Rangers Claim Rico Fata, Sign Dan Blackburn

By Brandon LeBourveau
In somewhat of a shocking story to many, Dan Blackburn has made the opening night roster for the New York Rangers as an 18 year old. This happens to be a very rare situation for a goaltender. Rarely are goalie playing in the NHL at 18 years old, but Blackburn has proved that he belongs here. For now at least.

Blackburn appeared in five pre-season games, posting a 2-1-1 record while notching a 3.49 GAA and a .913 Save percentage. The goals against average is nothing to get excited about, but you have to remember that the team playing in front of him was not the Rangers opening night squad. They were mostly a group of hopefuls and rookies trying to earn roster spots. Blackburn sparkled at times, and showed that he could handle being the back-up to Mike Richter. Blackburn has always played at a level or two above his age group, and now he is showing he can play in the NHL at 18. The Rangers have signed him to a contract, and it is believed to be a three year deal worth the rookie max of $3.525 million.

The interesting question is whether Blackburn sticks with the Rangers for the full season. He can not be assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack, as he still has junior eligibility remaining. The Rangers can send him to Hartford for a two-week conditioning stint, but after that he either has to stay with the Rangers or be sent back to his junior team, the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League. Under NHL rules, Blackburn is allowed to play 10 games in the NHL before he loses a year of exemption from waiver draft. He can be sent back to juniors at any time during the season, but if he plays in more than 10 games than he would have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors 1 year sooner than the normal 3 year rule for NHL players. For example, Manny Malhotra now has to clear waivers if he was going to be sent down to the minors because he has played 3 NHL seasons. Because of this, Malhotra has probably played his last game for the Wolf Pack unless he is assigned their for conditioning purposes, in which it doesn’t count as being officially sent down to the minors. The Rangers would not want to risk losing him and get nothing in return.

The Rangers still have Peter Skudra on the roster, but they need to sign him to a professional contract before he can play for them. He signed a try-out agreement before training camp, but he needs a full contract to continue to play for the Rangers. Head Coach Ron Low has hinted that he might carry 3 goaltenders on the roster for the first few weeks, just in case Blackburn can’t cut it during the regular season. This way the Rangers would still have Skudra to be the back-up, but as of now the job belongs to Blackburn. If Blackburn can continue to play well against NHL competition and he consistently does so, he will probably see between 15-25 games this season, as Ron Low will be able to rest Mike Richter more often than in the past. This will be an interesting situation to see unfold during the first few weeks of the season. If he stays and doesn’t play often, many say it will hurt his confidence and we could ruin his potential. Fans in Cranbrook are praying that Blackburn is returned to the Ice.

In other news, the Rangers claimed 21 year old forward Rico Fata off waivers from the Calgary Flames. Fata was originally drafted by the Flames with the 6th pick overall in 1998, one spot ahead of Manny Malhotra. Fata failed to make the Flames roster this season, and the team attempted to send him to the minors. However, Fata had to clear waivers first and was grabbed by Glen Sather and the New York Rangers.

The Flames may be giving up on Fata way too early. The Rangers will give Fata the opportunity to prove he belongs in the NHL. Rico will have to stay with the Rangers for the full season, because he’ll have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors, and the Flames would have the first opportunity to take him back. Fata is blessed with speed, an asset valued by the Rangers. In 27 career NHL games with the Flames, Fata has totaled 1 assist and 10 penalty minutes. In 2 seasons in the AHL with the Saint John Flames, he has scored 52 goals and added 58 assists for 110 points in 146 games. He still has a lot of potential, but he will have to learn the game and improve his hockey sense.

The Rangers currently have four rookies on their opening night roster in Dan Blackburn, Barrett Heisten, Rico Fata and Peter Smrek. Heisten has impressed the coaching staff during camp with his gritty, two-way play, and the ability to adapt quickly to the faster-paced NHL. Heisten will remain with the team for now, but if he struggles he will spend some time with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL. Peter Smrek played 20 NHL games last season, but still qualifies as a rookie. It will be hard for him to get ice time, as the Rangers currently have 7 defenseman on their roster, plus Bryan Berard who will most likely be signed and Tomas Kloucek and Sylvain Lefebvre on injured reserve. Kloucek is expected to be back in late November, but has been recovering extremely well and could be back ahead of schedule.