No Longer Strangers to Success

By Jason Ahrens
The fans of the Kitchener Rangers have had a few trying years, but this year has been a ray of sunshine. The team is fighting for home ice advantage in the ultra-competitive Western Conference in the OHL and has laid a foundation for the years ahead. Behind the scenes, the Rangers hired Peter Deboer and Steve Spott to coach and run the team, plucking them from the Plymouth Whalers, where they had built a strong contending team that made it to the OHL finals two years in a row and had graduated several players to the NHL ranks. Good management and good coaching are two vital components of building a winner in the OHL and the Rangers now have that covered.

Another important component is filling the two import spots with quality players. This year the Rangers have had a pair of Czechs on the wings, 19 year old Petr Hemsky and 17 year old Petr Kanko who are on pace for close to 30 goals each and they give the Rangers two scoring lines. Kanko has been a solid addition, making the transition as a rookie through all the cultural barriers and the change in style of hockey. He is a great stickhandler, likes to play the off wing, and is willing to get his nose dirty in front of the net. Look for him to get his name called this June in the NHL draft, and will likely go in the second or third round. But it has been a long time since the Rangers have had this much contribution from their Europeans and it has resulted in a lot more wins this season.

The overage position can really make or break a team and this season the Rangers have 3 solid players. Captain Nick Policelli is a tough as nails defensive defender who will drop the gloves to protect his goalie or teammates. On the wings, the Rangers have a pair of wingers in John Osbourne and Jeff Szwez who ride shotgun with star center Derek Roy and have provided grit and scoring punch as they are both just under a point a game average.

Derek Roy, a second round pick of Buffalo is the only drafted player on the Rangers. He is Mr. Everything for the Rangers, averaging almost a point and half a game, takes a regular shift on the power play, short handed and of course even strength. Has Theo Fleury size and skill, and has the intensity and passion of Fleury as well. He is a feisty player who will get involved physically and is excellent at drawing penalties, as he carries the puck often and is subject to much hooking and holding as defenders try to slow down the swift center. He has had to deal with some personal letdowns this year, he had a lengthy suspension early in the season for a stick infraction. He also wasn’t invited to tryout for Team Canada for the World Junior tournament, despite his impressive skill and past record internationally, having played for Team Canada at the Under 18 championship and for Team Ontario in the Under 17 championship. Roy bounced back from both of these incidents with strong play and has used them as motivation to play even better. How well Roy deals with the increased checking in the playoffs, will determine how far the Rangers advance.

On defence, the Rangers have one of the best defenders in the league in 18 year old Steve Eminger. Look for him to be a first round selection in this years entry draft. He is a smooth skater who can turn on a dime and can change his speeds to fool forecheckers. He makes a good first pass to get the Rangers transition game going, and is also able to jump into the play as the fourth attacker. Has an OK shot, he gets his one-timer on net and through traffic while on the power play. Defensively, his skating and positioning makes him hard to get by and he is always lined up against the opponents best forwards. He blocks a lot of shots just by standing up the attacker and taking away the lanes. He logs close to 30 minutes a night as he is on the first unit on both special teams. Overall the Rangers defence corps is pretty solid as they get strong play out of Marcus Smith and Andre Benoit on the top 2 units and the third unit plays well defensively.

In net, 19 year old Scott Dickie takes in about 80% of the Rangers games and gives them solid, if unspectacular goaltending. They have also had strong contributions from 16 year old center Mike Richards who has seen action on the second and third lines, is averaging nearly a point a game as a rookie and was named to Team Ontario for the Under 17 World Championships in Manitoba. He is making a good case for himself for the 2003 draft, which looks like it will be a strong class from the Ontario view.

So the Rangers have a number of key areas taken care of and have a number of intangibles going for them, things like team unity and toughness. Watch a scrum in a Ranger game and they stick together and stand up for each other. They have lots of guys who can and will drop the gloves if needed. Another big intangible is the crowd, Kitchener plays in front of some of the largest crowds in the league and that could help them come playoffs. Most importantly, is that they have good depth to back up star players Steve Eminger and Derek Roy. With a number of key guys back next season, look for them to make noise for the next several seasons.