FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

There’s not suppose to be any cheering in the press box, but I can assure you that all those who have covered the Hartford Wolf Pack / Connecticut Whale over the franchise’s 14 seasons couldn’t be happier for New York Rangers defenseman Michael Sauer.

I can still picture Sauer with his arm in a sling from his latest in a series of injuries during the 2009-10 season, when he missed 38 of 80 games as the Wolf Pack failed to make the playoffs for the only time in team history. But the personable blueliner seemingly had a perpetual smile on his face, an upbeat hello and tone in his voice and a determination to return from any setback.

Sauer went to Rangers training camp last fall hoping to stay healthy and get a legitimate shot at the NHL. The Rangers’ 2005 second-round pick, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the trade of Cheshire native and future Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch a year earlier, proved to be the surprise of camp, edging out fellow youngsters Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko for the final roster spot on the blueline.

After a so-so start while in and out of the lineup, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Sauer became a force. At the same time, McDonagh was having his early struggles in Hartford after leaving the University of Wisconsin following his junior year and then gaining his footing largely thanks to help from Whale assistant coach J.J. Daigneault and veteran defenseman Wade Redden.

As fate would have it, McDonagh was called up from the Whale on Jan. 3, switching places with a struggling Michael Del Zotto, and got paired with Sauer. The two jelled so quickly the Rangers traded veteran defenseman Michel Roszival to the Phoenix Coyotes for wing Wojtek Wolski on Jan. 10.

Sauer and McDonagh then became the Rangers’ No. 2 defensive pairing behind former Wolf Pack blueliners Dan Girardi and All-Star Marc Staal. Sauer also played with Staal when Girardi was out for two games, and he and McDonagh occasionally outshone the No. 1 duo. In 76 games, Sauer had three goals, 12 assists and a team-best, plus-20 rating, four better than runner-up McDonagh.

Sauer, who is the younger brother of Coyotes defenseman Kurt Sauer and former NFL linebacker Craig Sauer, earned the NHL minimum $500,000 last season, but the restricted free agent was rewarded on Friday with a two-year, $2.5 million contract. Hours later, former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov signed a two-year, $3.75 million deal, preventing sometimes acrimonious salary arbitration for both of the 23-year-olds.

After signing his new contract, Sauer told Jim Cerny of www.BlueshirtsUnited.com how much he liked returning to the Rangers and how he hadn’t wanted to go anywhere else. Sauer then did a question-and-answer session with Cerny:

On the challenges he faces in his second NHL season: “Coming into last year it was a case of just trying to get my foot in the door and making a good impression and then try and build off that. As the year progressed, I got more responsibility, and now I have to pick up from there, keep pushing, keep getting better, and show that I can be given more responsibility. There will be different pressures because I have to keep improving because the league keeps getting better and better.”

On keeping an edge and not becoming too comfortable: “You want to stay desperate. You have to keep that thinking where you are still fighting for a spot, still battling every day. When I go to work out I have to push myself because I am thinking there are guys who I still have to beat out.”

On adding left wing/center Mike Rupp to the lineup this season: “I know he fights and is physical, but he can play, too. He chips in offensively, has good hands. You see some of his goals, there are some pretty nice ones he’s got. He’s a hard player to play against. He keeps you honest. You respect players like that, even when you play against them. He’s not a cheap player. He plays it hard every night, and he shows up with his leadership skills. He knows how to win. It’s a great player to have.”

On the Rangers’ signing of free-agent center Brad Richards: “I was so excited! Obviously I only played against him once when we were in Dallas, but he’s an amazing player with amazing talent. Having a guy like that on the team that can really put the other team on its heels is going to be a huge advantage. He’ll be a big key to our team, and it’s just awesome that we were able to get him when so many other teams were going after him.”

On management’s increased expectations moving forward: “That’s what you want as a player. I mean, you bring in a player like (Richards) because you want to win a Stanley Cup. That’s why they got him, and why they went after him so strongly. As a young guy it shows that (management) has confidence in us, as well, knowing that they are adding Richards with the expectation that we should win. That’s what you want as a player. You just don’t want to get through the season you want to win every game. And being in New York, I really learned last year that the mentality is every game is a must win. You have to meet expectations, and the bar is set high. They continue to maintain that and express that by what they do in the off-season. It’s a great mindset to be in and to be a part of.”

Cerny also will soon post a video package of an earlier interview he recorded with Sauer in Minnesota during draft week last month on www.BlueshirtsUnited.com. During that interview, Sauer answered Cerny’s questions, along with those from fans sent in via Twitter and Facebook. So look for those video packages.

If you can’t wait, visit www.newyorkrangers.com as Dan David has resumed his “20 Prospects in 20 Days” series with a feature on Valentenko. It’s Part 15 of a series that has already included stories on Kundratek and three late Whale additions last season, defenseman Dylan McIlrath and left wings Carl Hagelin and Tommy Grant.

RICHARDS HIGHEST PAID PLAYER IN NHL

Richards, who signed a nine-year, front-loaded, $60 million contract on July 2, will be the NHL’s highest-paid player next season.

Richards will make $12 million each of the first two seasons before his financial reward starts to drop off. That surpasses the $10 million that Tampa Bay Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier will make in the third year of his 11-year, $85 million deal. Richards and Lecavalier were teammates under Rangers coach John Tortorella when the Lightning captured the Stanley Cup in 2004 and Richards won the Conn Smyth Trophy as playoff MVP. Richards was traded to the Dallas Stars with former Wolf Pack goalie Johan Holmqvist for goalie Mike Smith, center Jeff Halpern, wing Jussi Jokinen and a 2009 fourth-round pick on Feb. 26, 2008.

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff also will receive $10 million next season from the recent front-loaded contracts that they signed. Richards’ 2012-13 salary also will top the $11 million of New Jersey Devils wing Ilya Kovalchuk, though his salary will continue to rise while Richards’ drop off.

Here’s the breakdown of Richards’ contract: 2011-12/2012-13, $12 million; 2013-14, $9 million; 2014-15/2015-16, $8.5 million; 2016-17, $7 million; 2017-18/2018-19/2019-20, $1 million.

Almost half of the contract will be paid out in signing bonuses spread over the first six years, including $10 million this season and $8 million in 2012-13. The maximum salary allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement is 20 percent of the cap ceiling, which is a little more than $12.8 million next season after it was raised to $64.3 million.

But Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said in a conference call that Richards “left a lot of money on the table.” The Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames were believed to be high bidders among Richards’ six major suitors. The Rangers were a bit strapped because they still had to sign Sauer, Anisimov, center Brian Boyle and former Wolf Pack forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, the team’s two leading scorers last season. Dubinsky’s salary arbitration case is set for July 21, Boyle for July 25 and Callahan for July 28.

“We had only a certain amount that we could put out there because we still have players that we have to sign,” Sather said. “There were people that were offering a lot more than we were. I’m happy that he decided to come here at a reduced rate in comparison to what he would have gotten somewhere else.”

Richards’ relationship with Tortorella certainly helped the Rangers’ cause.

“I’ve seen how Torts operates, it’s worked,” Richards said in the conference call. “I know that firsthand, and I can see how he’s bringing this young team along in New York.”

Richards, 31, will be counted for big-time leadership, especially since the Rangers bought out the contract of Trumbull native/center/captain Chris Drury. Callahan is the frontrunner to succeed Drury as captain.

KUDOS FOR RUPP

The Rangers’ other free-agent signing, rugged left wing/center Rupp, will be making pocket change (three years, $4.5 million) compared to Richards. But PensBurgh blog managing editor FrankD had plenty of nice things to say about the eight-year NHL veteran who had five goals and five assists in 14 regular-season games and three goals and four assists in 11 playoff games with the UHL’s Danbury Trashers during the NHL lockout season of 2004-05.

“Rangers fans will like Mike Rupp,” FrankD told Blueshirt Banter. “He’s a gritty guy who brings size and his own scoring touch to any team. One of his best attributes is his take-no-crap attitude when it comes to standing up for teammates. He’s not the fastest guy on the guy, but he does possess some crafty work around the net and isn’t afraid to bully guys out of the crease or create room for teammates.

“Paying Rupp $4.5 million over three years is a pretty solid deal for him and the Rangers, albeit one that might be perceived a bit expensive if he’s playing on the third or fourth line. If he plays like he did with the Penguins, then you can expect to see maybe eight to 10 goals and over 110 PIMs, most of which will come courtesy of fisticuffs.”

Rupp’s offensive numbers aren’t what the Rangers are most concerned with. He’s an upgrade at a cheaper price on left wing/enforcer Derek Boogaard, who tragically died of an accidental alcohol/oxycodone overdose in his Minneapolis apartment on May 13. … The Rangers promoted Jeff Gorton from Assistant Director of Player Personnel to Assistant General Manager, replacing Cam Hope, and Kevin Maxwell from pro scout to the Director of Professional Scouting. Maxwell’s previous jobs included Director of Player Personnel with the Hartford Whalers in the 1994-95 season.

BLUE JACKETS SIGN FORMER WOLF PACK CAPTAIN

The Columbus Blue Jackets signed former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers and center Martin St. Pierre to one-way, two-way contracts Monday.

Byers, 25, had 15 goals, 31 assists and 161 penalty minutes in a record 85 AHL games last season with the Whale, Springfield Falcons and San Antonio Rampage. A fourth-round pick of the Rangers in 2004, Byers had three goals and six assists in 16 games with the Whale before being traded to the Falcons for right wing Chad Kolarik on Nov. 11. He then had nine goals and 16 assists in 48 games with the Falcons before the Blue Jackets dealt him to the Coyotes with Rostislav Klesla for Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto on Feb. 28. Because of the trades, Byers broke the single-season AHL record for games played set by Paxton Schulte in 1995-96 with the Cornwall Aces and Saint John Flames. He led the Rampage and tied for ninth in the league in shorthanded goals (three) while getting three goals and nine assists in 21 games. He now has 84 goals, 116 assists and 682 PIM in 324 AHL games.

St. Pierre, 27, had 114 goals and 291 assists in 367 AHL games with five teams and was a First Team All-Star in 2007 and Second Team All-Star in 2008 before playing last season with Salzburg (Austria), Nizhnekamski (Kontinental Hockey League in Russia) and Karpat (Finland).

PREDATORS SIGN FORMER WOLF PACK/WHALE WING

The Nashville Predators signed former Wolf Pack/Whale wing Brodie Dupont to a one-year, two-way contract worth $550,000 at the NHL level and $80,000 in the AHL.

Dupont, 24, was acquired from the Rangers on July 2 for forward Andreas Thuresson, who has one goal and two assists in 25 NHL games and 53 goals and 65 assists in 278 AHL games with the Milwaukee Admirals. In 72 games last season, he was the Whale’s third-leading scorer with 14 goals and career-high 31 assists and second in power-play goals (nine). He also made his NHL debut in a game in a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Jan. 22.

A third-round pick in 2005, Dupont has 58 goals and 90 assists in 297 AHL games after playing his junior hockey with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen. Here’s hoping Brodie gets a legitimate shot to make the Predators, who aren’t as deep at forward as the Rangers.

BUTTS AND BLADES  (i.e Odds and Ends)

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers forward Evgeny Grachev is the subject of a Q & A on nhl.com. The Rangers traded Grachev to the St. Louis Blues on June 25 for a third-round pick that they used to select 18-year-old Edina (Minn.) High School forward Steven Fogarty. … Former Wolf Pack defenseman Bryce Lampman has moved from ERC Ingolstadt to the Hannover Scorpions in the German Elite League. … The Detroit Red Wings re-signed backup goalie Joey MacDonald to a two-year contract. MacDonald, 31, was 5-5-3 with a 2.58 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and one shutout in 15 games last season. He also went 10-9-1 in 20 appearances for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate. He’s likely to get the first chance at the backup job behind starter Jimmy Howard if the Wings don’t bring back 38-year-old Chris Osgood. The Wings signed MacDonald as a free agent in 2001, then played for the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs before returning to Detroit last summer. He has a career record of 23-43-12, with a 3.19 GAA, save percentage of .902 and two shutouts. … The AHL named Brian Lemon the 2010-11 recipient of the Michael Condon Memorial Award for outstanding contributions by an on-ice official. An AHL linesman since 1987, Lemon has worked almost 600 regular-season games in the past 23 years while juggling a full-time business schedule that often includes trips around the world. Lemon, who officiated the 2008 AHL All-Star Game in Binghamton, N.Y., is often counted on to mentor young linesmen in the Rochester area. The award was created in 2002 after the sudden death of veteran linesman Mike Condon.

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