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Thursday, November 4, 2010
Rangers' homegrown players making mark

By Pierre LeBrun

Say what you want about Glen Sather (and Rangers fans would have fired the veteran GM 10 times over if ESPN.com's message boards are any indication), but his New York hockey club has an interesting characteristic about it these days.

Derek Stepan
Derek Stepan scored a hat trick in his NHL debut earlier this season.
Homegrown players are leading the way.

Most would agree the Rangers are a surprising 6-4-1 as they enter Thursday night's game against the rival Flyers in Philadelphia, especially when you consider the injuries to Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal and Chris Drury.

But in the aftermath of those seemingly crippling injuries, drafted and developed players have been leading the charge. The mere thought would have been laughable before the lockout. But yes, folks, these Rangers are being led by the likes of Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Marc Staal, Daniel Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Matt Gilroy, Mike Sauer and, of course, Henrik Lundqvist. Homegrown Rangers, all of them.

"It really hasn't been a change from anything we've tried to do," Sather told ESPN.com from his team office Wednesday. "It takes time for these kids to develop. The problem with free agents is, if you don't have kids that are ready to play, you have to fill the holes with somebody. I don't think the market in New York is a place where people are patient, so you try to build from within and build from without at the same time, all the while not giving up your draft picks and not trying to restrict the development of the players."

The Rangers made the playoffs in the first four seasons after the lockout, juggling both the free-agent approach, which didn't work out so well (hello, Scott Gomez and Wade Redden), and trying to reinvest in the farm system and stock up the pipeline. Some picks have been better than others -- Bobby Sanguinetti (21st overall in 2006), not so good; Rangers rookie Derek Stepan (51st overall in 2008) has been impressive.

"He's been a good surprise," Sather said of Stepan. "We never thought he'd make the team right off the get-go, but he has. I think he's the kind of kid who's smart, constantly developing and figuring his game out. He should be a good player."

As Sather pointed out, those draft picks from the past five years would have been even better if the Rangers bottomed out and picked within the top three, but they've remained competitive. The highest they've picked since the lockout was 10th this past June, when they selected youngster Dylan McIlrath.

"Fans, for the most part, aren't very patient," Sather said. "But I think they can see the development we've got going on here. A lot of these guys have been drafted by us, and we're still waiting for other players to come up."

Gordie Clark, the team's director of player personnel, and Jeff Gorton, assistant director of player personnel, deserve a lot of the credit. The pipeline is being restocked.

"I think [Roman] Horak is going to be a good player, [Chris] Kreider for sure, [Carl] Hagelin has a good opportunity. We've got lots of good kids coming," Sather said.

And there are also young blueliners Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko, both acquired from Montreal in the Gomez trade. What a swap that's beginning to look like for the Rangers.

But if there's a poster boy for this Rangers team, a team trying to find a new identity not based on free-agent dollars but rather on drafting and developing, it's certainly Callahan (127th overall in 2004).

"He's 25 years old, and he's certainly grown into his position," Sather said. "He's an important guy on our hockey club. He's a real leader. There's no quit in this kid."

The Rangers still have a glaring need at center. Brian Boyle, Anisimov and Stepan have all done well, but there's no bona-fide No. 1 center on this team, an area the Rangers will continue to try to improve.

"If you could get bigger and better you'd always look to do it," Sather said.

And now with young players in the pipeline, the answers may not necessarily have to come from outside New York.