New York Rangers Training Camp: The Cuts are Correct, No Matter How You Slice It.

NHL training camps are filled with surprises, excitement, and disappointments. For some players, camp is a preparation process; the precursor to a long and exhaustive season. Other players view camp as an opportunity to show- case their skills in effort to earn a spot with the big club sooner than originally anticipated . For others, training camp is the last opportunity to show NHL Management that they ‘still have it;’ their last chance to make an impact statement at the NHL level.

Today the Rangers made 11 cuts in order for Tortorella and co. to perfect the blueprint of their Blue Shirt lineup. The majority of the 11 ‘misfits’ were logical, even predictable. As natural in training camp, a couple others have left fans both confused and disappointed. I will attempt to logically explain the decisions made by the coaching. I will also give insight as to what these players will have to prove in order to have their names announced on opening night to a backdrop of 18,200 fans thunderously cheering, and the banners displaying the numbers of he who hath made it to live immortally under the lights of Madison Square Garden.   

Here are the 11 players who had their names removed from their respective locker room cubby:

Assigned to Hartford:

Chad Johnson (G), Wade Redden (D), Dane Byers (F), Evgeny Grachev (F), Kris Newbury (F), Dale Weise (F), Jeremy Williams (F), Mats Zucarello (F).

Released from tryout agreement:

Garnet Exelby (D), Brandon Manning (D), Alexei Semenov (D)

The eight players assigned to Hartford are being designated back to the AHL either because there is limited room on the NHL club or to develop the player for the speed and difficulty of the NHL game. The three who were released from their try out agreement are once again free agents who can be picked up by any club in any league.

The names that stand out on each list are: Dane Byers, Evgeny Grachev, Dale Weise, Mats Zucarello and Alexei Semenov. Here is my speculation as to why each was cut and what they will need to improve on in order to make the proverbial “jump” to the NHL.

Dane Byers and Dale Weise both have bottom 6 forward potential at the NHL level as they are gritty, hard-working wingers with the ability to hold their own when they drop the gloves. Byers played five games with the Rangers last season registering a goal and 31 PIMs. While these players are both young and seemingly NHL ready, they fall victim to the numbers game as there is limited room at the forward position in the Rangers line up. They had the difficult challenge of beating out players like Brian Boyle, Sean Avery, Derek Boogard, Ruslan Fedotenko, Tim Kennedy, Brandon Prust, and Tim White. Each of the aforementioned players have at least one established season of play under their wing at the NHL level; Byers and Weise would have to considerably outperform those players to crack the line-up. While they each played relatively well this pre-season, neither did anything to “wow” the coaches and really leave a lasting impression.

Future Prediction: Each will play the full season in Hartford for developmental purposes. Byers a will be a possible call up in order to fill in for injured third/fourth line winger. Weise has a decent chance of making team in next year’s camp. Byers who is starting to reach his mid 20’s is beginning to run out of time to make an impression with the Rangers.

Alexei Semenov returned for a second straight year to Rangers’ training camp in effort to establish himself as a sound choice for seventh defenseman duty. Ironically, Semenov made the team out of camp last year, but rejected Glen Sather’s offer due to family obligations. The 29 year old defender brings size to the team equation as his 6’6” 235 lb. frame is perfect to fill the “crease clearing defenseman” niche. The Rangers were discouraged by his decision to bolt for the KHL last year, yet still granted an opportunity for the bulky defender to earn an NHL job for the 2010-2011 season.

Semenov’s play in the preseason games reflected much of what we saw from him last year. He was steady in his own end of the ice, used his body to clear forwards from his crease, and offered veteran experience on a team that looks to be very green/young at the defensive position. In fact, Semenov is representative of what the Rangers back end has lacked for almost a decade; an intimidating presence on the blue line with the ability to protect the goaltender’s designated area from congestion.

“So why was he cut? He sounds perfect for this team.”

Simple, the ball (or puck) was not in Alexei Semenov’s court this year. In other words, Semenov’s chances on making this year’s was not based solely on how well he played and how hard he worked. His play last year was nearly identical to his play this year at camp, but the necessity for a defenseman is drastically different. In 2009-2010 the competition for a spot on defense was relatively low for the New York Rangers. There were three spots open for taking. Two of these spots were filled by the young, talented bodies of Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy. The third spot (seventh defensemen) was offered to Alexei Semenov as the Rangers lacked any other appropriate option and were very interested in filling the void.

This year however, the Rangers have found themselves in a great situation where they have too many talented players and not enough roster spots. Although this scenario is very beneficial for the team/management, it proves unfortunate for some individual players. With surprisingly good play from the young Ryan McDonagh Pavel Valentenko  and Michael Sauer, the Rangers coaches/management are happy to stick with the rebuilding with youth theme. Rather than having to just play a steady defensive game to make the cut like last year, Semenov had to convince management that he was worth his keep on the team. Semenov in the Rangers line-up meant a young, promising, NHL ready player being sent to the minors; coach Tortorella was not willing to utilize a mercenary over a potential piece of the Rangers core (McDonagh, Valentenko, or Sauer).

Future Prediction: Alexei Semenov will most likely land on his feet with another NHL squad that is in need of a veteran defenseman. It appears that his flaky two year relationship with the Rangers is over, but he remains good enough to stay in the NHL. Look for teams who have suffered long-term injuries to their defense (such as the Islanders) or which are in need of size in their back end to take a chance on the bulky, blue-line Russian.

Evgeny Grachev was selected by the NY Rangers in 2008 as the 75th overall draft pick. Scouts were most impressed by his size (presently 6’4” 222 lbs) and his complimenting skill set. Early on his ceiling was set as a top 6 power forward, most likely suited for the second line. The expectations on the Russian right winger grew even higher in both the eyes of management and fans as his transition to the North American style of play seemed almost too easy. In 2008-2009, Grachev left Europe to join the Ontario Hockey league. This was his first taste of North American hockey and the big bodied winger did not disappoint. Grachev was announced the winner of the Emms Family Award as OHL Rookie of the Year after a season that saw him score 40 goals and 40 assists in 60 games. Grachev also displayed his ability to play with top level talent as his line-mates on the first line were none other than Colorado’s star center Matt Duchene and Vancouver’s highly touted prospect Cody Hodgson. This was an astonishing feat for a player who flew under the radar in his draft year; falling all the way to the third round. Grachev showed the hockey world that he had size and an uncanny ability to skate with speed. The combination of size, scoring touch, and skating ability left Ranger fans ecstatic and in anticipation to see how his game would translate to the NHL level.

Last year’s training camp brought hopes that Grachev would be able to surprise many and make the final squad. Unfortunately Grachev’s play was not quite good enough to qualify him as NHL ready and he was sent down to Hartford during the final round of cuts. This was disappointing for many Rangers fans, but it was clear that a year in the AHL would be good for Grachev (he was only 19 years old at this point). Grachev’s first professional season in the American Hockey League was not overwhelming as he posted 12 goals and 16 assists in 80 games. Many were hoping that he would dominate at the AHL level, but such expectations may have been unfair for such a young player.

This year’s camp was pretty disappointing for Grachev. The competition for a roster spot was considerably higher than last year and Grachev failed to raise his level of play to meet the necessary criteria to make the team. In two preseason games, Grachev failed to stand out and was noticed more for making mistakes than creating quality plays. His skating seemed to be his biggest problem as he was a step behind the opposition. While his size is certainly beneficial to the team, Grachev needs more time to grow into his bulky frame. He has yet to show an ability to consistently out muscle his opponents while carrying the puck. The Russian winger certainly has raw talent, but he needs to refine his skill in order to become a quality player in the NHL. Tortorella is certainly intrigued by Grachev’s size as the tenacious coach has consistently shown a desire for players with both size and skill. The fact that Tortorella once again cut Grachev clearly displays that the head coach does not think Grachev is ready to play for the New York Rangers.

Future Prediction: Grachev will need to start establishing himself as a force in the AHL. His scoring numbers will need to increase to show Rangers management that he will reach the high expectations set for him. The development period for power forwards usually takes longer than other types of forwards because young players need to fully grow into their bodies. Grachev dominated the OHL because matched against other 18 years olds his size was a force to be reckoned with. In the pros (NHL/AHL) however he is playing against men who are both bigger and more developed than players in the OHL. Grachev will continue to grow stronger physically which will only help his ability to out muscle opponents while driving to the net. Expect Grachev to improve this season and make the NHL roster in 2011-2012 as a physically stronger, more refined player than the one that got cut today.

Mats Zuccarello is the most controversial name on this list as he comes to the Rangers organization with a strong resume’ and a tremendous skill set. Zucarello reported to camp after having a career year in which he was named the MVP of the Swedish Elite league scoring 23 goals and 41 assists in 55 games for Modo Hockey and raising much interest on the world stage during the 2010 winter Olympics playing for Norway. Before signing Frolov, Zuccarello was arguably the biggest offseason acquisition for the Rangers and raised some excitement for the 2010-2011 season.

Zuccarello was exciting to watch in the preseason games as he showed flashes as to why a player standing at only 5’7” 161 lbs was held in such high regard by NHL Managers this offseason. His hands are lightning quick, and his skating is as smooth as the ice surface he skates on. His tenacious fore-check compliments these skills as he caused some havoc in the offensive zone for the opposing defenders and surprised many with his unexpected long reach. Though his wing span is quite limited, he use a very long stick which helps him steal the puck on the fore-check. His little frame holds NHL ready skills that are both flashy and beneficial to the team.

If I can see the upper echelon skill that Zuccarello possesses surely the Rangers’ coaching squad and management do to right? The answer is yes, they certainly do. Now this begs the question as to why a player with such skill would get sent down. The problem with Zuccarello is that there is a disconnect between player and playing environment. This seems a little ambiguous so I will try to explain metaphorically to paint a clearer picture.

Zuccarello is like a tiger that was born and bred in the East. His instincts are based on everyday interactions that are necessary for him to thrive in the Eastern jungle. This includes everything from getting along with fellow Eastern tigers, to hunting down prey for nourishment. He lives his life reacting to the impulse of his instinct. Now, let’s say that tiger is moved for scientific study to the West in order to see how well he can adapt to the new environment. As one would expect, his instincts are not going to immediately translate for survival in the Western jungle.

The prey he hunted in the East used speed as a defense mechanism to run away and evade the predator tiger; thus the tigers in the East had to become fast runners in order to catch their elusive prey. In the West however the prey uses their ability to climb tall trees as their defense mechanism to evade predators; thus Western tigers have mastered the ability to climb trees in order to catch their prey.

Unfortunately for the Zuccarellon Tiger from the East, is unable to strive in the Western jungle because he was not bred for climbing tall trees. His quick speed that he possesses is impressive, but useless when his prey begins to climb. The scientists come to the conclusion that the best thing for the Zuccarellon Tiger would be to send him to a safari like zoo where he can be trained and climbing will become instinctive just as his fast speeds. When all is said and done with training, this Zuccarellon Tiger from the East will be able to strive in both hemispheres.

Now put that Tiger on ice and that is what  Zuccarello is going through right now. Zuccarello has offensive flair, but his defensive instincts are deficient. The Norwegian is also getting pushed off the puck rather easily causing turnovers. This won’t fly in the NHL, especially at his height. Zuccarello has some tremendous skill which he developed in Europe: quick hands, elusive speed, tenacity. These skills helped him strive in the Swedish Elite League. In the NHL however, Zuccarello’s deficiencies will prove costly much like the tiger’s inability to climb. What Zuccarello brings to the table now is certainly useful for the Rangers, but without the ability to play a tougher game with more defensive awareness, Zuccarello will not be able to thrive. He can potentially become a liability on the ice as opposing coaches will match their strongest offensive unit against his. This is why Zuccarello was cut. The Rangers are sending him to Hartford to develop the holes in his game without being throttled by elite NHL  players.

The bottom line, Zuccarello is a good player and will definitely have an impact on the 2010-2011 New York Rangers; he just needs to learn the necessary components of the North American game much like the African tiger needed to learn to climb.

Future Prediction: Zuccarello will be a mid-season call up to help bolster the NY Rangers’ offense. His time in Hartford will be utilized to develop his defensive game and give him an opportunity to get used to the smaller ice surface. He is an NHL caliber player. _X_


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