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Young Grizz has sights set on NHL

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Almost there.

That's the message Kyle Rossiter took from his appearance in an NHL preseason game earlier this month in Fort Myers, Fla.

"It was a great feeling," said the 21-year-old defenseman. "It really hits you when you step out there and all of a sudden you're playing one-on-one with Ron Francis."

The experience has motivated Rossiter to keep working hard while developing his skills in the minors. Before being assigned to the Utah Grizzlies, where he'll await his first regular-season promotion to hockey's highest level, the Florida Panthers prospect spent four years playing juniors in Spokane. That was followed by a season with Louisville in the American Hockey League. And though the Panthers weren't all that successful, their lack of depth meant plenty of playing time for Rossiter. He appeared in every game last season while giving his confidence and development a boost.

"From this time last year to now, I'm probably twice as good as a player," said Rossiter, who was told by Florida officials that he had a good camp and with continued development could wind up in the NHL later this season.

"He's definitely a physical player, and he has ability to move the puck up the ice. He has ability to jump into the rush and he can play on the power play," said Grizzlies coach Don Hay.

"I think that gives you a pretty well-rounded guy. He's a guy we're counting on to hopefully be in our top four rotation and push guys ahead of him to make them better."

At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Rossiter has the physical tools to play in the NHL. Two years after being tabbed as Florida's first-round draft pick (30th overall), the Edmonton native and former member of Canada's national junior team displayed his power at the 2000 Western Hockey League All-Star Game. He won a skills competition for the hardest slapshot with a blast of 92.6 mph.

Leadership is another area of strength for Rossiter. Hay said it comes from his background in juniors.

"He's come from an organization that has won and he knows how to win," explained Hay. "I think that when you can have winners on your team it's going to help in leadership.

"Even though he's only 21 years old, he's got a good background. Hopefully that background will help lead his own age group. That's the thing we're looking for," Hay added. "If we can have leaders at every age group it's really going to help."

Whether it's leading the Florida guys, Utah's defense or the younger players, it's a role Rossiter happily accepts.

"I know I won't know all the guys, but I want to get to know them as quickly as possible," Rossiter said of Utah's affiliation agreement with both Dallas (15 players) and Florida (five players) this season. "We had a real tough year as a team in Louisville. So getting the opportunity as a Florida player to come here and combine with some Dallas guys, I think, will give us an awesome team."

Though the Grizz are still waiting for late cuts from both the Stars and Panthers to round out their roster, Rossiter is busy working out with a group of hopefuls at the Acord Ice Center. Training camp concludes Saturday at 7 p.m. with an intra-squad scrimmage.

It isn't exactly where he thought he'd be. Rossiter was hoping to spend more time in an NHL camp. He appeared in just one preseason game with the Panthers because the terrorist attacks on America postponed other opportunities. Hay, however, said it's fairly common for second-year pros to be sent down early. Other players will likely be assigned to Utah on Sunday.

"I wasn't expecting to be here for this camp. Now that I'm here, though, it's great," said Rossiter, who knew he'd eventually end up with the Grizz and leased an apartment in the area. The move-in date, however, was Oct. 3 — meaning he'll be living at a hotel until then. "I'm just trying to get accustomed to the city and get set-up in the area."

The transition should be complete just in time for next weekend's season-opening games at Grand Rapids and Chicago.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com