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Rangers look to fill depth spots as training camp opens

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault shares a light moment

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault shares a light moment while answering a question after practice at the MSG training facility in Greenburgh on Sunday, June 1, 2014 as his team prepares for a shot at the Stanley Cup for the first time in 20 years. Credit: Craig Ruttle

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Tanned and smiling, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault strolled away from the corner of the rink where he was watching prospects prepare for the annual Traverse City tournament.

Asked if his summer unplugged from the team and the NHL was too brief, Vigneault paused and replied: "No, not too short . . . It was just about right."

Make no mistake: Vigneault gladly would have forsaken a few vacation days had his first season with the Rangers stretched just a little longer -- into Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Instead, the 107-game campaign, including 25 playoff matches, ended in Los Angeles in Game 5 of the Finals, when the Kings raised the Cup.

So Thursday, with the opening of training camp, the work, the questions and the decisions begin again.

Can the Rangers defend their Eastern Conference championship? Although eight of the top forwards, five starting defensemen, Henrik Lundqvist and backup goaltender Cam Talbot are returning, it won't be easy.

One other spot is locked in: Rangers general manager Glen Sather signed Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle to replace free agent Anton Stralman, who signed a long-term deal with Tampa Bay.

As a result, training camp and six exhibition games, starting Monday at home against the Devils in the first home preseason game at MSG since 2010 because of the renovations and lockout, will help pare down the surplus of young and veteran forwards targeting spots on the third and fourth lines.

That's where the competition will be in a camp where 63 players are invited.

After inking Boyle and key restricted free agents Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, the front office sought to fill holes in a salary cap-squeezed budget.

Sather & Co. acquired mostly low-priced experience: left wing Tanner Glass, center Matt Lombardi, right wing Lee Stempniak, and last week, left wing Ryan Malone, who was bought out by Tampa Bay. They signed highly touted Boston College prospect Kevin Hayes, who along with right wings Jesper Fast and Danny Kristo, left wing Ryan Haggerty and center Oscar Lindberg are among the youngsters vying for roster spots vacated by Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle, who left via free agency, and Derek Dorsett, who was traded to Vancouver.

Ideally, J.T. Miller, the club's No. 1 draft pick in 2011 who played 30 games last season and has been in town skating with teammates for a month, would earn the center or left wing spot on the third line, which would help ease the departure of Brad Richards, who was bought out of his $6.7-million contract.

If Miller is better suited for left wing, which would add to a logjam on that side, Lombardi, who played last season in Switzerland, will likely step in. Lindberg, however, had a very productive second half with the Hartford Wolf Pack, and Hayes, who has size and good hands, played the middle in Traverse City.

Depending on their performances, the veterans could have an edge in opening the season with the team. Malone, Lombardi, Glass and Stempniak all would have to clear waivers to be sent down, and could be claimed by other clubs. Hayes, Haggerty, Miller, Fast, Kristo and Lindberg are waiver-exempt.

The other opening is for a seventh spot on the blue line. Free agents Mike Kostka and Matt Hunwick each signed one-year deals and have NHL experience. Conor Allen appears to be the leading candidate from Hartford.

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