GREENBURGH, N.Y. – There was a passing of the veteran center guard in New York Rangers camp on Thursday.
A day after buying out the final year of Trumbull native/captain Chris Drury’s five-year, $35.35-million contract, the Rangers signed veteran John Mitchell, the Connecticut Whale’s best player in the playoffs in April.
Mitchell, 26, was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 28 for a seventh-round pick in 2012 to help compensate for the loss of Tim Kennedy, who was part of a deal with the Florida Panthers that helped the Rangers land defenseman Bryan McCabe. Mitchell signed a two-way deal for $650,000 in the NHL and $105,000 in the AHL after having a one-way deal at $725,000 last season, according to capgeek.com.
Mitchell made an immediate impact in his Whale debut March 2, assisting on one goal and scoring the winner with 7.7 seconds left against the Springfield Falcons. He had seven goals and five assists and was plus-eight in 14 regular-season games before being sidelined by an ankle injury. In a first-round playoff loss to the Portland Pirates, Mitchell tied for the Whale lead in goals (three) and points (six) with two power-play goals while helping kill penalties and take key face-offs.
Mitchell also had two goals and one assist in 23 games with the Maple Leafs before the trade and will get a good look after the buyout of Drury and right wing Alex Frolov signing with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Forwards Vinny Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko and defensemen Steve Eminger and former Wolf Pack Matt Gilroy weren’t qualified, along with Whale wings Devin DiDiomete and Justin Soryal, whose spots could be taken by rugged wings Jason Wilson and/or Randy McNaught this season and defenseman Dylan McIlrath next season.
“Mitchell laid the foundation to challenge for a job in New York,” Rangers assistant coach/assistant general manager/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld said after the fourth day of prospects camp at the Rangers’ training facility.
The 6-foot-1, 204-pound Mitchell has 20 goals and 35 assists in 159 career regular-season games in three seasons with the Maple Leafs. He also has 49 goals and 72 assists in 229 AHL games with the Whale and St. John’s Maple Leafs/Toronto Marlies. A fifth-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2003, Mitchell played in St. John’s and Toronto with Newbury, the Whale’s leading scorer last season, and right wing Jeremy Williams, an AHL All-Star for the first time last season who wasn’t re-signed and then inked a one-year deal on June 15 with EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.
The Rangers have qualified Brian Boyle, former Wolf Pack players Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Michael Sauer and Whale goalie Chad Johnson. They previously signed Whale right wings Dale Weise and Chad Kolarik and traded forward Evgeny Grachev to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday for their third-round pick, which was J.T. Miller, a center from Edina (Minn.) High School.
Schoenfeld said the Whale has picked up the option on defenseman Jared Nightingale, signed left wing Brodie Dupont and defenseman Stu Bickel to two-way contracts and signed center Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and left wing Kale Kerbashian to AHL contracts. Kerbashian was scoreless in four games with the Whale after signing an amateur tryout contract on March 21.
Left wing Andrew Yogan, who had two goals and an assist in two games with the Whale after signing an ATO on April 7, and goalie Scott Stajcer are likely to be returned to their junior teams after missing most of last season because of injuries. Yogan was sidelined by offseason shoulder surgery until he signed the ATO, and Stacjer was out because of hip surgery. Stajcer returned to help Owen Sound win its first Ontario Hockey League regular-season title and a spot in the Memorial Cup. The Attack’s success earned coach and former Hartford Whalers wing Mark Reeds a promotion to an assistant with the Ottawa Senators. Attack assistant coach and former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Terry Virtue is the leading candidate to succeed Reeds.
Schoenfeld said right wing Jesper Fasth, a sixth-round pick in 2010, will be returning to his HV71 Jonkoping junior team in Sweden. The Rangers are still deciding whether to sign defenseman Mikhail Pashnin, a seventh-round pick in 2009, but are not interested in goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, named the Whale’s MVP by his teammates last season.
“Dov did a nice job for us, but we’ve got six goalies and have four vying for two spots in Hartford,” Schoenfeld said.
Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron are ticketed for the Rangers, with Stajcer, Johnson, Cameron Talbot and Jason Missiaen trying out for the Whale. If Johnson doesn’t sign his qualifying offer, the Rangers and Whale will be looking for another goalie.
Friday at noon is the start of free-agent signings, and the Rangers are focused on Dallas Stars center Brad Richards, the cream of the crop in a thin free-agent market. Richards, who is seeking a seven-year, $50-million contract, would fill the No. 1 center spot and help on the point on the power play, the Rangers’ Achilles heel last season.
The Rangers will take a cap hit of approximately $3.717 million this season and $1.667 million next year for Drury’s buyout, though the latter obligation could be erased pending a new collective bargaining agreement. Buying out the 34-year-old Drury will open cap space to help sign Richards and hopefully have enough left for Callahan, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Boyle and Sauer.
Tortorella said the first day of free agency is “such a frenzy” that it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen, but he left little doubt that Richards was the man that Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather coveted most despite not mentioning his name.
“I know our thinking is we’d like to improve our team in certain areas,” Tortorella said. “Not just one particular area; you never know where it leads to. I know Glen and the whole organization feel, ‘OK, there’s our kids, there’s our foundation, now let’s see where we can add and continue to try to get better.’
“There may be a situation where, you know what, that didn’t work – let’s not just add for the sake of adding and stay with it. That’s a key because it turns into such a frenzy that you get a little crazy. If it isn’t what we need, and it isn’t the right fit for us right now, then we have to stand pat and continue to develop.”
Drury, who grew up in Trumbull a Rangers fan, had only one goal and four assists in an injury-plagued season in which he missed 56 games, more than in his previous 11 pro seasons combined. He 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 perhaps the Buffalo Sabres for whom he played for three seasons before signing with the Rangers on July 1, 2007. Drury is eligible to sign a one-year contract with bonuses because he was on IR for more than 100 days.
Tortorella said Drury’s buyout was the result of “a little bit of everything.”
“Chris and I have been very honest with one other along the way here,” said Tortorella, who replaced Tom Renney on Feb. 23, 2009. “Everybody knows what direction we were trying to go in. We went with our kids. Dru’s Dru. I mean we love the guy. But you still have to make decisions on what’s best for your hockey club, so obviously when you get into a situation when now there’s a buyout, we’re trying to keep ourselves flexible within the cap and try at look at other things.
“We wish … I’ll speak for myself … I wish nothing but the best for him, and I hope someday … we’ll … I’ll just leave it at that. That’s just the way this works here. When you’re looking to go in a direction, we’re trying to stay with the plan, and as Dru has gone along here, we felt this is a decision we needed to make for our club.”
When asked if he hoped Drury’s leadership had sprinkled down to the young players, Tortorella said, “I’m not hopeful. I know it did.”
“That’s why this is a hard one,” Tortorella said. “It’s not an easy thing for us, just as it isn’t easy for Dru. Dru gave everything he possibly could give to this organization, but as an organization, you’ve got to continue to evaluate on all things and make decisions for what’s best for your team and the direction you’re going. It’s not hope. … I know he’s had an influence on quite a few people in that locker room.”
Tortorella said a decision on the next captain will come in training camp, which starts Sept. 15.
“Maybe our team changes more during this summer,” he said.
Callahan, a seeming Drury clone with more offensive skills, is the favorite to become the Rangers’ 26th captain.
ZUCCARELLO, BOYLE TAKING SKATING LESSONS
After the fourth day of camp ended, Boyle and wing Mats Zuccarello, who had an intriguing rookie season in North America ended by a freak accident, skated with Barb Underwood, a former member of the Canadian national skating team who is the Rangers’ skating tutor.
Zuccarello said his left hand has nearly healed after he sustained two broken bones when it got caught in a hole in the plexiglass through which photographers shoot during Game 4 of the playoffs.
“It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen or heard of something like that before, but I’m one in a million,” a smiling Zuccarello said of the incident, which helped turn the series in Portland’s favor.
“The Norwegian Hobbit” started his rookie season slowly, then earned a promotion Dec. 23 to replace Marian Gaborik after getting 13 goals, second among AHL rookies at the time, and 11 assists in 32 games with the Whale. He had 11 goals and 12 assists in the 21 games before his call-up.
Zuccarello had six goals and 17 assists, including a team-high nine on the power play, and five shootout goals, including three winners, in 42 games on Broadway. He was scoreless in the only playoff game he played before rejoining the Whale and getting a goal and an assist in his first AHL postseason game before being injured early in his second.
Zuccarello worked out during a one-month stay in Norway before returning to New York on Monday to start skating. He’s staying until next Monday before returning to Norway.
“Working with Barb is nice, and the hand is coming,” Zuccarello said. “It’s not 100 percent, but it’s getting there. I took the cast off two-three weeks ago, so I’m still working on squeezing rubber balls to get my strength back. I can skate OK, but I can’t shoot.”
Tortorella was delighted Boyle and Zuccarello were working with Underwood, who later gave instructions to Miller. Boyle started with Underwood last summer and had 21 goals and 14 assists while playing in all 82 games after getting 12 goals and four assists in his first 107 NHL games with the Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, who drafted him in the first round (26th overall) in 2003 out of Boston College.
“I think it’s great for some other players to see that,” Tortorella said. “Brian Boyle had a really good year last year. Zucc got a real good taste of it, fell off a little bit toward the end. It was a tremendous learning experience for him. And Brian. Remember, I wanted Brian out of here. I didn’t think he was going to be on the team.
“What they’re telling me is, and especially Brian (is), that wasn’t enough. And it’s right. He has to come back and do it again. He has to continue to improve. And Zucc, he’s going to go home for a little bit but then stay here for a month and a half and train with Reggie (Grant) and be around the organization and our facility, to get ready for next year.
“It’s a matter of trying to be better because we’re trying to get better as a hockey club, as we talk about – July 1 or whatever it may be – it will go right by you. If you’re not looking to improve, there may be someone looking to go right by you. So I think that’s their mindset in being here right now.”
If the Rangers sign Richards and Anisimov, it will be interesting to see who will emerge at center among them, Derek Stepan, Erik Christiensen, Mitchell and Newbury, who earned Tortorella’s praises during 11 games in five call-ups last season. Someone could move to wing, so it’s imperative that Zuccarello work hard to ensure a roster spot. … The Rangers have added a third exhibition game in Europe on Oct. 3, when they will play EV Zug in Zug, Switzerland. They already had games Sept. 29 in Prague, Czech Republic, and Sept. 30 in Frolunda, Sweden, the home of the team that Lundqvist played for and where his brother Joel is captain after playing with the NHL’s Dallas Stars and AHL’s Iowa Stars. The Rangers open the season Oct. 7-8 against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm, Sweden. Their home opener isn’t until Oct. 27 against the Maple Leafs because of the three-year renovations going on at Madison Square Garden.
ONLY ONE REGRET FOR MARK HOWE
Former New England and Hartford Whalers defenseman Mark Howe, one of the foursome elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesday, says he has one misgiving about a 22-year pro career that began as a linemate with his father, legendary Gordie Howe, and older brother and Glastonbury resident Marty with the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros in 1973.
“The only thing I guess I could regret is, after I retired, my dad said to me one day, ‘Why didn’t you take my No. 9 out of the rafters and wear it for one game?’ ” said Mark, who wore No. 4 in his final three seasons with the hometown Detroit Red Wings for whom his father excelled for a quarter-century. “Had he asked, I would have done it. But, otherwise, I would have never thought of doing it.”
Perhaps Howe will don the jersey in Toronto for his enshrinement Nov. 14 with goalie Ed Belfour and forwards Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk. Howe, who was born in Detroit and starred for the Junior Red Wings in 1970-71, will be the first Michigan native inducted. His selection marks the fourth consecutive year a Red Wing has been elected to the Hall of Fame.
“Growing up in Detroit, being the son of Gordie Howe, I don’t think I would have been able to handle that experience as an 18- or 20-year-old,” Mark said in a conference call. “So when I had the opportunity near the end of my career … it was a great opportunity.”
Now despite playing in the enormous shadow cast by his father and splitting time between two positions in two leagues, Mark excelled as one of the best two-way defensemen of the 1980s and will now Gordie in hockey’s most exclusive club after being eligible since 1998.
“It meant everything to me,” Howe said of a phone call from Jim Gregory, co-chairman of the 18-man selection committee with Pat Quinn.
Mark, the Red Wings’ director of pro scouting, didn’t get to talk to his dad until Tuesday night because Gordie was in Toronto for a benefit golf tournament.
“I’m still shaking,” Mark said during the conference call. “I never dreamt this would actually happen to me. There are so many people to thank, but the people that mean the most to me are my family and dear friends, and I’ve been able to talk to most of them, and they’re as happy as anybody could ever be.”
Howe was 1972 U.S. Olympian at 16 and then played four seasons with the Aeros, who won two AVCO Cups while he, Gordie and Marty were with the team. The trio joined the WHA’s New England Whalers in 1976, and three years later, they became the Hartford Whalers when they joined the NHL. Mark spent five seasons with the Whalers before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in a three-team deal with the Edmonton Oilers before the 1982-83 season, which was the worst in franchise history at 19-54-7.
Howe spent 10 seasons with the Flyers and his last three with the Red Wings. He had 208 goals and 296 assists in 426 WHA games while mostly a forward and then had 197 goals and 545 assists in 929 NHL games as a defenseman. He was a four-time NHL All-Star, three-time Norris Trophy runner-up and elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
“I don’t consider myself in the class of players with the Gordie Howes, the Wayne Gretzkys and the Bobby Orrs,” Mark said.
Maybe not, but he certainly was among the best ever and deserving of an honor that was much overdue.
WEINRICH LEAVING SABRES ORGANIZATION
Former Whalers defenseman Eric Weinrich won’t be moving from Portland, Maine, to Rochester, N.Y., to remain with the Buffalo Sabres organization.
When Weinrich retired from the NHL in 2006 and returned to Maine, he vowed to his family that he wouldn’t be moving again. Weinrich will keep the promise after the Sabres purchased the Rochester Americans and restarted a longstanding affiliation. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes became the parent club of the Pirates on Monday.
Weinrich, who played and coached the Pirates for five seasons, is under contract to the Sabres through August. The Americans need a coach after former Whalers right wing/captain Kevin Dineen became coach of the Florida Panthers on June 1.
But it won’t be Weinrich, who grew up in Gardner, Maine, and then starred at the University of Maine.
“Being an assistant coach and moving to Rochester, I decided I wasn’t going to do that,” Weinrich told the Portland Press Herald. “It’s now wait and see what else comes up. I’ve had some conversations, so I’m optimistic that something will work out, but nothing definite yet.”
Weinrich said he has not been contacted by the Pirates or Coyotes, whose assistant general manager Brad Treliving said Ray Edwards will coach the Pirates. Treliving also said the Coyotes were aware of Weinrich and his background as a player and a coach, so he could remain the Pirates assistant.
Weinrich played 18 seasons in the NHL and then for the Pirates when they were affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-08. He became Dineen’s assistant at the start of the 2008-09 season and served in that role for three seasons.
After being named Panthers coach, Dineen said he would like the Pirates to become the team’s next top affiliate. But the Panthers, who ended their affiliation with Rochester this spring, are expected to become the new NHL parent club of the San Antonio Rampage. The Vancouver Canucks, whose AHL team (Manitoba Moose) was displaced when the Atlanta Thrashers were purchased by True Sports North & Entertainment and moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, are expected to be the parent team of the Chicago Wolves, the Thrashers’ former AHL affiliate. The new Winnipeg Jets will be affiliated with the new AHL team in St. John’s, Newfoundland. True North Sports and St. John’s Sports & Entertainment signed a three-year agreement. … After having his rights traded twice in 48 hours, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff found a new home with the Sabres. The offensive defenseman was due to become an unrestricted free agent at noon Friday but signed a 10-year, $40-million contract. Ehrhoff, who had a career-high 50 points and tied a career-best with 14 goals last season with Vancouver, became property of the Islanders briefly when they acquired his rights from the Canucks on Tuesday for a fourth-round draft pick in 2012. The Islanders then traded Ehrhoff’s rights to the Sabres on Wednesday for a fourth-rounder. A fourth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2001, Ehrhoff, who turns 29 on July 6, has 53 goals, 173 assists and a plus-74 rating in 500 NHL games with the Sharks and Canucks. He also has seven goals and 27 assists in 73 playoff games, including two goals and 10 assists as the Canucks went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Boston Bruins. … Forward Michael Ryder and defenseman Tomas Kaberle, acquired from the Maple Leafs on the trade deadline, are the Bruins’ only unrestricted free agents but could be re-signed by the team that ended a 39-year championship drought.