Sunday, August 3, 2008

Are You Ready for Hockey Season?

All those who are sick of just talking about hockey can take some heart as for those in the CHL are starting to get ready for their training camps. For many this will their first chance to several of the recently drafted Ranger prospects in action.

The countdown has started as those Ranger prospects who will be playing in the 3 Canadian Junior Leagues will be reporting to their junior team's training camp prior to attending the Ranger camp at Traverse City.

The questions though are what questions about these players will be answered by these prospects this season. For that we are already working on questions for each of the prospects that we think are fair to ask and expect of them this season.

Since the college prospects do not even begin their seasons for the most cases until October or November, this will zero in on only those who will play in the CHL.

Michael Del Zotto

As the first round selection by the Rangers in the 2008 Entry Draft, Del Zotto is already going to have some very high expectations placed upon him. What we are going to say is to not focus upon what kinds of numbers that Del Zotto puts up but rather his overall game.

Del Zotto gets to play with John Tavares (expected 1st pick in the 2009 draft) on the Oshawa Generals so his numbers should be a lot higher than one would expect given Tavare's own numbers. So forget the numbers and look instead to see if Del Zotto improves on his defensive end this season for question number one.

Then look to see if Del Zotto as one of the older players on the Generals will step up and assume a leadership role. We also want to see Del Zotto cut down on the number of PIMs he takes as a player with his offensive skill set can not score from the penalty box.

We do have one more question but it is directed at Hockey Canada: How could Del Zotto not earn an invite to your evaluation camp for the 2009 Team Canada? Sorry but Del Zotto deserved a chance way more than a Mark Katic, Travis Hamonic or an Alex Grant.

Evgeny Grachev

When we do our annual prospect preview for Dubi at the Blueshirt Bulletin then this will be one of the 3 players we say keep an eye out for. The 3rd round pick is heading to the most ideal of situations for everyone concerned as Grachev is going to play for Stan Butler and the Brampton Battalion of the OHL.

If you did not know who Butler is then put it this way, all Butler does is produce NHL players like Zdeno Charra, Jason Spezza, Brent Burns, Wojtek Wolski and a bunch more. Butler is going to take the raw talents of Grachev and turn him into a productive NHL player.

The questions that we do not have are: How will Grachev adapt to the North America game as we already know from experience that Grachev is going to shock a lot of people by putting up some pretty good numbers and can he play defense as we watched him use his defense to win a game a couple of years ago.

This is not your typical Russian born player but that does not mean we don't have questions. The first is going to be how with Grachev and the Battalion handle the adjustment period that European players tend to go though in their first couple of months in North America?

The second question will be how bad will the European Wall hit Grachev come the middle of the season? For European prospects the jump to playing close to 75-80 games is a totally new experience as is player sometimes 3 games in 3 nights.

Then is the one we are not going to be happy about but have to accept which is; Will the Russian Hockey Federation punish Grachev for coming over to North America and not allow him to play in the World Under-20 Championships. That would be a shame because Grachev was a part of the Under-18 Russian team and deserves a chance but at the same time if selection one would also have to worry about being lured back to Russia during the season as well.

Tomas Kundratek

Now here is a prospect that we have a ton of questions regarding but only one really matters for now. Will Kundratek actually come over and play for Medicine Hat in the WHL? Until that question is answered then none of the others will matter.

So far most that we have asked are of the opinion that Kundratek's team in the Czech Republic the Trinec Ocelari will not release him from his contract. If that is the case then the only possible chance of Ranger fans seeing him play this season will be during the World Under-20 Championships.

Dale Weise

The Rangers used their 4th round pick on Weise and this one might become a steal as Weise is the poster child for "Late Bloomer".

Weise has come a long way from being the Swift Current Bronco's enforcer to last season's leading goal scorer. There are several questions for Weise to answer with the first one being: How will he handle spending another season with Swift Current?

Weise already knows that the Rangers plan to send him back to the WHL for his overage season because of the numbers game so will Weise take it out on those he plays against or will he be the annual sufferer of the Post-Draft Blues?

Every season one Ranger prospect winds up struggling with his game after being drafted mainly because they tried so hard to prove themselves worthy of being picked that they screwed up their own game.

We are told that Weise is a level headed prospect who understands the situation so we hope that Weise shows up at Traverse City giving his all and not pouting when the Rangers send him back to the Broncos.

Weise has other question marks as well: Has he improved his skating skills during the off-season? Will he use his size and newly found goal scoring touch to dominate the WHL this season? Will Weise become an all around player used in every situation for the Broncos?

Our belief in talking to those who know Weise say the answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES. They tell us that Weise is good team player who has more maturity than the average 20 year.

Chris Doyle

The number one question for the Ranger's 5th pick in the 2008 draft is will he decide to become a stand out player for the Prince Edward Island Rocket this season or will he remain a face in the crowd?

Doyle is the one prospect we have on the bubble this season as there is some talent there otherwise Doyle does not score 27 goals in the QMJHL last season.

However like Prince Edward Island last season, Doyle was inconsistent as we saw a lot of him due to fellow Ranger prospect Antoine Lafleur. Too often the Rocket did not score up or failed to support their goalies which is why they had such a weak season last season.

That leads to the next question which is: Does the bad taste of last season fire up Doyle to lead the Rocket to a better season this year? Will we see Doyle's name among the QMJHL leaders or will he settle for a supporting role?

Doyle needs to take advantage of his opportunity this season to send a message about his desire to play at the next level. Doyle can either make the strides that a hungry prospect tends to make and earn himself a Ranger contract or he can remain in the crowd where he can become a career ECHL level player.

We believe Doyle has it inside of him to become that hungry player and step to the forefront of the Rocket. Otherwise no other questions need to be asked or answered about him.

Mitch Gaulton

If you missed it, Gaulton's season was ended before it even got started. Gaulton is scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery and is expected to miss the entire 2008-09 season.

We are disappointed because this is a prospect that several different people said we would have liked watching this season.

Instead we plan on checking in on Mitch to see how he is doing and to make sure he knows that Ranger fans will be pulling for his recovery.

We wish Mitch a speedy recovery so he can give us reasons to ask questions about his game.

This is the reason why we cover hockey

Sometimes the focus in the media is on all the bad that athletes do in today's sports world and not enough when someone stands up and does the right thing. We wanted to bring this to your attention because it helps to explain why we think the world of Steve Valiquette as a person not just as Henrik's backup.

We are here today because of Vally's willingness to help a former teammate in need. It is not the first time that Vally has done something to help others and we doubt it will be the last time either.

Vally along with former Erie Otter teammates Michael Rupp (Devils), Tim Connolly (Sabres) and others are coming together to help raise money for a former teammate in need. For those who know Vally already know that Vally's heart is a lot larger than his 6'6 frame.

The former teammate Jason Baird was burned over 65% of his body during a landscaping accident. To help Baird and his family cope with the medical expenses, Vally, his former Erie teammates and the Erie Otters are going to hold a fundraiser on Aug 19th in Erie.

Most times these are the kinds of stories that never get told to the mainstream Ranger fans but they go on all the time even if they are not noticed. Like Brandon Dubinsky remembering his roots in Portland Oregon to take the time to teach at the Winterhawk hockey school.

Maybe that is the problem with the sports world in general as the focus tends to be on when things go wrong and not about the good things that Ranger players do in giving back to the community.

Every season I get several emails telling me about how this Ranger player or former player gave of himself to help others. Maybe we in the media need to give more space to that because with the Rangers it is more than Adam Graves who gives back.

Adam Graves Hockey Team Owner

Speaking of Adam Graves, in addition to his duties with the Rangers as part of the Scouting Staff, Graves is taking on a new role. That role is part owner of the Oshawa Generals in the OHL.

That is right Gravy purchased a minority share of the Oshawa Generals. Do not expect it to mean that Gravy is planning on leaving his role with the Rangers to join the Generals just yet.

Over the years we have wondered what kind of coach that Graves would be if he decided to do that. When people talked about Messier as a coach; we disagreed as we believed then as we do now that Graves is the better choice and would be a much better coach than Messier.

The proof comes from the way Ranger prospects rave about how Graves finds ways to help them improve as players; in the case of some, coming up with devices geared specifically to improve things like their footwork. Graves has done more than people realize to help Ranger prospects in their development.

We had hoped that if an opening on the Ranger bench happened that Graves would seriously consider becoming an assistant coach. We already know Graves can teach so why not think about coaching as well?

We believe that Graves would make an excellent coach and we think others will agree when they think about it.

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