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Summer 2014 New York Rangers’ Prospect Rankings: 1-12

Today is the release of “Part Three” of my prospect rankings, with this being my opinion on the top-12 prospects within the organization. You can view players 36-25 here and players 24-13 here.

 

12 (N/A) Mat Bodie, Defenseman, 24 Years Old

The highest-ranked newcomer to the prospect pool. Bodie was the captain of Union College, who stunned the hockey world and won the NCAA Championship this past season. He was third on the team in points, with 39 in 40 games, and he scored a goal in each of the four Frozen Four Games, including the final against Brady Skjei’s Minnesota. An undrafted free agent, the Rangers were quick to get him under contract once his season ended.

The biggest praise of Bodie has been his mental makeup. According to his coaches and teammates, he’s a true leader in the locker room and is the kind of player who works his butt off to improve. Physically, he’s got an above-average slap shot and is a good distributor of the puck. Though this is partially indicative of a major hole in the prospect pool, right now Bodie represents the Rangers’ best chance of developing a PP QB. He’s going to need some time in Hartford to work on becoming a true defenseman, but he is someone who is eager to improve himself in any way possible and will soak up everything he can from Wolf Pack Assistant Coach Jeff Beukeboom, who is a pretty good mentor for all things defense. At 24, time is obviously not on his side, but Bodie is clearly a late bloomer. He’s got a chance of becoming a solid depth defenseman who provides plenty of offense.

 

11 (9). Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, Center, 20 Years Old

As a sophomore who was selected in the second round, Nieves’ three goals and 19 assists in 34 games were underwhelming. To some extent, he needs to own that. There were stretches during the season where he needed to be better. Still, the stats are largely misleading and not actually indicative of his ability. He had some absurdly bad luck this season, hitting a number of posts, having teammates whiff on his setups and posting a shooting percentage around three percent through January; a free fall from the 13% he posted as a freshman. To put into perspective how ridiculously low that is, Colton Orr has a career shooting percentage of 6.9%. Nieves was bound to regress to the mean, and he did, scoring two goals and tallying ten assists in his final ten games.

Thus, you can’t really get worked up over the statistics when trying to project Nieves’ future. He’s a great skater and has good vision. I don’t have the stats to back it up, by my inclination is that he’s a positive possession player. He’s still a work in progress and likely will need all four years at the NCAA level. A couple graduating forwards will pave the way for Nieves to play a big role for Michigan next season, and I believe he’ll go into next season feeling optimistic and will make some noise. He has some real upside as a second- or third-line, pure playmaking center, though the Rangers will have to be patient with him.

 

10 (14). Ryan Graves, Defenseman, 19 Years Old

I actually interviewed Graves back in March and combined that with a pretty in-depth scouting report. Maybe bookmark that for later, and in the meantime here are more concise thoughts about Graves. His development over the season was pretty steady but noticeable. He started the season with the Charlottetown Islanders playing on their first defensive pairing. They had him playing somewhat of a two-way game. He thrived in the role, quickly becoming the team’s best defenseman. Charlottetown traded him to the Val-d’Or Foreurs at the QMJHL trading deadline, where he was asked to be a solely shutdown defenseman alongside offensive-minded Randy Gazzola; a role which suited Graves much better. His addition was one of many reasons that Val-d’Or would go on to win the QMJHL championship, and TVASports’ Anthony Marcotte called Graves the team’s “unsung hero.”

I’m not really sure what Graves’ upside is, but I like him a lot. He’s a big, hulking defenseman and like McIlrath is a physical force. He clears the crease. He knocks wingers to the ice when they try to pass him with the puck. And he’ll take care of the guys who get theirs sticks too close to the goaltender for his liking. He’s not just some big, physical goof, though. He’s a very smooth, agile skater for his size. Still, he knows his limitations when going up against 5’11 speedsters, and will compensate for it with sound positioning. He’s never going to hit any home run passes but he never seems to panic with the puck on his stick and always seems to make the right decisions. Once in a while, he’ll unleash an absolute bazooka from the point and tally a goal for his side. In general, he doesn’t look gawky and awkward on the ice like so many bigger teenage defensemen in the CHL do. It’s encouraging to see Graves playing such a harmonious, matured game at his age, and the Rangers seemingly agree considering they signed him to a professional contract a full year before they needed to. He’ll go back to the QMJHL this season, where he’ll hopefully continue to round out his game, and eventually he could turn into a pure shutdown defenseman somewhat in the mold of a Michael Sauer.

 

9 (3) Danny Kristo, Right Winger, 24 Years Old

I imagine many of you are surprised to see Kristo so soon. The skilled winger came into training camp highly touted by the Rangers’ scouting staff and, when he did not make the team, put up some explosive numbers in the AHL right away; eight goals and six assists in his first 13 games. His production somewhat understandably dipped a bit in November, but he still produced at a healthy rate and was making plays in the offensive zone, making good decisions with the puck, looking to make plays, and possessing the puck often. Then his production took a total nosedive. From December 6th through March 16th, a span of 32 games, Kristo scored just eight goals with eight assists. Meanwhile, Lindberg and Fast were flying up the depth chart. To be fair to Kristo, Hartford was often in shambles and he wasn’t always with great linemates. Also, it was obvious that the Wolf Pack coaching staff told him to sacrifice some offense in favor of learning how to become a better player away from the puck and in his own end. He definitely did improve upon those things, and in late March and April he did start producing again.

Here’s the big problem, though. If Kristo was 20 or 21, then great. It would have been a fantastic first year as a pro. But he’s not. He turned 24 in June. There’s still room to grow, but the clock is ticking. While there are a handful of exceptions, majority of scoring wingers who are/were not NHL-ready by 24 never actually become ready at any age. The Rangers opted to go with Miller and Fast in the playoffs last year, while Sather harped on Lindberg being a player who could crack the squad next season. Outside of a casual reference from Jeff Gorton in a pre-draft interview, the Rangers haven’t really shown much indication that they have any particularly grand expectations for Kristo. This does not mean I have given up on him, though. If I had, then he wouldn’t be sitting in the top-ten. Kristo is going to get his shot in camp, and if he can show the ability to contribute enough offense while not being a mess defensively then he has a real chance of making the lineup. I could even see him putting up 20 goals next season. But it’s close to now or never for Kristo. If he can’t so much as earn a call-up this season as a 24-year-old, then he appears to be destined for a career like those of Casey Wellman and Chad Kolarik; guys who are All-Stars at the AHL level but not good enough to stick in the NHL.

 

8 (10). Pavel Buchnevich, Winger, 19 Years Old

Buchnevich, along with Anthony Duclair,  surely made a lot of scouts second-guess their recommendations during the 2013 draft. He slipped late into the third round but had a season on par with someone who should have gone much higher. He scored seven goals and had 11 assists in 40 games in the KHL, which might not seem like a lot. It is. To compare, Marko Dano, whom the Blue Jackets selected 27th overall in 2013, had three goals and two assists in 41 games. In fact, in the six year history of the KHL, only Vladimir Tarasenko (top-six winger for the St. Louis Blues) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (highly-touted prospect for the Washington Capitals) have ever produced more goals and points as an 18-year-old. Buchnevich definitely played his best hockey at the World Junior Championships, though. He was one of Russia’s key players en route to winning a Bronze Medal, scoring two goals and adding five assists in his seven games.

In terms of pure upside Buchnevich would easily be ranked in the top three or four and might even challenge for the top spot. His stickhandling ability is the best in the organization; he often moves around as if the puck is strung to his stick. He uses his quick hands to score a reasonable number of goals, but his real strength is as a playmaker.  He’s got truly extraordinary vision and makes at least one “wow” pass every game. He’s still incredibly raw, though, and that’s why he sits in the eighth spot. He needs a lot of growth away from the puck and defensively, but that’s okay. He plays with a good amount of spunk and attitude. He’s willing to battle in front of the net and in the corners. I don’t think getting Buchnevich to do the things necessary to succeed in the NHL will be a battle of motivation or willingness to adjust, as sometimes is the case with “enigmatic” Russian forwards. I simply think he needs to be tutored on how to do so effectively. He’ll return KHL for next season, likely with increased ice time, and feature in the WJC for Russia again. Then he’ll likely make the jump to North America for 2015-2016, perhaps pushing for a spot in the NHL right away.

 

7 (7). Jesper Fast, Left Wing, 22 Years Old

It was an adventurous first season in North America for Fast. Somewhat surprisingly, he won a spot in the NHL out of training camp. He played 11 games and actually put up some good possession numbers, but ultimately they did not translate into point production. The Rangers, struggling mightily at the time, desperately needed change Sending Fast to Hartford to open up a spot was an easy move to make. Only three games into his stint in the AHL he sprained his ankle and was shelved for over a month. Understandably needing a few games to get back into game shape, he soon hit his stride and started to consistently generate offense aside fellow Swede Oscar Lindberg. It felt like every game that Fast was either scoring a goal or setting one up. Chris Kreider’s injury earned him a call-up late in the season, and he surprisingly found himself alongside Brad Richards in the playoffs, earning his first career NHL point with an assist in a Game One win against the Flyers.

Fast is very similar to Carl Hagelin. He’s very quick on his feet and uses it to make himself effective at chasing pucks. He is proficient defensively. What separates him from Hagelin is his hands. Whereas Hagelin mostly makes offense through pure hard work, Fast is capable of making creative plays and is a bit of a more natural goal scorer. The one concern I have is that Fast is a bit tepid. He’s never going to be a high-octane player and doesn’t need to be, but he needs to play with some more confidence. Some arrogance, or sense of, “I deserve to be in the NHL,” would be beneficial. Fast’s low cap hit and his versatility – he has the offensive ability to be deployed in offensive situations but is well-rounded enough to play on a defensive line – make him a prime candidate for making the opening night roster. Long-term, I think he could develop into a similar player to Hagelin, and maybe he even eventually overtakes him; the Rangers aren’t exactly swimming in cap space and Hagelin’s contract will expire at the end of next season. But Fast has to stick at the NHL level first.

 

6 (6). Conor Allen, Defenseman, 24 Years Old

I’m sure I will get some flack for ranking Allen below McIlrath, and I’m going to guess that most of it will be from people who solely watched him in the pre-season and in his three NHL games in December. I do like Allen a lot as a prospect; as evidenced by him being sixth. But I do find it a bit curious how some are labeling McIlrath, just turned 22, a bust because he hasn’t made the NHL yet Allen, who will be 25 in January, somehow is given a pass in that regard.

Allen was very good for the Wolf Pack in the first half of the season. He was rewarded with a call-up to the Rangers, where he did not look out of place at all. Then he returned to the Wolf Pack and his game kind of plateaued. In his 43 games since being returned to Hartford, he scored only one goal, which is not good enough from a guy whose offensive ability is a big part of his appeal. In January, I wrote that “I still have some concerns about Allen; sometimes he tries to do too much with the puck in his own end and turns it over, and he also has lapses defensively where he loses his man.” Those concerns, particularly him trying to be a hero instead of recognizing high risk and just making a simple decision with the puck, were not alleviated. That being said, it was only Allen’s first professional season, and going from NCAA to playing tough minutes in the AHL is not an easy transition. The state of Hartford’s defense also forced Allen, a lefty, to play the right side, and that probably did not help his cause. He’s a very smooth skater, has good vision in the offensive zone, and is by no means a train wreck in his own end. Allen is good enough to challenge for a spot in the NHL but is a victim of the depth chart. With his advanced age, It won’t stun me if the Rangers decide to keep him as the 7th defenseman to start the season, though that would only be if they thought he would get some games in eventually. With proper coaching, I think he can develop into a #4-#5 defenseman who plays a similar style to Anton Stralman.

 

5 (8). Anthony Duclair, Forward, 18 Years Old

Generally speaking, I value guys who have proven something at higher levels than those who haven’t. It’s no coincidence that three of my top-four prospects are AHLers; two with NHL experience. With that in mind, I wasn’t initially going to rank Duclair, who has completed only three QMJHL seasons, this high. Ultimately, though, I think he deserves to be here. He is far and away the most exciting prospect the Rangers own, at least in terms of watching him play. Mentally, he has that perfect amount of confidence/cockiness without going over the line. He wants the puck on his stick, and he wants to make plays. Oh boy, does he ever make plays. He skates like the wind, has tremendous offensive IQ, and owns phenomenal hands. He can play the role of playmaker, as evident in the fact that he was the Quebec Remparts’ PP QB last season and tallied 49 assists, but he can also put the puck in the net, as evidenced by the fact that he scored 50 goals in 59 games. He’s a major asset defensively and on the PK as well, since his speed allows him to break up plays and then exploit a vulnerable, potentially tired defense on the transition. Watch the previously linked video and you’ll see a handful of goals like that. He did slow down a bit towards the end of the season, and a concussion from a dirty hit ended his campaign prematurely, but otherwise it was a dream season for Duclair. He finished with 50 goals and 99 points in 59 games, and was named one of three finalists for the QMJHL’s MVP award. To make it all better, he doesn’t turn 19 until August, and thus made him one of the youngest “18-year-old’s” in the CHL. If he was born a few weeks later then he would have been eligible for the 2014 draft instead of the 2013 one, and I can only imagine how high he would have went then.

One thing people like to constantly bring up is that other players have put up lots of points in juniors only to struggle at higher levels; for instance, Evgeny Grachev. My first response to that would be that, in many of those cases, production can be partially the product of playing with great linemates. Grachev was on a line with Matt Duchene and Cody Hodgson, for instance. To compare, Duclair mostly played with Kurt Etchegary and Olivier Archambault; two players who are solid by QMJHL standards but have no real professional future. Duclair was basically creating offense by himself. The second counter-argument is that Duclair just doesn’t look like those kinds of CHL studs who turned into busts. His game is much more diverse and cultured. To make sure I removed any personal bias I might have, I asked other informed people where they think, given this past season, Duclair would be selected in a “re-draft” of 2013 (the Rangers selected him 80th overall), and most had him slotted in between 20th-40th overall. A few even had him in the 10th-15th range.

There is no doubt in my mind that Duclair is ready for the AHL. Unfortunately, CHL regulations require him to be sent back to the QMJHL if he does not make the NHL roster. I think the Rangers will give him an honest look in training camp because there’s no harm in doing so.  The Rangers sure could use some offense on the wings, and he’s a hungry player who has the skills to be a difference maker. Most likely, though, he’ll return to Quebec for another season and is a prime candidate for Canada’s World Junior roster.

 

4 (5). Oscar Lindberg, Center, 22 Years Old

Last season was a two-act play for Oscar Lindberg. The first “act” was from October through December, and it was essentially an orientation to North American hockey. He was solid, but altogether unremarkable. A modest seven goals and eight assists through his first 31 games to go with his good defensive work. Then, a “chicken or the egg” situation occurred. Lindberg started increasing his production, and Wolf Pack Head Coach Ken Gernander rewarded him with increased responsibility on more offensive lines, which resulted in continued production. In the months of January and February, Lindberg combined for seven goals and 14 assists over 23 games. He had a small slump in March, but otherwise finished the season as arguably the Wolf Pack’s best forward (at least, whenever J.T. Miller was in New York).

Lindberg’s game is very quiet and subtle, and he’s not a player who is going to stand out in one or two showings. He is, however, the kind of player whom fans would learn to appreciate over a full season, and for those reasons I think he might be the best fit to “replace” Brian Boyle. He’s one of the best players in the world, regardless of league, in the face-off circle. He’s got hockey IQ through the roof and excels defensively. Those two things make him a perfect shutdown center. What Lindberg does have that Boyle doesn’t is pretty good skating ability, decent hands, and a playmaker’s mentality. Lindberg is going to get a lengthy look in training camp and he has a very real chance of winning a spot on Alain Vigneault’s opening night roster. I could see him benefitting from some more time in the AHL, but I could equally see him proving to be the third-line, defensive center the Rangers need to emerge this season who can also chip in some occasional offense.

 

3 (2). Dylan McIlrath, Defenseman, 22 Years Old

McIlrath being demoted to three has little to do with him and everything to do with how much the player now ranked above him  has increased his stock. There are two key things I constantly find myself reminding people of to put McIlrath’s development in context. The first is that big, defensive defensemen take longer than anyone – goaltenders aside – to develop. The second is that a serious knee injury took away almost a full year of development for McIlrath. He just completed his first full professional season as a 21-year-old, but for all intents and purposes is a year younger than that in terms of his development.

With that in mind, McIlrath’s progression is right around where I think Gordie Clark and the scouting staff wanted it to be. Though Conor Allen was the better defenseman out of training camp and in the first few months of the AHL season, as the season progressed McIlrath overtook him slightly, eventually locking himself into the first pairing alongside Dan Syvret. Overall, he looked to be a vastly improved defenseman in March and April compared to where he was in October and November. He’s improved his skating, which was never terrible to begin with. He dramatically lessened the number of mistakes and turnovers he was making in the defensive zone. Whereas he seemed a bit jumpy with the puck on his stick early in the year, he now is composed and confident in making simple but smart outlet passes from his own end. Offensively, he holds his own and will occasionally send an absolute bomb past the goaltender from the point. And, of course, he throws monster hits, clears the crease, and generally leaves nothing to be desired physically. Like Lindberg, I don’t think some more time in the AHL would hurt McIlrath at all, but I do think he has the physical ability to compete for an NHL job in training camp. Unfortunately, with Girardi, Boyle, and Klein already slotted into the right side I don’t really see an opening for him. Barring injury, he probably starts the season in Hartford, and depending on how things go for both him and for the Rangers he still could find himself at the NHL level sometime in 2014-2015.

 

2 (4). Brady Skjei, Defenseman, 20 Years Old

Skjei, who just finished up his sophomore season for Minnesota,  is often compared to Ryan McDonagh. Part of me cringes at the comparison. McDonagh is, at absolute minimum, one of the top-15 defensemen in the NHL, and I think it’s an unfair standard to hold Skjei to. But part of me also says, “Sure, why not?” They are definitely similar players. Skjei, like McDonagh, is primarily a shutdown defenseman. It’s the role he played, for the most part, at Minnesota as well as the role he played on Team USA’s top pairing at the World Junior Championship. He’s an excellent skater. He’s got a tremendous hockey IQ and very rarely makes mistakes in his own ends. He reads the ice well and always makes smart decisions with the puck. He’s even added some muscle and is showing that he’s ready to start playing a physical game; something in January I thought was a bit lacking. By the end of the season – and particularly during the NCAA Frozen Four – Skjei was Minnesota’s best player, which is big praise considering they made it all the way to NCAA Championship.

Skjei is a relatively safe bet to eventually play in the NHL in some capacity. The real question concerns how high the upside is. In the second half of the season he started to take on a more offensive responsibility. He has good offensive sense and an above-averae shot. Skjei totaled four goals and six assists in 40 games. However, three of those goals and four of those assists came in the final nine games of the season, in part proving that he developed into a massively better player towards the end of the season. It’s a huge reason why he moved up to the rankings. In the bigger picture, McDonagh had five goals and 11 assists in 36 games as a sophomore; better numbers than Skjei owned but not by a terribly meaningful margin. We all saw McDonagh break out offensively this season, so one has to wonder if Skjei is truly going to be a pure shutdown defenseman, as previously imagined, or if he has much more to offer. For now, he’ll go back to Minnesota for his junior season and hopefully will receive increased offensive responsibility.

 

1 (1). J.T. Miller, Forward, 21 Years Old

In January, I justified ranking Miller first overall with, “he holds the best combination of NHL readiness as well as potential.” Six months later, that still holds true. Him holding the top position is in part a testament to the Rangers’ general lack of blue-chip prospects, but it is what it is.

A cynic will note that for two straight seasons now Miller has failed to stick at the NHL level. That despite a plethora of call-ups and opportunities. A realist will recognize that Miller just turned 21 in mid-March, and that the list of 19- and 20-year-old’s who have maintained a lineup spot for a playoff team is fairly limited. He did show flashes of what he can bring to the table in his 30 total NHL games this past season, and earned two assists in four playoff games before a separated shoulder sidelined him; Glen Sather recently implied that Miller would have continued to be a part of the lineup otherwise. At the AHL level, Miller spent most nights skating circles around the opposition. At times, he would put his head down with the puck on his stick and it would take the efforts of two or three different opposing players just to force him to give up possession. In total, he earned 43 points in 41 games. He was physical. He showed an increasing willingness to do his job in the defensive end, as Alain Vigneault wanted him to see more of. The Rangers might still bring in an additional forward or two, but as things currently stand a spot on the opening night lineup is Miller’s to lose. The losses of Pouliot and Boyle have left a couple holes, and Miller is in pole position to take one of them. I think Miller is still trying to figure out what kind of player he can be at the NHL, and I’m not sure we’ll find out for a few more years. Eventually, I think his upside is as a second-third line tweener who can play both center and wing, plays a full 200 ft. game, brings high energy and physicality every shift, and chips in 20 goals per season.

 

That’s it for the 2014 Summer Edition of my prospect rankings. The Rangers certainly lack the high-end talent that some other teams have, but I think the Rangers’ prospect pool is not nearly the barren wasteland that others have made it out to be. Especially because of the work the scouting staff did in signing free agents and trading down twice at the draft, the Rangers have plenty of depth.  As always, feel free to leave thoughts and questions in the comments section. We’ll see how things unfold in training camp and then the first half of the season, and we’ll do this all over again in January.

 

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