Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Search For The Elusive Top Flight Centers Is Over

For the better part of the last decade the Rangers as an organization and all Ranger fans have been desperately seeking a number 1 center to lead this team back to a real semblance of being a contender.  It was in this quest that the Rangers have overspent on guys like Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, even captian Chris Drury.  The Rangers in the middle part of this last decade of questing got excellent play from Michael Nylander on a top line with Jaromir Jagr.  Even in those years we had only one high quality center on the roster.  The Rangers over the early parts of this period were obsessed with the big names and many times they would get very good production, but usually it was from the wingers instead of having a foundation built down the middle.

I am of the belief that championships are won by teams that can control the pivot as much as any other position in the game.  Great wingers are phenomenal scorers and a joy for fans to watch but the center has a bigger impact on the outcome of games.  Show me a team that doesn’t have a top line center and I will show you a team that is incapable of competing to win it all.  This question mark has hung over the Rangers like a dark cloud for a long time and still hovered as the team entered camp this year.  I am here to tell you that what I saw coming in the future has arrived a little earlier than expected and the sun is beginning to peak through the black hole that was the Rangers pivot position.

Yes, it has only been six games and I would caution all of you on the small sample size problems with drawing the major conclusions and those hesitations would be well warranted other than the fact that there has been up and down there one game gone the next to make me worry if it is a fluke.  The wait is over, you have your number one center of the future and frankly the present in Artem Anisimov and your number 2 in Derek Stepan.  Before I go any further what I must say is something I hope all Ranger fans listen to very closely, this means you can STOP talking about signing or trading for any of the high priced centers out there (Richards, Spezza, whomever).  The only thing worse than the wait to find real centers that could be a top 2 was the panic moves by the organization and the fans to want every big name out there and instead we developed both of them, so let them play and stop wasting money and other resources on names for a short term pop and long term agony.

Artem Anisimov
The hope coming into camp for many Ranger fans was that Anisimov would take the next step this year and be capable of playing on the 2nd line as opposed to last season where he spent much of it on the 3rd line and played his best on the 4th line late in the year.  During the preseason I posed the question as to why there were all these candidates who were given a chance to play with Marian Gaborik and Alexander Frolov and Artem was not given at least a chance.  The talk out of John Tortorella was that he didn’t want to put too much on Artem’s plate because he felt that at times last year he became overwhelmed when he was given more responsibility.  Once it became clear that he was not going to play with Gaborik and Frolov I hoped he would be paired with Dubinsky and Callahan because of the energy and physical nature of their play as Anisimov seemed most comfortable when he was out there with other physical guys.  So far that has paid off in spades.

What we have seen through six games is three games in which while being against second line competition Artem and crew played as the de-facto first line as they created the most chances, cycled the puck the best and dominated their competition.  The injuries to Drury in the 3rd game meant that starting in Game 4 they would be known by everyone else as the top line and would have to play against top d-pairs and either top lines for the other team or be matched up against the opponent’s best checking line.  There was some worry that maybe Artem and his linemates were not ready for this advancement in competition, but in each game as the top line they have been the best line on the ice for the Rangers and critical to the last two victories.  Now if only the line finished a higher percentage of the chances it created we would really be in business.

Earlier this week in looking at the development of each of the players on the new top line I cited the fact that Artem was one of the few Rangers higher prospects to have multiple full seasons in Hartford to adjust, work on his game and advance.  What he showed in the AHL was a steep learning curve from year one to year two and that his work ethic was relentless in making the necessary adjustments to the game he needed to play.  We have seen that again so far this season in the difference not only in his production, but also the way he is going about his play.  We are witnessing a bigger, faster, strong, more physical and smarter hockey player developing before our eyes.  The advancement I love most as a fan of his is that he is skating with his head up much more to help prevent the pounding he took on some hits last year.  Yes, it will result in better results for him and the team, but more importantly for me it will keep him healthy and on the ice.

The most impressive single feature in Anisimov’s game right now is tough to decide on between his hands, his strength or just his relentlessness, but I am going to go with his you cant take the puck off me attitude right now.  The easy comparison for that kind of strength on the puck is Jaromir Jagr because of his time here, but the guy he reminds me off right now with that is another foreign center, Petr Forsberg who was a freight train and you could not take the puck off him.  Obviously right now Anisimov doesn’t have the passing skills or vision of Forsberg, but in the sense of how hard he is on the puck I love the similarities.  I don’t know that he will ever be the 80-90+ point guy that people want their number 1 center to be, but I can certainly see him progressing to 70+.  The scariest part is that Artem is only going to get better in all phases of the game and that is a gift Ranger fans have been waiting years to unwrap.

Derek Stepan
Derek has been the toast of the town at least the hockey side of it since he got here and scoring a hat-trick in his first game certainly didn’t hurt that fact.  I will say what I said the night he did it, don’t go expecting him to be a huge goal scorer just because he got 3 in a game.  He will be an opportunistic goal scorer who’s best assets on the ice are his vision, passing and understanding of the game.  We see that each game with his positioning and how the puck seems to find him, mainly because he is in the right spot a lot.  The most surprising part of Derek’s game for me and maybe I shouldn’t be surprised is how willing he is to be physical and get into after whistles in sticking up for himself and his teammates. 

Talk this preseason was focused on whether he would make the club to start and then if he would center the 1st line or if he would go to Hartford.  His play in the preseason games quickly erased the Hartford option as being truly viable so then the question was of positioning.  I like him playing with two dirty work guys who aren’t afraid to step in and protect, somewhat similar to what Artem got late last year with Shelley and Prust, though Avery and Fedetenko have more natural skill.  As the season wears on I think he will eventually move up in the talent department on his wings whether than means Gaborik, Frolov, both or neither is yet to be seen.  In the meantime he is adjusting better than anyone could have hoped, playing an effective game each time out and not showing any signs of being overwhelmed by whatever is put in front of him.

That discusses on the ice and his off the ice might be just as big to this organization as he has all the makings of a future captain for this club in the way he talks with media and his teammates speak of him.  I have been having that thought for a few years since reading Jess over TheProspectPark talk about how he would make it a point to keep in touch with all the other prospects and the chemistry building between them.  Those are the kinds of leadership that FA dollars and big name status cannot buy in a locker room.  It is the difference between wanting to play with a guy and play for a guy; the willingness to stand up, protect and be accountable to that guy.

The hope of Ranger fans might be for Stepan to be the future number one but I have never fully seen him in that role and other than the World Junior Championships he has never really had to play that role.  I see him slotting in very comfortably as a #2 behind Artem good for 15-20G and 40-50A (in prime) giving us the best pair of centers we have had in a long time, especially at their respective ages.

What this means when we get healthy
I know there must be questions as to where I would put these guys when the full roster comes back and it fluctuates for me some depending on how much I want to leave what they have going together and then how much I want to go with the combinations I think best fit the team.  I presume when Drury, Gaborik and Prospal come back in some combination two of them will play with Frolov at least to start and see what if any chemistry can be developed.  Many are hesitant to break up the Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan line and I certainly understand it for how good they have been, but imagine Gaborik’s finishing on the end of all the chances Dubi and AA are creating right now.  That to me should be the first line before the year is out.

My lines:

So Ranger fans the wait for top notch centers has been long and filled with many disappointments, but have faith the wait for who they will be is over.  There may still be a small delay in them getting to their peaks, but don’t hit the panic button and chase the big names all over again. 

Just as an interesting aside to me there is so much talk of all the failed 1st round picks by the Rangers and lord knows there have been plenty, but when do we start talking about all the success we have had in the second round the last 6 years with Dubinsky, Sauer, Anisimov, Stepan, Werek, Thomas?

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