FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

The New York Rangers’ Summer of Success continued Thursday on several fronts.

The Rangers again averted often contentious salary arbitration, and this time it was with former Hartford Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky, their leading scorer last season.

Before a scheduled arbitration hearing in Toronto, Dubinsky signed a four-year, $16.8 million contract, leaving former Wolf Pack linemate Ryan Callahan as the only restricted free agent still to be signed. The Rangers hope to get a deal done with one of their alternate captains and expected successor to bought-out Trumbull native Chris Drury as captain before his scheduled arbitration hearing next Thursday.

“I wanted to be in New York, it’s the place I live, it’s the place I love and I want to be here forever,” Dubinsky told the New York Post before flying home to Anchorage, Alaska. “At the end of the day, I think it’s a home run for me. I hope the team feels the same way.”

The new contract is quite an increase for Dubinsky, 25, who earned $2 million last season. But he was in strong position after setting career highs for goals (24), assists (30) and points (54) in 77 games and enhancing his position as a youthful foundation of the organization. Ditto for Callahan, who was second on the team in scoring (48 points) despite missing 18 games with a broken finger and toe.

Dubinsky will receive $3.75 million in each of the first two seasons of the contract and then $4.65 million in each of the last two years. The deal, which includes a $500,000 signing bonus this year and $1 million signing bonus next July 1, was reached between Dubinsky’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, and Rangers new assistant general manager Jeff Gorton, who was in Toronto with the team’s newest signee.

“I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to the season,” Dubinsky told the Post. “With all the guys we have coming back plus the signings we’ve made with Richie (center Brad Richards) and (left wing/enforcer) Mike Rupp, I think we’re going to be a contender in the East (Conference), I really feel that way.

“I have high expectations for myself and for the team. The last couple of years we’ve talked about being contenders. Now I truly believe we have the team to do it, not just talk about it.”

Fortunately for Dubinsky and the Rangers, they didn’t have to waste time arguing over the worth of their one of their top players. Though reaching an agreement dragged out, the deal was done to the benefit of both parties, and no more negotiations will be necessary for at least four more years.

The Rangers’ second-round pick in 2004, Dubinsky had five goals and five assists in 11 playoff games with the Wolf Pack in 2006 after completing his junior career with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winter Hawks. He then had 21 goals and 22 assists in 72 Wolf Pack games in 2006-07, when he also was scoreless in six games with the Rangers while playing with future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr.

Dubinsky has been on Broadway ever since, and his point total has increased each season. He has 71 goals and 148 assists in 234 regular-season games and seven goals and eight assists in 22 playoff games.

The Rangers previously signed three other restricted free agents, center Brian Boyle and two former Wolf Pack players, defenseman Michael Sauer and center Artem Anisimov. They also signed Whale wings Dale Weise and Chad Kolarik and are negotiating with goalie Chad Johnson, while the Whale signed forward Kale Kerbashian and re-signed forward Kelsey Tessier and defensemen Jared Nightingale, Stu Bickel and Blake Parlett.

Hopefully the Rangers also can avert any consternation with Callahan, whose agent, Steve Bartlett, has said he hopes his client and another piece of the Rangers’ core can reach an agreement before his scheduled arbitration hearing next week. Callahan is likely to receive about $5 million a year for a similar length contract as the one that Dubinsky got.

Subtracting the $6.5 million hit for veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who will be waived and play with the Connecticut Whale again or forfeit the remaining three years of his contract, the Rangers have about $6.5 million left to sign Callahan and a seventh defenseman. When his deal is done, a second buyout window will open for the Rangers, who would be nice to use it if Callahan and the defenseman, likely Steve Eminger at about $750,000, push the team hard against the $64.3 million salary cap. Defense prospect Tim Erixon will have a $1.75 million cap hit, so the Rangers will need some in-season flexibility for injury replacements and possible trades in the future.

THE RANGERS VS. THE WHALE?

I saw a great idea on Blue Seat Blogs that really needs no explanation, so here goes:

The more the NHL travels to Europe to open their regular-season campaigns, the more the illustrious NHL clubs venturing to Europe play money spinning (and locally enticing) preseason fixtures against European clubs. This season the Rangers are playing a preseason game in Sweden, a game in Prague and a game in Switzerland. The games are of more significance to the local teams due to the commercial value of the fixtures. It also gives wider audiences rare direct access to the big NHL star players. What I think gets forgotten or perhaps under-appreciated is the use and convenience of local markets and affiliates.

The Rangers, most seasons, would play a handful of preseason fixtures against other NHL clubs to half-empty NHL venues before embarking on the long regular-season grind. They are missing an opportunity – as is each NHL club with a local affiliate. The Rangers and the Connecticut Whale have a potential win-win scenario which I believe hasn’t been utilized even though the Rangers have played games there before. Why don’t they play each other in preseason fixtures in Connecticut? It could be win-win. Let me explain my thinking.

The Rangers roster during the “normal” preseason fixtures is split; filled with prospects and a few NHL players before, perhaps the final two games, when the roster closely resembles the starting roster for Game One. Any kind of consistency in selection goes out the window. A true gauge of a prospects ability/NHL readiness is also tempered by the diluted opposition.

If the Rangers played their final tune-up in Connecticut, playing their “final” roster against the prospects and the Whale’s best available squad it would provide two clear on-ice benefits. One: the Rangers’ full side gets a game together helping chemistry, and two: the Rangers prospects – and the ambitious AHL contracted players – get to measure themselves against a full NHL lineup while using the game as an audition in front of the big club’s management. Due to the potential reward for 99 percent of the Whale squad, the game inherits a competitive nature, as a good performance by a player here and there may be the difference between a prospect getting the call to N.Y. or not. Nice carrot to dangle, no?

Then there are the rewards for the Whale. Hartford/Connecticut has an NHL fan base. It is a city that has long craved the return of major league hockey. One (or perhaps even two?) games against the Rangers may not quench the thirst for the return of the beloved Whalers (no disrespect at all meant to the excellent Whale AHL franchise), but an NHL club playing there in preseason would surely be welcomed and the Rangers would hopefully play in front of packed, passionate crowds. Packed attendances could equal commercial success for the minor-league affiliate, gives the prospects a better grasp of NHL (regular season) venues and therefore the entire organizational structure benefits from such games.

It just makes sense on every level, at least in my eyes. Whether it be on a financial level, commercial, prospect development, or geographical/logistical level; what’s not to like about the idea of a regular season Whale versus Rangers matchup?

Editor’s note: Since this piece was written, the Rangers added a fourth preseason game Wednesday, a stop in wing Marian Gaborik’s home nation of Slovakia on Oct. 2 against HC Slovan in Bratislava. Before the Rangers open the season against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 7 and 8 in Stockholm, Sweden, they will play on Sept. 29 against HC Sparta Prague, then head to Gothenburg, Sweden, to face goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s old team, Frolunda. Then it’s back south to Bratislava, followed by EV Zug in Switzerland on Oct. 3. Not mentioned in the story is that many of the current Rangers played at the XL Center in Hartford, so it would be a homecoming for them before former fans.

COYOTES RE-SIGN FORMER WOLF PACK/RANGERS FORWARD

Former Wolf Pack/Rangers forward Lauri Korpikoski, coming off a career-best season, avoided salary arbitration when he signed a new two-year, $3.6 million contract with the Phoenix Coyotes.

“We are very pleased to sign Lauri to a two-year contract,” said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, the former Rangers assistant GM/Wolf Pack GM. “Lauri is an excellent skater, a versatile forward and an important player on our team. We are happy to avoid arbitration and finalize a contract.”

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Korpikoski set career highs last season with 19 goals and 21 assists for 40 points, placing him fifth on the Coyotes in scoring. He had four game-winning goals, two shorthanded goals and was plus-17. The Coyotes were 21-6-3 when he registered a point, 11-5-1 when he scored a goal and 13-4-2 when he had an assist.

In three NHL seasons with the Ranges and Coyotes, Korpikoski has 30 goals and 35 assists in 218 regular-season games. He also has been in 19 Stanley Cup games, recording two goals and three assists. He was acquired for Enver Lisen on July 13, 2009 after being the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2004. … Three more former Wolf Pack players are headed to Europe, joining captain Greg Moore, who signed with Augsburger in the Germany Elite League earlier this week after finishing last season with the Springfield Falcons. The latest former Packers going on a European “vacation” are center Dwight Helminen to KLH Chomutov in the Czech Republic Division 2 League and defenseman David Urquhart (Hamilton-AHL/Wheeling-ECHL) to HC Valpellice in the Italian A League and Ryan Constant (Stockton-ECHL) to Milano Rossoblu in the Italian B League. Meanwhile, wing Mark Bell returned from EHC Kloten in the Swiss Elite League to sign with the Ducks, whose AHL affiliate is the Syracuse Crunch. … Goalie Patrick Lalime retired Wednesday after 12 NHL season and will join the broadcasting staff of French-language sports network RDS. Lalime, 37, spent the last three seasons as Ryan Miller’s backup with the Buffalo Sabres. He played in only seven games last season partly because of a knee injury and was 0-5-0 with a 2.96 goals-against average and .890 save percentage. He was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1997, when he won his first 16 games and had a 2.95 GAA in 39 games. His best season was 2002-03, when he was 39-20-7 with a personal-best 2.16 GAA and eight shutouts and played in the All-Star Game. He posted a 1.82 GAA in the 2003 playoffs to help the Senators reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. They lost in seven games to the New Jersey Devils.

ANNOUCER EMRICK LEAVES DEVILS AND MSG

Legendary play-by-play man Mike “Doc” Emrick left the Devils and MSG on Thursday to join NBC and Versus on an exclusive basis. Considered one of the sports best play-by-play men, Emrick has spent more than two decades with both MSG and the Devils. He cited a lightened workload and less travel in announcing his decision.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to spend 23 incredible years with the MSG Network channels and 21 equally enjoyable years, including three Stanley Cup championships, with the New Jersey Devils,” Emrick said in an open letter to Devils fans. “However, considering the long-term significance of this decision, I was able to construct a lighter regular season-schedule and the usual complement of Stanley Cup playoffs and Stanley Cup final games for NBC and VERSUS.”

For an entire generation, Emrick has been the voice of the Devils, chronicling the club’s rise from a tough start in which it was called “Mickey Mouse” by Wayne Gretzky to its heyday of three titles in an eight-year period to a recent move to Newark.

Emrick has been the lead play-by-play man for the hockey coverage on Versus and NBC, and his other assignments included with NBC and three Olympics. In 2004, he received the Lester Patrick Award, presented for “outstanding service to hockey in the United States.” In 2008, he got the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his contributions to hockey broadcasting. He has also won several regional Emmy awards and been nominated for national Emmy awards on several occasions. … The New York Islanders, parent club of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, signed left wing Tim Wallace to a one-year, two-way contract Thursday. Wallace, 26, had 20 goals and 17 assists in 62 regular-season games last season to finish fifth in scoring on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He also saw NHL action for the third consecutive season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, going scoreless in seven games. In 24 NHL games, all with Pittsburgh, Wallace has two assists. The Anchorage native also has 75 goals and 62 assists in 304 career AHL regular-season games and four goals and 13 assists in 55 Calder Cup games, with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

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