FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

After a disappointing end to a career/injury-plagued season, it has been a summer to remember for New York Rangers right wing Ryan Callahan.

The former Hartford Wolf Pack standout had NHL highs in goals (23), assists (25), points (48), power-play goals (10) and game-winning goals (five) last season despite missing 22 games with a broken wrist and ankle from doing what he is among the best at doing, blocking shots. Between the injuries, Callahan helped Team USA win a silver medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, and later earned 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 to recognize players’ cooperation with the media.

And Callahan’s importance hardly ended there. He led the Rangers in scoring with 13 goals and 12 assists in 28 games after his return Feb. 1 after missing 19 games with a broken hand sustained on Dec. 15 at Pittsburgh, where a month earlier he had a Gordie Howe Hat Trick with his first NHL overtime goal, a shorthanded assist and a fighting major. At the time of his hand injury, he ranked second in the NHL with 128 hits and was first among forwards with 40 blocked shots. He also was second on the team with a career-high 11 multi-point games, including his first NHL hat trick with four goals and a career-high five points in a 7-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on March 6.

Despite two lengthy absences, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Callahan finished second on the Rangers and 15th in the NHL with 224 hits and was fifth among forwards with 77 blocked shots. And perhaps the most telling stat about Callahan is the Rangers were 14-3-1 when he scored and 24-7-1 when he registered a point.

But while recovering from the ankle injury that ended his season on April 4, Callahan added to his pleasurable year when he married Kyla Allison on June 25 as a lot of folks in these parts were focused on the biggest sporting event in Connecticut, the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.

Then a week ago, Callahan signed a three-year, $12.875 million contract just hours before a scheduled salary arbitration hearing in Toronto. He was the fifth and final Rangers free agent to sign in the offseason, and it came a week after former Wolf Pack linemate Brandon Dubinsky inked a four-year, $16.8 million contract hours before his arbitration hearing. Dubinsky and Callahan were the Rangers’ top two scorers last season while often playing on either side of former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov, who signed a new two-year, $3.7 million free-agent contract on July 8 a few hours after former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer inked a two-year, $2.5 million deal.

“It’s been a great summer with the wedding and getting married and signing a three-year contract with the Rangers, knowing I’ll be a Ranger for a while,” Callahan told BlueshirtsUnited.com. “It’s an exciting summer, one of the best I’ll ever have, I think.”

Callahan said his ankle, broken when hit by a shot by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, has healed and he said he will be 100 percent healthy when players report to training camp Sept. 15. Chara won the hardest shot contest at the NHL All-Star Game skills competition.

“The ankle is fine and I’ve been skating for three weeks so there’s been no issues there,” said Callahan, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and now the heart-and-soul of the Rangers. “I’m excited to get back to work in New York.”

The 26-year-old Callahan is also excited the Rangers have re-signed their core of players and added free agents Brad Richards and Michael Rupp.

“It means a lot to us players to see management backing up what they have been saying that they are trying to build something here, starting with the core, and signing us all to multi-year deals,” Callahan said. “It shows us that we are the ones they want to go into the future with, so now we have to live up to that on our end. Next year looks really good for us, and we have to enter the year thinking we are top competitors who can go out and win this year.”

Most consider Callahan, an alternate captain and winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award in 2009 and 2010, the frontrunner to replace bought-out Trumbull native Chris Drury as captain of the Rangers. Richards and All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, another former Wolf Packer, are other leading contenders, but coach John Tortorella said he won’t decide on Drury’s successor until training camp.

“We have a lot of leaders on this team, though there is a bit of a void there losing Chris and what he brought to the table,” Callahan said. “But at the same time we have great group of guys in there where so many of them could be named captain and lead the way and do a great job at it. For me, the C, an A, whatever, I am going to continue to do what I do, go out there and work hard every night and set the right example. And for the other guys, whether you have a letter or not, we still need them to lead.”

Callahan epitomizes what you want in a professional athlete and would make an excellent successor to someone who has displayed similar attributes and hopefully finds a job with another NHL team.

Meanwhile, Callahan could soon be playing with two of the Bleacher Report’s Top 25 prospects. Defenseman Tim Erixon, the Calgary Flames’ No. 1 pick (23rd overall) in 2009 whom the Rangers acquired for two second-rounders and wing Roman Horak on June 1, was ranked No. 19 and is expected to have a good shot to start in the NHL in October. Left wing Chris Kreider, the 19th overall pick in 2009 whom the Rangers wanted to join them this season but opted to return to Boston College for his junior year, was rated 22nd. The speedy wing is seen as a possible linemate with high-scoring Richards and Marian Gaborik next season.

Bleacher Report’s top-ranked prospect is Swedish goalie Jakob Markström, the second-round pick (31st overall) of the Florida Panthers in 2008 who carried his World Junior Championship team to a bronze and silver medal in his two years. But even more impressive is he has taken over the Swedish No. 2 spot, starting in the World Championships in 2010 when Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was still in the playoffs. Markstrom constantly kept the last-place Rochester Americans in games last season while posting a somewhat bloated 2.98 goals-against average and a solid .907 save percentage. It was an impressive rookie season for a youngster having to adjust to smaller rinks in North America.

The Panthers, who will be coached by former Hartford Whalers right wing and captain Kevin Dineen, signed goalie Jose Theodore this offseason but failed to bring back Tomas Vokoun, signaling they are ready to hand over the No. 1 reins to Markström. He should alternate games with Theodore like the Canadian did with then-Washington Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov in 2009.

ISLANDERS SIGN FORMER SOUND TIGERS FORWARD

A day after voters rejected a referendum to bankroll a $400 million state-of-the-art sports arena to replace antiquated Nassau Coliseum, the New York Islanders returned to the hockey business and signed restricted free agent forward Blake Comeau to a one-year, $2.5 million contract, avoiding an arbitration hearing with the former Bridgeport Sound Tigers standout on Thursday.

Like Callahan, the 25-year-old Comeau picked a great time to have a career year as he had NHL highs in goals (24), assists (22), points (46), games played (77) and penalty minutes (43) last season.

With the signing of Comeau, a second-round pick in 2004, the Islanders’ payroll for this season increased to about $47 million, according to capgeek.com. They are still $1.3 million short of the salary cap floor but still have to sign restricted free agent Josh Bailey, the ninth overall pick in 2008.

The Islanders added payroll last week in a trade with the New Jersey Devils. They acquired forward Brian Rolston and his $5 million salary for forward Trent Hunter, who will make $2 million in each of the next two seasons. The Devils waived Hunter and defenseman Colin White on Monday and bought out both contracts on Tuesday, making each player an unrestricted free agent.

After signing a three year entry-level deal and being rushed to the NHL, Bailey had only 23 goals and 36 assists in 141 games in his first two seasons. After a strong start last season, Bailey was injured, and when he came back and had no points in a 13-game stretch, the Islanders sent him to the Sound Tigers for the first time in late November after he had played 159 NHL games, one before he would have had to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL. Bailey had six goals and 11 assists in 11 games with the Sound Tigers before being recalled. He finished with 11 goals and 17 assists in 70 games with the Islanders, who want to sign him for less money than the $1,725,000 cap hit he earned the last three seasons.

Regardless what the Islanders decide to do with the 21-year-old Bailey, Comeau was the most important restricted free agent left on general manager Garth Snow’s to-do list this summer. By re-signing Comeau and fellow youngsters Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner, Snow has insured most of the Islanders young core of forwards will be back next season. Since Comeau signed for only one year, Snow will revisit Comeau while also trying to lock-down franchise forward John Tavaras, the first overall pick in 2009.

While Snow has been successful off the ice, the Islanders were disappointed that Long Island voters didn’t approve funding for a new arena adjacent the 39-year-old Nassau Coliseum, their home since they entered the NHL in 1972. Despite the setback, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would strive to keep the Islanders from leaving Uniondale when the team’s lease expires in 2015.

Meanwhile, Nassau County officials announced plans to open the 77-acre parcel to any developer interested in proposing new ideas for the site adjacent to Nassau Coliseum. Nassau County residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the country, and while supporters of the referendum claimed tax increases would average $14 to $58 a year, the referendum failed 57 percent to 43 percent as voters opted against spending public money to benefit the privately owned Islanders.

County executive Edward Mangano supported the referendum as a way to keep the Islanders from leaving and to spur economic development and job growth. He said he would welcome proposals from Islanders owner Charles Wang and anyone else. Wang, whose 2003 plan for a multi-billion-dollar private development of the properly foundered amid community opposition, was expected to issue a statement Wednesday.

After the vote was announced Monday night, Wang said he was heartbroken but did not want to give any immediate specifics about the team’s future other than pledging to honor the Islanders’ lease through 2015.

In a statement Tuesday, Bettman said the NHL would work with the Islanders “to explore whatever options still may be available in light of what obviously is not a positive development. Our goal is for the team to remain on Long Island, and we still hope that objective can be realized.”

Mangano said he wants to keep the Islanders in the county but was willing to listen to alternate ideas for the land. He set a deadline of Aug. 12 for developers to submit proposals but admitted he would extend the time if necessary.

After Mangano’s announcement, the Association for a Better Long Island, a real estate group that opposed the referendum, issued a conciliatory statement.

“He has appropriately challenged the private sector to present to him innovative ideas and options that achieve the strategic objective of a new coliseum and synergistic development,” ABLI board member Vincent Polimeni said. “We accept that challenge.”

Because Wang has said he would have to consider his options for the Islanders’ future if the referendum failed, some have speculated he could sell the franchise or move it to another city. Last week the computer software mogul said he has lost nearly $240 million since buying the team 11 years ago. Some have said the team could move to the new Barclays Center being built for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets in Brooklyn, N.Y., but a Suffolk County politician lobbied Wang last week to consider moving to eastern Long Island.

SHARP GETS FIVE-YEAR EXTENSION; WEBER AWARDED $7.5 MILLION

Chicago Blackhawks coach and former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville has to be delighted the team has taken care of the biggest remaining piece of their puzzle.

Popular and versatile forward Patrick Sharp, heading into the final season of his current contract, signed a five-year extension for a reported $29.5 million on Wednesday, joining a star-studded cast of core players who are signed long-term. The 29-year old Sharp finished eighth in the NHL last season with 34 goals, which led the team and was a personal best, as was his 71 points. He also was named MVP of the NHL All-Star Game.

Sharp’s versatility is one of his strongest traits as he has shifted easily from center to wing and played equally well on the first or second line. In the 2011 playoffs, Sharp finished second on the team with three goals and also had two assists in a first-round seven-game playoff series loss to the Vancouver Canucks. The season before, Sharp tied for the team lead in playoff goals with 11 and totaled 22 points to help the Blackhawks win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators and captain Shea Weber were hoping to avoid salary arbitration on Tuesday, but they couldn’t reach an agreement and the standout defenseman turned out to be the big winner.

Weber reportedly was awarded a one-year contract worth $7.5 million by the independent arbiter who presided over his hearing in Toronto. Weber, who earned $4.5 million last season, when he was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, reportedly asked for an $8.5 million reward while the Predators countered at $4.75 million. Weber could again be a restricted free agent after this season as he is not eligible to become an unrestricted free agent under the current rules in the collective bargaining agreement until July 1, 2013.

According to capgeek.com, Weber’s $7.5 million award puts the Predators over the salary cap floor of $48.3 million. Their payroll now totals $48.7 million.

Weber had 48 points in 82 games last season, his first as the Predators’ captain. He helped the team advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

FORMER WHALERS WING JOINS FALCONS STAFF

Former Whalers and Beast of New Haven wing Nolan Pratt has been named an assistant coach with the Springfield Falcons. Pratt, who will be 36 on Aug. 11, joins the staff of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ top affiliate that already included head coach Rob Riley and assistant Brad Larsen.

The Whalers’ fifth pick in 1993 had nine goals and 56 assists in 592 NHL games in a 14-year pro career with the Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres from 1996 to 2008. He played with the Whalers and Hurricanes in 1996-2001 and helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004. After the 2007-08 season with the Sabres, he played in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for Amur Khabarovski in 2008-10 before ending his career with Lukko in Finland last season.

Pratt began his pro playing career with the Falcons in 1995-96 when he helped them win the Northern Division championship. He returned to the Falcons for the 1996-97 season, helping them reach the Calder Cup semifinals.

In other AHL news, Sebastien Laplante and Mike Van Ryn were named assistant coaches of the Western Conference champion Houston Aeros under John Torchetti, and the Abbotsford Heat, the top affiliate of the Flames, named 15-year NHL veteran Ryan Walter the president of Abbotsford Heat Hockey Ltd.

FOUR TO ENTER U.S. HOCKEY HALL OF FAME

The newest members of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame are defensemen Chris Chelios and Gary Suter, forward Keith Tkachuk, Flyers founder and owner Ed Snider and broadcaster Mike “Doc” Emrick. The 39th U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction dinner and ceremony will be in Chicago on a date to be determined.

Chelios and Suter combined for 43 seasons on NHL blue lines. Chelios played a record-tying 26 seasons – six with the Montreal Canadiens, nine with the Chicago Blackhawks and 10 with the Detroit Red Wings before ending his career with the former Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets) in 2009-10 at the age of 48. He retired as the oldest U.S.-born hockey player and the second oldest in NHL history behind former Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, who retired at 52 in 1980 with the Whalers. Chelios currently works as the executive advisor to Detroit GM Ken Holland.

A three-time Stanley Cup champion and three-time Norris Trophy winner, Chelios had 185 goals, 663 assists and 2,891 penalty minutes in 1,651 regular-season games. His 266 Stanley Cup games are the most in NHL history. The Chicago native also is one of only two players to skate in four Olympics (1984, 1998, 2002, 2006) and represented the U.S. in three Canada Cups (1984, 1987, 1991), the World Cup of Hockey (1996, 2004) and the World Junior Championship (1982).

Tkachuk played 19 seasons in the NHL with four teams, totaling 538 goals in 1,200 regular-season games. He’s one of only four U.S.-born players to score 500 goals, joining Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick and Joe Mullen. The five-time All-Star also had 525 assists, 538 assists and 2,219 penalty minutes. In 1996-97 with the Phoenix Coyotes, he became the first U.S.-born player to lead the NHL in goals (52) and was the fourth player in NHL history to record at least 50 goals and 200 penalty minutes in a single season.

Tkachuk, who played collegiately at Boston University, represented the U.S. at the World Junior Championship in 1991 and ’92, getting nine goals and seven assists in 14 games. The native of Melrose, Mass., joins Chelios as the only players to skate in four Olympics for the U.S. (1992, 1998, 2002, 2006) and also played in two World Championships (1996, 2004).

Suter joined the NHL in 1985-86 after two years at the University of Wisconsin. The native of Madison, Wis., won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie after getting 18 goals and 50 assists in 80 games with the Flames. The four-time All-Star also helped lead the Flames to a Stanley Cup in 1989. In his 17-year NHL career, Suter had 845 points in 1,145 games. He also teamed with Chelios and Tkachuk in Team USA’s silver medal-winning effort at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. He spent four-plus seasons with the Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks.

Suter’s impressive international career included the 1998 Olympics, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, two Canada Cups, two World Championships and one World Junior Championship. Suter’s brother, Bob, was a member of the “Miracle on Ice” team that won gold at the 1980 Olympics, and his nephew, Ryan, is a star defenseman for the Nashville Predators.

Snider, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, enters the U.S. Hall of Fame in the builder’s category. He was the driving force behind the NHL coming to Philadelphia in 1967 and the construction of the Spectrum and the Flyers’ current home, the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers were the first of the original expansion teams to win the Stanley Cup, in 1974, and the team would win again the next season. In 1980, Snider was presented the Lester Patrick Trophy for his contributions to hockey in the United States, and five years later he was elected to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. He also has been recognized by the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Flyers Hall of Fame.

Snider also is the creator of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which offers underprivileged children in the Philadelphia area an opportunity to learn the game at local rinks. In 1999, the Philadelphia Daily News selected him as Philadelphia’s greatest “mover and shaker” of the millennium. The current chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, the Flyers’ parent company, was born in Washington, D.C.

Emrick, a native of LaFontaine, Ind., was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008. He spent more than two decades with MSG and the New Jersey Devils before announcing on July 21 that he’d work exclusively for NBC Sports and Versus, which has been rebranded NBC Sports Network by NBC.

Emrick acquired the nickname “Doc” after receiving a doctorate in radio/television/film from Bowling Green State University in 1976. He received the Lester Patrick Award in 2004 and the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his contributions to hockey broadcasting in 2008. He has called 13 Stanley Cup finals as the lead national announcer on NBC, Versus, Fox and ESPN, and 23 Game 7s. He won a national Emmy Award for Outstanding Sports Personality – Play by Play in 2011, and has earned many regional awards, including seven local Emmy awards.

Emrick also has broadcast hockey at five Olympics and branched out to broadcast women’s ice hockey at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, and even did water polo at the 2004 Summer Olympics. He has become the voice of hockey in the United States, and for those in or out of the game, it’s a welcoming tone. During his time as Devils announcer (1983-86, 1993-2011), the team won three Stanley Cups. Because of his national network obligations he called 59 games last season with the Devils and felt now was the time to reduce his workload. Emrick, who celebrated his 65th birthday Monday, is the first media member inducted into the Hall but has the same status as the other four members of the Class of 2011.

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