Final roster might revolve around center

Preseason lineup at Detroit reflects team's dogfight for spots in the NHL

Sunday, 09.26.2010 / 8:57 PM / News
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Final roster might revolve around center
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By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com

The fight for spots on the Rangers’ opening-night roster is so deep at the center-ice position that on Sunday afternoon in Detroit, Blueshirts head coach John Tortorella dressed seven forwards with experience in the middle for what ended as a 5-3 preseason loss to the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

Five of those players -- Erik Christensen, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Todd White, and Brian Boyle -- are among those currently looking to emerge from training camp with roster spots at center when the Rangers open up the regular season on Oct. 9 in Buffalo. The other two -- Brandon Dubinsky and Sean Avery -- have experience at center, but are spending this preseason at left wing, a positon where both would be more likely to play during the regular season.

Center Erik Christensen scored the Rangers' second goal on Sunday night at Detroit, while playing between Brandon Dubinsky and Mats Zuccarello.
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“There are definitely centers that we need to take a long look at during the exhibition season,” said Tortorella. “There is a lot of competition at that position.”

On Sunday, two of the centers who played for the Rangers a year ago stood out by scoring goals. Christensen whipped a left-circle shot past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard with the teams skating 4-on-4 at 11:37 of the second period. Only 27 seconds later, Anisimov converted a perfect pass on the rush from Alex Frolov for a shorthanded goal.

Anisimov has now scored goals in both games he has played in the preseason. The 22 year-old Russian pivot also scored onSaturday night against the Devils.

“I am playing with more confidence this year,” said Anisimov.

Tortorella has challenged Anisimov to become a more consistent scorer this season after producing 12 goals and 28 points as a rookie a year ago. It is how Anisimov, who is already a steady defensive center, can move up from third- and fourth-line duty and challenge for time on one of the top two lines.

“Artie played so well down the stretch (last year) with (Brandon) Prust and (Jody) Shelley,” Tortorella said of Anisimov’s two goals and five-assist effort over the final 10 games in 2009-10. “But as good as he was, we told him that he can’t be playing with guys like that (this year). He needs to be playing with more skilled players and contributing on a regular basis.”

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To take a look at as many centers as he could on Sunday, Tortorella dressed Boyle and played him at left wing during even strength on a line centered by Anisimov. Boyle played in the middle during shorthanded situations, standing out with two strong plays in front of his own net when the Rangers killed off a two-man disadvantage late in the second period.

As he has throughout training camp, Boyle played a solid and physical two-way game on Sunday. His skating, which he worked to improve on with Canadian Olympian Barbara Underhill during the summer, stood out with Boyle repeatedly getting a jump on Red Wings defensemen and forwards.

“I just worked on everything this summer, got stronger, improved my skating,” said Boyle, who has one goal in two preseason games. “As far as my game, I have made a conscious effort to be more physical on a consistent basis. The physical stuff is just a mentality. Don’t stop for anybody. Be relentless and be consistent every day.”

Boyle, 25, has impressed the coaches with his attitude, and even more so with his play, so far, in training camp. By playing him on the wing Sunday, Tortorella appeared to be looking for multiple ways to keep Boyle on the roster this season.

Derek Stepan, 20, is making a run at a center spot on the Rangers' opening night roster and has skated on the top line in each of his two preseason games.
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“Boyle is fighting for a spot in a third line, fourth line position, and as a penalty killer,” Tortorella said. ‘He’s had a very good camp and is conditioned well. He’s trying to make the team and to his credit he has played very well.”

As for the other centers on Sunday, White played in his second pre-season game in as many days and earned an assist on Avery’s goal in the first period, while Christensen scored his first goal, and Stepan fired three shots on goal in just over 18 minutes of ice time.

Stepan played primarily between Frolov and Marian Gaborik on the top line, although Christensen and White also took turns in that spot.

“We’re going to look at a lot of different combinations as we move through this here,” said Tortorella.”Everyone’s going to get a chance.”

Tortorella’s next opportunity to evaluate his centers -- including Tim Kennedy, who played in the first two exhibition games, but not on Sunday -- will take place on Wednesday when the Rangers host the Red Wings in a pre-season rematch at Madison Square Garden.