FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

The New York Rangers remained in a signing mode Thursday as they agreed to terms with first-round pick J.T. Miller on a three-year entry-level contract.

The signing of the 18-year-old forward from East Palestine, Ohio, came a day after the Rangers re-signed former Hartford Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan to a three-year, $12.825 contract, wrapping up the team’s core players for at least several years.

Within a week, the Rangers also signed Callahan’s former Wolf Pack linemate, Brandon Dubinsky (four year, $16.8 million) and veteran defenseman Steve Eminger (one year, $800,000). The signing of Dubinsky and Callahan prevented the Rangers from having to go to salary arbitration for the first time since they walked away from a $3.9 million award to Nikolai Zherdev in 2009. The Rangers earlier re-signed former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer and center Artem Anisimov, re-signed unrestricted free agent wing Ruslan Fedotenko and added free agent center Brad Richards and forward/enforcer Michael Rupp. They also re-signed Connecticut Whale right wings Dale Weise and Chad Kolarik, and the Whale re-signed forward Kelsey Tessier and defensemen Jared Nightingale, Blake Parlett and Stu Bickel and signed forward Kale Kerbashian.

Miller, the 15th overall pick on June 24, accelerated his path to the NHL even before signing Thursday when he recently reconsidered playing at the University of North Dakota. Though he is eligible to play for the Whale because he was drafted out of the United States Hockey League, Miller most likely will spend this season with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. By playing in juniors, his contract would slide back via terms of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement.

Miller, who participated in the Rangers prospects camp the week after being drafted, led Team USA in scoring (four goals and nine assists in six games) as the Americans won the gold medal at the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation U-18 World Championships in Germany. He tied for third in tournament scoring and was named the top player on the U.S. team by tournament coaches.

Last season, Miller had career highs in goals (11), assists (26) and points (37) in 48 games for the U.S. National Under-18 Team. He also had two goals and three assists in four games at the Four Nations Cup in Sundsvall, Sweden, and added one goal and five assists in four games in the Five Nations Tournament in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Miller has 26 goals and 42 assists in 95 games in two seasons with the U.S. National Development Team. In 2009-10, he set USHL career highs in goals (15) and power-play goals (four) and added 16 assists in 46 games with the U.S. National Under-17 Team. He also helped Team USA to first place at the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Timmins, Ontario, with a team-high five goals and finishing second on the team in scoring with nine points.

By opting not to play college hockey, he will be able to skate with the Rangers in training camp, which starts Sept. 15 at the team’s training center in Greenburgh, N.Y., and begin to get a better idea of how he measures up against NHL players. Before that, Miller will participate in the prospects tournament Sept. 10-14 in Traverse City, Mich.

PROSPECTS TOURNAMENT ON MSG NETWORK

If Whale fans want to get an early look at Miller and some of their favorites this season and in the future, they’ll be able to see them in mid-September when MSG Network televises the prospects tournament. The Rangers will play in the Gretzky Division against St. Louis on Sept. 10 at 7 p.m., Dallas on Sept. 11 at 6 p.m. and Carolina on Sept. 13 at 3:30 p.m. There also will be a classification game on Sept. 14 based on records from the Gretzky and Howe Division, which includes teams from Detroit, Buffalo, Columbus and Minnesota. The final day will feature the top seeds in the championship game, as well as the other teams in the third, fifth and seventh place games.

Coverage will include behind-the-scene access to the Rangers coaches and scouting teams and interviews with the prospects. Among the Rangers prospects expected to play are goalies Jason Missiaen and Scott Stajcer, defensemen Dylan McIlrath, Tim Erixon and possibly Mikhail Pashnin (if he signs) and forwards Miller, Carl Hagelin, Ryan Bourque, Christian Thomas, Tommy Grant, Andrew Yogan and Jason Wilson. The previous 13 tournaments have included future Rangers such as Dubinsky, Callahan, Sauer, Anisimov, Derek Stepan and former Wolf Pack players Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. The NHL Network also might show some games.

SATHER BACKS REFERENDUM

The New York Islanders have a major rival in their corner as Long Island hockey and non-hockey fans prepare to vote Monday on a referendum 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 home of the NHL team, Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale.

Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather issued a statement through the team Thursday that said, “The rivalry that has existed between the Rangers and Islanders for almost 40 years is one of the best in hockey and in all of sports. The intense passion and emotion involved in these games is something we cherish and would like to see continue for generations to come. We urge Rangers fans, Islanders fans and all hockey fans in Nassau County to vote yes for the referendum on Monday, August 1.”

So for at least a few days, there will be no “Potvin —–” chants from Rangers fans as backers of the project push for passage of the referendum, the first step in replacing the antiquated Nassau Coliseum. 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 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.

DEVILS, ISLANDERS SWAP VETERAN FORWARDS

The New Jersey Devils traded veteran forward Brian Rolston to the Islanders for former Bridgeport Sound Tigers wing Trent Hunter on Thursday.

The move will save the Devils a little more than $3 million in salary cap space this season. Hunter has two seasons left on his contract, which pays $2 million per season.

“Every deal is different,” Islanders general manager Garth Snow told NHL.com. “This took a lot of conversations, and we’re extremely happy to finalize the transaction to bring Brian Rolston to the New York Islanders. We’re gonna look at every option to make our team better. Like this transaction, if we can find a player that will help us get to the next level, we’ll pursue it.”

The move by Devils GM Lou Lamoriello will help to re-sign restricted free agent wing Zach Parise to a long-term deal. Parise is scheduled for an arbitration hearing on Aug. 3.

“It was as much a business trade as anything,” Lamoriello told Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Rolston, 38, had 14 goals and 20 assists in 65 games last season and waived the no-trade clause in his contract to join the Islanders.

“I think on the ice, he’s a player that can play the point on the power play and he has a cannon from that position,” Snow said. “He kills penalties, he’s got great leadership qualities and he’s a great veteran presence for us in the locker room. Tremendous work ethic and still a very strong skater. We’re excited to have him as an Islander now.”

“It’s been a rough ride in Jersey,” Rolston told The Star-Ledger. “I’m actually happy to go to a place that wants me.”

Hunter, 31, joins the Devils after nine seasons in the Islanders’ organization. He has 99 goals and 130 assists in 459 NHL games. A sixth-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 1998, he was acquired by the Islanders on May 23, 2000. He played two seasons with the Sound Tigers before joining the Islanders for good in 2003 and was limited to only 17 games last season because of a torn MCL, finishing with one goal and three assists.

MACTAVISH TO COACH WOLVES?

TSN reported former Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish will be named the new coach of the Chicago Wolves.

MacTavish, whose 16-year playing career included winning the Stanley Cup with the Oilers and Rangers, coached Edmonton for eight seasons (2000-01 to 2008-09) and got the team in the playoffs three times, including a memorable run from the eighth seed in 2006 to the finals. In 656 games, he was 301-252-47-56.

MacTavish has worked as an analyst with TSN since being let go by the Oilers. The Wolves are now affiliated with the Vancouver Canucks, whose long time AHL team, the Manitoba Moose, moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and will be affiliated with the new Winnipeg Jets, formerly the Atlanta Thrashers.

ECHL RETURNING TO TRENTON

There will be an ECHL team in Trenton, N.J., this season after all.

Three weeks after the Devils announced they would cease operations of the ECHL franchise, the ECHL Board of Governors unanimously approved a new membership application of the Trenton Titans for admission to the league.

Blue Line Sports LLC of Lawrenceville, with Rich Lisk serving as managing partner, announced Thursday that the new ownership ensured hockey remains in Trenton and will return to its roots as the city joined the ECHL as the Titans in 1999 and won the Kelly Cup in 2005. They will play their games in the Sun National Bank Center and take over the schedule set for the Devils in late April.

“We are extremely pleased that this ownership group has stepped forward to keep professional hockey in Trenton,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said. “We all understand that there is an extraordinary amount of work to be done prior to the season but have confidence that under the leadership of Rich Lisk and his team that the market can once again be a strong member of the ECHL.”

Lisk said, “Having been involved with the original Titans, and what we were able to bring to the Greater Trenton community back then, this is the chance of a lifetime for me. With my staff, I can’t wait to see the smiling faces of fans in the Sun National Bank Center. To those fans, we say, this is your team. From our ownership, through our front office and on-ice operations, we’re all in this together. The Titans are back.”

There was a Titans team in Trenton from 1999 to 2006 before the Devils purchased a majority interest in the franchise on Sept. 21, 2006. The team continued to be affiliated with the nearby Philadelphia Flyers for the 2006-07 season before the NHL Devils took it over and changed the name to Trenton Devils.

Since then, the team has been plagued by steadily declining attendance. The Trenton Devils finished last in the 19-team ECHL last season with an average attendance of 2,390 in a building that holds 7,605 for hockey. A source said the team lost money every season since the Devils assumed ownership. Plus, only a handful of players – defenseman Olivier Magnan and forwards Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and Brad Mills among them – made the jump from Trenton to Lowell/Albany of the AHL to even play in a few games for the NHL team also hampered the ECHL team’s ability to draw fans from an area loyal to the Flyers.

Trenton entered the league in 1999-00 and averaged 5,020 in attendance in their championship season. The new ownership group is working on a deal to become an affiliate of the Flyers again. The ECHL will have 20 teams this season, an increase from 19 last season. … The ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers signed former Wolf Pack forward Paul Crowder. The 6-3, 200-pound Crowder led the Nailers in scoring (four goals, 11 assists) in the team’s run to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the spring. In the regular season, he had eight goals and 16 assists in 36 games with the Utah Grizzlies and Nailers. Before joining the Nailers, Crowder had 12 goals and 14 assists in 76 games with the Wolf Pack in 2009-10. He also had three assists in 11 games with the Wolf Pack in 2009 after completing his collegiate career at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, where he had 32 goals and 48 assists.

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