Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Islanders Continuing Right Moves By Locking Up Okposo For 5-Years

As a New York Rangers fan it is hard to admit when the New York Islanders are doing things the right way, but over the past few months they are certainly making strides in that direction with their commitment to locking up their best players long-term.  In the past three months the Islanders have locked up Matt Moulson to a 3-year deal before he became an unrestricted free agent, then signed Calder Trophy nominee Michael Grabner to a friendly 5-year deal for $15 million. 

Today, according to Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, they added to that list by locking current assistant captain Klye Okposo to a 5-year extension of his own worth $14 for a very reasonable average cap hit of $2.8 million a season.  Combine those three signings with the hope of a new arena and the tremendous prospects that are on the horizon for the Islanders and it is not hard to envision the Islanders making a comeback to the land of a competitor in short order.  If Al Montoya can play next season as he did following his acquisition along with the return of Mark Streit and the influx of talented prospects, that return to the playoffs could be as soon as next season.

Rangers To Play Lundqvist's Former Team Frölunda In Exhibition Game

Who says you cannot go home again?  Henrik Lundqvist is going to do so with the New York Rangers and not just to play in Sweden this fall, but to play against his former team, Frölunda, which currently has brother Joel playing for them.  This news comes according to the Frölunda Indians website, which says New York will play the Swedish Elite League team in an exhibition before they start the regular season in Stockholm against the Kings.

The game will be played on either Thursday, September 29th or Friday September 30th.  If the Sweden return was not special enough for Lundqvist to kick off the 2011-12 season, now he gets to go back to where he played professionally at home before joining the Rangers.

2011 NHL Draft Prospects: Mark McNeill

The 2011 draft now less than one month away, and the Rangers scouting and front office staff is looking through many prospects to see who they want to select with the 15th overall selection.  With the current state of the Rangers defense both at the NHL and prospect level one would expect that New York will look for offense in the first round of the draft hoping to find an impact scorer.  Yesterday, I took a look at Mark Scheifele, who is a center from the OHL that produced against the best the opposition had to offer despite playing with inferior talent around him.  Today, I will look at another player who produced beyond the level of his supporting cast in Mark McNeill of the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL).
McNeill is a rising prospect in the eyes of many who just came off a tremendously improved second season in for the Raiders.  During his first year he had only nine goals and 15 assists in 68 games.  Those numbers left him unranked in the initial Central Scouting preliminary rankings of the top 25 North American skaters last November and the International Scouting Services' October, 2010 top 30 list as well.
In his second season those number skyrocketed to an impressive 32 goals, 49 assists and 81 points in just 70 games.  His play moved him up to 22nd in the Central Scouting mid-term rankings, but then he vaulted again to 14 by the end of the season. He also checked in at number 20 on the ISS final rankings.
The most talked about aspect of McNeill is his size as he stands 6’2” and 204 pounds.  At that size, McNeill has the potential to be the power forward type player that the Rangers have coveted for years.  Beyond just his sheer size, he possesses a willingness to go into the dirty areas and the ability to come out of there with goals on the board.
He’s really composed and has a real pro-style game. He has a nice touch, can dish, and has nice, soft passes. His on-ice awareness is very good and he’s paid attention to detail at both ends of the rink. He has good defensive-zone coverage as well as being offensive at the other end.
Kirk Luedeke of Bruins Draft Watch’s
Big horse has been impressive for Canada in the tourney so far. Anyone who thinks he doesn't have upside hasn't been paying close attention to what McNeill brings to the table (82 points for Prince Albert this season) and he's making a legitimate run to a potential top-10 selection in June. McNeill drew primary assist on the Locke goal, taking Murphy's point pass and getting it hard to the net where Locke was able to convert the rebound. But, what impressed us was McNeill's defense and discipline. He moved the puck smartly, backchecked diligently and didn't force things that weren't there. On offense, he protects the puck well and sees the ice like a true playmaker. Stock watch: goin' up.
Hockey Writer’s scouting report:
Mark McNeill, the Prince Albert Raiders powerful, gritty forward showed why he should be a top 15 draft selection in this years NHL Entry Draft last season. He uses a combination of grit, with good playmaking ability to make him one of the top centers in the Western Hockey League.
A player that thrives on being strong on both ends, McNeill is also never afraid to drop the gloves and stick up for his teammates. To add to his impressive total of 81 points this year, he also finished with 53 penalty minutes.
Defensively, McNeill plays the shutdown role very well. He uses his strength and strong positioning to easily knock opposing players off the puck. He is also a strong faceoff man, which in addition to his strong defensive game makes him a good penalty killer.
"I pick aspects of [Getzlaf's] game and try to bring them to the ice," McNeill said. "I try to be a power forward, to play solid at both ends and to play with an edge; anything to help my team."
Having a player that tries to emulate a Ryan Getzlaf is exactly what the Rangers need right now to take the next step.  The Rangers have some skilled players and some edgy players, but they have few players that combine the two and McNeill can play a skill game, a grit game and do it with edge.
Everything written about McNeill pegs him as an excellent fit for the Rangers system as he can use his size and strength to get in on the forecheck and create chances while being a responsible two-way player that does his job in his own end.  This would be a fantastic pick for New York at 15, if he is still on the board.

Rangers Player Review: Michael Sauer Steady As A Rock

Coming into the 2010-11 season the Rangers defensive core was assumed to consist of Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, and Michal Rozsival as locks.  The training camp battles for the final spots were supposed to be between Matt Gilroy, Steve Eminger and Ryan McDonagh.  Michael Sauer was rarely if ever mentioned as being in the running for the roster, but with his excellent training camp, along with a fear of losing him through waivers, Sauer made the club to start the year and he never looked back.  What the Rangers found in the 23-year-old rookie was the tough, hard-nosed, crease-clearing defender they have been searching for over the past number of years.
Sauer played 76 games during his rookie season and not only did he prove he belonged in the NHL, but he was arguably the most consistent player on the roster.  There is no player, at any position, that was as consistent from game-to-game as Sauer was in his first season.  He will never dazzle with flash, but the steady play he brings is something that was critical to the Rangers success this season. 
There is a great comfort knowing what you are going to get from a player every time he steps on the ice and coach John Tortorella every time #38 hit the ice for the Rangers. With Sauer you get a player with tremendous defensive awareness, positioning and attention to the basics.  Add to that a man who loves to hit, clears the crease and fights to defend himself and his teammates and you get a solution to a void the Rangers hadn’t filled in years. 
After making the team and being part of a rotation with Steve Eminger and Matt Gilroy to open the season, Sauer solidified his spot in the rotation as a third pair defender.  As the season progressed, the trust in Sauer grew and eventually he earned his chances to assume a top four role and he did not disappoint.  By the time the second half of the season came, Sauer was playing an average of 20:12 a night and playing as well as any Rangers defender on the roster.
While he will always be a defense first type defender, Sauer showed flashes of offense during the second half of the year.  After recording one goal and five assists in 46 games before the All-Star break, Sauer had two goals and seven assists in 30 games during the second half.  While the numbers showed improvement, his offensive strides go beyond what the stats would say.  With each passing game his confidence grew and his aggression on the offensive end both shooting the puck and reading the play made him much more effective.  Sauer was among the most effective defenders in reading the play and knowing when to pinch to keep possession alive, which is something the coaching staff the Rangers preached all year.
Those traits were on display Monday night against Boston as Sauer read the play beautifully and slid down to a position where he was able to take advantage of the hustle by the forwards behind the net and beat Tim Thomas for his second game winning goal of the season.  You can easily argue that goal was the biggest goal of the season for the Rangers because without that win the team does not make the playoffs at all.
The combination of Sauer and McDonagh gave the Rangers a second shut-down defensive pair and one of the best top four defensive groups in the NHL.  For a 23-year-old rookie who was never expected to make the team to play 76 games, scoring three goals, adding 12 assists and playing to a tremendous plus 20 is a special year and gives hope for the future.
Grade: A

Video: Bieksa's Fluke Winner In Double Overtime Sends Canucks To Stanley Cup Finals

The Vancouver Canucks are headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994 with tonight's double overtime win on one of the whackiest goals in recent memory.  Just past the midway point of the second overtime Canucks defender Alex Edler attempted to dump the puck deep into San Jose's zone, but the puck would take a strange bounce off a stanchion and head over to Kevin Bieksa at the point. 

Bieksa was seemingly the only player on the ice who knew where the puck was shot a knuckler towards the net while Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was still trying to figure out where the puck was.  The puck would beat Niemi low to the glove side and send Vancouver into eupohoria.