Rangers training camp underway

By Brandon LeBourveau

NHL Training Camps are currently underway, and the first drop of the puck for the 2002-2003 season is just around the corner.

The Rangers hit the ice Friday morning at Gutterson Field House in Burlington, Vermont to mark the opening of Training Camp. New head coach Bryan Trottier was on hand, along with new assistants Terry O’Reilly and Jim Schoenfeld. Ryan McGill and Nick Fotiu, the new head coach and assistant coach of the Hartford Wolf Pack, also were in attendance. So were 46 players, all looking to make an impact and taking nothing for granted. The Rangers have their core intact for another season, but have some welcomed additions that should help take this team to the next level. Center Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis were brought in through Free Agency, and both should pay dividends as the Rangers look at get back to respectability and make the playoffs for the first time in five years. Goaltender Mike Richter and captain Mark Messier both were re-signed by the team in the off-season and are looking to get back what has eluded this team since 1994 — the Stanley Cup.

The majority of the roster spots have already been filled, however there are still a few spots up for grabs. After proving he can play in the NHL and be effective last season, the back-up position behind Mike Richter is 19-year-old Dan Blackburn’s to lose. Barring injury, Blackburn will be with the Rangers as he attempts to take his game to the next level. Prospects such as Johan Holmqvist, Jason Labarbera and Scott Meyer will all have to spend another season in the minor leagues. The only open spots on the roster are on defense and up front, but there’s plenty of competition and nothing is guaranteed.

The Defense

On defense, the top four is already intact. Brian Leetch, Vladimir Malakhov, Tom Poti and newcomer Darius Kasparaitis are locks to make the roster. That leaves Sylvain Lefebvre, Dave Karpa, Dale Purinton, Tomas Kloucek and a host of others looking to catch on to one of the final three spots. Head Coach Bryan Trottier has had nothing but praise for Sylvain Lefebvre since day one. Lefebvre is a savvy veteran who is one of the few true stay-at-home defensemen that the Rangers have. Lefebvre is a Trottier-type player, and it’d be shocking to not see him on the roster come opening night. If anyone is going to step up and win a spot on this defense, a marvelous showing at Training Camp is going to be needed. General Manager Glen Sather and Trottier are eager to see how some of the young players perform with the big boys, but the reality is there won’t be many rookies in New York this season.

Top prospect Fedor Tyutin is going to be a great NHL defenseman someday, but he will be best served spending a year in Hartford getting acclimated to the pro game. He has tons of potential, but has only played North American hockey for one season. The Rangers have ruined many prospects in the past by rushing them and it would be a shame to do the same to a player with Tyutin’s abilities. Twenty year old Bryce Lampman is a bruising, physical defenseman but needs more seasoning as well. He’ll spend the year in the Western Hockey League with the Kamloops Blazers, where his punishing style will put fear into many players’ eyes. Joel Bouchard, Vladimir Chebaturkin, Jeff State and Craig Wellar were all brought in as free agents this off-season, however, all four of them will likely be in Hartford. Bouchard and Chebaturkin provide insurance in case of injuries, while State and Wellar are still young and will benefit from spending the year in the minors. Matt Kinch and Dean Arsene could find themselves in Hartford as well, but both seem destined for the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL. Kinch spent some time with the Wolf Pack last season yet it doesn’t appear there will be room for him again this year. Patrick Aufiero just finished a solid four-year career at Boston University and is ticketed for the minors as well, provided that he is signed by the team.

That narrows it down to five players — Dave Karpa, Dale Purinton, Tomas Kloucek, Richard Lintner and Mike Mottau — who will be realistically fighting it out for the final two spots on defense. Dave Karpa was signed as a free agent last summer and had an inconsistent season, yet he is still a valuable veteran who is always near the top in the league in blocked shots. Purinton is as tough as they come and has learned to keep his emotions in check but his spot is not guaranteed. If he doesn’t make the team, he’ll have to clear waivers to be sent down to Hartford. In all liklehood another team, such as the Wild or Blue Jackets, would snatch him up. Tomas Kloucek came back early from reconstructive knee surgery and never found his game. He was a healthy scratch for most of the time, and when he played he could never get into a groove before being benched again. As the season came to an end, Kloucek’s confidence was practically nonexistent. How he bounces back this year remains to be seen. He’s one of the top young players in the entire organization and has tons of potential. He loves to hit and would be a welcomed addition to this team if he has a solid camp.

Mike Mottau has spent the last two years with the Hartford Wolf Pack as one of the top defenseman in the entire league, playing in the all-star game both times. He’s an offensive defenseman with good speed and skill but it remains to be seen if he’ll be an NHL defenseman or another John Slaney. Richard Lintner was picked up at the trade deadline from the Nashville Predators for Petr Smrek. Lintner spent last season playing in Europe, spending time in both Sweden and the Czech Repbluc. He also played in the Olympics and World Championships, representing his native country of Slovakia. He is an excellent talent but it appears the Rangers already have enough offensive defenseman.

Provided that they both have a good showing in camp, David Karpa and Tomas Kloucek should be kept on the roster. Kloucek can bring to this team what most of the other defenseman can’t. He’s very strong, hits like a bull and is a perfect partner for someone that likes to jump in offensively, such as Tom Poti. Let Karpa stay on as the seventh defenseman, filling in when necessary. Lintner and Mottau can be sent down to Hartford to further work on their games, while Dale Purinton could be set free to get an opportunity elsewhere. Purinton is a fan favorite, however he is easily replaceable by others who can do the same job while also adding much more.

The Forwards

Up front, it is more wide-open. Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier, Bobby Holik, Petr Nedved, Radek Dvorak, Sandy McCarthy, Matthew Barnaby and Rem Murray all pretty much have their jobs secured. That leaves three spots open and two more for healthy scratches. Bobby Andrews, Garrett Burnett, Brandon Cullen, Ted Donato, Benoit Dusablon, Ken Gernander, Boyd Kane, Kevin McDonald, John Tripp and Patrick Yetman are in camp but are all expected to be sent down to the minors. Try-outs Jamie Herrington, Dusty Jamieson and Chris St. Jacques are basically fighting for contracts. Realistically, neither of the three has a chance for a job in New York this season. Shawn Collymore and Ryan Hollweg are two highly touted youngsters but both will be returned for another season of junior hockey. They will both have prominent roles on their team, as Hollweg’s Medicine Hat Tigers will try and make the playoffs for the first time in a few years and Collymore’s Quebec Remparts look for a QMJHL Championship. David Inman is a highly skilled centerman coming out of Notre Dame University but like Aufiero is ticketed for the minors, provided he is signed to a contract. We are left with nine players who have the best chances to make the team. Those players are Mikael Samuelsson, Roman Lyashenko, Krzysztof Oliwa, Jamie Lundmark, Rico Fata, Garth Murray, Nils Ekman and tryout Dixon Ward.

Mikael Samuelsson had a solid rookie season and is a very good penalty killer. His job may be in jeopardy but he is an asset to this team and will likely be on the roster again. Roman Lyashenko came over near the end of the season from Dallas and looked impressive, but he’ll have to have a good showing to make the team. Krzysztof Oliwa is one tough customer and has been an enforcer in the NHL for the past few years with the New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was acquired from Pittsburgh in June and is expected to be on the roster as the team’s only “true” enforcer. Rico Fata had an excellent season with the Hartford Wolf Pack, as he was their top forward for the majority of the season. It may be now or never for Fata in a Rangers’ uniform. He would have to clear waivers in order to be sent to Hartford, and there’s a handful of teams who would like to get their hands on a 22-year-old who skates like the wind. His options are limited and it’s going to be a real tough decision that ultimately will have to be made by Trottier and Sather.

Nils Ekman was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning last year but spent the season playing in Sweden. He was signed over the summer and is looking to win a spot on the team. He’s a play-maker with good speed and offensive instincts. He endured a fine season in the Swedish Elite League and is looking to get back into the NHL. He had 20 points in 43 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2000-01 and he could be of use to the Rangers. It’s not clear whether Ekman signed a one-way or a two-way contract, but a demotion to the minors probably wouldn’t suit him well. He has been playing with Petr Nedved thus far in camp and perhaps could take Jan Hlavac’s former spot at Left Wing with Nedved and Radek Dvorak. Jamie Lundmark has a full season of professional hockey under his belt and he will be given his best opportunity yet to make the team. Lundmark has tons of skill and many believe is the perfect winger on the top line with Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure. Trottier has been impressed with the 21-year-old Edmonton native thus far and although it’s still early, all indications point to Lundmark breaking camp with the team as long as he continues his fine play.

Garth Murray will definitely be an impact player in the NHL someday. The question is, how soon? Although it may be a reach to expect him on Broadway this year, Murray is a heart-and-soul guy who is highly valuable to a team. His offensive game has steadily improved each year and he could develop into a solid 15 goal, 40 point, 100 PIM a season type of player. If he doesn’t make the team, things get interesting. Murray is eligible to play in Hartford but has yet to sign a contract. The two sides have been talking but it is unclear whether any progress has been made. The Rangers would love to sign him so he can play in Hartford, however, if the two can’t agree on a deal then Murray will return to the Regina Pats of the WHL for a fifth season of junior hockey. Hopefully, both sides come to their senses and get a deal done. One of the most interesting stories is veteran forward Dixon Ward, attending camp on a tryout basis. Ward is a veteran of 529 NHL games, having played with the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. He spent last season playing over in Switzerland but is looking to get back into the NHL. He has good speed and some offensive skills, scoring 20 goals and 44 points with the Sabres in 1998-99. So far in camp he has been very solid, scoring three goals in two scrimmages. While he remains a long-shot, the Rangers have been known to take on a few reclamation projects over the years (see Brent Fedyk and Zdeno Ciger).

Samuelsson and Lyashenko should be kept on the team. They are young and can bring a lot to the table. They are very sound defensively and are superb penalty killers. They’ve spent their fair share of time in the minors and are ready to move on to bigger and better things. Garth Murray should spend the year in Hartford. He’s close to being NHL-ready, but a year adjusting to the pro game will do him no harm. At 21 Lundmark needs to play. This is a crucial time in his career and he can’t be warming the bench in New York when he could be playing twenty minutes a game in Hartford. Rico Fata is out of options and we can expect him to stick around in New York for the time being. After perhaps twenty games or so, if Fata hasn’t played well, then the team should attempt to send him to the minors. At that point every team will already have their rosters set, making it more difficult to pluck players off of waivers.

Nils Ekman will likely also be with the team, provided that he can show he still has the offensive abilities he displayed with the Lightning two years ago. He has some size and if he plays with linemates such as Nedved and Dvorak, we could see him rack up 40 to 50 points. Dixon Ward is a nice story, but having him on the team would take away a spot from someone like Lundmark or Fata. Sather keeps bring in the deadweight (Ciger, Ulanov, etc) and at some point the team will have to start building from within. Oliwa will be kept around as the team’s enforcer, but we will likely see him being a healthy scratch most of the time.