Although the Rangers formally began their training camp at the Madison Square Garden Training Center in Greenburgh, New York on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008, training camp truly began last Saturday in Traverse City, Michigan. The Blueshirts took 23 prospects to the Traverse City Rookie Tournament, where the New York team had won the 2007 gold medal. This year, it was a different, much younger, team that took the ice, and the results reflected the inexperience of the players. The Rangers won only one of four games, and finished sixth in the tournament. That’s not to say that there were no standouts among the Rangers’ rookies, as 2008 fourth-round NHL Entry Draft selection Dale Weise had an impressive tournament. His solid performance in Traverse City and continuing excellent showing in training camp since that time has been rewarded by an as of yet unannounced NHL entry-level contract.
The Rangers prospects had only played half of their games in Michigan when New York’s main training camp began on Tuesday. The early start to the camp was necessitated by a schedule that requires the NHL team to travel to Europe to begin the season, so the Rangers coaching staff needed the extra time to determine who would be taken on the trip. This year’s camp is 11 days long, set up with three squads — red, white, and blue. Two will play exhibition games, with the white squad playing first in Ottawa tomorrow night. The Blue squad will play Ottawa in Madison Square Garden on Monday night. Most of the rookies that returned to New York late on Wednesday night are playing on the red squad, which will be practicing for the next week at the Greenburgh, New York MSG Training Center. Three players from the tournament (Nick Pageau, Chris Doyle, and Matt Meropoulis) were not brought to the main camp.
Six of the Traverse City Rookie Tournament players (Matt Zaba, Michael Del Zotto, Brodie Dupont, Dale Weise, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Artem Anisimov) were assigned to either the blue or white squads upon their return from Michigan, and thus will probably play in at least one exhibition game over the next week. The active roster for tomorrow night’s game has been announced, and includes prospects Miika Wiikman, Del Zotto, Corey Potter, Dane Byers, and Greg Moore.
With the top three forward lines pretty much set, absent a trade, forward prospects will try to fill at most two wing positions on the fourth line. Byers, Hugh Jessiman, and Lauri Korpikoski are considered to be the top prospects fighting for a wing roster position. Should the team not decide to go with veteran Blair Betts (who looks great in camp) in the fourth line center position, prospects Anisimov and Moore are top prospect candidates to make the Rangers’ roster in that position. On the blueline, a seventh defenseman is likely the only available roster spot. Both prospect Corey Potter and AHL veteran Tomas Pock are in the mix for it.
It is likely that goaltender Steve Valiquette, who was re-signed this summer, will continue to backup Henrik Lundqvist this season, but a battle is brewing for No. 1 netminder in Hartford. Last season, after top prospect Al Montoya was traded to Phoenix, Wiikman did an excellent job taking the AHL Wolf Pack to the playoffs. This season, he will battle with fellow prospect Zaba for the job. Not to be left out of the mix is Antoine Lafleur, the Rangers second-round selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Lafleur is unsigned, and although he is eligible for an overage year in the CHL, he currently does not have a team. Should he sign a professional contract, he will probably either be the backup in Hartford or be assigned to the ECHL Charlotte Checkers.
Back at camp, several prospects have been showing why they were indeed drafted. Ryan Hillier, who is still recovering from a groin injury and did not make the trip to Traverse City, has an incredibly quick release. He put several pucks past some very experienced netminders, surprising them and the spectators with the quality of his shot. Dane Byers has been all over the ice, hitting and dominating along the boards. He still needs some work on his shot, but there is no question about his toughness on the ice and his willingness to play in traffic. Lauri Korpikoski has been flying down the ice all three days of camp. Considered a top candidate for the open fourth-line wing position, his defensive stickwork has been excellent in both the scrimmages and practices. The aforementioned Weise has unexpected speed, as well as a very quick release on his shot. Like Byers, Weise plays well in traffic and has the toughness needed for a power forward.
Several players have not yet shown their best at camp. Tomas Zaborsky has not seemed to be the same player that wowed in development camp three months ago. David Skokan has also been less than impressive. Jessiman has been recovering from a virus that left him sapped of strength, and then, in addition, suffered a broken nose on Wednesday. Finally, although Tom Pyatt, who is trying to stay with the AHL team this season, has given his usual consistent effort on the ice, he is often overmatched and knocked off the puck.