Ulf's Road Leads Back To The Rangers
Ulf Samuelsson is back in New York, an assistant now under new head coach Alain Vigneault, and that seems fitting because for the better part of the last 20 years or so Samuelsson has had ties to the Rangers.
His initial ties to the Blueshirts were not so pleasant for the Rangers or their fans because for years Samuelsson terrorized and frustrated the Rangers on the ice---first as a fierce defenseman for the Hartford Whalers then more importantly as a valuable member of a Pittsburgh Penguins team which thwarted some solid Rangers squads (particularly in the 1992 Playoffs) en-route to winning back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.
From there Samuelsson played four seasons on the Rangers blueline in the mid-to-late '90's, and was a member of the 1997 team that played in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then when he started his coaching career, it was with the Rangers AHL affiliate in Hartford in 2005-06. When he was hired for his first NHL assistant coaching gig in Phoenix, Samuelsson was brought in by his former Rangers teammate Wayne Gretzky. He was then hired by former Ranger Markus Naslund to be the head coach of MODO in the Swedish Elite League the past two years. And now he is back working at The Garden as an assistant to Vigneault.
"I have very strong ties to this organization," Samuelsson told BlueshirtsUnited.com on Thursday, one day after his hiring by the Rangers became official. "It is like a family here. It is a comfortable place to be. They really take of everyone who works here, even with the smallest of details."
While the history is there for Samuelsson with the Rangers organization, it is much less so with the coaches and players he will be working with this upcoming season. Before being interviewed by Vigneault, Samuelsson had no prior relationship with the former Vancouver and Montreal head coach. And other than playing against Scott Arniel during his NHL career, Samuelsson did not know the Rangers new associate coach, though he briefly did play with new fellow assistant Daniel Lacroix in 1995-96.
Add to the mix that Samuelsson coached in Sweden the past two years so he is playing catch-up this summer studying players on the Rangers roster, as well as the Blueshirts' opponents, and you understand that Ulf is not here solely because he feels "comfortable" with the organization.
"I am really happy to have this opportunity, but it's a big challenge and a lot of work," exlained Samuelsson. "I have been studying so much video--our players and other teams. I think I will have a really good read on all of the players (before training camp). I have watched almost every shift from our defense, our blueline, from last year. Nothing beats being on the bench and seeing how they feel and all those small details, but I think I have a good feel right now."
And what of working so closely with three other men whom he had no previous relationship?
"We've had some really good meetings here in the city, really pounded through everything," Samuelsson said of the recent coaches' meetings. "I learned that (Vigneault) is really thorough, very organized, and wants to be up and running well before camp starts. We are creating a new working environment, and it's been a very interesting and pleasing process so far."
Samuelsson will be in charge of the team's penalty kill and will work with the defensemen, a logicial responsibility for him considering his nearly 1,100 games as top-tier NHL defenseman.
When asked his thoughts on the Rangers blueline, following his video study of the group this summer, Samuelsson did not hesitate to praise the group.
"I think we have a tremendous blueline," stated Samuelsson emphatically.
Though Samuelsson mentioned how thorough Vigneault is, that trait shines through in this Swede, as well. Not only has Samuelsson studied hours and hours of videotape this summer, he also has been in contact with another fomer Rangers defenseman---Jeff Beukeboom, the assistant coach in Hartford---to learn about the up and coming defense prospects in the organization.
"It certainly is set up for a good environment for our defensemen with Jeff and I both working in the organization," explained Samuelsson. "We already started conversations on most players---what they need to do, some kids will get on the ice early with our skating coach, what details certain players need to work on to improve their game. We recognize that we have some really good talent coming up, so it's up to the organization to put these kids in an environment where they can grow and become the best players they can be. Hopefully Jeff and I play big roles in that."
Samuelsson was quick to point out that the Rangers need more offensive production out of their defense corps. That will be something emphasized beginning in training camp. At the other end Samuelsson wants his defensemen to be consistent in clearing opponents out of the crease, and to make sure not to screen goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron.
And speaking of Lundqvist, a fellow Swede, Samuelsson said he had already spoken with the all-world goaltender this summer---conversations that left the new assistant coach fired up to get the season underway as soon as possible.
"I've watched (Lundqvist) for a number of years now and recognized that he has really been the backbone of this organization for a long while," stated Samuelsson. "I've spoken to him a few times and he's really anxious to take that next step as far as pushing himself and the team to a deep playoff run and to the Stanley Cup. That's such an incredible advantage to have someone as the backbone of your team with that talent and that kind of mindset."
For now the prep work continues for Ulf Samuelsson. Training camp is four weeks away and he wants to make this return to the Rangers organization a special one.