With Henrik Lundqvist employed now, and hopefully for many more years to come, the New York Rangers are well represented in the crease. Still, it is never too early to look towards the future. The Rangers' prospect pool, in terms of goaltenders, has been stale for a number of years and Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark made no attempt this summer to hide his desire to add new talent to the mix.
The Rangers did just that on June 30th at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, selecting goaltender Mackenzie Skapski 170th overall from the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.
Skapski, now 19, traveled to New York the next day to see the home of his new organization and take in his first summer training camp.
“Everything was kind of brand new,” Skapski said of the experience. “It was my first time in New York. Everything's that much bigger.”
Skapski's stay in New York was short but valuable, as he got to work with Benoit Allaire, the team's well respected goaltending coach.
“It was really cool being on the ice with (Allaire). In the time I had with him I tried to soak up as much as I could. Obviously he's got a really good reputation," he said.
The Rangers list Skapski as 6'3” and 190 pounds, which is good size for a goaltender his age. However, Skapski knows he needs to learn how to better utilize his frame. He and Allaire worked on improving that part of his game.
“The biggest focuses for me are shots on the outside and making a bigger presence so shooters see less net. Simplifying my game. I need to use my size more efficiently. Sometimes I get into a little bit of a crouch,” Skapski said.
Skapski is now back in Kootenay as the team's starting goaltender; a position he retains from the previous season. Skapski put himself on the Rangers' radar with a strong showing during the second half of the 2012-2013 season. As Cody Nickolet of WHL From Above put it, he "guided the Ice to the playoffs." But Skapski has more ambitious goals for this season. He listed a championship with the Ice and an invite from Canada for the World Junior Championships among them.
To win a championship, though, Kootenay have a lot to work on. The team is off to a 2-2-0 start with Skapski averaging 3.92 Goals Against per Game. However, that is perhaps an unfair evaluation of Skapski, who has played better than that number indicates. The Ice lost Joey Leach, arguably the team's best defensemen from the 2012-2013 season, and Skapski now stands behind a younger, less experienced defensive group. Still, he believes they can and will improve as the season progresses.
“Yeah, we definitely have a younger group (this season). I was in the same situation last year where I was introduced to a new role,” said Skapski. “I had to adjust quickly and people had to put up with me. I'm just trying to help what we have here. Hopefully they can take some of my advice and we can really gel.”
In the meantime, the Ice will need a talented forward group to take some pressure off of the defense as they play through some growing pains. The biggest contributor to that is likely to be center Sam Reinhart. Reinhart is seen by many, including TSN's Bob McKenzie, as the likely first overall pick of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and he already has 10 points through three games.
“I think it's great to have him on my team because he not only elevates my game but the rest of the team as well and pushes them to the next level,” Skapski said of Reinhart. “He's an important piece to our team to ultimately reach our championship goal. I think we have a very good chance of it this year.”
So called “experts” might see Skapski's aspirations – both for himself and the team – as unlikely. But his competitive nature, which he rates as one of his best qualities, is what dictates his expectations and ultimately what might allow him to surprise people now and in years to come.
“My competitiveness is second to none and usually I'll beat a guy out for a job if it's on the line,” he said.
Late round draft picks such as Skapski, by nature, are considered long shots to make the NHL. But Rangers fans don't have to look very far to find another highly competitive goaltender who was skipped over. The aforementioned Henrik Lundqvist, All-Star and Vezina winner, dropped all the way to the 7th round in 2000. For those and other reasons, Skapski looks up to Lundqvist and surely would love to follow in his path. But he isn't going to worry about his future right now.
“I think the draft is just a number, and I know that sounds cliché,” Skapski said. “Right now I'm just focused on what I have to do (in Kootenay). New York… we'll follow up with that. I'm sure everything will take care of itself.”
Thanks to Mackenzie Skapski for contributing to this piece. Follow him on Twitter here.
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