- Craig Custance
For years, Ryan Callahan has embodied everything it meant to be a forward on John Tortorella's Rangers. He plays with an edge. He defends. He hits. He blocks shots and, within the confines of those responsibilities, he scores. In the last full NHL season, he had a career-best 29 goals.
He's the Rangers' captain and, raised in the NHL by Tortorella, formed the identity of the team. Now, Tortorella is gone and the Rangers will soon get the details of how different things will look under Alain Vigneault when camp opens. There's questions as to how much the pendulum will swing from defense to offense, but in Callahan's mind, there's no question about how he'll approach the game.
He's not changing.
"It can't change. That's how I play," Callahan said when we chatted during the U.S. Olympic orientation camp. "That's my style of game. For me to have success, that's the way I need to play. Systematically, things will change when I'm on the ice, maybe. Or situations. But I'm not going to change the way I play, go out there and do what I can for the team and try to help them win."
GM Glen Sather left the Rangers' roster essentially intact after a season in which the team fell well short of its lofty Stanley Cup goals. Tortorella is gone, and he was a big part of the Rangers' identity. But the players are back, and as big a personality and influence the head coach was, Callahan reminds us that they are the ones out on the ice.
What's made the Rangers successful over the last couple of years is that it's a homegrown group with a strong core, as well as strong leadership. That's what will help ease the transition from one coach to the next.
"Our identity comes from who is in the room and how we play," Callahan said. "We have pretty much the same lineup we've had here. I'm not worried about our identity. We've established that, that's something we're going to have to live by."
Part of that identity is accountability, and that remains strong even in the long summer months between a playoff elimination and the start of a training camp under a new coach.
Ryan McDonagh said the Rangers kept in touch all summer in an effort to push each other in between the life that happens away from hockey like weddings, vacations and time with the family.
For them, it came in the form of a constant group text between players, encouraging each other to push themselves physically during the time off.
"Our group is pretty confident in ourselves. We know with the heart and passion, we all work hard," McDonagh said. "[We] push each other and see who is working hard so that we're ready for camp. It's business."
Even if their approach to the game remains the same, there definitely is curiosity growing as to exactly what the arrival of Vigneault will mean. For Callahan, along with McDonagh and Derek Stepan, who also attended the orientation camp, the communication with Vigneault hasn't been in-depth yet. Some phone tag and conversations, but nothing that dives into the systematic changes coming in training camp.
As a defenseman, McDonagh isn't anticipating a huge change. Defensemen have to be sound in their own zone regardless of who the coach is.
"I'm still going to go in the corners, I have to be physical and stand net-side on the guy," McDonagh said. "As a defenseman, you have to be trusted to defend and keep the puck out of your net. If you're not going to do that, it doesn't matter who your coach is."
Still, McDonagh anticipates a little more personal freedom to make plays and show more creativity in his game.
Stepan said he doesn't know what to expect.
"I've had a tough time with it this summer. People ask me that question. It's hard to say, you don't know what to expect from him," he said. "I think there will be a lot of aspects that stick around. A lot of players have been playing that way a long time."
Stepan blossomed in 2013 offensively, with 44 points in 48 games, and his points per game jumped from 0.62 in 2011-12 to 0.92 during the lockout-shortened season.
Teammates, meanwhile, saw a player whose confidence continued to grow, and a talented offensive player like him may end up being the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change.
He was quick to credit his growth last year to the confidence instilled in him by the previous regime, for grooming him the right way and establishing a trust that grew from season to season. He said he learned the proper preparation it took to succeed at the NHL level under Tortorella, and appreciated the trust that was shown as his ice time grew from 18:57 per game in 2011-12 to more than 20 minutes a game last season.
He knows that's a trust that will have to be re-established under Vigneault.
"You always earn it," he said. "I don't expect the new coach to play me like the old coach. I expect to earn my spots and earn my job."
Complicating things a bit is the fact that Stepan, a restricted free agent, remains unsigned, although the contract signed by Adam Henrique this week might help spark talks between the Rangers and Stepan's camp.
Henrique signed a six-year, $24 million deal which isn't exactly the bridge contract that Sather prefers, but it's another comparable to put on the table.
McDonagh got his contract extension done in July, another non-bridge deal that went for six years and $28.2 million. He anticipates Stepan being with the team at the start of training camp.
"Like any player, you want to be with the group of guys skating on the first day of camp," McDonagh said.
It's just one of many questions facing the Rangers at camp. How will they evolve under Vigneault? How quickly will Callahan be ready after shoulder surgery? Is Marc Staal back to being Marc Staal? What are reasonable expectations for Brad Richards?
But Callahan and his teammates are removing one variable. The identity won't be evolving dramatically. The hard-working, tough-to-play-against Rangers will be back in some form this season, and the hope is that it happens on a more consistent basis than it did in 2013.
"For one reason or another, we couldn't find our stride," Callahan said. "We couldn't consistently play the game we needed to play. That hurt us. That's something going into this year we have to do -- find our game and consistently play the way we need to play to win."
Craig Custance writes about how much the Rangers will change under new head coach Alain Vigneault. He speaks with Ryan Callahan, who believes there won't be any dramatic differences from last season's system.