FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Trumbull native Chris Drury’s time as New York Rangers center and captain is on the verge of ending.

Multiple sources have told the New York Post that Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather has informed Drury that he will be bought out of the final year of the five-year, $32.05 million contract he signed as a free agent on July 1, 2007. The same day the Rangers signed center Scott Gomez to a seven-year, $51.5 million contract, but he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens on June 30, 2009 in a deal that included defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko, who started last season with the Connecticut Whale.

The NHL’s contract window starts Wednesday and runs through June 30, and Drury has been on thin ice with the Rangers since April 25, when coach John Tortorella said, “Intangibles always come into evaluating. You just can’t let the intangibles override other things, too. Dru and I have a great relationship. We’ve been very honest with one another. Dru is getting older. That’s why he has a chronic knee (condition). We have to make decisions for what’s best for the organization moving on. It’s certainly not mine, my total decision, but I have my thoughts. These are all conversations we have to have.”

According to capgeek.com, Drury’s buyout ratio is at two-thirds because he will still be 34 in the buyout period, so it will be $3,333,333 over two years. The buyout hit would be $3,716,667 for next season and $1,666,667 for the 2012-13, assuming the rules will be the same under the next collective bargaining agreement. Drury’s cap hit under the final year of his contract would have been $7.05 million, so the Rangers are saving $3,333,333 this season, though they will take a $1,666,667 hit as dead space in 2012-13. Drury, who is owed $5 million under his contract for next season, will receive $3,335,000 over the next two years.

There would be a second buyout period in mid-August if the Rangers or any of their other Group II free agents file for salary arbitration. But the Rangers don’t intend to wait because keeping Drury on the cap at $7.05 through July limits the team’s options to make other roster moves, thereby defeating the purpose of the move.

Drury, who turns 35 on Aug. 20, had one goal and four assists last season while playing mostly on the fourth line and specializing in penalty killing and defensive zone face-offs. He sat out a career-high 58 games with finger and knee injuries, which was more games than he had missed in his previous 11 NHL seasons combined, the last four with the Rangers. After missing 31 of the first 32 games with a twice-broken finger, he returned Dec. 15 and played in 22 games before undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Feb. 11.

Though expected to miss the rest of the season, Drury – as usual – worked overtime and rejoined the team for the regular-season finale, scoring his only goal to start a comeback in a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils that kept the Rangers’ playoff hopes alive. When the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Carolina Hurricanes 6-2 that night, the Rangers were in the postseason.

Drury played all five games in a first-round loss to the Washington Capitals, but he got only 5:58 of ice time in the elimination game and didn’t play in the final 13:15. Two days later, Tortorella’s comments appeared to seal Drury’s fate.

Drury could retire or try to hook on with another team, but for now, his career is being put on hold about an hour from where he first gained international notoriety when he pitched a complete-game, five-hitter and drove in two runs for Trumbull in the 1989 Little League World Series championship game against Chinese Taipei. The man who became known as “Captain Clutch” won a national pee wee hockey title with his team from Bridgeport the same year and then excelled with brother Ted at Fairfield Prep and during four stellar years at Boston University that included winning a national championship as a freshman in 1995 and the Hobey Baker Award as a senior in 1998 and the capturing the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1999 and winning a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001.

Drury is the only player to win both the Hobey Baker Award and Calder Trophy, holds the record for most goals in B.U. history (113) and is the only Terriers player with at least 100 goals and 100 assists. He also played on one U.S. World Junior Championship team, three U.S. World Championship teams and three U.S. Olympic teams, winning silver in 2002 and 2010. His selection to last year’s team surprised many people, but U.S. general manager and former Hartford Whalers GB Brian Burke said, “I picked Chris Drury because he’s Chris Drury.”

That’s always a good reason to pick Drury, who has 255 goals and 360 assists in 892 NHL games with the Avalanche, Rangers, Atlanta Flames and Buffalo Sabres, where he also was captain of the team. He had 62 goals and 89 assists in 264 regular-season game in four seasons with the Rangers.

Here’s hoping Drury gets whatever he desires because he has certainly earned it with 25 years of excellence in all kinds of sports. Like Whale coach Ken Gernander in his playing days, Drury is the consummate professional, working overtime in and out of the locker room to try to make his team successful. Plus, if Drury wants to continue to play, which is likely, he deserves the best possible chance to hook on with another team because he certainly should have suitors. If healthy, he’s still a terrific penalty killer, a la former Rangers No. 1 pick Manny Malhotra, who has made a miraculous recovery from an eye injury to be within a win of the Stanley Cup as the Vancouver Canucks take a 3-2 lead into Game 6 against the Boston Bruins on Monday night in Beantown.

And Drury’s leadership qualities challenge those of the man generally considered the best leader ever, former Rangers captain and Hall of Famer Mark Messier.

“He goes above and beyond what a captain means,” Rangers center Brian Boyle told the New York Daily News during the playoffs. “He’s a leader in all areas. The way he works, he exudes leadership, and the way he is as a guy – all the hard hardships that he (went) through (last season), it revealed his character so much. He’s always been positive.”

Drury’s likely successor is former Hartford Wolf Pack wing Ryan Callahan, who had career highs with 23 goals and 25 assists last season despite missing 22 games with a broken hand and ankle and was described by Tortorella as a player who is “what we all went to be as a Ranger.” Callahan and other former Wolf Pack players Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are three of the Rangers’ seven restricted free agents and a major reason they will – almost have to – buy out Drury to get cap space to upgrade a team that barely made the playoffs after missing the previous year.

The Post’s Larry Brooks also reported the Rangers don’t intend to buy out midseason acquisition Wojtek Wolski in the initial period, but the wing with a $3.8 million cap hit remains a consideration in August if the Rangers are above the limit because of other transactions.

Finally, Brooks reported the Rangers have been notified that top prospect, wing Chris Kreider, their first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, is definitely returning to Boston College for his junior year. He’s taking a full course load this summer to advance his commitment to earn his degree. But that might lend credence to The Prospect Park’s Jess Rubenstein, who said he thinks former close college buddies McDonagh and Derek Stepan, who led Wisconsin to the NCAA title game last year before leaving school early to sign with the Rangers, will try to convince Kreider to join them, possibly during the prospects camp after the draft on June 24-25.

I’ll give a thumbs-up to Brooks that the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee, which will announce its 2011 choice in about 10 days, is long overdue in choosing former Rangers player and Philadelphia Flyers and Rangers coach Fred Shero. We also wonder how former Hartford Whalers defenseman Mark Howe is not in the Hall of Fame. Brooks said the best defensemen never to win the Norris Trophy were Scott Stevens, Brad Park and Howe. Hard to argue that, too.

DAILY NEWS’ SPECTOR HIGH ON ZUCCARELLO

In his periodic reviews of Rangers players last season, the Daily News’ Jess Spector had some notable praise for rookie wing Mats Zuccarello, who struggled early in Hartford adjusting to smaller rinks and a more physical style in North America before earning a trip to Broadway.

The Norwegian Hobbit finished the season with 13 goals and 16 assists in 36 games with the Wolf Pack and Whale and six goals and 17 assists and three winners in shootouts in 42 games with the Rangers. Zuccarello’s season ended in one of the freakiest accidents in history when he broke his hand when two fingers got caught in an opening in the plexiglass where photographers shoot during games. He had surgery and is expected to be ready for training camp in September.

Here’s Spector’s look at Zuccarello:

From the time he took the ice in training camp, it was clear that Mats Zuccarello could help the Rangers. With his lightning-quick hands guiding a stick nearly as big as he was, it was impossible to look away from the 5-7 winger as he glided around the ice because you would not want to miss what he might do with the puck.

In his rookie season, Zuccarello did help the Rangers, as three of his five shootout goals were game-winners, and his impossible-angle overtime winner against the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 5 – his first NHL goal – lifted the Blueshirts to extra points that were vital in making the playoffs.

Zuccarello has three strengths that should make him a successful NHL player – in addition to his supernatural hands, his vision of the ice and offensive creativity are well above average. This season, he had to adjust from a lifetime of hockey on European rinks to the smaller ice surfaces of North America. That is no easy thing for an offensive-minded player who thrives on open space. Nine of Zuccarello’s 17 assists in his maiden NHL campaign came on the power play, where there is more room to operate, and he was able to find and hit the open man. That overtime goal against Carolina came at 4-on-4 – again, less congestion on the ice.

The obvious question about Zuccarello is whether, with his small size, he will be able to avoid getting lost in the shuffle of big bodies on an NHL rink. While the 23-year-old winger is not afraid to throw his body around, that does not mean he is going to win any physical battles with Zdeno Chara. Zuccarello thrives on open ice, and the Rangers’ gritty, forechecking-intensive team concept this season was not tailored to his strength.

What seemed to work for Zuccarello was playing alongside his locker-room neighbor, fellow rookie Derek Stepan, who scored five of his goals off Zuccarello assists, while registering helpers on half of Zuccarello’s six goals. Zuccarello and Stepan showed a brief flash of brilliance in tandem with Wojtek Wolski in March, but the combination fizzled as quickly as it fired. Given more time together next season, they could pay dividends, or the Rangers could try to go in another direction, perhaps using Zuccarello on a line with a more defensively-minded winger.

With this year of experience on this side of Atlantic under his belt, both in the NHL and AHL, where he suffered a broken hand after getting sent down during the playoffs, Zuccarello should come back for his next training camp with a better understanding of what it takes to be successful here.

IS McNAUGHT THE WHALE’S NEXT ENFORCER?

If Whale fans want to know who the team’s next enforcer might be, read the “20 Prospects in 20 Days” story on Randy McNaught today on www.newrangers.com.

McNaught was the Rangers’ final pick in the seventh round last year, but the 6-foot-4, 217-pound wing who will be 21 on Aug. 5 has got noticed quickly. He got into two heavyweight bouts standing up for teammates in the Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament last year after having 163 penalty minutes to go with six goals and 12 assists in 65 games with the Chilliwack and Saskatoon in the 2009-10 season in the Western Hockey League.

McNaught started well last season but sustained a season-ending ankle injury in the eighth game on Oct. 11. But he’s expected to be fully recovered for training camp and should give the Whale some needed muscle if the Rangers don’t re-sign free agents Justin Soryal and Devin DiDiomete.

If you want to see McNaught in action, YouTube has a video of him more than holding his own against defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010 who played two games and spent about a month with the Whale at end of last season. McIlrath didn’t have a point while on an amateur tryout contract but did have seven penalty minutes and one fight. He has to make the Rangers or return to Moose Jaw of the WHL next season.

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