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Posts tagged: Pavel Valentenko

Where the defense prospects stand

Before Friday’s draft it’s a good idea to take stock of what the Rangers already have in the system.  If New York follows suit, then the Blueshirts will pick the best player available regardless of position.  However, it’s worth evaluating where the team’s strengths lie. Kevin evaluated the forwards, so let’s look at the defense.

Tim Erixon

Erixon has been met with a lot of hype since the Rangers stole him (along with what turned out to be Shane McColgan) from Calgary for two second round picks and Roman Horak last year. After two successful seasons with Skelleftea HC in the SEL, Erixon came over to the NHL and was expected to make the club without any time in the AHL, which is exactly what happened. That said, Erixon struggled during his first NHL stint in October, finishing with no points and a -3 rating in nine games before being sent to the Connecticut Whale. Those nine games would be Erixon’s longest stint with the big club, but all was not lost. Erixon dominated the AHL, finishing with 33 points (3-30-33) in 42 games). The Swede is as NHL ready as you can get. Barring a major setback, he should be a Ranger next fall.

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Valentenko signs with KHL

It looks like Pavel Valentenko is headed back to Russia. Per Evgeny Belousov, Valentenko has signed with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. This confirms the relatively cryptic tweet that Valentenko himself tweeted after the Connecticut Whale season ended last week:

It was two great seasons for me here, in Hartford! I was proud to be one of the part of Wolfpack/Whale team! Thanks everyone for support!

It was a bit curious to see him tweet that, considering he was still a part of the Ranger organization, but now it is clear as to why.

What is also clear is that Valentenko really had no future with the Rangers. He is blocked by a number of current roster players and a few other prospects like Dylan McIlrath and Tim Erixon. In fact, the acquisition of Erixon and the emergence of Stu Bickel might have sealed his fate.

Update: Per Laurie Carr, the deal with Avangard is a two year deal.

The Stu Bickel scenario

I was one of the ones who praised Stu Bickel when he came in to the side and looked pretty comfortable from the outset despite being an undrafted, unheralded kid out of nowhere. I was however, also the one who criticised him a few weeks ago when his positional play was interesting (at best) for a stretch, and I still believe half the fights he gets into are unnecessary and don’t serve any purpose than to keep the box scorers busy.

That said he’s improved a lot recently and at times, has covered for some of Marc Staal’s mistakes who is very much up and down form-wise at the moment. Bickel’s inconsistent positional play seems to have settled down and his decision making on the puck is improving (although very much a work in progress).

Bickel has continued to be a physical presence without being a liability; it all adds up to making the Rangers defense reliable from top to bottom – despite the recent wave of unfortunate goals the Rangers have endured.

Bickel however may be playing for an NHL future elsewhere. So much of Bickel’s future depends on factors he cannot control. If Mike Sauer comes back this (or certainly next) season he’s immediately bumped down the depth chart. If Anton Stralman – for the most part – plays like he has done recently and is sensible with his contract demands it would be surprising if the Rangers didn’t have some interest in bringing him back next year.

Then there’s always the looming presence of Dylan McIlrath and to a lesser extent Pavel Valentenko. Note: are you ruling out Valentenko? You should only do so if you were a fortune teller and saw Bickel making the club the way he has this year.

Bickel has improved and clearly is gaining trust with the coaching staff – as evidenced by the additional third period ice time he’s getting. There’s no denying the value of earning Tortorella’s trust for a player, especially one looking to stick with the club. Bickel getting better is a win-win scenario for all concerned.

If he plays well he has a chance to stick. He plays well he’ll certainly stick in the NHL. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, even if he doesn’t make it with the Rangers, he’s made himself an asset for the franchise over the summer; so everyone wins from an improving Bickel.

It will be interesting to see how the cards that is the Rangers defense fall over the summer. There are a lot of factors in play for the Rangers blue line; none more so than Bickel’s continued development.

Options In Case of Sauer

Mike Sauer remains day to day but with a concussion the Rangers are likely to be very careful with the ever improving defenseman. That brings in to focus the current defensive corps and the (lack of) depth the Rangers currently have on the big club. Your bottom three defenseman should not be named Steve Eminger, Jeff Woywitka and Anton Stralman. Especially when you have Mike Del Zotto in the top six improving but still developing. The Rangers need to look at other options in case Sauer misses extended time.

Sauer out brings us to the Rangers options on the farm. It’s highly unlikely (barring an extended losing streak) that the Rangers will go outside of the organisation. If that was an option at this stage, they may already have added another player. However, depending on the style the Rangers want to play there are two options in Connecticut; Pavel Valentenko and Tim Erixon.

While Erixon has already accumulated some NHL time with the Rangers (and certainly didn’t embarrass himself), this may be the perfect opportunity to see whether Valentenko really has what it takes to make the Rangers in the near future. Questionable skating ability seems to have held back Valentenko so far but with the greatest respect to Jeff Woywitka – and especially Steve Eminger – at least short term, trying out Valentenko can’t be any worse than the aforementioned two options.

If the Russian fails you can plan without him beyond the season. If he adds stability or physicality and holds his own in the line-up you know you have another asset to work with even if/when he would be demoted upon Sauer and (or) Staal’s returns.

Tim Erixon will be a future staple on the blue line in the future and his play (particularly offensively) appears to be improving with the Whale as we speak – much like McDonagh’s game got better throughout last year in the AHL. However, the Rangers should think carefully about taking a look at their rugged Russian blue liner while they still have a chance to do so. With the Rangers defense getting it done by committee this season it can’t do too much harm to throw another name in to the mix.

Valentenko Clears Waivers

In a bit of surprising yet unsurprising news, no claims were put in for any of the players placed on waivers over the weekend.  That means Pavel Valentenko cleared waivers and can be assigned to the CT Whale.  I said that if anyone were to be claimed on waivers, it would be Tenk, but it’s good to see he is still with the organization.

Also clearing was Wade Redden, but that was expected.

Could Staal Mean Dylan?

With all the hullaballoo (love that word) surrounding Marc Staal’s physical condition, it’s worth pointing out once again the impressive depth the Rangers have at the defense position. Yes, I can hear the replies now of ‘none of them are Marc Staal’. Certainly true, at least at this stage of their careers they are not. However, what is worth noting is that there may not be a franchise in the league right now that could bear the brunt of missing their best blue liner better the Rangers can.

Obviously if Staal misses game time long term it puts a huge dent in the 2011-12 plans of the Rangers. I’d argue that he is just as important as a Gaborik, more important than a Dubinsky, and not far behind the level of importance Lundqvist has on this team. However, the Rangers have a stack of defensemen on the bubble of making the big club (sooner rather than later) that could fill in at least short term, even if it was in a reduced capacity.

Dave pointed out the other day how Pavel Valentenko may be on the roster and not in the AHL due to his contract status. Indeed Valentenko has the physical game and aggressiveness to keep the Rangers blueline nasty and with an appropriate physicality. You have the much discussed, even more anticipated Tim Erixon looking impressive each day, and the potential offensive whiz of Mike Del Zotto still around. Great potential, great depth.

Here’s the wild card in the Staal situation: don’t rule out the Rangers keeping Dylan McIlrath with the club if Staal were to miss some regular season time. It serves a few purposes. The Rangers get a full look at the big kid in ‘real’ NHL action. It gives him invaluable experience and could be done in the bottom pairing with another player moving up. Steve Eminger played admirably in a bigger role for a period last year, so it’s not daunting to think he could be needed to do it again this season even if it isn’t ideal.

Back to Dylan McIlrath. A lot of people may think he’s not NHL ready and he probably isn’t. He wasn’t a dominating presence at Traverse City and he’s not been a name flying off the tongue in camp either. However, when considering this potential opportunity to fill-in for Staal remember John Tortorella’s recent comments about infusing yet more talent in to the line up and further developing the youth. Giving McIlrath a 6-7 game look to begin the year does both. Hey, you may send him back to junior after a spell in NY, but take a look at what you have in the kid. We’ll get some more insight in to McIlrath’s readiness in today’s pre-season opener.

So how about Blake Parlett and Tomas Kundratek? Brendan Bell? Staal’s ‘injury’ scare is unfortunate, potentially crippling if it lingered, but if anything it should act as a carrot to the rest of the defensemen in camp that aren’t assured of a roster spot. In an odd way, the Staal situation could act as a great motivator to the rest and really crank up the competition. Players are playing for an NHL job, even if it’s short term. Once they’re there it’s a chance to stick with the team.

Given that I’m a risk taker, but at the same time an optimist, if the unfortunate scenario of Staal missing game time occurred, I’d give McIlrath a shot while taking a veteran such as Bell to Europe as well. You have the safety blanket of Bell being around but the opportunity to unleash what is (hopefully) a big part of the team’s future in McIlrath. Nothing ventured, nothing gained right?

Valentenko’s Waiver Status May Force Rangers Hand

Editor’s Note: This post was written last night at around 7:30pm, before the NY Post and Larry Brooks article was published. This is not an attempt to rip off Brooks, it is just coincidental timing.

Pavel Valentenko is no longer exempt from waivers.  Even though he is still on his entry level deal without playing a single NHL game, he signed his contract when he was 19 (2007), and thus has been signed for four years (details here), which eliminates his waiver eligibility.  This will be a determining factor in who makes the team out of camp.  It will not be THE determining factor –the level of play will be– but it will definitely be on the minds of the coaching staff once the decisions need to be made.

Don’t think it will play into their decision? Then look no further than Mike Sauer, who was in an almost identical situation last year. Of course, Sauer helped himself by having a solid camp, but his camp was much like Tenk’s camp last season.  Assuming Tenk can improve upon his camp from last year, which all signs point to him being able to do so, then his waiver status may make him impossible to cut.

Sauer made the team because of his strong camp, but the decision to keep him over someone like Valentenko or Ryan McDonagh was because of his waiver status. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility to have one of Michael Del Zotto or Tim Erixon, the two front runners for the open spots on the blue line, to start the season in the AHL because their waiver clocks have not expired yet.

If the decision with Sauer last season shows us anything, it is that the organization will take waiver status into account if certain players are “dead even” in camp. Right now the spots are Del Zotto’s and Erixon’s to lose. If Tenk is sent to the AHL, it is highly unlikely he will pass through waivers if called up. If Tenk goes to the Whale, he’s there for the year. Considering the presence of Wade Redden, that might not be a bad thing either.

The Bottom Defense Pair Competition

Barring any more moves by Glen Sather and company, the Rangers are looking at some intense competition for two of the final roster spots on the blue line come September.  Four spots are a given: Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Mike Sauer, and Ryan McDonagh.  One spot is all but a given (Steve Eminger), so if the Rangers decide to carry seven defensemen, that leaves two spots up for grabs.  We all know the names, but let’s break them down into three categories.

The Favorites

The favorites for those last two spots are relatively clear: Tim Erixon and Michael Del Zotto.  They are the ones that are the most NHL ready –or have prior NHL experience.  Both bring an aspect to the game that the Rangers don’t appear to have on the blue line in their ability to jump start the offense with an outlet pass.  Del Zotto has more offense to his game and may have the higher potential in that regard, but Erixon is likely to be the more rounded of the two in all three zones.  Expect them both to be on the opening night roster, even if they are both left handed shots.

The Dark Horses

This category is also limited to two names really, and they are Pavel Valentenko and Tomas Kundratek.  At first glance of the names, people will flock to Valentenko because he has that booming shot.  However, it was clear last preseason that he was not ready for the NHL.  Improvement in his skating and positioning were a must for Tenk.  Kundratek may not have that shot, but he is a sound defender who plays the game well in his own zone.  I would give Kundratek the upper hand here because he is currently better than Tenk in his own zone, and he is a much needed right handed shot.

The Possible But Unlikely

Only one name goes here: Dylan McIlrath.  McIlrath is just flat out mean, and would give the Rangers much needed toughness on the blue line.  Sauer can only do so much of the punishing on his own.  McIlrath not only needs to impress, but he needs to show he can win the Calder in order to be a serious contender for a roster spot this season.  In essence, he needs to do what Del Zotto did two years ago.  The Rangers won’t make that mistake twice though.  McIlrath is possible, but he won’t make the club this year.

If I had to put a ranking of those likely to make the roster, I would put Del Zotto at the front of the list with Erixon not far behind.  Kundratek would round out the top three, and to be honest, any one of them can win a roster spot over the others with a strong camp.  There is a big gap on my list between Kundratek and Valentenko, and an even bigger gap between Tenk and McIlrath.  Those kids are going to be battling hard for those last two spots.  Anything can happen.

What Happens If Del Zotto Doesn’t Rebound?

The question at hand is a lot less daunting than it was during last season when the young defenseman stumbled through his second season. It’s less daunting now thanks to the acquisition of two way prospect Tim Erixon, however the question is still a valid one; how would the Rangers react if Del Zotto can’t find his game again?

Del Zotto having another bad year would likely bottom out his trade value and leave the Rangers with little organisational (pure) offense from the blue line as Erixon is seen as a two way presence whereas Del Zotto is the more dynamic, offensive type. Would another bad year mean the end of MDZ’s tenure with the Rangers? We saw what happened to Bobby Sanguinetti once it was clear to management that he’d never make it as a Ranger. Now granted, the situations are pretty different as Del Zotto has already proven he has what it takes to succeed at the NHL level but it can’t be denied that he’d be on shaky ground, to an extent.

Del Zotto’s future seems closely entwined with Tim Erixon’s. Considered NHL ready, if Erixon comes into camp and blows everyone away, coupled with anything less than his own impressive camp, Del Zotto will almost certainly begin the year in the AHL and it could be a long way back. Again, with an impressive camp from Erixon you can easily imagine the Rangers being a lot more open to trading the young Canadian defenseman while they still can.

Assuming Del Zotto doesn’t start well (for the record I’d be patient with him as his upside is very impressive) and the Rangers do indeed look to other players ahead of MDZ, would that impact the Rangers draft tendencies next summer? As mentioned, there is very little offensive help on the blue line in the system and with several Rangers forwards progressing nicely it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rangers go down the defenseman draft route once again.

All of a sudden a poor MDZ exposes a few holes in the system. All of a sudden, next summer the Rangers may have a few big holes to plug. The team is still in need of drafting a goalie or two as the organisational depth is minimal while suddenly the Rangers need to find offense from the back.  Of course, again assuming the worst, the Rangers have depth at the NHL (and NHL ready) level and could easily deal a player such as Dan Girardi or a young forward for help instead of going the draft route, but of course dealing players away for help is never ideal.

Of course there’s another trail of thought. An impressive Erixon from the get-go may allow the Rangers to show (brave?) patience with Del Zotto and let him work through his issues with an entire season in the AHL. There’s no reason why Del Zotto couldn’t play a full year in the A and then make it back to the NHL. Plenty of elite defensemen have spent significant time learning and refining their games in the second tier (think Duncan Keith for starters), the only difference would be that Del Zotto got to the NHL via the NHL.

With plenty of forwards progressing nicely as well as rugged D-men such as Dylan McIlrath and Pavel Valentenko on deck, the Rangers may be posed with an interesting decision or two over the next 12 months with regards to their personnel decisions. Here’s hoping Del Zotto takes one decision out of the management’s hands.

Eminger Was Unnecessary

Steve Eminger performed admirably last season, especially when he stepped up in to a more prominent role due to injury. However, re-signing him this season was a signing for the sake of it, regardless of his minimal cost (disagreeing with The Suit here). Unlike many Rangers fan’s, I struggle to agree with the desperation to have the clichéd ‘veteran depth defenseman’. If the blue line is good enough its old enough and Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are that experienced already that they could impart their experiences on the others.

The only benefit I can see from the Eminger re-hiring is that it likely means a player with limited upside is in the press box instead of a genuine prospect. That said, I’d much rather not have an extra body in the way of Valentenko or Kundratek’s progress through the ranks. If these kids are genuinely NHL calibre and, as so often mooted, close to NHL ready why shove another player in their way? Let the carrot be close enough to bite at. Let these players be close enough to the NHL they can almost touch it. Eminger hinders this.

Another issue; the Rangers should be better next year and could upset some teams if when they make the playoffs (not on the last day of school this time guys…) but as I have stated multiple times they are still at least one season’s worth of development from truly making some noise. If that is the case then bring the kids up and let ‘em learn however if the Rangers are beginning (internally) to think ‘win now’ then Eminger isn’t the right calibre of veteran anyway.

At $800k per year Eminger can’t be a big mistake. He makes a small amount of the cap and is on a minimal term deal but I can’t help feeling that this was a pointless move. Give me the kids instead. I’m betting Kundratek can give me at least the same 6 points Eminger had and V-Tank can give me the physicality Eminger provides.  Unfortunately for Rangers fans it seems they’ll likely be showing off their talents in the AHL next season.