at least to start the season).
Which brings us to the more interesting three young defensemen.
McIlrath is a top Rangers prospect, with a year of pro play under his belt. At this point, he should be ready for a bigger role in Hartford–clearing the crease, fighting when necessary and increasing his reputation as a nasty player. This will be a critical year for him, as McIlrath needs to be more consistently visible and fearsome than he was last season. No one questions the fact that he still needs to grow stronger to fulfill his potential in the NHL, but if McIlrath does not make a strong impression this season, one has to start to believing that he is falling behind schedule.
Hughes is a 21-year old two-way blueliner, with excellent size, who was signed by the Rangers as an undrafted free agent after his season with OHL London Knights. At least two years away from being NHL ready, Hughes will probably be a bottom pairing D-man in Hartford.
Allen was the most exciting defensive prospect in Rangers’ training camp this season. More known for offense than D during his collegiate career, Allen showed during the pre-season that he is good positionally and has excellent defensive instincts. He is probably one year away from a full time job in New York, but his vision and puck distribution should provide Hartford with some exciting scoring chances this season.
All 11 forwards that are signed are Rangers’ prospects. There are two other players, Shawn O’Donnell and Brodie Dupont, who are listed on the Wolf Pack roster and are on PTOs. O’Donnell is a rookie pro, who played CIS hockey last season and then joined Greenville (ECHL) for five games. It is unclear whether he will be eventually signed to an AHL contract or, when Carl Hagelin returns to the Rangers, O;Donnell goes back to the ECHL.
Dupont is another matter, entirely. Selected by the Rangers in the third round of the 2005 draft, Dupont was a fixture in the face-off circle for the Wolf Pack from 2008-2011, before being traded (as an RFA) by the Rangers to Nashville in July of 2011. The player in return, Andreas Thuresson, did not work out for the Blueshirts, but at the time, it was worth a shot. The problem for Hartford was that Dupont was a very solid two-way player (about a half point per game), who was very hard to replace. After playing in Italy last season, Dupont wanted to return to North America. He is on a PTO, but if he performs as he is able, Dupont should be offered an AHL contract soon. The kind of experienced guy that you want in the locker room, Dupont can play a top nine center role or at left wing for this young team.
The eleven NHL prospect forwards to start the season in Hartford are Ryan Bourque, Michael Haley, Marek Hrivik, Kyle Jean, Chris Kreider, Brandon Mashinter, Andrew Yogan, Michael Kantor, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg, and Darroll Powe.
Haley, Mashinter, Kantor and Powe are third or fourth line players at this level (as well as in the NHL, should they be promoted at some time during the season). Powe is an NHL vet who can play on the PK and has very good speed, while Mashinter is a big banger, who was a member of the Wolf Pack for the later part of last season. Haley led Hartford in penalty minutes last season and played nine games in a Rangers’ uniform–he could be one of the first Rangers’ call-ups, if they need a tough guy.
Kantor is a rookie, who the Rangers signed as an undrafted free agent out of the OHL Sudbury Wolves. A tough winger, Kantor will need quite a bit of seasoning before being NHL-ready, including perhaps spending some time in the ECHL.
Bourque and Yogan are second to third line tweeners on this team, depending on injury and effectiveness of the players above them. Bourque is in the final year of his ELC with the Rangers, and has good speed. He can play in all situations, but is particularly good on the PK. Used more in a defensive role in his first two seasons, Bourque may be able to fill a complementary player role on the first two AHL lines, if necessary.
As for Yogan, it feels like he has been around a long time, but, he is only 21 and in the second year of his ELC. In other words, he has one more year on his contract after the 2013-14 season. Yogan can plays on either the center or the wing, and had started to pick up his offensive production prior to sustaining a season ending injury last March, but it remains unclear whether he is a real NHL prospect. He will get the opportunity, at least at one point, to play with some high level talent this season, so its likely that his fate in this organization will be determined prior to next year.
Jean was signed by the Rangers after wowing everyone in development camp during the summer of 2012. He continued on a tear last fall and then fell flat. He will definitely get a look on a top six line, but he has been injured since Traverse City and his return is uncertain.
Hrivik, Kreider, Kristo and Lindberg are the four highly skilled forwards assigned by the Rangers to Hartford over the last two weeks. Each was competing for an NHL roster spot and any one of them could be a call-up to the big team this season. Kreider and Hrivik were members of the Wolf Pack last season and played a top six role. Hrivik was plagued by injuries, but when he was in the lineup, he used his size and speed well to produce offensively.
Kreider was and is more of a mystery. Everyone knows about his first appearance with the Rangers during the 2011 playoffs–Kreider was tantalizing. Predictions of his place on the Rangers’ first line to start last season abounded. Instead Kreider split the season between the AHL and NHL. While in Connecticut, he played pretty well, but when he was promoted, he looked lost. Kreider certainly has improved since a year ago, but he still is not NHL-ready. Whether its just his confidence that needs to improve or his overall decision-making with and without the puck that needs work is not yet clear, but, for the first time, he will have lots of competition for a call-up, so, unless he really shows he is ready, his return to New York may not come quickly.
When Kristo was obtained from Montreal this summer, he was just out of college and highly touted. Some off ice issues had previously plagued him, but what were the whispers in Montreal had to do with consistent effort. Since Kristo arrived in the organization, however, there is no question that he has put forth his best effort. The fact is–he is just not NHL-ready yet. He looked good in the Rangers’ training camp, but not quite good enough. Now, he will get to show what he can do on what is likely to be Hartford’s first line. If he produces, he will probably get an injury call-up to New York.
Lindberg was one of the best players through the summer and into Rangers’ training camp this fall. The former playoff MVP in the SEL last season, Lindberg overpowered young prospects and looked very comfortable playing alongside men in camp. But, he did not show much at all in the games over the last weeks (and he was given lots of chances). The frontrunner for the final Rangers’ roster spot prior to the pre-season games, Lindberg managed to lose his spot to Jesper Fast. But, he still is very high on the Rangers’ brass radar, and is likely to get an early call-up this season. Expect Lindberg to play on the top line in Hartford, (mostly at center) and play plenty of minutes.
The Rangers have made no secret of the fact that they want this to be a Stanley Cup year–that the Rangers are serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. The Rangers play this week (including two bad losses in two nights) has to be somewhat discounted as it was mostly younger players vying for roster spots, but a few telling cracks were revealed that will require some changes for that quest to come to fruition.
It is very hard to judge where the team is actually at with this pre-season schedule–two games last week on the East coast, then a bonding trip out West, with no game for five days, then four games in another five days, then back across the country to practice in NY for four days, then back out West to start the season. I understand that the charity golf tournament in Banff raised many thousands of dollars for a very worthy cause (I have interests in the area too and know what devastation has occurred), but maybe a fundraiser with a resulting big donation done from New York might have been easier on the team. Bonding is good, but West Point is only down the road, and, if the travel was lighter, the games could have been more evenly spread out.
But what is done is done. And thankfully, the pre-season is over. So, where does the team go from here? Some thoughts below.
As respects Rick Nash, he really needs someone to feed him the puck–he is not a player who can do it all himself. And he has been trying to in the pre-season. It remains to be seen whether Derek Stepan, who just signed a two-year contract late this week, is that guy. If he is, then there needs to be a smaller highly skilled guy on the other side–one dreams of a Marion Gaborik for this function, but alas he longer is here. Who that right winger will be is one of the big questions for the team. There are one or two of the younger players who I think may be able to fill this function over time (Fast, Kristo), but probably not in time for this season.
Then there is Brad Richards. He freely admits that he did not play up to par last season and has dedicated himself to improving the outcome this year. Although it is very clear to anyone who meets him or sees him working out that Richards’ intent and work ethic are some of the best on the team, after watching him over the last two weeks, one has to question whether or not all this effort will be fruitful for the Rangers. I know that others see positive changes in his game–I do not see sufficient changes in foot speed to really help the team with its “Stanley Cup now” goal.
The younger players will be discussed by management over the next couple of days. How many will be kept? Yesterday, AV suggested two young guys will remain of four competing for spots–he did not say whether that included Kreider and Miller. Lets get bold and suggest that Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin start on the IR and that Kreider and Miller are not in this race–they are regular roster members. So, that would mean that two of Fast, Lindberg, Hrivik and Mashinter will stay. Although yesterday I suggested that Mashinter should be kept out of this group of contenders, by the light of day, after watching the game last night, I am less certain that this is a good idea.
Kreider, Miller, Fast and Lindberg are the core of the Rangers future top nine. I believe that, even if Callahan and Hagelin are not on the IR to start the season, that Miller and Kreider will both be kept on the roster and given a chance to show what they can do. However, even if Callahan and Hagelin are roster players, can Fast and Lindberg stay? After watching the game last night, I think that both Fast and Lindberg should stay on the Rangers roster. What would the cost be? Veteran bangers and PKers. Fast and Lindberg both appear to be able to play on the PK, which is what will be needed if three of the more defensive forwards (including Mashinter) are waived. One tough guy can be kept from among the other forwards. It makes sense to do this, which will make this team much more exciting, more in line with AV’s system, and, once the youngsters get acclimated, there will be four good lines to roll against all opponents.
As respects the D, it has looked absolutely awful the last two games. AV’s system of having the blueliners more involved in the play has caused upheaval. I hate to single him out, but it is Dan Girardi who appears to have struggled the most. Maybe some thought should be given to changing the pairings until he can get with the new program.
As to who will stay as the seventh defenseman (and maybe eighth as AV has indicated he wants), I have to say that Conor Allen has made a good case for it to be him. But, Justin Falk and Stu Bickel would need to go through waivers to be assigned to Hartford, and it is uncertain that either would clear. Allen can be sent back without going through waivers. Extra defensemen are always needed through a season and the Rangers can’t afford to lose Falk and Bickel–especially since Marc Staal is unproven in his return (although he has looked fine thus far) and Girardi has struggled. So, I expect Allen to be returned to Hartford.
All these questions will be answered by Monday, when the Rangers have to cut to 23 players. Stay tuned.
With tonight’s game in Las Vegas against Los Angeles only four hours away, and cuts looming over the weekend, this is a big night for prospects Conor Allen, Jesper Fast, Marek Hrivik, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, Brandon Mashinter, and JT Miller. All will be in the lineup tonight, and all will be fighting to stay.
So, who is likely to make it?
Allen is the only defenseman in the group, and there is no question that he was not expected to be in this position. One member of the organization even suggested to me in training camp that Allen might be playing part of the season in the ECHL. No one seems to be thinking that at this point. AV has said that he would like to keep eight defensemen, and if that is true, Allen has a real shot at being one of them. If only seven are kept though, which is frankly a more likely scenario, Allen is almost certainly going to be taking the bus to Hartford when the team comes back east.
The situation at forward is much more complicated. Assuming that Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin are not ready for opening day (which is pretty good assumption), no moves are made over the weekend, and AV only keeps seven D-men, there is room for two of the six forwards that are listed above. I believe that Miller has solidified his spot, so absent his injury, there is one spot left. Prior to the pre-season, it was assumed that Kreider would get one of those two spots. But now, it is not nearly as certain. Kreider has at times looked lost on the ice, catching up to the play, and making the wrong decisions. He did play a little better with Miller earlier in the week, but tonight will be the decision-maker for him (Kreider will play with Boyle and Fast tonight). Frankly, I think it would be best for him to start on the top line in Hartford than stay with the big club for now, but I think that there is pressure to make a success of Kreider this year rather than taking it more slowly, so he may stay.
Fast was not that impressive early in training camp, but really showed excellent skill and high energy in last week’s second pre-season game. He didn’t put up any points on the board, but he turned heads. Lindberg on the other hand, did not look like much thus far in the pre-season games, but he was absolutely spectacular in both Traverse City and in training camp. If there is only one other spot, I believe that the Rangers will give it to Lindberg, but I don’t think that he is ready for it. I would rather see both Fast and Lindberg also start in Hartford and see which one (or maybe both) stands out. Fast, Lindberg, Kristo and Kreider fighting for NHL roster spots while in the AHL will make for some battle.
Hrivik has looked good on the ice during the pre-season, but he really needs to contribute to the offense more than he has thus far. He has one more shot to do so on a line with Miller and Lindberg tonight. There are also injury worries with Hrivik long-term, but that should not affect the Rangers’ decision as to who to keep right now (when Callahan and Hagelin come back, it is likely that Hrivik will be sent down anyway). My thought, however, is that unless he blows everyone out of the water tonight, Hrivik starts the season in Hartford.
Then there is Mashinter, who it is my belief should have the inside track. He can be tough, he can skate, and he has put up points in the AHL. Older than any of the other prospects, at 25, Mashinter would have to clear waivers to be sent back to the Wolf Pack–a good spare part for the team, especially if there are some moves to help with cap issues, it seems to me that Mashinter should be the winner of the last roster spot.
Before I even had a chance to post last night’s game review (I drove for many hours between last night and today), Hartford announced its first cuts this afternoon. Eight tryout players were released, including forwards J.T. Barnett, Jean-Philip Chabot, Angelo Esposito, Tyler Gjurich, and Matt Thurber. Additionally, blueliners Brad Cole, Jace Coyle, and Bretton Stamler.
Of particular note are three of these players, who I hope will find another spot–two of whom I believe were let go as part of the numbers game. First, Gjurich, who had a goal in the first two pre-season games, can pass, has great vision, and good hockey IQ was let go. Arguably one of the best players on the ice the last two nights, one has to think that someone else will pick up the 21-year old former member of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres. Attending Hartford’s camp on an ATO, Gjurich played last season on the OJHL Buffalo Jr. Sabres. Hard to believe, but he is still college eligible. There are lots of options for Gjurich, who was the third star in last night’s game.
Angelo Esposito was injured on the second shift of the first pre-season game and did not get another chance to perform under his PTO. This is not the first time that injuries have plagued the former first round selection in the 2007 NHL Draft. Once thought to be a number one overall candidate, he always was an offensive wizard, but short on playing in his own end. Then when he seemed to step up that kind of play, he just could not stay healthy. Now at age 24, Esposito may have run out of elite pro hockey chances.
Bretton Stamler did play in both games this week. A former Red Wings pick (7th round in 2005), the 26-year old Stamler was visible, fighting twice last night, and was up and down on defense. He is no doubt a victim of the numbers–basically there is no room for him on the blueline of this team.
Some of the Rangers’ reassigned players are expected to play tonight. I am not in Springfield, so I won’t be tweeting tonight, but will try to get the inside scoop of what goes on.
When the Wolf Pack took the ice in Cromwell tonight, there were very few players who were on last year’s team. Yet, after initially looking a little tentative, they took over the game and defeated the Sharks 5-2.
Goals for Hartford were scored by ex-Rangers prospect Brodie Dupont, Tyler Gjurich, and Brandon Hynes (2). Michael St. Croix then topped off the victory with an empty netter with 39 seconds left in the game. Worcester goals were potted by Josh Kidd and Marek Viedensky.
The game really was not close, as toward the end of the first period, the Wolf Pack took over the play and never looked back. It was the third and the fourth line that did most of the scoring, with two goals from the third and one from the fourth line. The team played short one skilled forward, after Angelo Esposito was hit hard early in the first period and did not return. Had that not happened, the Pack might have won by an even larger margin, as the other members of that second line were going well tonight.
The lines for the game:
Starters: Ryan Bourque/Brodie Dupont/Shawn O’Donnell
Josh Nicholls/Angelo Esposito/Michael St. Croix
Andrew Rowe/Sean Ambrosie/Brandon Hynes
Jason Wilson/Jean-Phillip Chabot/Tyler Gjurich
Starters: Brendon Nash/Sam Noreau
Brad Cole/Charlie Dodero
Mike Marcou/Bretton Stamler
Starting: Jeff Malcolm
The first thing you will notice regarding this lineup is how few names you have ever heard of. Many of these players are new and on either ATOs or PTOs. In other words, they are playing for a contract during the pre-season. With probably another five to seven players coming back to Hartford during or soon after the weekend, several of these guys will not be here next week. So, it is no wonder that the level of intensity was high tonight.
Let’s focus on a few of players that either stood out or are Rangers’ prospects:
Malcolm: We should all agree that without Malcolm, Yale would never have won the NCAAs last season. I am not an NCAA expert, but its not likely that the Elis will repeat this year without him. Malcolm, who signed an AHL contract in July, is looking for a job at this level, and although, with Cam Talbot coming back and Jason Missiaen here, Malcolm is likely to play in the ECHL to start, he played well tonight. Malcolm uses his height very well and is very quick, and he is willing to stop the puck with any part of his body (tonight he stopped one of the pucks with his head), but generally the former Eli plays too deep in net and moves around too much. Malcolm does not go out to challenge the shooter often (even though when he does, he is successful), and sometimes, he goes down too early. He has the potential though to be a successful goalie at this level though and with some goalie coaching by Benoit Allaire, Malcolm could be an NHL prospect.
Noreau: Noreau is a work in progress. Tonight, he often got caught out of position, but is he very good with his very long hockey stick. At 6’5″, Noreau has an excellent wingspan, and he knows how to place his stick in a position to break up plays. Several times, I saw an opposing player go around Noreau and for him to reach back and in and break up the play. I am not sure that this would work at the NHL level, but the rookie will have a couple of years to learn more about playing D–maybe at this level, maybe in Greenville.
Bourque–He played in all situations tonight. There is no question that Bourque has the speed to play at this level. He made a couple of beautiful moves and excellent passes, where his teammate shot the puck and either missed the net or it resulted in a save. He was very active tonight and played very well with returning player Brodie Dupont. They seemed to have chemistry, which likely will be explored further in coming games. Bourque’s challenge seems to be strength on the puck. He is easily knocked over and the puck stripped from him–when he is caught by a defender. He has his work cut out for him in this contract year, but he does have a chance if he can build more upper body strength.
Dupont–The former Rangers’ draftee is back on a PTO and should earn himself a contract for the season. A good AHL veteran leader, Dupont brings both face off ability and maturity and leadership to this young team–not to mention offensive production. He could be the next captain of the Wolf Pack.
St. Croix–St. Croix scored an empty netter and assisted on the other third period tally (by Hynes). He seems to attract the puck and to make things happen with it. We shall have to see what happens when he has a full complement of skill players on his line, but St. Croix has the potential to stand out this year and get a real chance with the NHL team nexgt season.
Nicholls–No points, no mention anywhere, but he showed very good ice awareness and hockey IQ tonight. Nicholls did the little things that do not show up on the scoresheet. I was very impressed with his awareness and poise on the ice.
Hynes–Here on an ATO after completing 5 years in the Q, Hynes is a very small player, who has great hands and a nose for the net. He can be explosive and has a high hockey IQ. Hynes can finish and can wind up being one of the go to guys on this team. Expect Hartford to sign him before the beginning of the season.
Just a final word–Rangers prospects Kyle Jean and Scott Stajcer were scratched tonight due to injury.
See you tomorrow night in Hartford. You can also follow me on twitter @HFNYRANGERS.
The Rangers announced this afternoon that they have signed free agent defenseman Anton Stralman to a contract. No terms were announced, but its widely understood to be a one year deal for under a million dollars.
Although there is much speculation as to what this means regarding the injury status of Marc Staal, it really may not have anything to do with that situation at all. Stralman is an experienced NHL defenseman, who can provide some offense and hopefully better defense than has been seen at times in Rangers’ blue this season. Although the Rangers may not have been as anxious to make this move had Staal been playing, its really the spot that the Blueshirts had hope that Tim Erixon would fill that Stralman will take on the roster.
A quick review of the defense indicates that this is true.
Currently, the Rangers have been using Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh as their top pairing, and they have played extremely well together. McDonagh’s progress has been nothing short of amazing, with the young two-way blueliner developing into a real top pairing player.
The second pairing has been the Mikes–Mike Sauer and Michael Del Zotto. Sauer has become just what he looked to promise last year, i.e., a quiet blueliner, who gets in the way of the opposition making plays. Whether its with his stick, his body, or just with good positioning, Sauer is there, steadily making the plays. It’s Del Zotto who has taken a leap forward this season. While the Rangers’ coaching staff were looking for Del Zotto to get his swagger back, what seemed to be the problem was that his focus was not always there. One good play would be followed by one that turned the puck over; consistent concentration did not seem to be in Del Zotto’s repertoire. So, he would make one incredible stretch pass to hit a man streaking in on the opposing goalie, and then pass across the ice in his own zone and have it intercepted. Or he would pass into his teammate’s skate.
Del Zotto’s defense was almost non-existent last year. But Del Zotto had both the creativity, vision and the shot to be one, so, it was hoped that he would grow into a third pairing power play specialist. It’s quite a pleasant surprise that he has become much more thus far this season. It’s not that he never makes poor plays, but they occur much less frequently, and when they do, they rarely are hurting the team very badly. And Del Zotto’s defense has improved enormously. No longer a liability defensively, the coaching staff can put him and Sauer out there at crucial times.
Had Staal been in uniform to start the season, Del Zotto would still be playing as a member of the third pairing. But he actually looks like he should be the number four guy on an NHL blueline. If there is a silver lining in Staal’s injury (which is hard to find, I know), its the development of Del Zotto under this pressure to become a second pairing blueliner.
It’s the bottom pairing that has been the problem for New York this season. Before the season, it was hoped that Erixon was ready for NHL play. In Traverse City, he looked ready and the Rangers were hopeful that he and Del Zotto would be their fifth and sixth blueliners. Steve Eminger was already signed as the seventh D-man, so it was thought that, if Erixon was ready, no further moves would need to be made.
As it turned out Erixon was not ready, but was thought to be close. Unfortunately, with Staal’s injury, Erixon was needed, and right after being sent to start the season with the AHL Connecticut Whale, he was recalled to take the trip to Europe. The first few weeks were difficult for the young Swede, and as it turns out, he really wasn’t close. He needs time to work on his game at the lower level; it does not, however, mean that he won’t be recalled later this season. It worked for McDonagh last season, and the Rangers hope the same will be true for Erixon.
What should have been one open position had Staal been playing was now two. The Rangers have used Eminger, Jeff Woywitka, and Brendan Bell as the fifth and sixth defensemen variously thus far this season. And although at times, either or both of Eminger and Woywitka have been adequate, if the Rangers want to get into the playoffs, this situation could not continue. So the question for weeks has been, who would be signed? Would it be a free agent or would there be a trade?
It’s early in the season for a big trade, so when rumors of an offer out to Stralman broke, it made sense. He could fill the role that Erixon was supposed to fill, and maybe ready to fill by mid-season. In the meantime, only one of Eminger and Woywitka will suit up each night. It’s a win-win situation, as long as Stralman plays as he did two seasons ago. It’s a risk, but right now the Rangers don’t have many options as they wait for Staal to return and Erixon to be NHL-ready.
The Connecticut Whale’s 6-3 loss last night to the St. John’s IceCaps was the first loss at home in regulation this season. The Rangers’ AHL affiliate is having an outstanding beginning of the 2011-12 season, and, until last night, the team had not played a game since the first week of the season in which they had not gotten at least one point (in four games in eight nights, they have recorded five points).
After Connecticut jumping out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by John Mitchell (on an amazing pass by Mats Zuccarello), St. John’s tied the score and then jumped out to a lead on a power play goal with less than a minute left in the first period. The Whale scored twice in the last minute of the second period, including the first goal of Ryan Bourque’s professional career, to take a 3-2 lead into the final 20 minutes.
Although the Whale had not gotten many shots on goal in the game, they looked to be coming on in the second period. But the third period was all St. John’s, as they posted three even-strength and one empty-net goals without any response from the Whale. Although Connecticut was never out of the game, the team appeared to lose their hunger as the night went on. And, Chad Johnson was just not able to make the big stops for the Whale last night.
Johnson, who this week was named the AHL goaltender of the month for October, was not on his game last night. He was often out of position and, at times, handled the puck poorly. But he did not have much help from his defensemen, who struggled with keeping the crease clear enough so that Johnson could see opposition shots.
One defenseman who played well last night was Pavel Valentenko. Back only a week from a groin injury, Valentenko is playing a better game than he did during training camp in New York. If he continues to play at this level, he should get another look in New York before the New Year.
Tim Erixon, who started the season with the Rangers, has some excellent skills, but it definitely was the right move to send him to Connecticut to hone them. Erixon has very good instincts on the power play, a deadly shot, and uses his stick well, but his positioning needs some work. It is very possible that he will be ready for NHL play by mid-season, but right now, he is in the right place.
Carl Hagelin is maturing with each contest. He is adjusting well to the professional game, with NHL speed and outstanding hockey smarts. Not expected to be an offensive force at the next level, Hagelin is a very effective top six forward in the AHL. Working on a line with Kris Newbury and Andreas Thuresson last night, Hagelin knew his role and executed extremely well.
Two players on AHL contracts are worthy of mention for their recent play. Kelsey Tessier, a second year AHLer who is reliable in all situations, does not always put up the points, but is an an excellent face off man in both ends. Tessier is small, but strong on the puck and able to fight through checks. The issue in terms of becoming an NHLer is his skating, but Tessier has proven his mettle at this level.
Jon Audy-Marchessault has been posting points regularly in the last six games. The rookie, who is even smaller than the diminutive Tessier, is an exciting offensive player. He is not strong enough physically to play at the next level right now, but he has brought a level of excitement and effort to the Connecticut game that was missing last season.
What I have not seen over the last few games needs to be mentioned too. First, although Mats Zuccarello had a beautiful assist last night, he has not been dominating the four games this week. His first two games back in the AHL had everyone scratching their heads as to why he was re-assigned. But in the last four, Zuccarello does not look out of place in Connecticut. And he should. Maybe its just a temporary lull, but, with his skill level, Zuc should be standing out in the AHL pretty much every night.
And Blake Parlett has not continued his eye-opening play of last Spring. After signing an ELC this summer, the young defenseman looked very good in Traverse City (before sustaining a knee injury). But, Parlett has not looked the same since, and it remains to be seen whether he can regain his previous form and become another solid Rangers’ blueline find.
The Whale play their next game in Albany tonight at 7 pm.
On paper, the Rangers looked like a rejuvenated team on Saturday afternoon, scoring four unanswered goals against the Ottawa Senators, taking advantage of all the breaks they were given in the second and third periods of the game, before giving up three straight in ten minutes and losing to the Sens 5-4 in a shootout.
The good news is that both Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards really looked like they played inspired hockey. And Wojtek Wolski appeared to be completely back from his injury, and playing hard on every shift. And Mike Sauer did so many little things right, its hard to put into words his quiet value to this team. His stickwork and positioning are superb, as is his steady control of the puck when its on his stick.
That is the good news; at least there is some. The bad news is that the Rangers have continued to put very few shots on net, and they had not been watching Ottawa’s last few games–where the Sens beat teams in the very last minutes–and seemed unprepared for the onslaught that was to face them in the later stages of the game. The Senators had surprised Columbus just a week before, tying the game at just over a half minute left in the contest and then winning with just 4 seconds in regulation. Or when three days later, after losing the lead, the Sens came roaring back to win 4-3 in a shootout. Or finally, on Thursday, when Ottawa scored the game winner with just a little over 2 seconds left to wipe out the Florida Panthers.
So when, the Rangers took a 4-1 lead at 8:05 in the third period, New York should have been aware that the Sens were going to come after them. Instead, the Blueshirts let up–and let in three goals in a little over eight minutes. After Ottawa tied the game, it went into overtime, which then led to a shootout. Milan Michalek was the only shooter to score in the SO, so the Rangers lost the game and any momentum they gained by their four straight goals.
After the game, management understandably decided to shake things up. Kris Newbury, who had been completely ineffective since being called up from the AHL affiliate, was reassigned back to Connecticut. Given Mike Rupp’s knee injury, the Rangers called up the combo tough guy/offensive producer Andre Deveaux, who has posted six points in nine games with the Whale this season, including a team-high four goals. Deveaux can be a good player, but he must play a consistently smart game to be effective. He has the tools to throw his weight around on the ice and contribute offensively in a bottom six role, but only if he does not take foolish penalties. It remains to be seen which Deveaux shows up tonight.
On defense, the Rangers reassigned Tim Erixon to Hartford. Erixon had been pressed into NHL service before he was ready, due to the injuries to Marc Staal and Sauer, but he really needs time in the AHL to develop. The Rangers were hoping that it would not hurt him to develop at the highest level, but Erixon is clearly not ready, and keeping him in the NHL could have long term negative effects on a prospect who is expected to become a major contributor in the future. The question is, who will take his place? Rumors abound of a trade or a UFA signing. Clearly a second to third pairing blueliner is needed, but when this transaction will be concluded is anybody’s guess.
The rumor mill also has Sean Avery returning to the NHL team after spending more than a week with the AHL Whale. Avery would have to clear re-entry waivers, so he would not be available for tonight’s game, but it does appear that he will rejoin the Rangers this week. While in Connecticut, Avery appeared in two games and scored an empty netter against Adirondack on Friday night (and then added a fight) and then had a shootout goal against Worcester on Saturday. Otherwise, he did not record any other points during his AHL tenure.
The Rangers meet San Jose tonight, and will get the opportunity to play against a team that is expected to go far in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Over the last two weeks, the Sharks have scored at least three goals in every game that they have played, which should prove a test for the Rangers’ blueline. There was a spark offensively for the Rangers on Saturday, which very well may carry over to this game, so don’t count them out tonight. It should be a very interesting evening.
After a very long season-opening road trip, the Rangers came home last night to a partially renovated Madison Square Garden and a very excited fan base. By the time the players were introduced, John Amirante sang the national anthems, and the puck was dropped, everything was at a fevered pitch. But by the third period, MSG was pretty quiet (except for the calls for the return of Sean Avery), as the Rangers were felled by the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 4-2.
Avery would not have helped last night though. True, the Leafs are no longer the pushovers that they had been for the past few years. But the Rangers had their chances, and Toronto’s number one netminder, James Reimer, was not playing. The Rangers had been able to get to the less steady backup (Jonas Gustavsson) last season, and got to him early last night. But the Rangers only really were in the game for 20 minutes last night, and, by early in the second period, it was clear that Henrik Lundqvist was not going to be making acrobatic saves on this night.
Uncharacteristically, Lundqvist let in two softies last night–the first on Matthew Lombardi’s early second period shot from outside, which was not an easy shot but Lundqvist makes the save 95 out of 100 times, and then in the third period, when Mike Brown put the puck past the Rangers’ netminder when it looked like he was not ready.
Frankly, Lundqvist can’t be keeping New York in the game every night. Occasionally, the skaters have to help him out. But last night, they left him flat, not being able to offensively produce when he needed them. During the first period, they took everything to the net, which caused the first goal, and had two others called off (Ryan Callahan was all over Gustavsson both times). Gustavsson looked rattled but the Rangers were never able to take advantage of it.
The Rangers coach talked after the game about the team being lethargic, but if I dare, I will disagree. What happened last night was that Toronto changed their play after the first period to stand the Rangers up through the middle of the ice. But the Rangers did not adjust. They never changed their strategy to match the Leafs’, and therefore when they tried what worked in the first period, they just kept turning the puck over.
After hearing the coach’s remarks, I thought I missed something, so I watched the replay video. Maybe I am the only one, but lethargy is not what I saw. What I saw was a team that did not respond to a change in strategy of their opponent and just kept trying the same thing over and over. In essence, the Rangers could not win the game. While this sounds like a simplistic explanation, try watching the replay yourself and watch the changes in the way Leafs’ played after the first period. Tell me what you see, and, if you see what I see, then tell me who is to blame for it.
Last night, the Rangers defeated the Winnipeg Jets (still getting used to saying that) by the score of 2-1. After a scoreless first period and an exchange of goals in the second (Ruslan Fedotenko and Nik Antropov), it was Ryan Callahan who got the game winner on a power play deflection at 8:41 of the third period. Callahan was on the rush and put the puck on net, when it went in off Winnipeg’s defenseman Eric Bogosian and right into the Jets’ net. You could say that this goal was a flukey, lucky break, but Callahan did exactly what the Rangers have had so much trouble doing this season–shoot the puck and put it on goal. (EDIT: As a reader has pointed out, its not clear that Callahan actually was shooting on goal, but there is no question that Callahan sent the puck toward the goal, and it went in off the opposing player).
In fact, the Rangers did several things right last night. First, the goaltending continues to be excellent, even when its been backup Marty Biron between the pipes. The defense also played better in front of Biron, and the offense converted on two of the four power plays. Plus, and this could be the most important thing, the Blueshirts stayed out of the penalty box.
But questions remain. If not for the great netminding, the Rangers would not be headed home with three wins on this Western Canada trip. They have 14 goals in seven games, with 14 goals against. What that says is the team is very weak offensively and has tremendous goaltending. It also says that the D is not doing that badly. While everyone has been focusing on who on the blueline is missing (i.e., Marc Staal and Mike Sauer), and how to get an acceptable sixth defenseman on this team, generally the defense’s results have been okay. Now don’t believe for a minute that I think that Jeff Woywitka or Brendan Bell can do the job for an entire season (or even for a month), and this last week both of them made significant blunders that caused both of them to be benched at different times, but it has not hurt the Rangers that much so far.
What has hurt New York, and will set them back even more as better teams come into Madison Square Garden, is their lack of offense. If you don’t shoot at the net, and get the puck on net when you take the shot, you can’t score goals. It is that simple, and once again last night, the Rangers were held to 17 shots. Its hard to win on shots numbering in the teens, which has been a regularity on this trip.
As better teams come to New York to play over the coming weeks, the Rangers will only be able to avoid a sea change in results if they focus on taking the puck in on net.
The first home game of the season is on Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs faceoff against the Blueshirts. With Phil Kessel on a tear, and Toronto’s run and gun offense, the Leafs are no longer pushovers. It will be the first real test against a very offensively potent team. New York may get lucky and face Jonas Gustavsson, who has not been as effective in goal as James Reimer, but the Rangers will have to score some goals and keep up their D to beat the Leafs this week.