FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Mission accomplished for New York Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather.

Sather entered the offseason hoping to keep his core of marquee players intact for at least several years, and that goal was finalized Wednesday when former Hartford Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan signed a three-year, $12.825 contract, averting an arbitration hearing in Toronto on Thursday. He will receive $4 million the first two years and $4.825 million the final year.

It seemed a fair price for both parties after Callahan was the Rangers’ second-leading scorer last season to former Wolf Pack linemate Brandon Dubinsky with career highs in goals (23), assists (25) and points (48) despite missing 22 of 82 games because of injuries. Callahan also continued to be one of the NHL’s leading penalty killers and shot blockers, which led to a broken hand and ankle, the second coming in an April 4 game and ending his season. And consider this: The Rangers were 14-3-1 when he scored and 24-7-1 when he had a point.

Little wonder the Rangers alternate captain the last two seasons is likely to succeed bought-out Trumbull native Chris Drury as captain after joining Dubinsky, Brian Boyle and former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov and defenseman Michael Sauer as important restricted free agents to re-sign multi-year contracts with the team. Veteran unrestricted free agents Ruslan Fedotenko and Steve Eminger also re-signed one-year deals and were joined by two key outside free-agent acquisitions, center Brad Richards (nine years, $60 million), the cream of the NHL crop this year, and forward/enforcer Michael Rupp (three years, $4.5 million).

Callahan’s signing resembled that of Dubinsky, who agreed to a four-year, $16.8 million deal just hours before he was go to arbitration last Thursday. Callahan, a fourth-round pick in 2004, could be the first Rangers’ draftee to ascend to the captaincy since Cheshire native Brian Leetch wore the “C” from 1997-2000. John Tortorella has said the new captain will not be named until training camp, which starts Sept. 15. Other leading candidates are Richards and All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, another alternate captain who also played for the Wolf Pack.

“We were both working out three-, four- and five-year deals, and I think we agreed the numbers worked for a three-year deal,” Callahan told The Record and Herald News in New Jersey. “We couldn’t come to a conclusion on a longer deal. (But) I’m thrilled to be back for three years. I love playing for the Rangers. I’m excited to be back and to have this behind me and concentrate on the season.

“I was hoping it would get done, but you never really know how it’s going to go in these negotiations. I definitely didn’t want to go to arbitration and only go on a one-year deal. I’m really happy it didn’t have to come to that.”

Callahan’s agent, Steve Bartlett, had said for weeks that he and his client hoped to get a deal done before arbitration. Bartlett credited newly promoted Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton for achieving the objective.

“Faced with arbitration, both parties have to find a way,” Bartlett told the New York Post. “Jeff Gorton hung in there and we found common ground. We fought right the last minute before it was time to get on the plane for Toronto.”

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Callahan has been a fighter throughout his career, which started in Rochester, N.Y., and proceeded through Syracuse, Buffalo, Guelph (Ontario Hockey League) and Hartford before he landed on Broadway for good in the 2007-08 season. The 26-year-old has been among the NHL leaders in hits and forwards in blocked shots the past two seasons, and he also helped Team USA win a silver medal in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Callahan earned the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award in 2009-09 and 2009-10, and last season he won the Players’ Player Award, as voted by his teammates, and the John Halligan Good Guy Award, selected by the New York chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which recognizes players’ cooperation with the media. In 284 NHL games, Callahan has 76 goals and 68 assists, and he would have become eligible to be an unrestricted free agent next July 1 if he went through arbitration. But the Rangers haven’t gone to arbitration since walking away from a $3.9 million award to Nikolai Zherdev in 2009.

According to cap.geek.com, Callahan’s $4,291,667 cap hit leaves the Rangers only $685,500 under the $64.3 million salary cap with 22 players signed. But the Rangers will have a 48-hour buyout window for other contracts, starting three days after Callahan’s is registered, if they want to create salary cap flexibility. The Rangers have 14 forwards under contract, and Tortorella doesn’t like to have too many spare parts sitting around.

Enigmatic wing Wojtek Wolski, acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes for Michal Rozsival on Jan. 10, is the leading contender for a buyout. He has a $3.8 million cap hit for this season, and a buyout would save the Rangers $3.3 million against the cap. The Rangers would need that if they want defensemen Tim Erixon ($1.75 million) and Michael Del Zotto ($1.085 million) on their opening-night roster.

Erixon, the son of former Rangers wing Jan Erixon, was a 2009 first-round pick acquired from the Calgary Flames for two second-rounders and forward Roman Horak on June 1. Del Zotto, a member of the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2009-10, struggled at times last season while splitting time between New York and Hartford and had his season ended when he sustained a broken finger when hit by a shot in a game against Springfield on March 3.

In order for the Rangers to have both Erixon and Del Zotto in the lineup, they would have to buy out, trade or assign a player to the Connecticut Whale as they did veteran defenseman Wade Redden last season and will do again this season because of his $6.5 million contract. Wolski isn’t expected to be bought out before training camp, but anything is possible as the Oct. 8 season opener in Sweden against the Anaheim Ducks approaches.

Staal, Sauer and two more former Wolf Pack defensemen, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, seem to have the top four spots on the blueline locked up, with Eminger a solid No. 5, 6 or 7. Erixon, Del Zotto and Whale defensemen Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko are the leading contenders for the final defense spots after the Rangers didn’t qualify or re-sign former Wolf Pack defenseman Matt Gilroy.

Callahan, who resumed skating about two weeks ago, said he didn’t seek a no-trade or no-movement clause in his new contract.

“For three years, it’s not something that’s too much of a concern,” Callahan said. “Hopefully they don’t want to trade me, if it comes to that. I didn’t feel it was necessary.”

Callahan “felt” right and isn’t likely to be dealt anytime in the near future.

WEISE DETERMINED TO MAKE RANGERS ROSTER

Despite the Rangers overload at forward, right wing Dale Weise, who has spent most of his first three pro seasons in Hartford, is determined to be on the parent club’s roster in October.

Weise is one of most confident players to walk through the Wolf Pack/Whale locker room in the franchise’s 14 seasons, so if anyone can crack the well-established lineup, it’s the native of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“I have been in the American League for three years, and I think in my last two years I’ve been a key guy down there,” Weise told Dan David at www.newyorkrangers.com. “I have been one of our top scorers each year and one of our top power-play guys. For me, I think this is make or break. I’m going into training camp, and I need to make the team.”

“The team” was the Rangers, not the Whale. The Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2008 got his first 10 NHL games last season, but after a strong first few games, he took several ill-advised penalties and was returned to Hartford. He was recalled again late in the season but didn’t play in the final three games as the Whale fought to qualify for the playoffs.

Weise, who will be 23 a month before players report for training camp, has 57 goals and 54 assists in 120 games with the Wolf Pack/Whale. Despite the call-ups and several injuries that limited him to 47 games last season, Weise had 18 goals and 20 assists and remained a vocal leader while playing in all situations.

Now the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Weise should be battling Mats Zuccarello and Chad Kolarik for a right wing spot on Broadway. And Weise hopes there’s not a repeat of his NHL debut against the Philadelphia Flyers when a Gatorade bottle popped open and sprayed him, with a teammate’s prank considered a possibility.

“To be honest, it looks to me like I was squeezing the bottle pretty hard,” Weise said. “I think it just broke off, to be honest with you. If you watch close enough. I watched it a couple of times and to me it just looks like it broke off, but who knows? Maybe someone twisted it.”

A Gatorade blooper normally wouldn’t’ be seen by anyone other than those on the bench, but the Flyers broadcast camera just happened to be on Weise when the incident occurred. The resulting video went across the hockey world, and “Dale Weise Gatorade” remains one of the more popular hockey-related search terms on Google.

“I think it’s funny,” said Weise, who has been a prankster in the Wolf Pack/Whale locker room. “All my buddies kind of give it to me for it, and a couple of people have come up to me in Winnipeg that I know and told me, ‘Hey, I saw your video’ and everything. I think it’s funny, and I’m happy with it.”

Always a standup guy, Weise would be especially happy if he’s on Broadway rather than Asylum Avenue this season, and Whale coach Ken Gernander certainly knows how that can happen.

“He skates so well and shoots so well that he’s a very good one-on-one player and can create some offense on his own from a one-on-one standpoint,” Gernander said. “He’s also a very courageous player. He’s actually a player whose game is heightened by (a physical) game. Sometimes you go into an opposing building and they come out with a little bit of snarl, and some guys will disappear. Dale’s game seems to excel in those types of situations. When he’s engaged physically and there’s a little bit of grit in the game, he seems to pick his game up. That’s a pretty admirable trait.”

Gernander also was well aware of the bumps in Weise’s road last season and now hopefully he stays injury-free and improves a quality needed by every player to reach – and remain – in the NHL.

“It was a really tough year for him in terms of developing some kind of consistency,” Gernander said. “I think that will be a big part of Dale’s game – if he can develop that consistency. Because I think he does have the tools and the capabilities. He’s a courageous kid. He’s a take-charge kind of kid that wants to make a difference. But he has to be able to play on a consistent basis, and unfortunately all the injuries and stuff, that part of his development was maybe set back a little bit (last) season.”

Weise doesn’t see last season as a setback and feels it’s a matter of him proving himself in training camp for nab that much-deserved spot in New York.

“The NHL is a little faster and the guys are a little better position, so it’s not as much skating and running around as the American League, but I think the biggest thing is just getting comfortable there,” Weise said. “If you can just kind of settle in and play your game and get comfortable, I think it makes things a lot easier. It’s a little faster when you get called up, but everybody can play. That’s the biggest thing I learned, obviously even though I wasn’t playing a lot of minutes, just being ready to play every shift.”

Like Dubinsky, whom Gernander is reminded of when he watches Weise.

“He’s got a lot of the same qualities,” Gernander said. “He doesn’t have as thick of a lower body – where Brandon can hold guys off with his good leg strength – but he may be just a hair better skater. He does have that same type of swagger. That good confidence. Brandon went through a bit of a process, and I think Dale will have to go through that same process. But once he gets there, he can be a full-time player.”

Weise and the Rangers have to hope he can approximate Dubinsky in his NHL effectiveness.

MORE FORMER WOLF PACKERS ON THE MOVE

Right wing Brad Smyth, the Wolf Pack/Whale’s career leader in goals (177) and points (243) but inexplicably not named to the franchise’s all-time team, has signed with HC Morinze-Avoriaz in the French Elite Magnus League. It’s the sixth European country in which the man known as Shooter will play. The 38-year-old from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, was in Italy and Northern Ireland last season.

Wing Marcel Hossa has joined former Wolf Pack defenseman Ivan Baranka on Spartak Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. And veteran right wing Jason Williams, who played 17 games with the Whale last season before joining the Dallas Stars and getting two goals and three assists in 27 games, has signed a one-year, two-way contract ($600,000 in the NHL) with the Pittsburgh/Wilkes-Barre-Scranton Penguins. He has 93 goals and 132 assists in 447 NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, former Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets), Columbus Blue Jackets and Stars.

ROLSTON NAMED AMERICANS COACH

Ron Rolston was named the 29th coach of the Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres.

“We are very excited for Ron to join the organization as head coach of the Amerks,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said in a statement. “He has achieved tremendous success with USA Hockey’s development program and he fits our vision for how we want to develop players at the American Hockey League level. Ron is a proven winner and a terrific teacher and we look forward to having him lead the Amerks going forward.”

Said Rolston: “I am both excited and honored to join an organization with as storied a tradition as the Rochester Americans. The opportunity to work within the Sabres organization, and to develop players at the game’s highest level, is an opportunity that I am committed to and embrace.”

Rolston joins the Americans after seven seasons as a head coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP), where he led the U.S. Under-18 team to three gold medals and a silver medal as head coach at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Under-18 Championship, including the 2011 tournament in Germany.

Last season, Rolston also led Team USA to titles in the 2011 Five Nations Tournament and in the 2010 Four Nations Cup. Rolston’s U.S. National Under-18 Team had a 12-9-1-2 record in United States Hockey League play last season, helping the NTDP reach the USHL postseason for the first time. In June, he received the 2011 Bob Johnson Award from USA Hockey, which recognizes excellence in international competition during a season.

The longest-tenured and most decorated head coach in NTDP history, Rolston guided his teams to five medals and multiple tournament championships in international competition. He is the only coach in U.S. history to win three gold medals in the Under-18 World Championship (2005, 2009, 2011). His team also captured a silver medal in the 2007 Under-18 World Championship, and they never missed a championship game in either of the two major NTDP tournaments, the IIHF World Under-18 Championship and the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

Rolston, 44, joined USA Hockey after being as an assistant coach at four NCAA Division I hockey programs between 1990 and 2004, winning national championships in 1992 and 1994 with Lake Superior State University. He was an assistant at Boston College from 2002-04 and also was the top assistant at Harvard from 1999-2002 and an assistant at Clarkson (1996-99) and Lake Superior (1990-95).

Besides winning two national titles at Lake Superior, Rolston also helped led the team to three straight NCAA national championship games and four CCHA tournament titles in his five-year stint. He was elevated to associate head coach for the Lakers in 1994, and his younger brother, 16-year NHL veteran Brian Rolston, was a member of the 1992 and ’93 teams that Ron helped coach.

A native of Fenton, Mich., Rolston attended Michigan Tech University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business management and was a three-year hockey letterman with the Huskies (1986-89), serving as an alternate captain in his senior season. … The Adirondack Phantoms re-signed veteran forward Denis Hamel, who led the team in scoring last season with 25 goals and 50 points despite not joining them until November. Hamel ranks 16th in AHL history with 315 goals, 43rd in points with 605 and 34th with 776 games over his 11 AHL seasons with Adirondack, Binghamton and Rochester. The 34-year-old native of Lachute, Quebec, also has 19 goals and 12 assists in 192 NHL games with the Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Atlanta and Philadelphia Flyers. He was voted a first team AHL All-Star in 2003-04 and has participated in three AHL All-Star Classics (2000, 2006, 2008). He earned a share of the Willie Marshall Award in 2005-06 after tying for the AHL lead with 56 goals and won the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award as the AHL’s Man of the Year in recognition of his community efforts in 2008.

REFERENDUM VOTE NEARS

Long Island hockey and non-hockey fans will vote on referendum vote Monday to create a state-of-the-art sports entertainment destination center that would include a minor-league ballpark and be built adjacent to the 39-year-old Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale.

Taxpayers would own the new arena, as well as surrounding development rights. If the plan is approved, it will create more than 1,500 construction jobs and more than 3,000 permanent jobs in Nassau County. The New York Islanders would pay all construction fees over and above the initial $350 million cost, as well as all costs that are related to the planning, designing and architecture of the new coliseum.

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