Derek Stepan

New York Rangers’ defenseman Ryan McDonagh (above).

In deals that have gone a long away in re-shaping the roster of the New York Rangers into a formidable bunch of large, angry hockey players, team President and General Manager Glen Sather jettisoned the impish Scott Gomez to Montreal in June of 2009 and sent a 3rd pick to Los Angeles in exchange for behemoth center iceman Bryan Boyle, just 3 days apart.  Somehow Sather got someone to not only take back Gomez’ salary, close to $ 8M per, and to throw in two blue chip prospects–Russian defenseman Pavel Valentenko, a 6’2, 220 lbs. bruiser, and American collegiate and Junior Team USA star Ryan McDonagh, who was the 12th pick in the first round of the 2007 NHL draft.

McDonagh was the University of Wisconsin player on everyone’s lips this summer when he signed an entry level contract with the New York Rangers, and not so much  Derek Stepan, who has quickly caught on to the NHL game and is second on the big club in scoring.  But McDonagh has gotten the call from the Connecticut Whale, and could soon be getting his chance to make an impression with New York, considered a jewel of the organization and the best defensive prospect the Rangers have in their system, with the possible exception of 2010 1st round pick Dylan McIlraith, called by many the toughest player in the draft class.

McDonagh’s call comes at the expense of 2008 1st round pick (20th overall), Michael Del Zotto, who made the club as a teenager and who before his recent demotion, had yet to spend a moment in the minors.  Del Zotto, impressive at times last year as a puck rushing defenseman, had 9 goals and 28 assists in 80 games last year for the big club, and coach John Tortorella’s decision to only carry 6 defensemen meant that MDZ was going to play, regardless of how he played.  This year, the kid has struggled mightily, and with the depth to carry a 7th defenseman, it has become clear of late that the other 6 play much more responsibly than Del Zotto does.  Del Zotto, who should be an asset at least on the power play, is so unsteady on the backline that the team has opted to use a forward, usually Stepan, in MDZ’s place on the point.

At the season’s start, Del Zotto got a bulk of the playing time in the 5/6 pairing, but coach Tortorella insisted that the team’s bottom 3 defenders, MDZ, Matt Gilroy, and Steve Emminger would rotate.  Of late, MDZ’s errors have mounted, and frankly, has been responsible for several obvious goals against.  Emminger has proved invaluable in his minutes, and after a few weeks watching from the press box, Gilroy, a highly touted college player himself from Boston U. who the Rangers signed to a big 2 year free agent contract in 2009, has returned to the lineup a much more settled and confident player, who chipped in with 2 big goals in the Rangers’ epic 7-2 route of the despised Islanders during the snow storm.

McDonagh comes aboard now as the 7th defensemen with no guarantees on when he will debut (probably not tomorrow against Carolina), but his call up definitely sparks more optimism in the Rangers outstanding youth movement.  As for the rest of the club, still excited over the so far so good integration of Norwegian star little man Mats Zucarello, a 23 year old elite scorer in international competiton, the Rangers have lost yet another player to a hand injury–Ruslan Fedotenko.  Fedotenko, who earned his spot on a tryout this summer, and who has chipped in nicely with 7 goals and 10 assists, as well as by being a presence in the corners and in front of the net, is the 3rd Ranager this year to go down with a hand injury from a blocked shot.  On the tough luck in now losing Chris Drury on a block to a broken finger (now returned), extra effort and team engine Ryan Callahan (still out perhaps another 5 weeks), and now Fedotenko, coach Tortorella scoffed at the notion that the team would move away from its gritty, sacrafice the body identity.

 “The other guys broke their hands, and this guy didn’t…I know there’s a lot of talk about blocking shots, we’re blocking shots, and we’re going to continue blocking shots.”

Tortorella has done an excellent job this year, and now inspires much confidence in us, and you’d have to love his attitude.

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Artem Anisimov (blue) pays the price to make a play against the hated New Jersey Devils (above).

Rangers’ coach John Tortorella recently announced that captain Chris Drury would return to the lineup tonight in Pittsburgh.  On its own, the declaration did nothing to stir our confidence.  Drury is a hard working guy, a stand up guy, but let’s be frank–he hasn’t lived up to his $35M contract and the last really clutch goal he scored was against, not for, the Rangers.  It was the way Torts said it that was such music to my ears, the song of angels to long time fans of the team.  The coach said Drury will play but that “no kids are coming out.”  Tortorella went on to say that it would be veterans who lose ice time and that a veteran would be a healthy a scratch, and that it was too bad for them.  “He’s the captain,” Tortorella would say.  “Everybody’s gotta sacrafice.”

On Sunday night the New York Rangers played perhaps their best game against a quality opponent in years, shutting out the Capitals 7-0.  It was the most lopsided shutout victory the team has had since 1970 (and my wife deleted it off the tivo before I saw the 4 goal 2nd period–an “important” American Idol will be deleted in retaliation).  The Rangers have a quality team because of the kids they’ve developed and refused to trade.  And a lot of them are kids no more.  Anisimov, the 6’4, 220 lbs. center iceman, may have slumped a bit as all players do, but he’s a leading scorer and a cog on the team’s best line, which flat out beats opposing units up physically on the wall and with its relentless cycle.  The line is so good that it allowed the Rangers to withstand almost a month without world class forward Marian Gaborik, and so good that on most nights since returning, Gabby has been a compliment and not that absolute focal point he’s been on every team he has played on in his life, including the Slovak national team that’s chock full of talent up front.

Defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi who had us pulling our hair out as recently as all of last year, have grown into cornerstones of the team, and now even look polished offensively.  Imposing rookie defenseman Michael Sauer won the Rangers a game last week in Ottawa with a well placed point shot in the clutch.  Team USA stalwart Ryan Callahan, perennially our extra effort award winner, does everything for this team but drive the Zambonie, and is loathe to miss a shift despite being a league leader in both hits and blocked shots.  We feel that Drury is keeping the captain’s C warm for him.

Derek Stepan has been a rookie sensation and now, playing consistently with Gaborik, expect him to flourish even more.  The core of youth has played so well that it can carry a guy like Michael Del Zotto, a sophomore defenseman who looks lost out there and who’s struggling very badly.  Then there’s team scoring leader and maybe the manliest man of the bunch, emerging star power forward Brandon Dubinsky, recently seen screaming at and giving the look of death to the Ottawa bench, last seen, kicking Alexander Ovechkin’s ass all over the ice on Sunday.  You think Dubinsky will be fired up tonight to face his best girlfriend Cindy Crosby, who cheaply and classlessly gave Ryan Callahanthe slew foot in the 2 team’s last meeting?

Whatever happens tonight, New York is bringing the right mix of size, speed, talent, toughness, and meanness to the party, even in the absence of behemoth enforcer Derek Boogard, who is still out with a shoulder problem.  The Rangers are seeking to win their second straight in Pittsburgh and to get a win over a Penguin team that last night had a 12 game win streak snapped by the Flyers.


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Prized Rangers’ prospect and junior Team USA captain Derek Stepan (above).

“His (Stepan’s) passing is all really top-end — under sticks and between skates to hit the right man that’s open all the time,” said Clark. “Everybody is watching the game, but Derek sees way more than all of us that are watching. Before he even gets the puck, he’s got a guy that he’s going to.”

Gordie Clark, author of the above quote and Director of Player Personnel for theNew York Rangers, obviously thinks very highly of Derek Stepan.  And so do we.  Clark has almost singlehandedly revamped the Rangers’ organization in a novel way for the Blueshirts–through the draft.  To be perfectly honest, we weren’t big on Stepan’s selection in 2008 when Clark grabbed the Minnesota native at # 51 overall.  A goofy looking kid still, Stepan was made to look all the more goofy back at the draft with low grade videos of the kid tap dancing, of all things.  I took a look, cringed, and thought, not NHL material.

Though NHL material is exactly what he is.  Stepan, out of Shattuck St. Mary’s–like Sidney Crosby and Zach Parise, went on to star in his 2 year stint at the University of Wisconsin, and last year, led junior Team USA to a gold as captain.  He will wear # 21 when the Rangers open their season tonight in Buffalo, and will center blue chip instigator Sean Avery and a big, hungry RW in Ruslan Fedotenko–more new blood for the Rangers and a Stanley Cup champion.

Fedotenko may be big, but if he were dropped to the 4th line, he’d be relatively small on the right of 6’7 Brian Boyle and 6’8 Derek Boogard.  Boogard is more new blood for this team, and comes in with a reputation as one of the most fierce enforcers in the game.  But he can’t play hockey right?  His zero regular season goals might suggest that to some, but Boogard is here to fight and to play.  When asked about his career long stay on the snide Boogard said he was looking to score in Buffalo Saturday night.  We like his attitude and absolutely love his fists.  And then there’s Brandon Prust, albeit a middle weight, but one who led the league in fighting majors.

A fighting team doesn’t necessarily win, but a winning team usually fights, figuratively and literally.  The biggest move the Rangers made to stamp out complacency on the team, by far, was by waiving D Wade Redden, the $ 39 M man who showed zero fight when he was in NY, who took the money and ran.  In his place this year will be big young defenseman Michael Sauer, who Rangers fans have been waiting for, and who most importantly, earned his way and wants to be here. 

This year?  It seems they all want to be here, and some might be extra motivated by being in contract years, like Callahan and Dubinsky–two of the league’s finer young American forwards.  Callahan grabbed a silver in Vancouver last winter, and we think that Dubinsky will be featured in a prominent role on the 2014 Olympic team.  As for this year, the Rangers are expecting big things from both, and from their young centerman, Artem Anisimov, the 6’4, 205 lbs. 22 year old, coming off an impressive rookie campaign. 

His countryman, Alexander Frolov, brought in to play with the Rangers’ most talented in-his-prime sniper/game changer, RW Marian Gaborik, perhaps ever.  Frolov, on a one year deal should flourish in New York, and needs to in order to secure a lucrative new contract.  Erik Christensen, a waiver claim from last season who played hard, and showed nice offensive skills, will be between the 2 Rangers big time wings. 

Coaching you ask?  Dumb-de-dumb-dumb.  We’ll say it.  We hate Tortorella.  For this team.  Did we love him in Tampa?  How could you not?  Winning the Stanley Cup from down 3 games to two, and needing a win on the road in Calgary to get back home for game 7, Tortorella gave his Bolts a stirring  speech during the pivotal intermission.  He told his troops that all the pressure was on them, that “the mayor of fucking Canada was in their locker room right now”–referring to the Canadian P.M.

Unfortunately for us, we think Torts might still believe Canada is governed by a mayor.  And we’ve come to see Tortorella in his time here as an ugly caricature–a screaming lunatic and a tyrant who, worse than that, does not hold all Rangers miscreants equally accountable.  This needs to be a kinder, gentler Tortorella, especially with our youth, and the coach must divorce himself of his awful habit of tethering guys to the bench. 

As for Henrik Lundqvist, we’ve saved the best for last.  The Swedish gold medal goalie who loves house music.  Is that king or god?  Neither, ’til he delivers the cup.  But he gets extra points for going to Pacha.  But Henrik?  Tiesto?  You can do better than trance, my man, but I’d even be willing to suffer Tiesto for a 2nd Stanley Cup in my lifetime.


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