GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Let the games begin. With Chris Drury sidelined by a broken finger and with returnees Erik Christensen and Artem Anisimov just about guaranteed spots at center, Rangers coach John Tortorella will use the exhibition schedule to sort out the four candidates for two open spots in the middle.
Tortorella said Tuesday that rookie Derek Stepan, veteran Todd White, Tim Kennedy and Brian Boyle would be vying for the openings. Acquiring Olli Jokinen from Calgary last February didn't fill the bill for a No. 1 center, and no deal for a big pivot was fashioned in the offseason. So, barring a trade, the quartet is under scrutiny.
"It's not so much fitting in for Dru, it's who's going to make the team," Tortorella said. "White had a really good year a couple of years ago, playing with a pretty good offensive player [Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta]. We're going to throw him in with some good offensive people as we go through the exhibition season. We're going to put him in a fourth-line position and take some faceoffs . . . He's a good faceoff man, which is valuable to a team, kills penalties, smart on both sides of the puck. We'll see how he reacts to it, and make our calls from there."
White, 35, is the oldest of the four and carries the highest salary-cap hit: $2.3 million. He had shoulder surgery after last season, but Tortorella said aggressive rehab has him in good shape.
At 6-7 and 250 pounds, Boyle is the biggest. "He's fighting for a spot on the third or fourth line," Tortorella said. "He killed penalties well for us; we've asked him to work on his faceoffs. He's had a very good camp and he's conditioned well."
Stepan, the impressive prospect from the University of Wisconsin, is the youngest, (20), but with the most upside. "He has a lot going for him and we've put him in the process now,'' Tortorella said. "He's one of the better players we have as far as offensive awareness." However, he is the only one who can be sent to the AHL and recalled without being exposed to waivers.
Kennedy, the smallest and lightest, had 10 goals and 26 points for Buffalo last season, won $1 million in arbitration and the Sabres walked. He scored two goals in a scrimmage Tuesday and one in the shootout. "I'm impressed with his skill level," said Tortorella, "and his quickness on his skates."