Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Artem Anisimov: Finding His Game Just In Time

Jim McIssac/Getty
The New York Rangers have had a few different scenarios play out with some of their young players this season in terms of handling their struggles on one side of the ice and how the team has eventually had to try and spur them into getting their game back.  The most recent young player to lose his game for a stretch was Artem Anisimov and the question started to come to me as to whether Anisimov was going to go the Derek Stepan route of working through it and coming out the other side while staying in the lineup or if he had to get the recently enacted Michael Del Zotto treatment of sitting for a game to do some watching.  Add into the mix the impending return of the Rangers captain Chris Drury whom coach Tortorella said in the offseason he wanted to give him more offensive opportunities and Anisimov’s near term fate was up in the air.  Luckily for Anisimov he pulled the rip cord on his parachute in the nick of time and is now back to heading in the right direction.

Coming into camp it was unclear what exactly the role for Anisimov would be, but injuries during camp to Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal gave Anisimov a chance to prove he was worthy of and capable of handling a top six forward role this season.  Anisimov began the year with Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan on his wings and the line clicked beautifully to start the season being the team’s best line from the first game of the season, and then Marian Gaborik and Chris Drury both got hurt in the home opener leaving many to wonder who was going to provide the Rangers offense.  The responsibility would fall to Dubinsky, Anisimov and Callahan to become the teams number one line and luckily for the Rangers all three took the challenge on and thrived in with the increased responsibility.

For his part Anisimov would register 14 points in the Rangers first seven games evenly split between goals and assists.  In just about every game Anisimov was a force on both ends using his improved speed and strength to be more involved in all aspects of the game and it appeared as if the Rangers had found a top flight center they had been searching for over the last number of years.  Then approximately a month ago, just a few games after the return of Marian Gaborik to the lineup the line of Dubinsky-Anisimov –Callahan was creating less offensively and as the coach put it, had gotten stale. 

Once that happened Torts started moving pieces around between games, during games and the guy at least of that line that was moved the most was Anisimov as if he was the cause of the struggles.  There is no denying that his game had slipped but so had the games of Dubinsky and Callahan but in wanting to keep those two together Anisimov was moved around the lineup spending various games or parts of games on the fourth line.  Anisimov handled the moves by the coach in a tremendous way never saying anything out of turn and when asked about it taking the blame on himself and saying he needed to be better, which is a great sign for a young player.

With the impending return of Chris Drury and understanding to some extent the natural inclinations of Tortorella’s line moves I began to see a scenario being put in place that Drury would be slotted into that second line center position with Dubinsky and Callahan as his wingers.  This was shown last week in fact during practice when Drury was taking shifts with the wingers along with Anisimov following the latest round of lineup changes.  The combination of these facts and the enacting of the Del Zotto respite had me wondering how long before they attempted the same on Anisimov. 

Against Ottawa Anisimov played a pretty good first two periods, but was again relegated down during the third so the suspicions about him maybe getting a Del Zotto were growing, but then came the Columbus game.  In the game Anisimov was as active and involved in the offensive zone as he had been three weeks to a month and while he had no points to show for it the line of Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan created more chances then they had maybe since Gaborik had been back.

On Sunday against the Capitals I was watching Anisimov very intently to see if the play in the Columbus game was a fluke or the beginning of him getting his game back to full steam and he went out and showed that he was back in form not just because he scored the goal and had an assist in the game but because of his activity level in the offensive zone.  The interesting thing for Anisimov similar to the case of Derek Stepan earlier this year was that even when the offense was not there, the defensive side of the game never wavered for either which is tremendous thing to see in young players.  I believe that Anisimov is on the Stepan like path of having found his game and will keep it there and for his sake he better because the leash now that Drury is back in the lineup will be short, but at least momentarily the recent resurgence of AA’s game has Drury the one who will start tonight relegated to the fourth line.  Where they will end this game no one can say for sure, but one can say for certain that even in his struggles Anisimov has shown through the rest of his game and his professionalism that the belief he can be a top center of the future is fitting for this young player.  

Personally I cannot wait for him to get hot and show his skills just so all those who were so willing to toss him overboard during the struggles will then claim they knew he had it in him all along, and they will; see Dubinsky, Brandon.