The Traverse City Tournament is the unofficial start to the hockey season; at least for Rangers fans. Before training camp starts the Rangers and a number of other teams send a group of prospects to Traverse City, Michigan, where they partake in a tournament of sorts. The games themselves are meaningless, but it's an opportunity for prospects to bond and gain some familiarity with each other, some of the coaches and scouts, and the team's system and philosophies. It's only a handful of games and none of the players are at peak condition, but the players take them seriously as it's an opportunity to show teams how you've progressed over the summer and perhaps earn a better look at training camp. And for the handful of prospects appearing on a tryout basis it's a chance to catch someone's eye and earn a contract. Carl Hagelin and JT Miller were two of the standouts of the previous tournament and foreshadowed their futures in the NHL. All players on the roster will look to prove something, but let's highlight five worth keeping a closer eye on.
1. Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg, Forwards
Alright, so I'm cheating here. But these two deserve to be clumped together because they are in virtually identical spots. Both Fast and Lindberg are coming off successful campaigns in the Swedish Elite League (now the Swedish Hockey League) and will be playing their first hockey in North America this upcoming season. It's an adjustment for a number of reasons. There's the cultural difference off the ice and in the locker room, but there is also the different sized ice surface. It's a good opportunity to dip their toes in the water and get adjusted to their new lives. These two are also as likely as any prospect to challenge for a spot on the NHL roster out of training camp. Here is an opportunity much like Hagelin had a couple years ago to demonstrate that they are on a different level from the rest of the prospects partaking in this tournament. While simply being from the same country doesn't make them good line partners, their games do in theory complement each other. Lindberg has great vision and passes the puck well while Fast skates very well and has a good shot. All sorts of combinations will be tried but pairing these two will likely be at the forefront of Gernander's mind.
2. Danny Kristo, Forward
Acquired this offseason for Christian Thomas, some would argue that Kristo is the team's best prospect partaking in this tournament; Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus is one of them. It's been a long time – Alex Kovalev being the last – since the Rangers have developed their own pure offensive star. And with Callahan and Hagelin set to miss some amount of time at the start of the season the Rangers will need to fill those holes on the wing. Kristo is North American, was one of the best players in the NCAA, and will be 3-5 years older than 90% of the competition. He should be well ahead of the curve and has a good chance, like Lindberg and Fast, to stand out and put himself in in the pole position for a spot going into training camp.
3. Conor Allen, Defenseman
Allen was signed out Umass-Amherst, a university whose hockey team hasn't had a winning season in Hockey East since 2007. Allen himself was undrafted and didn't generate much fanfare, but quietly put together a very productive senior season with 19 points in 33 games in a very difficult conference. The Rangers were incredibly underwhelmed with the defensive group they had in the AHL last season and Allen was one of the more notable changes made during a summer of overhauls. Allen is not a flashy player but fits the mold of defensemen that the Rangers love. He's steady on his skates and is a good distributor of the puck. He throws hits and has no hesitancy to block shots. Beyond McIlrath the Rangers have a whole lot of uncertainty in their defensive prospect pool. Allen has a chance to seperate himself from the pack and put himself on the radar as a legitimate player for the future.
4. Michael St. Croix, Forward
St. Croix participated in this tournament immediately after being selected in the fourth round in 2011 and was underwhelming. Since that tournament, however, St. Croix was arguably the best player on an Edmonton Oil Kings team that went to the WHL finals in back-to-back seasons, winning it in 2012. There's going to be growing pains for St. Croix but he is a center who has the tools to become a premier playmaking center in the NHL. Now two years older and more mature development-wise, St. Croix is no longer the new kid on the block and knows exactly what to expect. With Newbury traded to the Flyers and Miller likely to spend at least parts of the season at the NHL level there is a gaping hole at the first line center position for the Wolfpack. Here's a chance for St. Croix to get a head start on proving to Wolfpack head coach Ken Gernander that he is capable of filling the spot.
5. Jeff Malcolm, Goaltender
Technically not Rangers property as he was signed to an AHL deal by the Wolfpack. However, he is very much a player identified by Rangers scouts as a goaltender worth taking a flyer on. Like Allen, Malcolm is an undrafted player out of college. Yale stunned everyone by winning the national title and Malcolm was the team's backbone. Martin Biron is in the twighlight of his career and none of Cam Talbot, Jason Missiaen, and Scott Stajcer have proven enough to be viable long-term options in goal. Still, it's going to be difficult for Malcolm to climb the depth charts right away and perhaps might even spend the season in the ECHL. This is a chance for him to get some quality minutes against players who are better than most he's faced at the NCAA level.
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