FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

With goaltending and defense in lots of good hands, it wasn’t surprising the New York Rangers’ first four picks in the NHL draft Friday night and Saturday were forwards.

With the 15th pick, the Rangers chose center/left wing Jonathan T. Miller, who led Team USA in scoring with four goals and nine assists in six games en route to winning the gold medal in the Under-18 World Junior Championship in Germany. He tied for third among all skaters in points and was selected by tournament coaches as Team USA’s top player in the elite event.

Miller’s selection at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., came with some emotion, as it was announced by Aaron Boogaard, the younger brother of Derek Boogaard, the Rangers’ left wing who died at 28 at his apartment in Minneapolis on May 13. Boogaard, whose late brother was a seventh-round pick of the host Minnesota Wild in 2001, was introduced by Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark.

Miller, who has committed to the University of North Dakota this fall, had 11 goals and 26 assists in 48 games in the United States Hockey League with the U.S. national U-18 Team last season. The native of East Palestine, Ohio, set USHL career highs in games played, assists, points and penalty minutes (80) and ranked third on the team in points and second in assists and penalty minutes.

Internationally, Miller had three goals and eight assists in eight games at the Four Nations Cup in Sundsvalle, Sweden, and the Five Nations Tournament in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Miller played in 95 games over two seasons with the USHL team, registering 26 goals, 42 assists and 159 penalty minutes. The left-handed shooter entered the draft as the third-highest scoring U.S.-born skater and 23rd overall among North American skaters in the final Central Scouting rankings.

The 18-year-old Miller’s favorite NHL team is the Pittsburgh Penguins, his favorite player is the Penguins’ Deryk Engelland, and his favorite websites are Facebook.com and Youtube.com. The best gift he has received is a bow and arrow from his father, and an unknown fact about him is he’s afraid of goats at the petting zoo.

Some thought the Rangers were goats for not trading down and still likely able to get Miller, but Clark said the Rangers wanted Miller all along so selected him at No. 15.

“After seven or eight guys in the draft – there were high-end names that were going down there – after that, there was nobody that had all the qualities that J.T. had,” Clark told reporters in St. Paul. “It’s a combination. There could be somebody that’s going to score more goals. There could be somebody that’s going to be a faster skater, for instance. But if you want to put size with skating, with character, with grit, with work ethic, with passing, with playmaking ability and scoring ability, nobody had all those qualities in their game. He had them all.”

Though committed to North Dakota, Miller could wind up playing with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. He sounded as if he’s leaning toward college, and recent Fighting Sioux products in the NHL have included Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Drew Stafford.

“He’s obviously the right fit for the New York Rangers,” Fighting Sioux coach Dave Hakstol said. “The natural tools that he has, he’s proven that he’s dedicated to achieving the goal, day in and day out. I think that’s the really impressive thing with him, the consistency that he plays with, and the edge that he plays with, day in and day out. We’ve had a lot of great players that have come through, and there’s a lot of different ways to go about things within a program.”

Clark compared Miller to other gritty players such as Rangers and former Hartford Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky. He was ranked 59th in The Hockey News’ draft preview issue but improved his status with his play in the Under-18 World Championships.

“He’s very underrated as a goal scorer,” Clark said. “You’ll see that in the numbers that you see, but that’s the way the U.S. program is done. He had a kid on his team, (Rocco) Grimaldi, that got all the goals, but he was the guy – J.T. was the guy – giving him all the passes. When he gets it back, he can score goals.”

Miller said his best attribute was his competitiveness.

“I think they liked me,” Miller said of his pre-draft meeting with the Rangers. “There were other teams that showed some more interest, so it was a little bit of a shock. To get my name called, it was breathtaking. The best feeling.”

The Rangers weren’t scheduled to have another pick until No. 106 because of the acquisitions of defensemen Bryan McCabe from the Florida Panthers and Tim Exixon from the Calgary Flames. But they traded forward Evgeny Grachev, a third-round pick in 2008, to the St. Louis Blues for a third-round pick that they used to select forward Steven Fogarty with the 72nd pick.

Grachev, 21, was scoreless in eight games with the Rangers last season and had 16 goals and 22 assists in 73 games with the Connecticut Whale. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Fogarty, 18, had career highs in goals (23), assists (17), points (40), plus-minus (plus-14), power-play goals (three) and game-winning goals (four) last season in 24 games with the Edina Hornets of the Minnesota Boys High School Hockey League. In the playoffs, he led the Hornets with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in six games en route to a fourth-place finish in the High-MN Class AA State Tournament.

The Rangers’ other selections were center Michael St. Croix, the son of former NHL goalie Rick St. Croix, from Edmonton of the Western Hockey League in the fourth round (106th), right wing Shane McColgan of Kelowa of the WHL in the fifth round (134th), defenseman Samuel Noreau of Baie-Comeau of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the fifth round (136th) and defenseman Peter Ceresnak of Trencin in Slovakia in the sixth round (172nd). Ceresnak was selected after the Rangers traded their sixth-round pick for the Nashville Predators’ sixth-round pick.

The first overall pick was center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Red Deer of the WHL by the Edmonton Oilers. Nugent-Hopkins had 31 goals and a WHL-high 75 assists with Red Deer. The New York Islanders chose center Ryan Strome of Niagara of the OHL with the fifth pick, and the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins selected Niagara defenseman Dougie Hamilton with the ninth selection.

In a blockbuster deal, the San Jose Sharks traded right wing Devin Setoguchi, 2010 first-round pick Charlie Coyle and their first-round pick this year (No. 28, center Zack Phillips of Saint John of the QMJHL) to the Minnesota Wild for defenseman Brent Burns and a second-round pick in 2012. Setoguchi had signed a three-year, $9-million contract with the Sharks on Thursday after getting 22 goals and 19 assists last season. Burns is a top-four defenseman who had 17 goals and 29 assists.

RANGERS RESIGN WEISE

Though it’s not official, good news that the Rangers have re-signed free-agent right wing Dale Weise, who made his NHL debut with the team last season when injury-free and not with the Whale.

Weise, who will be 23 on Aug. 5, told the Howlings website that he signed a one-year, two-way contract that will pay him $605,000 at the major league level, plus a boost in his AHL salary. Last season, he was scoreless in 10 games with the Rangers and had 18 goals and 20 assists in 47 games with the Whale. He will have to pass through waivers on any demotion, starting at the end of training camp.

“I’m ecstatic to be returning to the Rangers organization and getting a shot at playing in the NHL for an Original Six team,” Weise, a fourth-round pick in 2008, told Howlings. “I’m working harder than I ever have this summer, and I’ll come into camp in the best shape of my life. I’ve been told that the expectations are high for me this season and that I’ll have a great opportunity to come into camp and make the team, and that’s all anyone can ask for is a chance. I intend to take full advantage of it and be a New York Ranger on opening night.”

Never short on confidence, Weise should have a better chance to make the Rangers after Alex Frolov signed a three-year, $9 million contract with Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia. They also were expected to buy out center/captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury but might not be able to because of a degenerative condition in his left knee that had surgery and helped lead to him missing 52 games last season.

FORMER WOLF PACK DEFENSEMAN GETS ENDORSEMENT

Former Wolf Pack defenseman Terry Virtue has received a ringing endorsement from Owen Sound Attack general manager Dale DeGray to become the Ontario Hockey League team’s new head coach after former Hartford Whalers right wing Mark Reeds was named an assistant to new Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean on Thursday.

“I think we have a tremendous candidate in Terry Virtue, there’s no question about that,” DeGray told Bill Walker of the Owen Sound Sun Times. “We’ll go through the process because quite honestly you don’t know what you’re going to get as far as applicants who might be interested. I would be doing a disservice to the organization if I didn’t look at applications.”

DeGray said Virtue would be the first person interviewed. Virtue was credited with the Attack having a dramatic decline in goals against as he and Reeds led Owen Sound to its first OHL regular-season division and conference titles and a berth in the Memorial Cup. He scored the most famous goal in Wolf Pack history in overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on the way to their only Calder Cup in 2000.

Reeds will assist MacLean, whom he worked with in 1993-96 in Peoria, Ill. MacLean also was joined by Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors coach Dave Cameron, who is no stranger to Reeds. Their teams met eight times in the OHL finals and once in the Memorial Cup.

SABRES PURCHASE AMERICANS; PORTLAND TO BE COYOTES AFFILIATE

The AHL board of governors unanimously approved the sale of the Rochester Americans franchise from Arrow Express Sports to the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, and the Phoenix Coyotes reportedly will have their top affiliate in Portland, Maine.

The Sabres, who had been affiliated with the Portland Pirates for three years, will return to Rochester as the Americans’ AHL affiliate beginning next season.

“We are pleased to welcome Terry Pegula and the Buffalo Sabres as owners in the American Hockey League,” AHL president and CEO David Andrews said. “The Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres have a rich history together, and reuniting these two outstanding franchises is great news for hockey fans in western New York.”

The Americans, who had a 29-year affiliation with the Sabres from 1979 to 2008, are the second-oldest AHL team and set to begin their 56th season. They appeared in nine Calder Cup finals while affiliated with Buffalo, winning the title in 1983, ’87 and ’96.

The Pirates announced Friday afternoon that the Sabres had opted out of their contract with the team. Pirates owner Brian Petrovek told the meeting that the deal was amicable. The Sabres had three years remaining on their contract and paid a buyout to get out of the deal. Petrovek did not reveal the terms of the release.

Petrovek said he would announce the team’s new affiliate on Monday, but News 13 in Portland learned the Coyotes would be the Pirates’ new parent team. Petrovek would not confirm that.

CASSIDY NAMED P-BRUINS COACH

Bruce Cassidy has been named the 10th coach in Providence Bruins history, succeeding Rob Murray.

Cassidy, 46, was the assistant coach of the Stanley Cup champions’ top affiliate for three seasons in which the P-Bruins were 117-103-10-10.

Cassidy was the Chicago Blackhawks’ first-round pick (18th overall) in 1983 and was with the franchise from 1985-90 before moving on the Italian and German leagues. He retired with the Indianapolis Ice in 1996 to become coach of the ECHL’s Jacksonville Lizard. He later became head coach of the Lizard, the ECHL’s Trenton Titans, IHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins and NHL’s Washington Capitals. He also was an assistant coach with the Blackhawks and head coach of the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals and OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs.

THE JETS ARE BACK

Mark Chipman made it official Friday night when he announced the new NHL Winnipeg franchise that had moved from Atlanta will again be named the Jets. The original World Hockey Association and NHL Jets left Winnipeg in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes.

“We are thrilled to be using a name that has so much history in our city and means so much to our fans,” said Chipman, the team owner. “Our fans clearly indicated to us the passion they hold for the name since we acquired the franchise.”

True North Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Winnipeg franchise, settled on the Jets largely because of the demand of the fans. Logos and jerseys are still in the process of being developed and will be unveiled at a later date.

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