Less than two months after Craig Weller had finished his junior career on top of the junior hockey world with a Memorial Cup championship, the 21-yr-old defensemen finds himself embarking on a new journey with new horizons and new goals, a career in the NHL. Signed, sealed and delivered last week, the 6’3″, 211 lb Calgary product is now the property of the New York Rangers after signing a three-year deal with NHL club. Fresh off an annual houseboating trip on Shuswap Lake in the B.C. interior with some high school friends, Weller was more than happy to get an opportunity to turn pro. “It’s great,” said Weller. “I’m happy to be with the Rangers.”
Originally a 5th Rd. draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, 167th overall in 2000, Weller and the Blues failed to come to terms in time for the June 1 deadline, making Weller an unrestricted free agent in the process.
No team, no contract. The question of Weller’s future was foremost on his mind. “So, so, I guess,” said Weller of wondering if he still have a shot at the pros. “There’s always that doubt. But we (Kootenay) had a really good year and I thought I had a good year personally. I thought there might be some interest out there (after not signing with St. Louis) and there was, which was great.”
Stocked with young defensemen throughout it’s system with names like Barrett Jackman, Mike Van Ryn and Kootenay Alumni Matt Walker, not coming to terms with St. Louis has turned a loss into opportunity for Weller. “St. Louis is a good organization,” said Weller from his home in Calgary. “They did offer me a one year, AHL contract with a three-year NHL option on it but I was looking for something with a little more commitment than that. After one year they could just cut me loose and I wouldn’t be any further along.
“They did have a lot of young defensemen in their organization so I think New York will be a good place to go. My agent figures I get a good chance there because of they bring up young players a lot and move them around.”.
Signing a two-way deal that will at least ensure the Calgary product AHL money, Weller will most likely hone his skills with the Rangers’ East Coast affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers alongside another familiar face in former teammate Dean Arsene. Making Manhattan’s AHL farm club in Hartford isn’t out of the realm of possibility either. Weller has a bit of a history with the coach with the Wolf Pack and may have an inside track with former Kootenay coach Ryan McGill taking over the helm just three weeks ago. After saying his goodbye’s with the ICE at the end of May, the last thing Weller thought was that he might be playing for his old coach again. “No, I didn’t even consider it,” said Weller. “Once I heard the rumors though, (of McGill taking the Hartford job) I was hoping that he got the job. It could be a good opportunity because he knows me, knows what I can do. I think he trusts me as a player and we get along good.”
Their relationship, classified as stormy at times during Weller’s season and a half with the ICE, has grown and matured over that span. “We had our moments through the year where we didn’t get along but the past season we put that behind us and after the season we got along great.
“We get along real well now, I think it’ll be a good situation.”
Scanning the competition in the Ranger’s system, Weller thinks he’s got a good shot at securing a spot and making the Ranger brass take notice. Spending the summer with an ex-Calgary Flames trainer in Cowtown, Weller won’t have very long before he’ll have that chance to show them what he’s got. Starting July 28 through to Aug 31 the Rangers are having a prospects camp in Calgary for 25-30 up and comers. Run by New York VP of Player Development and Cranbrook native Tom Renney, the camp will give Weller a taste of what his competition is going to be.
“I’ve been looking over the rosters there and they have some older guys and not too many 21-yr-old guys,” offered Weller of New York’s blueliners in their system. “They just signed another 22-yr-old defensemen (Jeff State – Merrimack College NCAA) but I think I’ll have a decent chance to get in there and if I work really hard over the next three years maybe I can make to the top. Start in the AHL and getting a shot at the NHL someday.”