MONTREAL – Nik Antropov discovered a new mentality when he left the Toronto Maple Leafs to join the New York Rangers in a deal at the March 4 NHL trading deadline.
The trade took him from a team looking ahead to next season to a club that has been energized after some roster moves and the Feb. 23 hiring of coach John Tortorella.
“That’s probably the biggest adjustment I have to make – knowing that the Rangers are battling for a playoff spot and every game is crucial for us,” Antropov said Tuesday as the Rangers prepared to play the Montreal Canadiens. “We’re playing pretty much playoff hockey now.”
The six-foot-six left-winger was in his ninth season with the Leafs when he was sent to the Rangers for a pair of draft picks. He had three goals and two assists in his first six games with New York, where he plays on the top line with Chris Drury and Markus Naslund.
“It’s a hard-working group of guys,” said Antropov, who looks poised to top his career highs of 26 goals and 56 points achieved last season with the Leafs. “I’m trying to get used to the new system they’re playing, but so far, so good.
“It’s a fun city as well. People really care about hockey there, same as in Toronto. It’s great to see that.”
Antropov has been able to blend in mostly unseen thanks to another deadline move – claiming winger Sean Avery off re-entry waivers from the Dallas Stars. The team also picked up veteran defenceman Derek Morris from Phoenix for Nigel Dawes, Petr Prucha and Dmitri Kalinin.
Avery has tried to keep a low profile off the ice – he avoided reporters after the Rangers’ Tuesday morning skate – but has been his feisty, yapping self during games. Avery also scored four times in his first six games back with the Rangers.
“When he’s focused on hockey he’s a great player and so far, he’s doing a great job for us,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “He draws a lot of attention and that’s not a bad thing for us.
“I want him to be the same player on the ice or off the ice. He’s calmed down a bit. He loves being back in New York. You can see that. And we’ll help him stay on course.”
Avery was persona non grata in the NHL after he called a television crew over in Calgary on Dec. 2 to make a crude remark about opposing players dating his former girlfriend.
He was suspended by the league, barred from the Stars and sent for behaviour counselling. His career looked like it may have been over, except for interest from the Rangers, who had him play on their AHL farm club for a spell before claiming him. Even better for New York, the Stars still have to pay half his US$4-million salary.
Rangers general manager Glen Sather had only to look at his team’s record with Avery in the lineup – 50-23-13 in the season and a half he played there before signing with Dallas – to be convinced he could help the Rangers again.
“He’s just an effective player,” said centre Blair Betts. “I don’t think he’s a guy that teams particularly like to play against.
“This was probably the best place for him to come. He’s a little more comfortable with the organization. He knows most of the players on the team. He’s a gritty player. He plays hard. And I don’t think anyone doubted his ability to play the game.”
Avery was at his best on Sunday against Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia, luring the Flyers into taking penalties and scoring two goals.
Morris brought experience to a position where New York needed it most – on defence.
“I’ve had a blast,” the 31-year-old said. “It’s a really fun, exciting team to be around and you can see how guys have elevated their play since they got the new coach.
“He’s very demanding and he relies on everyone to play the game hard. The team is going in the right direction at the right time.”
For the Rangers, the change in style since Tortorella replaced the fired Tom Renney has been the biggest boost.
Before, they were a dispirited team that had trouble scoring, but since then, other than a 3-0 loss in Carolina, they look to be a better club all around, particularly on attack.
“Before Torts came, we backed up a lot and trapped,” said Lundqvist. “We don’t trap any more.
“We go after teams right away. We try to forecheck hard. The look has changed and I think the feeling in the group has changed as well. We have a lot of guys who like to skate and use an aggressive style of play, and they can do that when we forecheck more.”
“The system Torts has implemented suits our team a little better,” added Betts. “We’re more aggressive on the puck.
“We’re trying to create offence, which is something we had trouble doing earlier in the season.”
What will be interesting as the playoff races wind down is that the other team that looks to have benefited most from deadline deals is also in the Atlantic Division. The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz to add much-needed depth to their attack.