By Sean Hartnett
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When Rangers center Derick Brassard isn’t working hard on the practice ice or pushing himself in the weight room, he’s constantly studying himself on tape.

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Linemate Mats Zuccarello is in awe of Brassard’s never-ending devotion toward self-improvement.

“He loves the game,” Zuccarello said. “I’ve never been around a guy who loves hockey as much as he does. Every day, he’s looking at everything. He’s always watching YouTube, clips, everything.”

It never stops. Brassard will watch anything he gets his hands on. The 26-year-old center has become “captain video” of the Blueshirts. Carl Hagelin described Brassard as a full-fledged “hockey nerd.” Some teammates could be described as music buffs, avid moviegoers or video gamers away from the ice.

For Brassard, it’s all hockey – all the time.

“He’s a hockey nerd,” Hagelin said while cracking a playful smile. “He loves watching hockey. He loves to break down tape. He’s one of those guys that is very particular about what he’s doing out there. He really pays attention to detail.”

The self-critiquing is paying off and is not limited to his on-ice play. Brassard’s goal this summer was to become more explosive. He enlisted the help of a trainer t minutes away from his Ottawa home and went to work for seven weeks on perfecting his quick burst and ensuring that his body is ready to endure the rigors of an 82-game season.

“I changed my trainer this summer,” Brassard said. “It was a good summer of training. I’m trying to get more explosive. I worked a lot with my trainer with heavy weights. When you’re 18 or 19, you can kind of get stronger. When you’re getting 26 or 27, you can still get stronger. It’s more about maintenance during the summer, making sure you’re body’s right and doing the right things.”

ZUCCARELLO ON BRASSARD: ‘HE’S GOING TO BE EVEN BIGGER THIS YEAR’

Zuccarello is predicting big things for Brassard in 2014-15. The Norwegian winger enjoyed tremendous chemistry with Brassard last season, but expects his linemate to enjoy an even greater breakthrough in the forthcoming season.

“He’s going to have a big year this year,” Zuccarello said. “We need him to be a leader, and I think he’s going to have a big year for us. Obviously, he played a big part in our team’s success last year. He’s going to grow and be even bigger this year.”

After arriving in Manhattan at the April 3, 2013 trade deadline, Brassard immediately established himself as a big-game player who thrives in pressure situations. Brassard was thrown directly into the fire against the Pittsburgh Penguins hours after arriving at Madison Square Garden, not long before pregame warmups. He delivered a one-goal, three-assist debut.

Brassard clicked in New York after receiving criticism for perceived inconsistency during his six-year stay in Columbus. Rangers fans quickly embraced Brassard because of his wholehearted tenacity. You could see the desire in his eyes and his legs constantly churned with maximum effort. It’s little wonder why he earned an instant rapport with the Garden faithful.

In his first playoffs as a Ranger, Brassard registered 12 points in 12 postseason games. This was only an appetizer for things to come. While his 12 points in 23 games last playoffs was impressive, Brassard became a central figure in the Rangers’ run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final in more ways than stats could ever suggest.

“Ever since he’s got here, he’s played well in those big games,” Hagelin said. “You need players like that to go far in the playoffs.”

BRASSARD: ‘WE HAVE A GOOD TEAM HERE AND WE CAN DO IT AGAIN’

Brassard reflected on last season’s unexpected run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. The Hull, Quebec native felt the Rangers really grew together as a team after suffering a miserable 5-7-0 start in October. The Blueshirts struggled out of the gate, in part, because they had to adjust on the fly to Alain Vigneault’s newly-installed uptempo offensive strategies.

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“No one expected us to go all the way to the final,” Brassard said. “We beat some really good teams. I think we showed each other that we have a good team here and we can do it again. We had a really tough start to the season and grew as a team. We need to have a better start and make sure we’re competing. I think the talent here is going to take over.”

Brassard believes the Rangers’ summer signings — including Dan Boyle, Tanner Glass, Lee Stempniak, Ryan Malone, Kevin Hayes and Matthew Lombardi — can replace key offseason departures. The Rangers lost Anton Stralman, Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Derek Dorsett and Dan Carcillo.

“What we accomplished last year as a team, it’s behind us,” Brassard said. “It’s tough. Not every year you have a chance to go all the way to the final. Guys are leaving, and everyone has a different contract situation. We lost a few guys, but we have some new guys coming in who can step up. We added some really good depth players.”

BRASSARD: ‘I’M REALLY GOING TO MISS BRIAN BOYLE’

One player who Brassard will miss in particular is Brian Boyle, who signed a three-year deal to join another Stanley Cup contender in the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I’m really going to miss Brian,” Brassard said. “He was really good for our team. Guys like that with big bodies are pretty hard to find. He’s hard to play against and blocks a lot of shots. The guys around here are going to miss him a lot. You wish him well in Tampa. He’s going to a good team there and he’s going to do a good job, for sure.”

Brassard wished former linemate Pouliot well in Edmonton and thinks that Richards will benefit from being surrounded by some outstanding players in Chicago. Pouliot agreed to a five-year deal with the Oilers, while Richards agreed to a one-year deal with the Blackhawks after being bought out by the Rangers.

“Benny was really well-appreciated by teammates,” Brassard said. “Zucc and I really enjoyed playing with him. He’s been moving around a lot for the past five years. He’s going to stay in Edmonton for a while. Hopefully, he’ll have success in Edmonton. Richie is probably going to play with some really good players in Chicago. I learned a lot from him here and wish him well.”

He isn’t sure who will be named the 27th captain of the Rangers. An announcement could come as early as noon Thursday when Vigneault is scheduled to speak to the media for the first time since breakup day on June 16.

Ryan McDonagh and Martin St. Louis are the most likely candidates to be given the captain’s ‘C.’ Defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal both served as alternate captains last season. Rick Nash occasionally wore an ‘A’ last season. While in Columbus, Nash captained the Blue Jackets between 2008 and 2012.

“I’m not sure what they’re doing with the captaincy here,” Brassard said. “Girardi, McDonagh, Staal, Step … they’ve been here for a while. Nash was a captain in Columbus, and Marty was a captain in Tampa.”

Brassard’s own future was secured this summer when he signed a reported five-year, $25 million contract. He is delighted to remain in New York for the long-term, but the excitement quickly wore off as the 26-year-old is focused on making the most of the upcoming season.

Having recorded 45 points in 82 games last season, Brassard is setting the bar high for himself, and he wants to be a difference-maker for the Blueshirts.

“I was pretty happy,” Brassard said. “I really like it here, I like the group of guys we have here. I like everything about New York and the Rangers. I was pretty pumped to stay here for a while. Now, it’s behind me. It’s my sixth (full) year in the league. Obviously, I want to be a big part of the team, try to do my job on the ice and go from there.”

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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