FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

To the surprise of virtually no one, former Hartford Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan was named the 26th captain of the New York Rangers on Monday.

Callahan succeeds Trumbull native Chris Drury, who retired on Aug. 19 after the final year of his five-year, $35.25 million contract was bought out by the Rangers on June 30. Drury sat out most of the 2010-11 season with finger and knee injuries, finishing with only one goal and four assists in 24 games. He missed 68 games, which was more than in his first 11 NHL seasons combined, and then he couldn’t latch on with another team.

“Obviously it’s a privilege and an honor to be able to wear a C on a team, but how I’m going to approach it is the same as when I wore an A,” Callahan told reporters after a players workout at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. “With things on the ice and off the ice, I feel there’s a reason I got the A, and I am going to continue that now with the C.

“Obviously there comes a little bit more leadership role with it and some more responsibility, but at the same time I have to continue to do what I do and not have the letter on my sweater affect my game or how I approach a game. It’s a little bit surreal, to be honest, but it’s nice to see my hard work and dedication to the game has paid off here.”

Fittingly, Callahan, 26, is the first homegrown player to be named captain since Cheshire native Brian Leetch in October 1997. Leetch was captain until 2000, when he was replaced by close friend Mark Messier, who had rejoined the Rangers after three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. Jaromir Jagr and Drury followed Leetch and preceded Callahan.

“Ryan Callahan embodies all the leadership qualities we seek from our captain,” Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said in a statement announcing Callahan’s appointment. “He leads by example with courage and a tireless work ethic on and off the ice, which is why he is so deserving of this honor.”

Sather also announced the team’s two alternate captains would be former Wolf Pack defenseman Marc Staal, 24, a NHL All-Star for the first time last season, and center Brad Richards, 31, the free-agent plum this year who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract with the Rangers on July 2. The choices by Rangers coach John Tortorella and his staff seem a perfect mix of an energetic, gritty, outspoken homegrown forward (Callahan), a more reserved but equally respected homegrown defenseman (Staal) and an 11-year NHL veteran who is the team’s new No. 1 center and power-play quarterback with a past relationship with the coach (Richards).

Callahan has been a Rangers alternate captain the last two seasons after being named on Oct. 2, 2009, was the de facto captain in Drury’s absence last season and has been organizing team workouts the past few weeks at the MSG training center. Considered by many as a young clone of Drury, Callahan was the Rangers’ fourth-round pick (127th overall) in 2004, started his pro career as an All-Star with the Wolf Pack and expanded his game and character to the extent that he won a silver medal with Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and is a two-time winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award (2008-09 and 2009-10).

“I started here as a draft pick, going to the prospects camps, heading to Traverse City (Mich.) and everything, so being named captain here is a surreal feeling,” said Callahan, who was informed of his appointment by Tortorella on Friday. “And I learned from watching (Chris Drury). The way he approached the game and the way he was so professional on and off the ice, the way he carried himself, he never got too high, never got too low, he was always in the room at kind of an even keel. At times if he needed to be emotional with the team he would be, but he approached the game the same way every night. It’s like how I go about things.”

Tortorella has repeatedly lauded Callahan for his highly professional demeanor at a young age, something he showed in one season (2006-07) and an 11-game rehabilitation stint in Hartford, where he had 42 goals and 28 assists in 71 games and scored the winning goal in the 2007 AHL All-Star Game with three seconds left. Tortorella reiterated similar thoughts to reporters Monday, when he acknowledged picking a second alternate to Staal was more difficult than choosing Callahan to be captain. He said having Staal and Richards as alternates to Callahan “was the right mix.”

“Cally has the respect of his teammates, the respect of his coaches and the respect of the organization,” Tortorella said. “He does it the right way on the ice, and he does it the right way off the ice. To be captain of the New York Rangers is a cool thing, an Original Six Team. He has matured into this. He fits (the captaincy). ”

Tortorella then talked about the identity that the Rangers established last season with a hard-working, blue-collar group.

“Straight ahead. No nonsense,” Tortorella said before stopping and asking, “Who am I talking about? The hockey club or Cally?”

Last season, Callahan won the Players’ Player Award, as voted by his teammates, and the John Halligan Good Guy Award, given by the New York chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association in recognition of cooperation with the media, something he also displayed while with the Wolf Pack. On July 27, he signed a three-year, $12.825 million contract, avoiding arbitration as a restricted free agent.

Callahan has 76 goals, 68 assists and 179 penalty minutes in 284 NHL regular-season games and is one of the game’s best shot blockers, which is why he missed 22 games last season when he sustained a broken hand and ankle when he blocked shots. The second break came in the penultimate game of the regular season, and his absence was a major reason the Rangers were eliminated in five games in the first round of the playoffs by the Washington Capitals.

But Callahan still had his most productive season with career highs in goals (23), assists (25) and points (48), finishing second on the team in scoring to former Wolf Pack linemate Brandon Dubinsky (54 points). He had his first career NHL hat trick with four goals and a career-high five points in a 7-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on March 6 and scored his first career penalty shot against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 30.

Fittingly, Callahan made his NHL debut on Dec. 1, 2006 in Buffalo, not far from where he grew up in Rochester, N.Y. He scored his first NHL point in a two-goal performance against the Boston Bruins on March 17, 2007 after being called up from the Wolf Pack. He registered his 100th NHL point with an assist on the game-winning goal at Boston last Oct. 23.

Callahan has a tough act to follow in Drury, who was a winner from the time he pitched and hit Trumbull to a stunning win over Chinese Taipei in the 1989 Little League World Series. He later excelled at Fairfield Prep with his older brother Ted and at Boston University, where he helped the Terriers win the national championship as a freshman and then won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player as a senior.

Drury, a third-round pick of the former Quebec Nordiques in 1994 at the then-Hartford Civic Center, won the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year in 1999 after the Nordiques moved to Colorado and helped the Avalanche win a Stanley Cup in 2001. The only player to win both the Hobey Baker Award and Calder Trophy was a three-time Olympian and finished with 255 goals and 360 assists in 892 NHL games with the Avalanche, Rangers, Calgary Flames and Buffalo Sabres, where he was a co-captain before signing with the Blueshirts.

“Chris is a consummate professional, a tremendous competitor and an even better person,” Sather said in a statement at the time of Drury’s buyout. “He gave his heart and soul to the Rangers organization in his time here and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Drury received $3,333,333, and the Rangers incurred a $3.7 million of dead space against the salary cap this season and $1.7 million next season, provided those guidelines remain the same under a new collective bargaining agreement.

The Rangers saved about $1.5 million, which was used to sign Richards, who had 28 goals and 49 assists in 72 games with the Dallas Stars last season, increasing his career totals to 220 goals and 496 assists in 10 NHL seasons with the Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning. He was an alternate captain with the Lightning and Stars and has a strong link with Tortorella as the two won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay in 2004, when Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Richards told reporters that it has been evident to him since he joined his new teammates for informal skates that Callahan is a strong leader and a perfect candidate.

“It’s very easy to have (Callahan) as your leader,” Richards said. “You just see the way he plays. And I’m just getting to know him, but I’ve been told what kind of guy he is. And Marc is a great guy, too. I have been getting to hang out a lot with him. He’s a really good guy, and another warrior just like Cally. They are the young core and will be here a long time. I’m just here to help them out.”

Staal, the second oldest of four brothers in pro hockey and the Rangers’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2005, was named an alternate captain for the first time last season when Vinny Prospal was injured. He was paired with former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi and played in the All-Star Game against Richards and with older brother Eric, a center with the Carolina Hurricanes. Staal had seven goals and career highs in assists (22) and points (29) in 77 games last season, when he proposed to his longtime girlfriend Lindsay on Christmas Day. On Aug. 12, Staal married the girl he has known since high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Callahan knows Staal well, and the two alternate captains from last season worked well together in the leadership role. Richards is the new man in the mix, but Callahan will welcome his input.

“I talked to Richie a little bit, obviously he seems like a tremendous guy,” said Callahan, who was captain his last two seasons of junior hockey with the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League. “He’s a winner. There are things I need to learn from him, too. He’s won a Stanley Cup and he’s been through it. I think we’re all going to work together. There are guys in this room who don’t have letters who are leaders, too. I’m going to lean on them, they’re going to lean on me. It’s going to be a fun ride.”

Callahan, Staal and Richards make their debut as the “leadership team” Friday when the Rangers open training camp in Greenburgh. I don’t know Richards and have had limited time with Staal, but I can assure all Rangers and Wolf Pack/Whale fans that the Rangers couldn’t have replaced Drury with anyone who tries harder or is more respected by teammates and opponents alike. Kind of like another famous right wing in Hartford hockey history. A guy named Kevin Dineen, the last captain of the Whalers who appropriately scored the final goal, a game-winner, in the last game in franchise history against Tampa Bay on April 13, 1997.

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