The New York Rangers were first-time participants in the Traverse City, Michigan Prospects Development Tournament last week, and the team management, all of whom were present, took great advantage of the opportunity to evaluate their rookies. The Rangers brought the largest number of players to the tournament of any of the eight NHL teams that participated; in total, 31 players suited up in Rangers’ uniforms, including 27 prospects and four players who were in Michigan on a tryout basis. Because according to Rangers head coach, Tom Renney “players probably don’t have the opportunity to show their abilities [in] one game,” almost all of the rookies played in at least two of the four Rangers games in the tournament.
The one Ranger who was on the ice during the 45-minute morning practice sessions, but did not play at all during the games, was goaltender Al Montoya (1st round, 6th overall). According to Montoya, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, he has “been practicing since early August, and it feels like I have never stopped playing, so it’s really good. Everything is right on time, the surgery went well, the rehab went well, and I am good.”
Montoya was told by the coaching staff prior to the tournament that he would not be playing in any of the games, but was in Traverse City to work with Rangers goaltending coach, Benoit Allaire. Every day, Montoya could be seen working with Allaire on positioning and timing, several days even after the other players had left the ice. The test of Montoya and his surgically repaired shoulder will come over the next few weeks through the exhibition season either with the Rangers or with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack.
With Montoya not in the tournament, Chris Holt (6th round, 180th overall, 2003) became the Rangers No. 1 netminder in Traverse City. Holt, who Renney describes as “more athletic and lighter than last year,” started three of the four Ranger games. He was the winning goalie in two of the three games in which he appeared. At times, Holt played excellently, particularly in the first game, where he only allowed two goals on 31 shots. His positioning within the crease, lateral movement, glove work, and confidence were among the best of the goaltenders playing in the tournament. Unfortunately, Holt did not continue to play at that high level. He reportedly sustained a knee injury prior to the second game of the tournament, but played anyway, and he to be removed from net after a little more than 14 minutes into the game after allowing four goals. In all fairness, not only was Holt injured, but the defense in front of him was ineffective. After sitting for a couple of days, during which backup netminder free agent John Murray got one start, Holt was again between the pipes for the final day of the tourney. Again he was not up to par. Holt allowed 5 goals on 23 shots, and was shaky in net, at best. Given his injury, it is hard to evaluate Holt’s play during the tournament. Potential is definitely there, but as Renney said, Holt is “a work in progress.”
Michael Sauer (2nd round, 40th overall, 2005), who was scheduled to play in Traverse City, did not attend the tournament due to continuing problems with a concussion he sustained earlier in the summer. According to the Rangers Assistant General Manager Don Maloney, Sauer was reinjured in a hit he took during his junior team’s training camp a few weeks ago, and, therefore the team did not want to take a chance on having him play in Michigan. His place on the roster was taken by a free agent Ryan Constant, who had a good tournament. Constant needs to work on positioning and skating, however, he was not overmatched in this tourney, and, as the result of his performance in Traverse City, Constant was invited to attend the Rangers main training camp.
There were two other free agents who played on the blueline for the Rangers in Traverse City. Amateur player Josh Godfrey was one of the few invitees players who appeared in only one game, and he did not appear to be able to keep up with the level of play in the tournament. He was not invited to the main camp. Marvin Degon, who was signed to an AHL contract this past summer, had an excellent tournament. Degon was involved in several of the Rangers’ crucial goals, and had three points in as many games in the tourney. Defensively, he still needs some work on his positioning, but he definitely has the potential to play in the NHL.
Hannu Pikkarainen (free agent), who the Rangers failed to sign on time last season to have him come over from Europe, has been signed for this year. He skated in most of the first two games of the tournament, prior to sustaining a shoulder injury toward the end of Saturday’s game. As it turns out, Pikkarainen will need surgery to repair the shoulder, and will be out of action several months. However, in the two games he played, Pikkarainen showed quite a bit of potential. Although at times he failed to adequately cover his man (which lead to scoring chances and one actual goal), his instincts are generally good and he will be able to be offensively productive over time. It is unfortunate that Pikkarainen was injured when he was, as he needs playing time to acclimate to the North American game. Once he does that, he will be an excellent prospect for the Rangers.
Dalyn Flatt (3rd round, 75th overall, 2005), a defensive defenseman, looked huge on skates, however, he did not appear up to the task of competing in this tournament. Flatt is mean and can throw his weight around, but he often failed in his defensive assignments and has no offensive abilities to speak of. A big taker of penalties in junior hockey, Flatt does not appear to have what it takes (toughness plus skill) in the new NHL.
Trevor Koverko (5th round, 147th overall, 2005) is a player, who like Flatt, is a defensive defenseman. Although Koverko did assist on one goal in Game 2, he did not make a good showing defensively in this game. He was sent home prior to the final tournament game, and needs to really step up his game over the coming season to have any chance to be signed by the Rangers next spring.
Philippe Furrer (6th round, 179th overall, 2003) generally had an excellent tournament for the Rangers. Although his performance in the first two games was much better than his play toward the end of the tournament, Furrer looks to be a solid defenseman. He showed good decisionmaking, defensive skill, passing acuity, and skating ability. According to Renney, the team management was particularly impressed because, “this is Furrer’s first North American camp of any kind. He has worked hard and done well, particularly with all things considered, with the assimilation he has had to make.” At the end of the tournament Furrer was returned to Switzerland, where he has a contract for the 2006-07 season.
Corey Potter (4th round, 122nd overall, 2003), who recently signed an AHL contract with the Hartford Wolf Pack, played in three of the four tournament games. He worked hard on every shift, blocking shots, making the passes, stealing the puck from opponents, and even putting the puck in the net in Game 3. Potter improved his play as the tournament went along, and eventually became one of the best Rangers on the ice. He finished the tournament with one goal and three assists, and was really impressive. Potter was one of the players that was on the bubble as far as getting an NHL entry-level contract this past summer, and with continued play like he exhibited in Traverse City, he will have no trouble obtaining that prize next season, either with the Rangers or another NHL team.
Bob Sanguinetti (1st round, 21st overall, 2006) was one of the youngest players at the tournament. He clearly demonstrated some offensive potential, as he recorded a crucial goal and an assist in the overtime win against Detroit in Game 3. It is just as clear, however, that he needs time to develop his defensive skills. More than once, Sanguinetti was caught deep in the offensive zone, when he should have stayed at or near the blueline. Additionally, he showed a tendency to look for the shot rather than pass off to the open man. The Rangers will be working with Sanguinetti to remedy these problems, and it will be interesting to see his progress if the Rangers return to Traverse City next fall.
Marc Staal (1st round, 12th overall, 2005) had an up and down tournament. At times, Staal (who registered a game-winning goal and an assist in three games) looked like a poised professional. At others, he looked overmatched. The young blueliner had his best game in Game 1, where he exhibited excellent coverage and positioning, and scored the overtime goal to win the game. Staal was in the slot to take a pass during double overtime, and he leaned into a powerful and quick shot, which flew past Lightning netminder Riku Helenius. His confidence and calm under pressure on the play was remarkable for someone his age.
However, after taking a turn in the stands in Game 2, Staal had a terrible Game 3. He played a poor positional game, was beaten often, and could not hold the puck in on the blueline. In discussing his transition from juniors to the professional game, Staal said “the pro style is very different, the speed and the intensity of the game. You are going really hard for 40-second shifts. I have worked really hard this summer to become more explosive, definitely working on my power and speed.” Staal too is a work in progress. His inconsistency is not surprising for someone of his experience level, however, it does raise questions as to whether he is ready to play in the NHL this season.
Zdenek Bahensky (3rd round, 73rd overall, 2004) also recently signed an AHL contract, after a very good, but not exceptional, 2005-06 WHL season. In three tournament games in Traverse City, Bahensky scored one goal, but his play throughout the tournament was also unexceptional.
Dane Byers (2nd round, 48th overall, 2004) played only two games in the tournament, but he sure did have a memorable performance in his second appearance (the consolation game). It is not clear why the coaching staff waited until Game 3 to put Byers in the lineup, but he almost immediately made a difference. Four minutes into the game, Byers got the primary assist on a power-play goal by Tomas Zaborsky (5th round, 137th overall, 2006). Byers went on to have a spectacular Game 4. He was used in all situations, and scored two goals and two assists, including a shorthanded goal in the first period on a goaltender giveaway. Byers is an explosive player who can be exciting to watch.
Zaborsky was an unknown coming into this tournament. His 2005-06 statistics in junior were very impressive, in that playing with Trenchin of the Slovakian Junior League, Zaborsky played 42 games and registered 61 points, all with a +79 plus/minus. But it was not clear going into Traverse City that Zaborsky was ready for play on the smaller rink. But he impressed in this tournament too, using his speed, strength and excellent positioning in the two games he played. Officially credited with three goals in the tournament, Zaborsky labels himself a sniper. The young Slovakian is sure he should have had an assist on another Rangers goal in Game 3, and, although his English is limited at this point, he clearly has a fire in his belly to make it to the NHL. In a puzzling move, the Rangers Zaborsky back to Saginaw to play in the OHL prior to the final game. The center was told that he was being returned to junior hockey immediately after his two-goal (and one-assist) night.
Three players who the Rangers expected would stand out did not have the kind of tournament that distinguished them. Ryan Callahan (4th round, 127th overall, 2004) had no points, a few hits, one takeaway, but he was not really a factor on the ice. Also a non-factor was Greg Moore (obtained by trade with Calgary Flames), who was older than many of the players and was expected to bring some offense and a solid defensive game to the fore. He really did neither.
Another Rangers disappointment in Traverse City was the play of Lauri Korpikoski (1st round, 19th overall, 2004). Although he showed quite a bit of speed and finesse with the puck, Korpikoski had trouble with positioning, was not involved in plays that led to good scoring chances, and he did not appear comfortable with playing in his own end.
There was some expectation that the Traverse City tournament would be a place for Marc-Andre Cliché (2nd round, 56th overall, 2005) to break out and really show off his offensive skills. However, this was not to be the case. Cliché did record two assists in the tournament, but he was not dominant on face-offs, and was practically invisible on the ice. So, while Cliche’s tournament was not a complete bust, he did not take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself in Traverse City.
The Rangers forward who without question had the best tournament was Brandon Dubinsky (2nd round, 60th overall, 2004). With two goals and three assists (5 points) in three games, Dubinsky had the highest point total on the team. When his skating and puck-handling abilities were added to his fine passing skills and an excellent shot, Dubinsky was very dangerous every time he took the ice. When his leadership potential was added to the mix, Dubinsky became one of top prospects in Traverse City for any team. If the young forward has a weakness, however, it is that he still needs to build some further upper body strength; several times during the tourney he got muscled off the puck, which is an issue for him. In discussing this, Renney said that Dubinsky “instituted an intelligent conditioning program this summer. Brandon he came into the Rangers development camp [at the end of June] a little overweight — now he is good shape, about 15 pounds lighter than development camp. It is again all part of the development process and it’s ongoing.”
Several players who had very good individual games, Brodie Dupont (3rd round 66th overall, 2005) had an outstanding Game 2 of the tournament. Dupont registered a goal and an assist in the game and really exhibited some fire. However, he was not able to sustain that level and, although put on the first line in Game 3 (along with Ryan Russell and Rick Kozak, both of whom had good games), Dupont was practically invisible. Renney, who was very impressed with Dupont’s early play, commented that, “Brodie knows his game. He knows how he has to play. Some guys try to do too much, but Brodie knows exactly what he is as a player and that is what he brings to the team, a simple physical game.”
Rick Kozak (obtained by 2004 trade with Philadelphia Flyers) is a tough gritty player, who hung in there in a fight in Game 3, but really showed very little offensive ability in this tournament. His puckhandling abilities were spotty, but he did get a secondary assist on one Rangers goal in the tournament. Kozak does know how to take care of his own end, and he certainly can agitate on the ice.
No matter how well Ryan Russell (7th round, 211th overall, 2005) has played in juniors, questions will linger as to how well this diminutive center will play at the next level. If his play in this tournament was any indication, Russell’s size will not hinder his development. He showed speed, great offensive instincts, good puckhandling, and the ability to fight through traffic in Traverse City. In Game 3 particularly (where he had one goal), Russell demonstrated his finesse game.
Renney mused about Russell, that “we may not know what we have in Ryan for a few more years. He has a good bloodline, with definite talent, and a legitimate chance to be an NHL player. It really will depend on how Ryan moves along within his peer group. With his offensive ability and [the fact that] he does compete, this fellow has a real chance, but it will be entirely up to him to get physically stronger.”
Several of the 2006 draft selections came to Traverse City, but did not make much of a splash. None of Ryan Hillier (3rd round, 84th overall, 2006), Eric Hunter (6th Round, 174th overall, 2006), and Lukas Zaliska (7th round, 204th overall, 2006) showed much here. Hillier seemed a bit overwhelmed by the level of competition and was a little slow to the puck. Although Hunter took a couple of shots in his two games of play, the winger was not a factor in either game. Zaliska took one very good shot in Game 3, however, his passing left a lot to be desired, his puckhandling was not up to par, and he displayed an uneven effort on the ice.
David Kveton (4th round, 104th overall, 2006), however, kept getting stronger as the tournament went along. With two goals (in Games 2 and 4), and some nice play as a winger on a line with Brandon Dubinsky in Game 3, Kveton showed quite a bit of potential. The Rangers have brought him to New York to the main training camp this week.
Bruce Graham (2nd round, 51st overall, 2004) took the ice in the first game of the tournament and was a completely different player from the one who skated on the ice for Hartford and Charlotte last season. Rumored to have been stricken by hepatitis last season, Graham looked strong on the puck, winning face-offs and skating well in Game 1. Unfortunately for Graham, he was injured with a hip pointer in Game 2 and he did not return to the ice for the rest of the tournament. He is expected to be ready for the start of the season and is in the main training camp this weekend.
Jakub Petruzalek (9th round, 266th overall, 2004) has always been an offensive dynamo. The questions surrounding his play have always been whether he can be a two-way player. With three assists in three games in Traverse City, Petruzalek continued his offensive wizardry. Added to that, he generally played much better in his own zone. There were some slip-ups that led to opposition scoring chances, however, Petruzalek shows much improvement in this area. Renney commented that he saw an increase in maturity with Petruzalek. Calling him a “fiery, smart thinking player,” Renney found Petruzalek’s ability to play the two-way game improving.
“His ability to play in the defensive zone and recognize his responsibility both on and off the puck shows improvement. To top it off Jakub is a stronger player than he was a year ago too, which is necessary to win those battles on defensive play.”
Tom Pyatt (4th round, 107th overall, 2005) is known as a defensive forward and in Game 1 particularly, Pyatt demonstrated excellent positioning and defensive play. Additionally, his fine work along the boards was noticeable in all the games he played. Pyatt also showed some offensive ability, recording one goal and an assist in the tourney.
Overall, the Rangers had a good tournament. Although the team was expected to take second or third place in Traverse City, key injuries really hampered the accomplishments of the club as a whole. However, there was plenty of opportunity though for the Rangers management to get a good look at the team’s prospects playing against others of the same age, and according to Renney “we’re here to provide opportunity to people. Sure we would have liked to win the tournament, but our players need to know that they have been given the opportunity to participate in this to the best of their ability.”
Renney went on to say that “we have paid a lot of attention to systems play here, primarily to expose the young guys who might be going to move through to the main camp to the similar drills and tactics that we will employed there.”
All but eight of the players in Traverse City did move on to the main camp. Very shortly, we will see how the exposure to the drills and tactics in Michigan helped the young prospects prepare for camp.
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