BY: Bruce Berlet
After the horrific off-season that hockey has experienced, it was with joy that I could tune in to the NHL Network at 7 p.m. Saturday and watch most of the New York Rangers top young players in their opener in the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich.
I would have been dialed in to the MSG Network, but I don’t have it on my cable in Glastonbury so I was delighted when I heard the games were on the NHL Network. And I still got to listen to MSG Network’s John Giannone, Joe Micheletti and Dave Maloney, with a touch of former Rangers goalie and announcer John Davidson, now president and general manager of the St. Louis Blues, the Rangers’ first opponent in the tournament.
It all let me and I’m sure thousands of others temporarily forget the deaths of Rangers left wing/enforcer Derek Boogaard, Winnipeg Jets center Rick Rypien and NHL veteran Wade Belak in the last four months and the loss of 43 lives, mostly of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team, in a plane crash on Wednesday. Those tragedies will never be forgotten, much like Sept. 11, 2001 that is being commemorated in earnest this weekend, but at least we could get a few hours of solace from the traumas since Boogaard was found dead in his apartment on May 13.
Rangers coach Ken Gernander and his Connecticut Whale assistants, J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller, kept their defensive pairings and lines together most of the way as the search for chemistry at a higher level began. It was interesting to see rugged Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010 who was named team captain, playing alongside offensive-minded Tim Erixon, the Calgary Flames’ first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2009 and son of former Rangers’ wing Jan Erixon who was acquired June 1 for two second-rounder and Roman Horak. Micheletti and Maloney said Erixon is the leading contender among the Rangers prospects to make the NHL roster, but as assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld recently said, “I wouldn’t assume anything with the young defenseman.” It was an obvious reference to former Wolf Pack/Whale players Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh becoming the Rangers’ No. 2 defensive pairing as rookies last season.
And Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark told Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com: “The priority is not to necessarily go out and win, but the big idea is to find out what your future looks like. It just gives you another snapshot of where these kids are in their development.”
The initial snapshot was the Rangers youngsters obviously listened to Gernander’s televised pregame instructions to take short shifts to stay fresh so they could remain aggressive on the forecheck and pressuring the puck as they took a 2-0 lead in only 6:20. The Blues tied it in less than three minutes, but Carl Hagelin and Ryan Bourque scored minutes apart in the second period as the Rangers notched a 5-2 victory.
Erixon, Hagelin and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault each had a goal and an assist, and defenseman Blake Parlett chipped in three assists, tying the Rangers’ tournament record shared by Derek Stepan, David Skokan and Justin Soryal. Randy McNaught scored the Rangers’ other goal off Parlett’s first assist, and goalie Jason Missiaen made 18 saves in his debut in the Blueshirts organization.
During a third-period television interview, Rangers assistant coach Mike Sullivan gave high marks to McIlrath, Erixon and speedsters Hagelin, Bourque and Christian Thomas, son of longtime NHL wing Steve Thomas who didn’t score but used his quickness to get several good chances and show why he had 54 goals with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League last season. Andrew Yogan, who had two goals and an assist in two games with the Whale in April after missing most of last season because of shoulder surgery, also got in position to score several times but misfired on three excellent chances.
Hagelin, who played five playoff games with the Whale in April after he co-captained the University of Michigan to the NCAA title game, was satisfied with his tournament debut and the Rangers’ overall effort.
“I think we got a really good start,” Hagelin said. “Even though they came back to tie 2-2, I still thought we were controlling the game. Winning the game 5-2 and outshooting them 36-20 really shows that.”
Hagelin said his three weeks with the Whale was beneficial in learning what pro life is all about.
“I think that was a great experience,” said Hagelin, whose Whale teammates included wing Chad Kolarik, a teammate at Michigan. “A lot of guys there have been through this tournament and even played in the show (NHL) so it was fun to meet those guys and really get that experience to know what it takes to play well in games like this.”
Strong forechecking and accuracy from the points led to the Rangers’ early lead. First, Erixon one-timed a power-play shot from the right point that deflected off Blues defenseman David Shields and past Jake Allen. Minutes later, McNaught, back after missing most of last season with an ankle injury, deflected in a shot from the left point by Parlett, who excelled for the Whale after being called up from Greenville of the ECHL on Feb. 17 and was signed to an AHL contract on June 2.
But only 36 seconds later, the Blues’ Phil McRae, son of former NHL tough guy Basil McRae, scored off a rebound, and Anthony Nigro then tied it off a 2-on-1 shorthanded break. The Rangers continued to press and amassed a 20-9 shot advantage in the first period but had to settle for the tie due to the stellar play by Allen, the starting goalie for the AHL Western Conference All-Stars last season who made 18 of his 31 saves in the opening 20 minutes. The Peoria Icemen’s goalie last season was especially sharp on a strong shorthanded rush by Bourque, son of NHL Hall of Famer Ray Bourque who burst around Blues defenseman Brock Beukeboom, son of former Rangers standout blueliner/tough guy Jeff Beukeboom.
The Rangers reclaimed the lead for good with their second power-play goal early in the second period as Hagelin scored on a snap shot from the top of the right circle off a pass from Parlett. Then with the Blues on their second power play, Bourque poked McRae’s pass to Jason Wilson, who made a brilliant give-and-go pass to Bourque for a breakaway on which the speedy wing beat Allen between the legs for a 4-2 lead.
The Rangers increased their advantage to 5-2 midway in the third period with a third power-play goal as Audy-Marchessault redirected Parlett’s shot past Allen. The 5-foot-7, 175-pound Audy-Marchessault signed an AHL contract on July 7 after playing for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Bourque and Kelsey Tessier, who got a contract with the Whale off his strong play as an invite at Traverse City last year.
The Rangers spent most of the final 20 minutes adhering to Gernander’s second-intermission plea to think defense first but look to be offensive if the opportunity presents itself. But Missiaen twice got fortunate when the Blues hit the post.
Jess Rubenstein, the astute observer of junior and college hockey through The Prospect Park, noted the game had several interesting sidebars. The Rangers’ McIlrath and Collin Bowman, one of four invitees by New York, played against former Moose Jaw teammates Cody Beach and Joel Edmundson, who partnered both Rangers prospects at times while with the Western Hockey League team. Beach fought McIlrath before they became teammates, along with McNaught, who played on line with Wilson and Audy-Marchessault.
Backup goalies Scott Stajcer of the Rangers and the Blues’ Jordan Binnington were teammates the last two seasons with Owen Sound, which won the OHL title and reached the Memorial Cup this spring with former Hartford Whalers wing Mark Reeds as coach and former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Terry Virtue as assistant coach. On June 23, Reeds was named an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators and replaced in Owen Sound by former Grand Rapids Griffins coach Greg Ireland. Virtue remained the assistant coach of the team partly owned by former Whalers wing Paul MacDermid.
Binnington, 18, is the reason the Rangers are leaning toward returning Stajcer, 20, to juniors as an overage player after he missed most of last season because of hip surgery in November. That would save a year on Stajcer’s entry level and eliminate the problem of four goalies – Stajcer, Missiaen and veterans Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot – fitting into three slots with the Whale and Greenville.
Johnson will be traveling to Europe in a few weeks as the Rangers’ third goalie with Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron for four preseason games. Johnson played only 20 minutes the last two months of last season after being called up when Biron fractured his collarbone when hit by a shot in practice Feb. 28. Johnson or Talbot could be traded if Stajcer steps up in this tournament and training camp. Saturday night, Stajcer backed up the 6-foot-8 Missiaen, who worked out but didn’t play for the Whale this spring after signing free-agent and amateur tryout contracts.
Another Rangers invitee, wing Tayler Jordan, didn’t play so he didn’t go against Ty Rattie and Brett Ponich, teammates with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks last season. And a late Rangers invitee that increased the team to 25 players was center Matt Rush, a linemate of Hagelin for four years at the University of Michigan. Hagelin was reunited with Rush on a line with rugged Shane McColgan.
Hagelin and defenseman Jyri Niemi, who played his rookie season in North America in 2010-11 with the Whale, were the Rangers’ assistant captains. The Blues’ roster included two players with NHL experience, McRae and left wing Stefan Della Rovere.
Stajcer will be in goal for the Rangers’ second game Sunday at 6 p.m. against the Dallas Stars. They practice Monday and play the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. Placement in the round robin will determine whom each of eight teams face in the championship round Wednesday at times to be determined. The Rangers’ group returns to New York that night, then most of the players report to Rangers training camp Thursday before workouts begin Friday. The Rangers’ prospects tournament games are on MSG Network and the NHL Network.
AGREEMENT ON ARENA PROPOSAL IN QUEBEC CITY CLOSER
Quebec City has moved closer to becoming the next former World Hockey Association and NHL city to return to the NHL. The hub of the province of Quebec, which had the WHA in 1972-79 and the NHL in 1979-95, is trying to follow in the footsteps of Winnipeg, which also was in the WHA in 1972-79 and will have another NHL team this season for the first time since the franchise moved to Phoenix in 1996.
Whalers Sports & Entertainment, headed by former Hartford Whalers owner and managing general partner Howard Baldwin, is working to do like in Connecticut. The Whalers left Hartford for North Carolina in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes.
Quebec City and Quebecor have come to an agreement about a proposed NHL-calibre arena, but the city council and agglomeration council have to approve the accord Tuesday before Mayor Régis Labeaume can officially seal the deal.
The 150-to 200-page agreement contains five documents detailing how Quebecor would manage the $400-million arena. The documents include stipulations regarding naming rights and lease provisions for shows and a much-longed for NHL team.
Labeaume and Quebecor president Pierre Karl Péladeau met in Quebec City Thursday night to finalize the deal. Documents were then drawn up by lawyers and signed by Quebecor’s senior adviser for special projects, Martin Tremblay, and vice president of legal affairs, Marc Tremblay.
Labeaume has convened special city council and agglomeration council meetings Tuesday. The documents will be presented to city officials around 10 a.m. and a question period will follow. The city council will then reconvene around 2 p.m. to vote. The agglomeration council’s vote, scheduled for 5 p.m., will be the last step.
Insiders say the deal is expected to go through as Labeaume’s team has voting majority in both instances. Quebecor would then acquire full control of the arena until 2040, with a possible extension to 2045 for $63.5 million if the company succeeds in landing an NHL team. The price tag would drop to $33 million without NHL hockey.