The New York Rangers’ season opener will take place this evening against the Washington Capitals, and, despite the Blueshirts’ commitment to rebuilding, there will only be two prospects on the NHL roster. Both of those prospects, defenseman Thomas Pock (free agent signed in 2004) and winger Nigel Dawes (5th round, 149 overall, 2003), were among the frontrunners to make the team prior to the start of training camp, however, there is no question that each earned their spot with excellent play during the preseason.
Pock’s main competition for the last defensive slot was Ivan Baranka (2nd round, 50 overall, 2003), who built upon a fine partial 2005-06 season with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack in 2005-06. Baranka, who was felled by a hand injury last winter that kept him from the action late in regular season and during the playoffs, was solid positionally and showed quite a bit of offensive potential during the last few weeks in camp. The competition for the last forward roster spot was even more heated, with Dawes edging out Jarkko Immonen (acquired by trade in March 2004) and Brandon Dubinsky (2nd round, 60 overall, 2004) in the last days.
Dawes and Dubinsky shared the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award, which was awarded last Wednesday night to the two forwards as the best prospects in the Fall 2006 training camp. It was the older Immonen, however, who was expected to make the NHL team. He had some brilliant moments, particularly in a game against the Islander a week ago Monday, where he won almost all of his face-offs and posted a goal and an assist. However, Immonen’s play was inconsistent over the last few weeks, and by the end of last week, there was some doubt about his readiness to move into the Rangers line-up, as well as rumors of a trade that would send him out West.
As Rangers’ coach Tom Renney predicted prior to the beginning to camp, Dubinsky made the Rangers’ decision to send him back to Hartford (to begin the season in the AHL) very difficult. However, given the closeness of Dubinsky’s level of play with that of Dawes, the roster slot went to Dawes, the older player with a year of AHL experience.
This process of determining who would start the season with the NHL team began several weeks ago, when the Rangers participated in the Traverse City Prospects Evaluation Tournament. Hockey’s Future’s review of player performances at the tournament can be found in a previous article, but all of the impressions of the attendees were still fresh in the minds of the Rangers’ management when the main training camp opened two days later. Sixty-one players reported to the Rangers training camp, in Greenburgh, New York, on Sept. 14.
Of the 61 players attending the training camp, 28 were NHL prospects who are either signed to NHL contracts or were drafted by the Rangers (who still hold the player’s rights). All but eight of the prospects in the main camp had just returned from participating in the Rookie Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan.
Sixty of the 61 players took the ice. Hannu Pikkarainen (free agent, signed 2005) was the only player in the stands, as he had injured his shoulder in Traverse City. On the first day of camp, Pikkarainen was informed that he would undergo shoulder surgery the following week. That surgery has now been completed, and it is estimated that Pikkarainen, who was officially assigned to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack on Sept. 25, will be out of action for at least four months.
As part of management’s attempts to get the team to bond, it was decided this year to emphasize strength in diversity as a training camp theme. To that end, all the players were given t-shirts with the words “Be a Ranger” imprinted in the player’s native language on the back of the shirt. The front of the shirt included more than half a dozen flags, representing the home countries of the players in the training camp. The theme was also brought home to all in attendance through a huge banner that hung over one end of the ice. The words, “Effort, Respect, Tradition, Be a Ranger” appeared in large letters and the flags were once again depicted across the banner. In fact, most of the time, the mood in camp reflected the slogan, as the players were competitive, but there was quite a bit of camaraderie, particularly among the prospects.
After the initial day of physicals, the Rangers spent three days of the training camp divided into three teams (Red, White, and Blue), with 20 players each. There were 45-minute practices for each team daily, and three 40-minute scrimmages over the three days for each team. Prospects who stood out in the first three days were Brandon Dubinsky, who never let up after his excellent Traverse City performance. Dubinsky worked well in the corners, had a good touch on both his passes and his shots, and never lost his enthusiasm for the game; Hugh Jessiman (1st round, 12 overall, 2003) who looked like he has accomplished a complete turnaround in his game, and Nigel Dawes, whose on-ice presence and effort was that of an NHLer.
HF caught up with Jessiman after practice on Day 2 and asked how he had accomplished the immense improvement in his game. The big winger credited a summer away from home, which he used to improve his strength, watch videos of Brendan Shanahan scoring goals and positioning himself, as well as the practice of north/south skating with the puck. Jessiman confirmed that he felt very differently this year in training camp, in that he knew what was expected from him and that he was very focussed on accomplishing what was asked of him. He said that all last season, he “was not used to being asked to just be in front of the net [and] not be a finesse player. That is not how it was for me in college and it took me quite a while to adjust.” Jessiman’s increased comfort with the role that the Rangers had assigned him was obvious even early in camp; it became more obvious as the days went on, as Jessiman’s confidence grew.
On the fifth and final day prior to the beginning of the exhibition season, the Rangers held a Blue/White scrimmage, which included 44 of the 60 players in camp. Seventeen prospects played in the game and several stood out. Bob Sanguinetti (1st round, 21 overall, 2006) had a very good game. In the first couple of days of skating, Sanguinetti had some difficulty adjusting to the higher level of play, but he improved over the course of several days; his positioning and puck handling, playing with veteran blueliner Marek Malik, really seemed to steady his game. Early on in camp, Sanguinetti had a tendency to get too aggressive and head for deep in the offensive zone with the puck, leaving no player back to cover the blue line. He was doing less of that in the Blue/White game, which made him much more reliable on the ice.
Jessiman also was very effective in the game too, scoring two goals from in front of the net. Finally, Greg Moore (acquired by trade in March 2004) skated on the “fourth line”, putting in a solid performance. In fact, Moore (who is older than most of the rookies that will join the Wolf Pack this season) played very well all during camp and was rewarded by a longer preseason stay with the NHL club than most of his peers.
Right after the Blue/White game, the Rangers announced their first round of cuts. All of the players that were eligible to return to their junior teams, except for the Rangers’ top prospect, Marc Staal (1st round, 12 overall, 2005), were sent back to start their junior seasons. As both the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League seasons were due to begin later in the week, the youngest players in camp were returned to spend a couple of days practicing with their respective junior teams prior to the commencement of the season. Bob Sanguinetti and Tom Pyatt (4th round, 107 overall, 2005) were sent to the OHL, and Brodie Dupont (3rd round, 66 overall, 2005), and Ryan Russell (7th round, 211 overall, 2005) went to Western Canada. Marc-Andre Cliché (2nd round, 56 overall, 2005) and David Kveton (4th round, 104 overall, 2006) were sent to their QMJHL teams, with Kveton starting his first junior season two games into the schedule.
Pyatt had made another good impression in camp, however, with the agreement between the NHL and CHL requiring a player with at least one more year of CHL eligibility to either play with an NHL team or be returned to their junior club, there was no question from the start of camp that he would be sent back to Saginaw. None of Russell, Cliché, or Dupont particularly stood out in camp, and each will have to play well this coming year for the Rangers make a positive decision about their future with the team. As a 2006 draft selection, the Rangers have more time with Kveton, who will play his first North American hockey with the Gatineau Olympiques in 2006-07.
After the completion of the Blue/White game, the Rangers began a seven-game preseason exhibition game schedule. It was during the first few games that it became apparent that Staal was not ready for NHL play and would have to be returned to juniors for one more season. His positioning, balance, and strength on the puck were just not strong enough to play at this level. However, as Coach Renney had previously told HF, the Rangers wanted to keep Staal with the team as long as possible, so he remained in camp until prior to the seventh preseason game.
Preseason Game 3 was played in Puerto Rico and the Rangers only took 22 players on the trip to that island. The players that were not taken on the trip practiced with the AHL Hartford team, and once the NHL team returned from Puerto Rico, 11 prospects were officially reassigned to remain in Hartford. Those who remained with the NHL team included Baranka, Pock, Dawes, Dubinsky, Immonen, Moore, Lee Falardeau (2nd round, 33 overall, 2002), Dwight Helminen (2004 trade), Lauri Korpikoski (1st round, 19 overall, 2004), Al Montoya (1st round, 6 overall, 2004) and free agent Daniel Girardi.
It was only one day later though that Montoya, Falardeau, Helminen and Korpikoski were assigned to Hartford (Sept. 26). Helminen, Korpikoski and Falardeau were all non-factors in camp, and on the night before they were returned to Hartford, each played a less than stellar preseason game. The decision to send Montoya to Hartford, however, was another matter. Montoya had undergone shoulder surgery in the offseason and spent much of this preseason testing it. He appeared in two preseason games with the Blueshirts and did a good, but not exceptional, job in net. With backup goaltender Kevin Weekes injured, the Rangers needed to determine which of Montoya and the recently-signed Steve Valiquette could serve as backup to Henrik Lundqvist. In the game against the Islanders on Sept. 25. Valiquette did an adequate job in net, and it was decided that Montoya (and the Rangers) would be best served by sending Montoya back to Hartford to play every day.
Last Thursday evening, after play against Boston on Wednesday night, the Rangers sent Moore and Girardi to Hartford. Girardi had a very poor game the night before, exhibiting poor decision-making and execution of passes and clears. Moore, however, had a good night, but was not quite ready to join the NHL team. Given some seasoning in the AHL, it is possible that Moore may join the Rangers later in the season, as he exhibited the skill, grit, and effort required to be an NHLer during this preseason.
When the Rangers arrived in Boston last weekend, there were still six prospects on the roster (Pock, Baranka, Dawes, Immonen, Dubinsky and Staal). However, prior to Saturday’s game against the Bruins, both Dubinsky and Staal were told that they were being returned to Hartford and Sudbury (OHL), respectively. When HF spoke to Staal on Sunday afternoon after his first junior game since his return, he was clearly dejected. In his third city in two days, Staal said he was surprised to be back in the OHL. While he said that most of his meeting the day before with the team’s management was a blur, he remembered that the Rangers had told him that the reason he was being sent down was because he did not play himself into a top six defensive role with the team. When asked what the Rangers told him to work on, Staal responded “I need to get physically stronger and quicker on the puck in my own zone.” His coach in Sudbury, Mike Foligno, has fullest intentions of helping do that. According to Foligno, one of his goals this season is to “develop Marc into a player that will start for the Rangers next year.”
With only four prospects left on the Rangers preseason team and only one defensive and one forward roster spot open, it was clear that two players had to be cut. It was Dawes’ play in the Rangers’ final preseason game against Boston that sealed his forward roster spot. With two goals in the game, Dawes was named the first star, while Immonen’s play was unremarkable. Pock, who has some NHL experience and reportedly was promised a chance in the NHL before he agreed to return to the Rangers this season, won the roster spot on Saturday night too. On Monday, both Immonen and Baranka were returned to Hartford.
The Rangers now begin the season with two prospects on the roster and several waiting in the wings with a chance at an injury or poor play call-up. Any of Baranka, Immonen, Dubinsky, or Moore has a legitimate shot of a call-up early in the 2006-07 season.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.