When training camp began, John Tortorella told everyone that the team was looking for a few of it’s youngsters to make some strides and win jobs on the big club. After seeing the amount of ice time and the opportunities to prove themselves during preseason contests he gave his young hopefuls, it’s evident he wasn’t just paying “lip service” to a youth infusion that many of his predecessors had over the last decade in New York. After finding success over the last 2 seasons with homegrown talent like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, it looks like the Rangers will have 4 new fresh faces breaking camp with the big squad hoping to prove that they are ready to not only contribute but shine at the NHL level.
The most physically ready of the four rookies to crack the lineup is center Artem Anisimov. A skilled two way player, the 6’3, 190 lb. pivot brings an all around game and beyond his years intelligence on the ice to the pros. Anisimov dominated while playing with the Hartford Wolfpack in the AHL last season registering 37 goals and 81 points in 80 games and earned himself an invitation to the AHL All Star Classic where he scored the game winning goal and assisted on two other tallies. The 21 year old showed his size, strength and vision throughout training camp both at even strength and on the penalty kill. Anisimov even showed a scoring touch on the power play during the team’s preseason finale vs. Washington blasting a one timer through Caps’ goalie Semyon Varlamov. A logjam at the center position (with Dubinsky, Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal currently slated to start on the top 3 lines) has moved Anisimov to a probable fourth line role to begin his rookie campaign but the young russian will be looked upon to contribute on special teams almost immediately. The Rangers envision Anisimov to be centering their third line sometime this season and to be a top six forward in the near future and so far he has done nothing to dispel those lofty expectations. It would not be surprising to see him notch 15 goals and be one of the team’s better defensive forwards and most dependable penalty killers come season’s end.
Joining Anisimov up front for the Blueshirts will be the recently acquired speedster Enver Lisin. While Lisin doesn’t possess the defensive acumen of Anisimov (Coach Tortorella recently said that the winger “doesn’t have a clue away from the puck”), he does have something you can’t teach, Speed. Lisin showed a knack for finding open ice throughout the preseason and impressed with his ability to finish while playing with Vinny Prospal and sniper Marian Gaborik. Lisin himself knows that he must “focus more on defense and try to listen to the coaches and improve” or it might be a short stint on Broadway. What the 6’1, 180 winger does bring to the ice is a huge offensive upside buoyed by his blazing spped, an accurate wrist shot and a deceptively quick release. Lisin could find himself getting minutes on the second power play unit and will be counted upon to replace some of the offense lost with the departure of Nikolai Zherdev. Lisin’s strong play on the offensive end allowed the Rangers to send promising and extremely impressive youngster Evgeny Grachev to Hartford for more experience against bigger players but if Lisin struggles to find his defensive game, it won’t be a tough decision for Coach Tortorella to have the two youngsters exchanging places.
Most followers of the club expected this to be the camp where former first round pick Bobby Sanguinetti would finally jump up and grab a spot alongside fellow first rounder Marc Staal on the Rangers blueline. Unfortunately for Sanguinetti, something happened on the way to his storybook ending. Beset by issues with his conditioning as camp began and with struggles in his own end during the games, Sanguinetti was a major disappointment and now finds his future with the club becoming increasingly unclear as he was reassigned to Hartford and has been the subject of rumors that the team has been “quietly shopping” him around the league. What has become clear is the future of fellow prospect Michael Del Zotto. The 19 year old defenseman has been everything Sanguinetti was expected to be and more during camp and looks for now to at least have won a spot on the back line as the season opens on Friday. Del Zotto has shown excellent skating and passing ability, especially while getting ample minutes on the point during the power play, and an improved defensive game. He may still struggle with bigger bodies in front of the net and his ability to take the pounding of an entire season at the pro level is a question mark but his ability to control the puck on the man advantage and make strong first passes to clear his zone are too much to be ignored. Del Zotto is still eligible to return to Juniors this season (and that may still be the best move in his overall development) so his time in Manhattan may be short (he must be returned after 9 games or he loses eligibility) but if he shows well early in the season, this may be only the beginning for a young man that has both the organization and the fans very excited.
While Del Zotto, Anisimov, Lisin and Grachev all had outstanding camps and a few others showed that they could be competent in season replacements should injuries occur (P.A. Parenteau, Jordan Owens, Chad Johnson), the most impressive and exciting new face in Rangerland was defenseman Matt Gilroy. Gilroy is the oldest of the four prospects expected to be on the ice opening night vs. the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins. At age 25, Gilroy doesn’t look or play like a rookie on the ice. A prototypical offensive defenseman, he joins the rush every chance he gets and relishes the opportunity to play in Tortorella’s up tempo attacking style system. The thing that makes Gilroy so exciting is that besides being explosive offensively (as showcased by his breakaways during the preseason) he is also responsible defensively in his own zone. The former college National Champion and Hobey Baker winner has the all around game to possibly make him a second pair defenseman for the club this coming season should Wade Redden or Michal Roszival (whom the Rangers desperately need much much better seasons from this year) continue to struggle at both ends. Gilroy does have things to work on as he has never played a full season and may wear down due to his energetic style of play and he also needs to put on some size to deal with bigger opponents in front of Henrik Lundqvuist. It looks as if Gilroy will begin the season as the fifth defenseman (probably partnered with Alexei Semenov, if the team decides to offer him a contract this week) and will see time on the power play immediately. While comparisons to all-time Rangers d-man Brian Leetch are just plain silly at this point, to say Gilroy plays a similar style to the legendary blueliner is not a stretch and if he is even half the player and teammate Leetch was when it is all said and done, Rangers fans will have alot to be pleased about.
Just like seasons past, the fortunes of this year’s Rangers will depend mostly on the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvuist, the ability of the power play to improve and be a force and the health of it’s key scoring threats (in this case, the newly acquired supremely talented but injury prone winger Marian Gaborik) but as we have seen with the emergence of Dubibsky, Callahan and Staal the last 2 seasons, the youth will ultimately have some say in how far this team goes in the upcoming campaign. Rangers fans have plenty of reasons to fret as opening night approaches (Redden and Roszival, injury to Sean Avery leaving his availability in question, unsettled at first line center) but one thing they shouldn’t worry about is the kids…The Kids are alright.