Peter Deboers’ magic touch is alive and well. Few coaches in the CHL can match his regular season record or his record in developing pro players. In his second year at the helm of the Rangers, he has, surprise, surprise, the Rangers at the top of their conference. There has not been this much excitement in Kitchener since the playoff run of 1997 when the Rangers made the semi-finals before bowing out to eventual champ Oshawa. Big things were expected the following season, but Glen Sather in his ultimate wisdom decided that Boyd Deveraux would be better off playing a couple of minutes a game in Edmonton or being a healthy scratch than dominating in the OHL. The Rangers missed Deveraux immensely and toss in a bad draft or two, several poor trades and the Rangers went on a slide that only ended with the arrival of Deboer.
In his first season the team made great strides, but a December slump knocked them out of the running to bid on the Memorial Cup, a bid that they would have been a favourite to win, considering the size of the facility and its track record of hosting big events. After a decent regular season, the Rangers were pancaked by the Guelph Storm in the first round of the playoffs.
Fast forward to the present. Another strong draft, a few decent trades and a team system stressing high tempo play using speed to attack and the Rangers are a force to deal with. They have been virtually unbeatable since captain Derek Roy returned from the Buffalo Sabres’ camp. They have had only 2 losses in that stretch and one was a road game where they badly outplayed the London Knights but ran into a hot goalie in Chris Houle. What makes this even more impressive is that the team has done it without star defenceman Steve Eminger who is playing for the Washington Capitals. If Eminger is to be returned, it may happen soon as he is currently on loan to the Canadian World Junior team. If Washington continues to play well without the nineteen years old Eminger, they may allow him to return to the OHL, but this is a long shot.
The Rangers are playing a key stretch of games right now, as two thirds of their top line is in Halifax at the world juniors, Roy and Gregory Campbell are playing for Canada. Petr Kanko the other cog in the top line was a surprise cut from the Czech team, but unfortunately hurt his ankle and is out of the lineup at the present time. Things could be worse as the Rangers could be without the services of sixteen years old centre Evan McGrath who would be playing for Team Ontario at the Under 17 tournament, which is normally played at this time of the year, but is not being held this year. Instead he will get to see valuable minutes and play in situations he normally doesn’t play in for the Rangers, which will bode well for his development.
The Rangers are currently playing well without the big line, but when they suit up, they are impressive to watch. Roy is the focal point. The second round pick of the Sabres is playing for a contract in his fourth and probable final year in the OHL. Roy is a small and feisty centre who has a lot of Theo Fleury in him. He is currently averaging exactly two points a game and plays in all situations. He loves to carry the puck and will cut to the middle with no fear. His excellent skating allows him to draw many penalties and it doesn’t hurt that he does his share of diving. He has a temper and will take his share of penalties especially in retaliation when he has been fouled earlier in the play. Roy makes smart passes and has a great shot and loves to cut sharply in front of the net and will go to his backhand. He is very dangerous on the power play and on four on four situations where he has more room to manoeuvre.
Campbell is the size on the line and loves to throw his weight around. He sets up shop in front of the net on the power play where it is very difficult to move him. He is averaging just over a point a game and over half his goals are on the power play. Team Canada is currently using him on one of their main penalty killing units. Kanko, a Los Angeles King third round pick is a lot like Roy, a small, feisty, highly skilled player. Kanko plays with an edge and loves to throw his weight around, especially on the fore check. He has a great nose for the net and most of his goals have come in even strength situations. He will have to play a bit more cautiously at the next level, or he may be injured a lot given his size, but the Kings have to be very happy with his development.
The second line features 2003 draft eligible centre Mike Richards. Another small but fast forward, he shone early in the year when Roy was still in Buffalo. When Roy returned, Richards struggled with consistency, but soon found his stride and is currently second on the team in scoring. He gives the Rangers a great one-two punch in 4 on 4 situations and gives them a decent second unit on the power play too. Look for him to climb up the rankings and I expect to hear his name in the first round next June in Nashville.
For the 2004 draft, Evan McGrath will be a name that may be called in the first round as well. The tall lanky rookie usually checks in around 6th on team scoring and hasn’t looked out of place at all. A good stick handler and smart passer, this kid has the scouts smiling. His skating is strong, he uses his body well to shield the puck and with Deboers’ coaching he will continue to improve. The Rangers have an impact player aged 19, 18, 17, and 16, (Roy, Kanko, Richards, McGrath) a good sign for their continued success.
Look for the Rangers to strengthen their team before the January 10th trading deadline, possibly acquiring a defenceman unless of course Eminger gets returned. A winger with size will be on Deboers’ shopping list as well. This team has taken steps from doormat to contenders, but the real test will come, as it does for all teams, in playoff time. There the size added over the summer will be expected to pay big dividends and the balanced scoring will make them tough to beat.