Training camp is upon us. The excitement level and anticipation for a training camp may never have been higher despite the fact the Rangers had a relatively low key off season (for their recent standards) and despite the fact the message coming from the staff has remained the same for the past five months. That message comes in three main themes: Youth, consistency and earning your spot.
Coach Tortorella went on record Thursday to once again preach what he has been saying over the entire off season and from Friday onwards we will see whether what he preaches is indeed his intention. Many Rangers fans will monitor camp with pessimism because many veterans (Fedotenko, Redden, Exelby, Semenov, White etc) hover like a storm cloud over the talented prospects that so many want to see installed on the team immediately. With the Rangers often going with veterans in recent seasons, fans can be forgiven for the pessimism but this year does promise to be different. This is the first season in a while where the Rangers have had a handful of prospects at the same time that can legitimately become core pieces (and not fringe players) and the first camp where these prospects appear ready. Including a key prospect’s immediate future, here are three areas that I will be paying a lot of attention to…
Although the numbers ahead of him suggest otherwise Derek Stepan appears to have a genuine chance at not only cracking the line up but instantly cracking the top six given the praise he received from both Coach Tortorella and Gordie Clark. Speaking to the media Thursday Torts said;
“I thought Stepan was the best player (at the tournament).”
Speaking after Traverse City,Clark went even further and offered the blue chip prospect hope at centering Gaborik on the top line when he said;
“We are still looking for a center for the No. 1 line with Gaborik and maybe Frolov on the left wing,” said Clark. “I’ve got to say that from what we saw here, it will be interesting to go and see if he (Stepan) can handle that level. And he’s going to probably get every opportunity to do it.”
My personal feeling is that unless Stepan truly dominates at camp then he would benefit most from a year in the AHL playing with Grachev on his wing and playing 20 minutes per game in all situations. The Rangers shouldn’t play him in the NHL unless he really gets solid minutes. I would rather see Stepan rack up points on a strong Hartford side than get 8 or 9 minutes per game in New York and possibly get lost in the shuffle. Stepan’s development throughout camp will be one of the most interesting story lines to follow.
Starting Left Wing
One potential area that has had some of its intrigue removed has been that of first line left wing. Tortorella has already stated he intends to pair new recruit Alex Frolov with star wing Marian Gaborik throughout the exhibition season and this is a source of debate amongst Rangers fans. The debate doesn’t seem to be how Frolov can benefit the Rangers but where in the Line up he can do it. Tortorella said:
“Frolov will play with Gaborik. I’m going to give him an opportunity there”
Many Rangers fans want to see the scoring spread out while many want to see a very strong first line. This is an area where I tend to agree with the coach. A top line featuring wings Gaborik and Frolov is indeed a top line and perhaps the Rangers first legitimate top line since the Jagr/Straka/Nylander trio gave the Blueshirts some post lock out respectability. Indeed, if the Rangers are to score more and have that much discussed and sought-after secondary scoring it doesn’t matter what line Frolov plays on because players such as Dubinsky, Callahan, Avery and Drury will need to show more offensive consistency regardless of their spots in the line up.
Who rides the Bus?
Many of you who read us here at Blueseatblogs will know how strongly I feel personally about the need for a strong farm team and depth right throughout the system (even the ECHL) and for me personally, it will be interesting to see who goes to Hartford (and not just who doesn’t make the Rangers – trust me, there is a difference). The Rangers will have periods during the season where they will mail in the odd game and/or underperform. Competition shouldn’t end at camp. The players on the Rangers will need to be aware that prospects X,Y or Z are lighting it up in the AHL and that a few bad games in a row will see them lose their spots. A good Hartford Wolf Pack side will allow for competition and pressure to stay on the Rangers line up all season. The importance of a good Hartford side cannot be understated.
As it stands the following players seem predestined for the AHL; Brian Boyle (needs to earn his spot back after a poor year), Brodie Dupont, Dane Byers, Evgeny Grachev (needs a great camp to gatecrash NY to begin the year), Jeremy Williams, Kris Newbury and one of Dale Weise or Zuccarello-Aasen at forward and Sam Klassen, Mike Sauer, Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko on defense. That core group has a lot of promise and along with a few other veterans and camp cuts it promises to create an excellent side to start the AHL season.
There are many, many other stories to follow in camp this year such as the defensive numbers game and that’s a big part of why this camp will provide so much intrigue but Stepan’s development, the chemistry between Frolov and Gaborik and the Hartford shuffle are three areas that I will be paying particular attention to. Let us know what areas you’re most excited for. It’s Camp Time!