Twenty-six days until Opening Night.
26: Dave Maloney.
This is late, but I had a chance to sit down with Rangers assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld a few days ago, and we talked about the Traverse City prospects camp, and about the young players who will vie for jobs when the Rangers’ open camp on Friday.
I asked him if there was an organizational goal, to add a certain number of young players, coming into camp.
“No. 1, our players, we’re looking for improvement from year to year,” he said. “Some of these players participated last year, so we want to see what direction they’re headed. Some players, the first look we had was at the development camp right after the draft, so it gives us an indication of how their summer went. And for others, it’s sort of a jump start. I mean, there’s going to be a few of these players challenging for a job in New York. So, for sure, we want to see how they do in high level competition, but it also gives us a pretty good indication of what they’ll be like coming into camp. But more importantly, it gives them a jump start, because you can only evaluate a player one level at a time. Some might dominate this and still not be ready for New York, but … Dubinsky had a real good tournament at Traverse City; Marc Staal had a real good tournament at Traverse City, and both those kids are Rangers. So it’s a pretty good foundation, I think.”
“The hope every year is that some younger player earns a position because he’s become better than the player in the position. The downside is, he earns the position because someone’s become worse at that position. So we’re looking for a youngster to come and beat someone out. That’s how you get better, because you’ve improved the position with a younger player who’s going to continue to improve. But it’s highly competitive. I mean, not only with youngsters trying to push someone out or earn a position; we have more depth this year than we’ve had in the last in each position. So it’s going to be a highly competitive camp. But someone might look at our roster and say, ‘Well, gee, these young guys might not have a chance.’ Well that’s not true. If the young guys are better, they’re going to be on the team. We don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘He’s better, but this guy’s under contract so he’s going to be here’ … we have to show improvement.
“And so I think there are probably half a dozen players that will fighting for a couple of spots. And if they show more, then someone else might be bumped so it might be three spots being fought for.
“This group (playing at Traverse City), there aren’t many. We know most of these kids are going back to junior. This is just sort of their introduction.
“There are some—and I always hate to name names because you’re going to forget some—but quickly, like, Stepan, Grachev, McDonagh, that are going to come to the big camp and we hope they challenge for a job. Whether they make New York or wind up in Hartford, they’re going to be given an opportunity to earn a spot. If one of them does, coming out of the gate, or if it takes a couple of months of development, because it’s a big gap from college or junior, then we’re an improved organization.”
I asked him if it happens that organizations might take a younger player with equal talent over a 30-year-old veteran because the younger player is the future.
“Yeah, you do that,” he said. “If it comes to all things being equal, the benefit of the doubt always goes to the younger player. But rarely are all things truly equal. There’s usually something that one or the other can provide, whether it’s enthusiasm of the young player, maybe a little physical play, the experience, the moxie—you have to balance it all out. Then the other thing you have to take into consideration is, when you’re putting lines together, every team is comprised of all different components. So you can’t have all A type players, all B type. So what players are going to be better or more effective in this role, on the team right now.
“Like, you might say, ‘This kid’s going to be a better player, but he’s a top-two line center/right wing/left wing. To have him here playing seven, eight minutes as a fourth-line grinder is probably not going to be as productive for his development as playing 22 minutes a game as the power-play guy in Hartford. So that’s always the balancing act. It doesn’t mean a kid has to knock the door down in training camp. It might take two or three months of playing the pro game. We’ve had players like that. Girardi got called up during the season and stayed. Callahan, I think, stayed until he got hurt, then he went back to get recharged. But again, that’s when your organization is getting better. The more players we have, in my estimation, that are home-grown—and that doesn’t mean you don’t make your trades or sign your free agents; they’re extremely valuable—but when that core keeps growing, and these are young kids that have earned their stripes and been brought up Rangers, I think that’s when you’ve got a pretty good chance to start winning consistently.
“And that group, on our team, has expanded. Last year we added Anisimov, Michael Del Zotto, Matty Gilroy. Those are three guys who weren’t on the team, and they’re Rangers. This year, who knows who it will be?”
On Grachev saying he feels the pressure is on him to make his mark this year:
“It’s not only valid, I think it’s valuable. You want him to feel pressure. He should really go (to Traverse City) with the idea of excelling, not just participating, because he’s a guy we think should be challenging for a job in New York. If you’re going to be a Ranger and this is your third prospect tournament, your third kick at it, he should be looking to do what Dubinsky did or what Staal did. … That’s a good springboard coming into camp, because there are players at this prospect camp that are going to be playing for their NHL teams.”
“This group (in Traverse City) I think is a better group than last year. It’s deeper at each position, and there’s a couple of guys with pretty good skill level.”
On the idea that Grachev had a disappointing season last year:
“To me, it was a revealing season for him. He’s a big, strong guy who can skate; he’s got a good shot. You know what he package is. And when he was playing Junior A he had 40 goals, 40 assists, a great year. And there were a lot of times in junior when his size and strength and reach won the battle. You know, you spin off and you get your scoring chance. Then it was a great revelation for him to all of a sudden be in a league—and you’ve got to remember, his first year he was an underage; he was 19—now he’s playing against men that are big and strong and have reach and are smart. So the things that he used to be successful playing against kids, because he was a bigger, stronger guy, he found didn’t work as regularly at the American League level as they did at the junior level. So then you have to find other ways to get it done. That’s what I want to see this year: the growth, the positioning, finding the soft ice. We still want him to be that powerful guy, where he’s going to outmuscle people to the net; he’s going to drop his shoulder; and the big shot. But we’re hoping this year he adds the stealth part to the game, the anticipation, the thinking, the offensive instinct part. I think, until you need to do it, you don’t do it. When your size and strength is enough to do it, well, ‘I don’t have to anticipate; I can just bowl the guy over.’
“And often times, and this is an important thing that we have to remind ourselves, and I saw it again with Brandon Dubinsky … when they come to the American League we give them a lot. We teach them how to play away from the puck, how to pick up their man in the neutral zone, breakouts, all this stuff, plus you’re teaching them offensive positioning. It’s a lot of information. It’s necessary, but it’s a lot. The summer comes, and all of a sudden somehow it all makes sense to them. They come back to camp, and it’s not like they were doing these drills all summer, but all that information has a chance to find its way, where it becomes a little more instinctive.
“There’s so much, I think, that it takes a while to all get there. Sometimes it’s when you step back and take a breath and go ‘Ah, yeah.’ It just makes sense to you. But that’s the process. You have to go through it.”
Schoenfeld said it happened to him in his third year; but that he missed most of his second year due to back surgery.
“That’s what I’m hoping with Grach. I’m hoping last year was an eye-opener for him, where you realize, ‘I’ve got to find another way to skin the cat; I can’t always use my size and strength.’ That’s always going to be a great asset for him, but the more he can add to his repertoire, the better he’ll become. SO that’s what I’ll be looking for with him, his anticipation and proper timing—delay your speed then explode. All these little things he’s been taught and told. And even though his numbers weren’t great, we did see progression last year. Most importantly, when we had the exit meetings, what he said to me, his understanding of his season, was very good for a young guy. He knew his shortcomings. He didn’t pull any punches. I know I’ve got to get better here, here and here. That was good.”