Looming roster cuts will be toughest

Tortorella aiming to get down to final 23 players sooner rather than later

Tuesday, 09.28.2010 / 4:36 PM / Team
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Looming roster cuts will be toughest

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By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com

With only 10 days to go until the Rangers open up their 2010-11 regular-season schedule in Buffalo, head coach John Tortorella is eager to pare his roster down to what it will look like on opening night.

On Monday, the Rangers trimmed their training camp roster to 27 players, and on Tuesday Tortorella said there is a good chance that number will shrink even more following the club’s preseason contest against the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday evening.

“After (Wednesday’s) game I’d like to get down in numbers, mainly for practice reasons,” said Tortorella. “Right now it’s difficult to get all that we need to get done in practice with this many players. So we are going to have to keep chipping away at it.”

Defenseman Mike Sauer, who has spent the past three seasons at Hartford and saw three games of NHL action with the Rangers in 2008-09, is one of four rookies still in the running for a final roster spot.
The coaches have spent the early portion of training camp conducting conditioning tests and evaluating talent. With opening night looming in the not-so-distant future, Tortorella wants to begin spending more time on implementing his system and deciding on line combinations and defense pairings.

“We have to decide upon the best lineup and where they all fit,” said Tortorella. “We also have to figure out the proper balance in the lineup. We need to get the team ready to play.”

Tortorella guessed that the Rangers will likely start the season with 23 players, the league’s maximum roster limit. That number includes team captain Chris Drury, who is currently sidelined with a broken finger, but who began skating on his own prior to practice on Tuesday.

Currently, the Rangers have 16 forwards, including Drury, in camp along with nine defensemen and goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron. When the season starts, the Rangers likely will carry 13 or 14 forwards on their roster, plus six or seven defensemen, and the two goalies.

“The intensity is even higher now,” said 23-year-old defenseman Mike Sauer, one of four rookies still in the running to make the opening night roster. “You want to show the coaches that you will battle every day and you are willing do extra, whether on the ice or off the ice.”

With veteran defenseman Steve Eminger limited somewhat by a sore groin, and with training camp invitees Alexei Semenov and Garnet Exelby having been released on Monday, Sauer and fellow rookies Pavel Valentenko and Ryan McDonagh can expect to receive long looks in Wednesday’s game against the high-flying Red Wings.

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While much was expected of McDonagh, a former first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens and star at the University of Wisconsin, at the start of camp, both Sauer and Valentenko flew under the radar. That is until camp actually started and both players began to stand out with their impressive play.

“Sauer has had a good camp and that’s why he’s still here,” said Tortorella. “And Valentenko is intriguing because I didn’t know him coming in, but he’s worked hard and equipped himself very well here.”

Both Sauer and Valentenko are physical defensemen who play with an edge to their game. Valentenko showed that trait during Sunday’s 5-3 loss in Detroit by repeatedly hammering Tomas Holmstrom, the Red Wings’ punishing forward, during fierce battles near the Rangers’ goal crease. The young Russian has also impressed with a cannon of a slap shot, one that he never hesitates to pull the trigger on.

“He’s a great player with great skill and a great shot,” Sauer said of Valentenko. “He came here with expectations and proved he belongs.”

Much of the same can be said of McDonagh, who led all Rangers by logging just under 24 minutes of ice-time in Sunday’s contest. McDonagh’s game is not built around the flashy play. Instead he has proven to be a smart decision-maker, equally adept at both ends of the ice.

Ruslan Fedotenko, who won the Stanley Cup with two different NHL teams and was invited to camp on a tryout basis, said if he makes the Rangers roster next week,  the hard work will have only just begun.
McDonagh’s University of Wisconsin teammate, Derek Stepan, is the other rookie still looking to make the team out of training camp. Like the others, Stepan has impressed the coaching staff.

“The maturity of (Stepan and McDonagh) has been their biggest strength,” said Tortorella. “Stepan, in particular, is a very mature, very humble, kid.”

Following the release of both Semenov and Exelby, only one other veteran that accepted a training camp tryout remains in the mix for a spot with the Rangers, and that is winger Ruslan Fedotenko. He, too, will continue to be given a long look by the coaches before any final decisions are made.

“Even if you make the team, it’s not over,” said Fedotenko, who has notched one goal in two preseason games. “You have to continue to impress the coaches by showing you can contribute, working hard, and being consistent.”

Tortorella, of course, knows Fedotenko well, having coached him in Tampa Bay where the Ukrainian forward scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Lightning in 2004. Fedotenko has caught the coach’s eye in this camp due to his strong play and the fact that he is in tremendous physical shape. But there is no guarantee Fedotenko makes the team, considering how deep the positional battles are.

“We’re still evaluating,” stated Tortorella. “But the next few days we’ll be trying to get down to our numbers.”



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