SPOTLIGHT: PROSPECT BUILDING

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

The New York Rangers have always put a competitive top affiliate in Hartford, one that appears poised to compete for a 14th playoff berth in 15 seasons.

But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there weren’t many top young prospects cruising around the Hartford Civic Center. Sure the Wolf Pack won the only professional hockey title in Hartford history in 2000, but even that team was filled with veterans such as captain/now Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander, Derek Armstrong, Brad Smyth, Jason Dawe, Terry Virtue, Drew Bannister and J.F. Labbe.

But since the NHL lockout in the 2004-05 season, the Rangers have become a more homegrown team, with the likes of world-class goalie Henrik Lundqvist and numerous drafted players who started their pro career in Hartford, such as All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, captain Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer and Artem Anisimov. And Michael Del Zotto has gotten back on track this season after a stint with the Whale last season.

“For a couple of years now, we’ve tried to stick with the young corps and build up with that,” Callahan said after the Rangers’ 3-0 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday night. “We’ve made some additions, but at the same time, we’ve stuck together and learned the system together and are starting to come together.”

The 26-year-old Callahan, who had 35 goals, and scored the winner in the AHL All-Star Game with three seconds left, in his only full season with the Wolf Pack in 2006-07, flashed a familiar smile when asked if he was a young guy or a veteran.

“I like to look at myself as a young guy, but I don’t think I can any more,” said Callahan, who succeeded Trumbull native Chris Drury as Rangers captain. “I think I’m one of the veteran guys now. The young guys of old are no longer young, and are the guys they look to go to if we have to produce.”

High-scoring wing Marian Gaborik and center Brad Richards have been the Rangers’ most significant recent acquisitions, while second-year center Derek Stepan, goalie Martin Biron, defenseman Steve Eminger and veteran forwards Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko have proven to be valuable commodities on and off the ice.

But even before the season started, Rangers coach John Tortorella said that despite the addition of Richards and Mike Rupp, who had knee surgery on Wednesday and will be out 4-to-6 weeks, it was imperative that young players be added to the mix.

“We have to continue to try to infuse more youth into our lineup,” Tortorella said. “During the summer, we went in a direction that got a couple of veteran guys, I think that’s where we are in our process after going with a really young team, still a young team. We added some people at the other end who can mentor, but you can’t forget about back-filling with youth and growing that way.”

Second-year wing Mats Zuccarello, rookie wings Carl Hagelin, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Ryan Bourque and Tommy Grant and rookie defensemen Tim Erixon and Blake Parlett head the list of young prospects in Hartford. Right wing Chad Kolarik would also be in the group, but he’s recovering from knee surgery. And left wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ top prospect after being a first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, opted to stay at Boston College for his junior year when many believed he could have played for the Rangers this season.

Gernander said the business of hockey after the NHL’s lockout season changed the landscape of how teams are built due to a new salary cap, which prevented teams from trying to “buy” a Stanley Cup title. And around that time, the Rangers had a lot of draft picks for several years, and many played together in Hartford, forming a bond and camaraderie while continuing a winning tradition that has been carried on to the next level.

“To develop from within is critical because if you’re going to try to go out and get your team only through free agency, you’re going to run out of cap space before you know it,” Gernander said. “That being said, the Rangers have done a good job drafting and have gotten quality kids who are young and come up through the system together, hopefully creating some bonds and becoming a core that you are just looking to maybe complement here and there.”

Jess Rubenstein, one of the leading analysts of junior and college hockey at The Prospect Park, said, via e-mail, “The Rangers have made a huge investment in the entire scouting and development process. They have six amateur scouts in North America, four covering Europe and three guys covering the professional side. In addition to the scouts, you will see (director of player personnel) Gordie Clark, Glen Sather, (assistant GM) Jeff Gorton, Mark Messier, Adam Graves and others on the road looking at and checking on the prospects.

“The more eyes that the Rangers put on a possible draft pick the better chance they can spot a weakness that someone else might miss. The Rangers have hired some of the most experienced scouts covering the NHL. It is not just former players but former coaches and general managers who are doing the scouting. They know what it takes to build a program, and it is paying off.”

Rubenstein said the Rangers are also making investments behind the scenes that help build tomorrow’s players, starting with the annual post-draft camp at the team’s practice facility.

“The Rangers work with the prospects to help teach them how to get the most out of their training,” Rubenstein said. “Whether it be weight room work, on-ice skills or even their diet, the Rangers have invested in strength and conditioning coaches and skating coaches. These prospects are given chances to work with guys like Messier and Graves. The prospects are also fans, so when a Messier offers a suggestion, it has an impact.”

Rubenstein said prospects also have to be impacted by talking to each other during the season.

“The prospects know what the other prospects are doing, as friendships are being formed before they enter the system, and that alone goes a long way towards building chemistry,” Rubenstein said. “During the offseason, you are seeing prospects working out with each other even when they are not at a Rangers camp.”

Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller also deserve credit for developing the players they are given and can get satisfaction in seeing some who started their pro careers in Hartford filling nearly half of the Rangers roster and others being used to acquire assets via the occasional trade.

“We’re here to help develop kids and help push them to the next level, so that’s good,” said Gernander, whose team plays at St. John’s on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. “But at the end of the day, it’s the kids putting in the work, it’s the kids who have the courage to do those things and take the initiative. We’re here to help them and support them and take pride in that and take pride in our job, but most of it is the kids doing it. And it’s important to get the right kind of kids, which is part of your staff or your organization recognizing certain traits or characteristics when they draft kids.”

The Rangers have needed sound character and contributions from everyone this season, with Staal on injured reserve because of post-concussion symptoms and the team having to travel nearly 20,000 miles to play their last four preseason games and first seven regular-season games away from Madison Square Garden, which is undergoing a $850 million renovation over three years. No one wanted to use fatigue as an excuse, especially Tortorella, but spending so much time playing in six countries spanning nine time zones left little time for practice or rest.

But after a sluggish start that included regulation and shootout losses in their first two home games, the Rangers (8-3-3) found their sea legs, have won five in a row and have points in six straight games to climb into a tie for second in the Atlantic Division with the Philadelphia Flyers after a 3-2 victory at Ottawa on Wednesday night. The Rangers’ 4-1-1 record at MSG is their best start at home through six games in 19 years.

“I think it has been a matter of just keeping it simple, getting pucks deep and working down low,” Callahan said. “We’re creating a lot of our opportunities off the cycle and off in-zone time, and when we’re doing that is when we have success. … It has felt good to be home. Obviously we were on a pretty long road trip with Europe, coming back home for a week and then out west, so it’s nice to be stringing some wins together at MSG, which is something we need to do to be successful.”

With more time for R&R and to work in practice, the Rangers have started to form their own identity, especially since Tortorella put Richards between Callahan and Dubinsky, and moved Stepan from wing back to center between Gaborik and Anisimov, who was shifted to wing after struggling at center with several line combinations. Wednesday night, Gaborik had two goals, Stepan a goal and two assists and Anisimov two assists in the win over Ottawa. The trio has 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in the last three games.

Biron won two of the four games in the home winning streak, capped by a 23-save performance in his 27th career shutout, first with the Rangers, while improving to 3-0-0 with a 0.95 goals-against average and .963 save percentage.

“It showed some resilience and heart,” Biron said. “You lose a couple tough ones in the first two games (at MSG) and you come back with four good wins. Being able to do it the way we have, playing solid defensively, special teams are picking it up for us, and being able to use a lot of the guys today … I mean, we used pretty much everybody out there.

“It’s hard when you go on the road for that amount of time and come back home. Sometimes there’s a letdown, a feeling of, ‘OK, we’re at home, it’s going to be a lot easier.’ There were no feelings of that. There was a lot of hard work and it paid off in the end. … I can feel that we’ve taken a big step with the way we’ve played our system. We’re playing better defense, and that’s creating more offense, which is what Torts always preaches.”

The Rangers’ power play went 5-for-31 (16.1 percent) during the homestand after going 3-for-28 (10.7 percent) in the seven road games to start the season. And Anisimov and Del Zotto have picked up their games in the recent run.

“We’re coming. It’s just trying to be consistent,” Tortorella said when asked if the team is starting to look like the tough, grinding team that reached the playoffs last season. “We have to try to establish ourselves. I think this the start for us. Some guys, you can see their game coming. You look at Stepan, and he’s stepping out. Our defense, you just see guys getting into their games.”

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Eric Staal will be facing the Rangers for the first time since the Feb. 22, game when his hit on his younger brother and Rangers blueliner Marc, resulted in post-concussion symptoms that have the Rangers best defenseman on injured reserve and out indefinitely. … Hall of Fame defenseman Raymond Bourque, whose son Ryan is with the Whale, was among the first six inductees into the new Canada Sports Hall of Fame, which opened July 1 at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. Bourque was joined by Peter Reid (triathlete), Lui Passaglia (football), Andrea Neil (soccer), Lauren Woolstencroft (para-Alpine skiing) and Richard Pound (International Olympic Committee). … Defenseman Chris Pronger, the Whalers’ No. 1 pick (second overall) in 1993, returned to the Flyers’ lineup Wednesday night in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Flyers’ captain missed the previous six games after being struck in the right eye by the stick of Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski on Oct. 24. Pronger has one goal, six assists and is plus-2 in nine games. … The Columbus Blue Jackets have reassigned wing Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native and former standout at Avon Old Farms and Boston College, to the Springfield Falcons. The Blue Jackets also activated goalie Mark Dekanich off injured reserve and sent him to the Falcons. Atkinson had one goal in five games with Columbus after signing with the Blue Jackets in April after completing his career at BC, where he won two national championships. Dekanich was injured in a preseason game against Winnipeg on Sept. 20 and has missed the first 14 games. He was one of the AHL’s top goalies last season with a 23-12-2 record, 2.02 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and four shutouts in 43 games with the Milwaukee Admirals, the Nashville Predators’ top affiliate. The Predators’ third pick in the 2006 NHL draft led the AHL in save percentage, ranked third in GAA and was selected to play in the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic. He was signed by the Blue Jackets as a free agent on July 1.

FORMER UCONN STAR, PLAINVILLE TEEN TO BE SALUTED WITH BALDWIN

Former Kolbe Cathedral High-Bridgeport and University of Connecticut basketball star Chris Smith and Plainville’s Abby Negro will be honored by the Connecticut Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation with Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Howard Baldwin at its Sportscasters’ Super Ball on Saturday at The Club at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The black-tie optional gala from 7 p.m. to midnight honors Connecticut sports stars and community leaders while raising fund and awareness of cystic fibrosis.

Smith, UConn’s leader in career (2,145 points) and Big East (1,140) scoring and three-point field goals (242), will receive the Native Son Award. Smith is one of only two Huskies to score at least 500 points in three different seasons and a member of the UConn basketball All-Century Team. He graduated from Kolbe Cathedral, where he became a high school All-American and played on the U.S. national team. He was Connecticut Player of the Year before playing at UConn and then three seasons with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. He is now the Kolbe boys’ basketball coach.

Negro, 16, will receive the Rookie of the Year Award. She is an honor student and basketball player at Plainville High and will be making her debut as an ambassador for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Baldwin was previously named the Community Leader of the Year Award. Baldwin was the former owner and managing general partner of the Hartford Whalers and then founded Whalers Sports and Entertainment two years ago. WSE assumed business control of the former Hartford Wolf Pack 14 months ago and rebranded the team the Connecticut Whale last Nov. 27.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease affecting the respiratory and digestive systems. Thick mucus blocks the airways, leading to life-threatening infections. The median life expectancy is 37 years.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is consistently rated one of the most efficient health charities in the country and is devoted to controlling the disease. Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., the foundation has more than 80 chapters and supports and accredits a nationwide network of 115 care centers. To advance research for a cure, the foundation has invested nearly $300 million in promising drug research in the biotech industry since 1998. For more information, visit www.cff.org.

The Sportscasters’ gala was established in 2002 by ESPN’s Joe Tessitore and Chris Berman to celebrate Connecticut’s rich sports history. Since its inception, the gala has raised more than $1 million in much needed research funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Dinner, dancing and a unique live auction will highlight the event. For tickets ($200) or to get involved, contact CFF director of special projects Paul Drury at 860-632-7300 or pdrury@cff.org.

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