FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

The run of Trumbull native Chris Drury as center and captain of the New York Rangers is over.

The Rangers bought out the final year of Drury’s five-year, $35.25-million contract on Wednesday, making one of the world’s all-time great winner an unrestricted free agent after he decided against applying for a medical exception because of a left-knee condition.

The buyout will open considerable salary-cap savings for the Rangers to re-sign free agents such as Brian Boyle and former Hartford Wolf Pack forwards Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov and be active in the free-agent market that starts Friday, especially in the pursuit of Dallas Stars center Brad Richards, the No. 1 target of president and general manager Glen Sather.

Longtime Rangers beat writer Larry Brooks of The New York Post broke the official word of Drury’s expected buyout on Wednesday via e-mail comments from Drury.

“It was a great honor and privilege to be a New York Ranger for the past four years, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to fulfill that childhood dream,” Drury told Brooks. “The Rangers are a first-class organization with great people in the hockey, public relations, team services and community relations departments.

“I would also like to thank Ranger fans. They always inspired me to do the best I could in whatever role I was asked to play. Playing before them in the Garden was a thrill of a lifetime. I wish all the fans and the entire Ranger organization the best of luck in the future.”

Typical class by the 34-year-old Drury, who began more than two decades of noteworthy success as the winning pitcher for Trumbull in beating powerhouse Taiwan for the Little League World Series title in 1989. He later excelled at Fairfield Prep and Boston University before turning pro in 1998 and becoming the only player to win the Hobey Baker Award (college hockey’s best) and Calder Trophy (NHL Rookie of the Year) and then winning a Stanley Cup and being a three-time member of the U.S. Olympic Team.

“Chris is a consummate professional, a tremendous competitor and an even better person,” Sather said in a statement released by the Rangers. “He gave his heart and soul to the Rangers organization in his time here and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Drury played four seasons on Broadway, the last three as captain, and would have received $5 million for his final season had he been declared medically unable to play as opposed to the $3.333,333 million he collected on the buyout. Drury’s agent, Mark Witkin, said Drury will try to sign with another NHL team, and he should have plenty of suitors, including the Buffalo Sabres for whom he played for three seasons before signing with the Rangers on July 1, 2007.

The knee injury, which apparently was much more severe than anyone realized, had rumors circulating that Drury would file paperwork saying he was medically ineligible to play, blocking the buyout. But Drury apparently softened his stance over the weekend and has agreed to move on.

The reason for the holdup in the buyout appears to have been that Drury had a no-movement clause and thus had the option to forego the waiver wire and go straight to free agency. That means the Rangers didn’t have to place him on unconditional waivers by noon Tuesday as originally thought, so Drury’s contract could be eliminated from the books on Wednesday.

Drury, who grew up in Trumbull as a Rangers fan, spent most of last season on injury reserve thanks to a twice-broken finger and arthroscopic knee surgery that limited him to 24 games of part-time duty in which he had only one goal, in the season finale against the New Jersey Devils, and four assists. He is eligible to sign a one-year contract with bonuses because he was on IR for more than 100 days.

The Rangers will take a cap hit of approximately $3.717 million for the buyout this season and $1.667 million next year, though the latter obligation could be erased pending a new collective bargaining agreement.

It was difficult to foresee this kind of Rangers ending for Drury on the day that he and Scott Gomez (seven years, $51.5 million) signed lucrative long-term contracts. Drury has always been known for his grit, dedication, leadership and uncanny ability to rise to the occasion, starting with that Little League World Series gem. Two months later, Drury threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 2 of the 1989 World Series and then met President George H.W. Bush and appeared on “Good Morning America” in New York.

Before the World Series triumph, Drury played many sports simultaneously, winning a national pee wee championship with his hockey team from Bridgeport the same year. Along with older brother Ted, he attended Fairfield Prep, was co-captain of the varsity hockey team his senior year, receiving Connecticut all-state honors for his efforts. Chris and Ted are the only players in Fairfield Prep hockey history to have their numbers retired. The No. 18, which they both wore, hangs above the school’s home rink at the Wonderland of Ice in Bridgeport in the old rink (currently known as the Stadium Rink after renovations that added another rink), as well as in the lobby outside the locker room complex at Fairfield Prep. Chris’ name and number are also painted above the entrance doors to the Classic arena at the same ice rink.

But now both Drury and Gomez are gone, the latter having been traded on June 30, 2009 with former Wolf Pack players Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto to the Montreal Canadiens for former Yale center Chris Higgins, former Springfield Pics defenseman Doug Janik, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who started last season with the Connecticut Whale before being promoted on Jan. 3, and Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko.

The plan was to have Gomez or Drury center a line for captain and high-scoring wing Jaromir Jagr. Gomez didn’t fit and Jagr basically refused to fit with Drury, who led the team in power-play goals (12) and game-winning goals (seven), tied for the lead in goals (25) and ranked third in assists (33) and points (58). Drury had 22 goals and 34 assists in his second season, his first year as captain, and led the team in power-play goals (10) for a second consecutive season on the way to capturing his first of two Players’ Player Awards.

But that’s also the season that Tom Renney was fired in late February and replaced by John Tortorella, who moved Drury out of an offensive role and off the power play into a checking role, shifting him primarily to wing and using him often as a penalty killer and faceoff specialist. Drury’s knee problems became an issue last season, further limiting his playing time and effectiveness and leading to Tortorella’s breakup day statement that the Rangers had to look at all priorities and injuries.

Drury ends his Rangers career with 62 goals and 89 assists in 264 regular-season games and three goals and four assists in 16 player games. But it appropriately began with the game-winning goal and two assists in a victory over the Florida Panthers in his debut with the team on Oct. 4, 2007.

Before turning pro, Drury had 113 goals and 101 assists in 155 games with Boston University, helping the Terriers win the national title as a freshman in 1996 before being a Hobey Baker Award finalist as a sophomore, runner-up at a junior and the trophy winner as a senior. He finished his BU career first all-time in goals and third in points (214) and is the only Terrier with at least 100 goals and 100 assists.

A third-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994 (at the Hartford Civic Center no less), Drury had 255 goals and 360 assists in 892 regular-season games with the Rangers, Sabres, Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames. He has reached the 20-goal mark in nine of 12 NHL seasons and surpassed the 50-point mark eight times, starting in first pro season when he won the Calder Trophy and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.

Before joining the Rangers, Drury played three seasons with the Sabres, serving as co-captain from 2005-07. He reached the 30-goal and 60-point plateaus twice as a Sabre, including a career-high 37 goals and 69 points in 2006-07. He also led Buffalo and tied for fourth in the NHL with career high in power-play goals (17) and game-winning goals (nine) that season. In the 2006 playoffs, Drury established career highs in postseason scoring with 18 points and five power play goals in 18 games. He tied for third in the NHL in goals (nine) and power-play goals and was sixth in points while leading the Sabres to the Eastern Conference finals.

Drury was named the Rangers’ 25th captain on Oct. 3, 2008. In 2009-10, he led all NHL forwards in blocked shots (97) and was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the New York chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA), awarded annually to “the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” That season, he recorded his 250th career NHL goal and 600th career NHL point with an empty-net goal on Feb. 14 against Tampa Bay, skated in his 800th career NHL game on Oct. 19 against San Jose and was named a U.S. Olympian for the third time and won a second silver medal.

Last season, Drury missed 57 games because of injury, more than in his first 11 seasons combined, but, as usual, worked overtime to get back in the lineup for the season finale and the playoffs in which the Rangers were eliminated in the first round in five games by the top-seeded Washington Capitals. Drury has 47 goals and 42 assists in 135 career playoff games with the Rangers, Avalanche and Sabres. He’s tied for fourth in the NHL all-time with four playoff overtime goals and ranks sixth among active NHL players in playoff goals. He has participated in the postseason nine times and advanced to at least the conference finals five times. He won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001, setting career highs in postseason appearances (23) and goals (11), which ranked second in the NHL.

Besides his three Olympic appearances, Drury participated in the World Junior Championships in 1996, the World Championships in 1997, 1998 and 2004 and the World Cup of Hockey in 2004.

To say Chris Drury has had a star-studded and wildly winning career would be one of the great understatements in sports history. Here’s hoping that one of the classiest and most respected and clutch athletes in all of sports get to do what he wants: play on or retire. Drury never took off a shift, was fearless blocking shots and a good influence on young and old players alike, so he deserves whatever he desires. Hope No. 2 is Callahan, a seeming Drury clone, succeeds him as Rangers captain. Callahan, a fourth-round pick in 2004, has a better scoring touch than Drury and an equally strong work ethic and ability to lead by example. Callahan would be the first homegrown Rangers captain since Cheshire native and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch. Other leading candidates would be two other former Wolf Pack players, Dubinsky and All-Star defenseman Marc Staal.

JAGR ON THE VERGE OF RETURN TO NHL

Jagr has received a one-year contract offer from the Pittsburgh Penguins and was supposed to make a decision on where he was going to play Wednesday night, but it was delayed because his followers hadn’t heard from him if he’ll join his former team or the Canadiens or Detroit Red Wings.

“He is flying to New York (from the Czech Republic) right now,” Jagr’s agent, Petr Svoboda, told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Wednesday. “He is coming this afternoon and will tell us his answer then.”

“We feel from the information we have and after seeing (him play) in the World Championhips that he’s a guy who might be able to help us this coming season,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said on the team website. “We feel he’s a guy who could help us this year and retire as a Penguin.”

Jagr, 39, met with Penguins owner and former teammate Mario Lemieux last week. Svoboda said Jagr plans to decide on his next NHL team before unrestricted free agency begins Friday. The Red Wings have offered a one-year contract to the Penguins’ first-round pick (fifth overall) in 1990 who helped the team win the Stanley Cup in his first two seasons in North America.

Jagr, who left the Rangers in 2008 to play for Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for three seasons, was one of the top forwards in the World Championships.

RANGERS QUALIFY FORMER WOLF PACK PLAYERS

As expected, the Rangers qualified restricted free agents Callahan, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Boyle, former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer and Whale goalie Chad Johnson and rugged defenseman Stu Bickel but not former Wolf Pack defenseman Matt Gilroy and Whale wings Devin DiDiomete and Justin Soryal. They hope to bring back Gilroy at a lower price than what would have been a $2.1 million qualifying offer, while DiDiomete and Soryal have battled injuries the last few seasons and the Whale has a few possible tough guys in the wings in right wing Randy McNaught and Russian defenseman Mikhail Pashnin this season and defenseman Dylan McIlrath next season.

If Johnson doesn’t accept his qualifying offer, the Rangers are expected to try to sign unrestricted free-agent goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, voted the Whale MVP by his teammates last season after excelling after joining the team for good in January. The Rangers have also extended the contracts of Whale right wings Dale Weise and Chad Kolarik and are about to re-sign center John Mitchell, as Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld said they would on breakup day. The Whale also picked up the option on defenseman Jared Nightingale, who also is strong in the physical department, and forward Brodie Dupont said he expected to be qualified and wanted to re-sign with the Rangers.

Elsewhere, the Montreal Canadiens didn’t qualify Pyatt and former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes, who had signed a one-year deal with Kazakh of the KHL after scoring 41 goals with the Chicago Wolves and Hamilton Bulldogs, second in the AHL to the 42 of Wethersfield native and Oklahoma City Barons wing Colin McDonald, son of former Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald. But the Anaheim Ducks did qualify center Nick Bonino of Avon and Avon Old Farms. Last season, Bonino was scoreless in 26 games with the Ducks and had 12 goals and 33 assists in 50 games with the Syracuse Crunch. … Unable to come to terms with impending free agent defenseman James Wisniewski, the Canadiens traded his negotiating rights to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a seventh-round pick in 2012. If the Blue Jackets re-sign Wisniewski, the Canadiens will get a 2012 fifth-round pick. If unsigned by Friday, Wisniewski becomes an unrestricted free agent. Wisniewski, 27, had a breakout offensive season in 2010-11 with career highs in goals (10), assists (41), points (51), power-play goals (eight) and shots (158). He started the season with the Islanders but was traded to Montreal on Dec. 30 for a 2011 second-round pick and a 2012 fifth-round selection. Wisniewski had seven goals and 23 assists in 43 games with the Canadiens and was a solid replacement for injured Andrei Markov, who is now healthy and signed a new three-year contract on Thursday. In 329 NHL games with the Blackhawks, Ducks, Islanders and Canadiens, Wisniewski has 27 goals and 121 assists. … The Tampa Bay Lightning signed unrestricted free-agent goalie Dwayne Roloson to a one-year, $3-million contract. He was the most important mid-season acquisition for any team last season after the Islanders traded him on Jan. 1. Roloson, 41, helped carry the Lightning to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the eventual Stanley Cup Boston Bruins. He was 18-12-4 with a 2.56 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 34 regular-season games with the Lightning and 10-6 with a 2.54 GAA and .924 save percentage in the playoffs. He had started the season 6-13-1 with the Islanders before solidifying the shaky goaltending for the Lightning, shutting out the Capitals twice in his first four starts. … The Islanders acquired the rights to Canucks defenseman Christian Ehrhoff for a 2012 fourth-round pick but have to work out a deal with the unrestricted free agent before Friday. Last season Ehrhoff had 14 goals and 36 assists with the team that lost to the Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. They later traded those rights to Buffalo for the same 4th round pick they had sent to Vancouver… The Panthers signed two-time Stanley Cup-winning forward Tomas Kopecky to four-year, $12-million contract Wednesday. The unrestricted free agent was acquired from the Blackhawks on June 27 for the Panthers’ seventh-round pick in last weekend’s draft. … Wing Paul Kariya, who led Anaheim within a game of a Stanley Cup and won a gold medal with Team Canada, has retired because of brain damage from post-concussion syndrome. Kariya, 36, who twice won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship, called it quits after sitting out the entire 2010-11 season with the St. Louis Blues. He finished with 402 goals and 587 assists in 989 games with Anaheim, Colorado, Nashville and St. Louis.

YOGAN EXCELS IN PROSPECTS CAMP SCRIMMAGE

Wing Andrew Logan, who had two goals and one assists in two games with the Whale after signing an amateur tryout contract late last season, scored on a backhander in the White Team’s 3-1 victory over the Blue in the second day of scrimmages Wednesday at the Rangers’ prospect camp in Tarrytown, N.Y. Yogan, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2010, missed most of last season for the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters after shoulder surgery. But he has shown well, especially physically, in the first three days of the camp, which ends Friday.

The other White goals were scored by camp invitee Donny Maloney, the son of Phoenix Coyotes general manager and former Rangers assistant GM/Wolf Pack GM Don Maloney, and Steven Fogarty (empty net), selected in the third round Saturday with the pick that was acquired from the Blues for forward Evgeny Grachev. Christian Thomas had the only goal for the Blue off some dazzling moves by speedy Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque.

Another highlight was a fight between Shane McCoghlan, a fifth-round pick Saturday, and Russian defenseman Nikita Zaytsev. Despite a five-inch height difference, the 5-foot-8 McCoghlan reportedly made a good showing and has done something every day to distinguish himself, whether it was putting on a speed show in conditioning testing, scoring a goal Tuesday or the pugilistic endeavor Wednesday.

The 36 prospects joined fans for a cruise through New York harbor Tuesday night.

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2 responses to “FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

  1. Does Pavel Valentenko have the skating ability for the NHL?

    cfrx

    • Yes… he also has a cannon of a shot that I would put on a Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara level in terms of how hard he shoots the puck. “Tank” as he’s known to his teammates, needs to work on getting that shot under control. When he CAN put it on net, the goaltenders have no chance. He also needs to work on his positioning defensively. He gets burned a lot… If he can get those two things done from this season, by next year he’ll be NHL ready…