April 28, 2012; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers left wing Chris Kreider (20) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Washington Capitals during the third period in game one of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Rangers won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
One of the reasons that the Rangers have made the playoffs in six of the seven seasons since the 2004-05 work stoppage is their dedication to bringing younger players into the lineup.
Although head coach John Tortorella was behind the bench for only a little over three of those seven seasons, he feels as strongly about focusing on the Rangers' youth (both publically and behind closed doors) as anyone in the organization.
And even though a work stoppage is likely on the horizon, Tortorella is anxious for training camp to get underway.
In an interview with Stan Fischler for MSG.com, Tortorella, who spoke from his vacation home in Wisconsin, told The Maven that a looming lockout hasn't affected his plans for the club's schedule.
"We're ready. Camp is set for September 21st, and I'm enthused," said the Rangers' bench boss.Tortorella definitely has a reason to be enthused. After finishing in first place in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference in the regular season, the Rangers reached the Eastern Conference Finals in the playoffs.
Now, Tortorella believes that the Rangers' youngsters will only improve going forward, and therefore, so will the team.
One of the most unexpected standouts last season was Ryan McDonagh. Tortorella leaned heavily on the Rangers defenseman, who turned 23 on June 13th, in his first full NHL season, and McDonagh responded well to his new role as a top-pair defenseman. However, Tortorella thinks that McDonagh's 2011-12 campaign was not a one-hit wonder, and the best is still to come for the defenseman.
"He's mentally mature," the Rangers' bench boss said of McDonagh. Even when he makes a mistake, Ryan is ready for the next shift. And he's going to get better and better offensively."
Tortorella brings up an interesting point about McDonagh when it comes to his offensive game. Although McDonagh was a superb shutdown defenseman last year, and did provide some offense from the back end (he was 2nd among Rangers defensemen in goals, assists, and points in 2011-12), the reason "Mac-Truck" was selected by Montreal with the 12th overall pick in 2007 was his offensive upside.
If McDonagh can provide even more offense this season and continue to thrive in his own zone, the sky is the limit for him. But while McDonagh looks to add to his offensive game, the Ranger who led all defensemen on the club in goals, assists, and points was only 21 years old last season.
After going through the textbook definition of a "sophomore slump" in 2010-11, Michael Del Zotto had a bounce-back season with the Blueshirts last year. Although Tortorella was impressed by Del Zotto's season, the Rangers head coach still believes that his game can reach a new level.
"He's one of the best at joining the rush and I love his aggressiveness that way," Torts said of the 22-year-old. "But he still has to improve his mental toughness. I want him to know that he has to do what he did last season every year. That's when you become a player."
Even though Del Zotto still needs to be re-signed (and if the proposed salary cap from the NHL's offer to the NHLPA was approved, the Blueshirts would right now be over the cap in 2012-13) he is definitely a part of the Rangers' future plans.
But the optimism that Tortorella has about the Rangers' blueliners is only rivaled by his optimism about some of the young, budding forwards the Blueshirts boast on the roster.
It's well documented that Torts' blueprint for building a winning team involves above average conditioning, speed, and quickness. The Rangers' bench boss believes that two players in particular are a tremendous boost to all of the aforementioned categories.
"The additions of Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin have given us a lot of speed," Tortorella said. "And don't forget the importance of quickness as opposed to just speed. That's a big part of the way National Hockey League play is going.
Kreider, 21, has yet to play in a regular season NHL game. After learning on the job (and contributing offensively) in the playoffs last year, Tortorella hopes he can work more with the Rangers' rookie throughout the 2012-13 season.
"I'm really anxious to see how Chris does in camp," Tortorella said. "He's got to learn to be a pro and not miss any steps along the way. Plus, I want him to get to know me."
Under Torts' tutelage, Kreider, already one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy in 2012-13, could become the first Ranger to bring home the award since another American, and fellow BC product, Brian Leetch received the honor in 1988-89.
When it comes to the speedster Hagelin, who was rumored to be one of the pieces that would be sent to Columbus in the Rick Nash trade, Tortorella's opinion of the 24-year-old is much higher than even some of his Hagelin's most fervent supporters have of him.
"Hagelin actually changed the complexion of our hockey club (when he was called up)" Torts remarked. "He's a huge piece of our puzzle because of his speed and the manner in which he uses it; the way he chases pucks down."
Tortorella also mentioned how well Hagelin fit in with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik last season. However, with the acquisition of Nash, as well as Gaborik's health, Hagelin could wind up in a different role with the Blueshirts this year.
The Rangers' decision to build around youth is definitely paying dividends. But while the future is bright, the present may be as bright as it has been in, perhaps, the last two decades.