Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Eyeballing the Franchise- Centers

On paper it is supposed to be the deepest position within the entire Ranger system but if you ask Ranger fans, many are not happy with what they have been seeing out of this position at the top of the depth chart.

It starts with the team captain Chris Drury as his signing as a free agent was sparked in part due to the killer playoff goal he scored against the Rangers while with the Sabres. Drury's goal scoring numbers have not matched what he did during the 2 years with the Sabres but have been very close to his career average.

Drury has the misfortune of being a Ranger captain in an age when Ranger fans remember Mark Messier and Drury is never going to come close to being that kind of leader like Messier was. Ranger fans rightfully have an issue with paying someone 8 million dollars next season when the production has been only 25 and 22 goals during the previous 2 seasons.

Lucky for Drury that Ranger fans are even more frustrated by the play of Scott Gomez to be screaming for his head as Gomez's will do just fine. Gomez is also due 8 million for next season and whether it is his lazy turnovers, lack of production or the failure to mesh with whoever the Rangers have tried with him; Gomez is going to become Ranger fan's number one target next season.

It is very clear that Gomez is not a first line center nor is he worthy of an 8 million dollar salary which puts him deeper in the fan's doghouse. Gomez may have been the leading scorer on the Rangers but his poor play and constant excuse making has turned off many a Ranger fan.

Then add in the rumors that Gomez "quit" on Tom Renney and you have yourself a player who the fans will want to chase out of town if he does not get off to a good start next season. We doubt that the Rangers will be able to move Gomez given that he is due 29 million over the next 4 seasons.

With 16 million tied up on Drury as well as Gomez then people are rightfully wondering if the Rangers will have the money to resign Brandon Dubinsky as he enters Restricted Free Agency. By rule the Rangers do need to offer him at least 690,000 just to keep his rights but that puts the Rangers on very dangerous ground.

Under the CBA, the most the Rangers can offer him is 1 million but given the cap issues facing the team as well as other players needing to be signed then Dubinsky becomes a viable target for another team. Under the same CBA, if another team offer Dubinsky a contract of 1 million then the Rangers will only get back a 3rd round pick as compensation (Dubinsky was a 2004 2nd round pick).

Dubinsky loves being a Ranger but one has to wonder if he would turn a blind eye to someone offering him a million dollar salary? Not to mention that while Dubinsky may have only had 13 goals last season, Dubinsky was always willing to do whatever was needed on the ice for the team even dropping the gloves against those bigger than him.

If John Tortorella was not just posturing when he raved about plans for Dubinsky next season then the Rangers will show us by no later than June 29th when offer sheets must be tendered by.

Still if the Rangers resign Dubinsky then moving him to wing might be a serious topic of consideration if it opens up space for the expected arrival of Artem Anisimov next season. We pick Dubinsky because he does not show any problems adapting his game to help the team as well as because ideally he is still young that he can switch back with little problem.

Say what you want about his being a 4th line center, about his lack of offensive production but do so at the risk of realizing that Blair Betts was the key to the Ranger's penalty kill. On a team with as little offense that the Rangers have then you have to wonder if they can afford to let Blair Betts walk as an Unrestricted Free Agent?

We do not believe they can given how handcuffed they will be with the contracts of Gomez, Redden and Drury. Unless the Rangers actually buyout contracts then Blair Betts is a must re-sign.

Betts as a penalty killer allows the Rangers to save Drury and/or Gomez from additional on ice minutes and that becomes key in an 82 game season. We do not see any other center with the Ranger system currently able to step in as a replacement so if Betts goes they will need to find someone from the outside.

If that is the case then why let Betts walk?

While most are expecting Evgeny Grachev to make the jump to the Rangers next training camp, the Russian prospect who is the better bet to do is Artem Anisimov who is coming off a 37 goal season with Hartford.

Anisimov is the reason why we see Dubinsky being pushed off to wing to make way for Anisimov as he is not going to be just a defensive minded center as now his offensive game appears to be catching up to his defensive game. Anisimov was needing to fill out his body in order to make the jump and we think while he is not fully there yet; he will be soon.

Anisimov eventually we project as a number 2 center not a number 1 but that is not a bad number 2 to have.

Among the prospects in Hartford, we do not see much else other than Anisimov as Ranger regulars. Greg Moore after being the Ranger yo-yo in the 2007-08 season saw his numbers drop from 26-40-66 to 23-13-39 this past season. Moore never got a sniff from the Rangers as a possible call up as Anisimov has passed him by.

Moore is also a RFA but depth issues as well as none of the younger prospects are ready to make the jump to the professional ranks might convince the Rangers to resign Moore. If brought back then Moore needs to treat this training camp as his last chance to make the Rangers because it just might be.

Paul Crowder is listed as a center but his best future is going to be on the wing. 6'3 202 with good control on the puck will keep him at center while he develops at Hartford.

The question is how fast can Crowder develop as with 3 drafted college prospects coming soon then his window of opportunity is not going to be open for very long. Being big and strong is Crowder's advantage but those coming have more offense which is what the Rangers need badly.

Tom Pyatt is someone we expected more out of when we first followed him. Pyatt was a pure a big game player as we have seen in a long time scoring 43 goals for Saginaw during the 200607 season.

Pyatt has been slow to adapt to the professional ranks and it is not helping that he is just 5'11. Pyatt is also going to need a breakthrough season or he too will fall off the prospect radar.

We hope for Pyatt that he does break though and regain the scoring touch that he had with Saginaw as the Wolfpack will be needing offense next season.

Which will you like the most from Derek Stepan? Will it be his speed that forces people to drag him down? Will it be his hockey smarts that show him making the right choices on the ice? Or will it be that when he gets on the ice his teammates all look that much better?

Stepan was the 2008 2nd round pick but in his own way he could just be the foundation of the Ranger's future if he continues on his current development path. He already is the fastest in the Ranger's system, unlike Gomez you can count on Stepan going north/south not east/west.

Stepan has a maturity not seen in most college sophomores as while he has not said so out loud it is very clear he plans on leaving school in less than 4 years. When he does then the Rangers will be getting a well rounded player.

Carl Hagelin may not be the biggest kid on the block but he is one of the most dangerous penalty killers and forecheckers among the Ranger prospects. Hagelin has been a huge reason why the Michigan Wolverines have had one of the best penalty kills in the NCAAs the last 2 seasons.

Hagelin's drawback has been that he has not spent the off-season in North America working on his body and overall game. We mention that because despite being a very slow starter, Hagelin still was Michigan's 3rd leading scorer and we know he can do a lot better than that.

His NHL future is at left wing but he does play center and does it well enough to merit consideration here.

Max Campbell is the Rodney Dangerfield of Ranger prospects as nobody outside of us will give him any respect. If Campbell was bigger, if Campbell played for someone else, if if if and more ifs but we believe that nobody is measuring one very important thing about Campbell; his warrior heart.

For a franchise that badly needs goal scorers, here is a prospect who plays against 3 of the very best college hockey programs in the NCAA on a regular basis and holds his own. Yes it would be wonderful if Campbell would grow more but even at his current size (6' 175), Campbell parks himself in the crease and outfights people for the puck.

Campbell's Western Michigan Broncos scored 38 power play goals last season; Campbell had 11 of them. Campbell also led the Broncos in goals scored (16), game winning goals (4) and was their 2nd leading scorer (16-15-31).

NCAA rules limit how much time a college player can spend with an NHL team which at times hurts a prospect's development. So what do you say about someone who pays his own way in order to attend a Ranger training camp like Campbell did last year?

We call that person the kind of prospect we want to see on the Rangers because we know he wants to be a Ranger badly.

All in all the Rangers will have enough depth coming out of the center position that a few might wind up shifting to wing but that is not a bad problem to have. For a change we do see a mixture of size, strength. finesse and power.

It is a start but now the problem area up front awaits us as the wingers is where the Rangers do need change as well as an infusion of fresh talent.

(Pictures: Drury, Gomez, Dubinsky, Anisimov, Moore, Pyatt, and Crowder courtesy of the Rangers, Stepan/Wisconsin Badgers, Hagelin/Michigan Wolverines, Campbell/Western Michigan Broncos)

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