Emphasis on drafting speed and skill paying off for New York Rangers

By Leslie Treff

Dylan McIlrath - New York Rangers

Photo: Dylan McIlrath has gradually developed into a dependable and physical defensive defenseman. The New York Rangers selected McIlrath 10th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

It seems like a distant memory now, but just six or seven years ago, the New York Rangers had few homegrown players on their NHL roster. Big name free agents were the norm for this original six team, with few of the team's prospects ever appearing in more than one or two games on Broadway.

Over the last five years however, that has completely changed, as eight of the 23 current roster players were drafted by the Blueshirts. There are also numerous players such as Dan Girardi and Cam Talbot, who went undrafted when eligible, but were signed by the Rangers after the completion of their amateur careers and then developed in New York's system.

As the Rangers have made greater use of their prospects and the CBA with the NHLPA has changed, the team's drafting philosophy has been altered. New York's focus is now speed and high-end skill in the early rounds, with size and toughness, as well as European skaters generally in the later rounds. In addition, the Rangers have often selected players that have dropped in the draft for one reason or another. The organization is also very patient with their prospects, letting them develop at their own pace.

This approach has become a strength of the organization at the pro level, as New York has a total of 30 prospects, 19 of which are currently playing in either the AHL or ECHL. It is also a weakness of the organization. With so many prospects included in 50-player contract limit, the Rangers have little wiggle room to sign other players to free agent contracts. It can also lead to other complications down the road, as many players will be eligible for new, more expensive contracts around the same time.

New York has strength at every position, except goaltending. There are several potential top six forwards in the organization and two defensemen that have significant potential. There are no potential number one netminders in the organization.

Left Wing

The Rangers are very strong on the left side, led by top prospect Chris Kreider. Currently playing on the Rangers' first line, at age 22, Kreider is developing into one of the best players on the NHL roster. A quick player with excellent offensive instincts, Kreider is still learning to play both sides of the puck. But his confidence has improved and he now routinely goes to the net when his team gets possession. A big body, he makes an excellent screen of opposing goaltenders, which he has done recently to the Rangers' advantage.

An excellent skater with great hands, the Rangers were very happy to select Pavel Buchnevich in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Another high-end winger, Buchnevich is currently playing with Cherepovets Severstal of the KHL. He has one more season on his KHL contract and is not expected to play in North America until the fall of 2015. In the meantime, he is expected to be a mainstay of the 2014 Russian U20 World Junior Championship team.

Marek Hrivik and Anthony Duclair are at the next tier of offensive skill at left wing. Both have top-six potential, but are a notch below either Kreider or Buchnevich.

Now in his sophomore professional campaign, Hrivik missed much of his rookie season with injuries. He has the potential to be an excellent playmaking winger and got a long look in Rangers' training camp this fall before being sent to the AHL to start the season. With a big body and good two-way play, Hrivik plays in all situations and is likely to get an injury call-up to the NHL later this season.

Duclair fell to the third round in the 2013 NHL Draft because his 2012-13 season did not show the expected development, but watching him early this season, it looks the Rangers may have scored big with the Quebec Remparts winger. A big game player, Duclair has a nose for the net. Through 25 games this season he has 22 goals, two more than he scored all of last season.

The Rangers expect that University of North Dakota winger Adam Tambellini will take some time to develop. With all the raw tools of a power forward, Tambellini could be five or six years away from his NHL debut, but the Rangers are willing to wait for the smooth skating forward with an excellent hockey IQ.

Now the final year of his entry-level contract with the Rangers, Jason Wilson is playing for the Central Hockey League's Wichita Thunder this season. Not expected to be re-signed, Wilson has not turned into the defensively responsible tough guy that the Rangers had hoped for when they signed him in 2011.

Center

The Rangers have been weak at the center position for several years. Derek Stepan, a former second-round pick from 2008, is currently playing first line minutes, but is not an ideal fit for that position. The Rangers hoped Brad Richards would be that player when the team signed him as a free agent in the summer of 2011, however, that has not panned out as hoped. There appears to be no help on the way either, as most of the center prospects in the system project as more two-way, middle of the lineup players.

The Rangers' top prospects at center are Cristoval Nieves and Oscar Lindberg. Nieves is in his second season at the University of Michigan and is expected to be a second or third line forward in the NHL. With good size and speed, Nieves can either play center or wing, and will likely play on the wing in the NHL. Lindberg, however, is a natural center and is playing that position with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack this season. Expected to get a look in New York if a center is needed later this season, Lindberg can play on the second or third line as well as on special teams.

Other centers skating in Hartford this season are Kyle Jean, Andrew Yogan, and Ryan Bourque. Jean was picked up in 2012 as a free agent after his third year at Lake Superior State. An outstanding development camp and excellent beginning of the 2012-13 season raised the Rangers' hopes for Jean, who was moved to the wing as a pro. Since early last season, Jean has come back to earth, and without a major push over the next few months, he is likely to finish out his entry-level contract and not be re-signed.

The talented Yogan has top none potential, but seems to have trouble putting it all together and producing offensively at the pro level. Yogan has played at both the center and wing positions, and has one further season on his entry-level contract.

Bourque is a winger who plays in all situations at the pro level. A speedy player who is exciting to watch, Bourque is small and not overly strong on the puck. Bourque is not a big offensive producer but a solid player at the AHL level. He is in the final year of his entry-level contract.

Michael St. Croix is in his first season of professional hockey and thus far he has skated with both the AHL Wolf Pack and his current team, the ECHL Greenville Road Warriors. St. Croix started off the ECHL season as one of the team's best players, but has not been able to produce offensively at the AAA level. Once he adjusts to professional play, it is expected that he will get another chance to join Hartford later in the season. Whether he will be playing at center or on the wing is still being determined.

Like Tambellini, Steven Fogarty is a collegiate player who is considered a long-term project. A sophomore at Notre Dame, Fogarty was playing center on the Fighting Irish's second or third line prior to suffering a recent injury.

Right Wing

The Rangers have three potentially excellent right wingers playing professional hockey this season. J.T. Miller is playing on the fourth line in the NHL, while Danny Kristo and Jesper Fast are both in their rookie professional seasons at the AHL level.

Miller, the Rangers first round selection in 2011, is in his second partial season on the Rangers roster. It may be a bit soon for the 20-year old to be playing at the NHL level, but he has the potential to be a second line NHL winger when he matures.

Fast started the season at the NHL level and, after eight games with no offensive production, was sent down to the AHL level. A more offensively minded, speedy player than Miller, who has much more grit, Fast is in the process of adjusting to North American play. If he continues to produce in Hartford, expect him to get another call up to the NHL this season.

Of all the right wingers on the roster, the one with the most offensive potential is Kristo. A creative, goal-scoring winger, Kristo has some incredible moves, but where he needs to improve is on the other side of the puck. The 23-year-old is the most offensively gifted player the Rangers have who is not in the NHL. Even despite his defensive shortcomings, he may see a call-up to the NHL later this season.

Also playing in their first year of professional hockey this season are Josh Nicholls and Michael Kantor. With a very crowded AHL team, Nicholls has begun his rookie season in the ECHL. A free agent who was signed after an excellent overage season in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades, Nicholls will need time to adjust to the professional game. Expect him to get a shot at an AHL roster spot next fall. Kantor was also signed as a free agent after his junior eligibility expired. A tough guy who has some offensive upside, Kantor has ferried back and forth between the AHL and ECHL this season.

After Thomas Spelling was selected by the Rangers in the 5th round of the 2012 NHL Draft, he spent the 2012-13 season in the SEL and Allsvenskan. He came to North America to play in the Traverse City Rookie Tournament this fall, but did not get much playing time. Now playing in Denmark, it is not likely that Spelling will be offered an entry-level contract this coming spring.

Defensemen

Dylan McIlrath, Conor Allen, and Tommy Hughes play for the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack this season. One of the top defensive prospects in the system, McIlrath was drafted in 2010 with the hope he would develop into a dominant, crease-clearing blueliner. He is growing into a good, tough defenseman with an outstanding shot, but whether he will wind up being a dominant player remains to be seen. Expect McIlrath to occupy a roster spot in New York next season.

As a rookie blueliner, it was thought that Allen might start the season in the ECHL. However, he showed some very good offensive potential from the blue line in pre-season and was kept at the AHL level. Now playing on the second pairing in Hartford, Allen is a staple at the point during the power play. He is still perfecting his defensive game, but has good potential for a second or third pairing blueliner in the NHL.

Hughes is another AHL rookie, who is basically the seventh defenseman in Hartford. A good two-way defenseman, who can be tough if called upon, Hughes was signed as a free agent by the Rangers in April 2013.

Samuel Noreau was drafted by the Rangers in 2011, both for his size and his toughness. Although there were questions whether he would earn an entry-level contract, Noreau surprised many by making excellent progress both in his skating and positional play in the 2012-13 season. The Rangers signed Noreau and he is playing in Greenville this season. As the ECHL is where many players of his type develop, no conclusions should be drawn from this assignment.

Brady Skjei is the only defenseman in the Rangers' system who is playing NCAA hockey this season. Given greater responsibility at the University of Minnesota this year, playing in the first pairing, Skjei is responding well. He is expected to be mostly a defensive blueliner in the NHL.

Ryan Graves and Troy Troy Donnay, both 2013 Rangers' draft selections, are playing for CHL teams this season. Graves, who recently represented the QMJHL at the Canada/Russia Subway Super Series, has excellent size and can be very tough. Not really expected to contribute much offense on the professional level, Graves is playing for the Charlottetown Islanders this season, working on his shot and skating in the CHL. Donnay, at 6'7, is one of the tallest Rangers' draftees ever selected. In his final year of CHL eligibility, Donnay will likely spend an overage year in the league to continue to work on his skating and positioning.

Calle Andersson is most offensively inclined defenseman in the Rangers system. A fourth-round pick from the 2012 NHL Draft, the Rangers will have to make a decision shortly as to whether or not they want to sign him to an entry-level contract. His contract in Europe does expire at the end of the 2013-14 season, so if New York is ready to sign him, it is likely that Andersson will be ready to come to North America as early as next fall.

Goaltending

Cam Talbot has taken over as Henrik Lundqvist's backup one year earlier than expected. However, it is unlikely that Talbot will emerge as a permanent number one goaltender. With only Scott Stajcer, Jason Missiaen, and Mackenzie Skapski in the system, none of whom is projected to be Lundqvist's successor, the Rangers have to be looking at either a trade or selecting a top goaltender in the next few drafts.

Stajcer is in his second professional season and has started extremely well after undergoing a second hip surgery since being drafted by the Rangers in 2009. At 22, he is likely to need at least two more healthy years of play before being ready to be an NHL backup.

Missiaen was signed by the Rangers as a free agent in 2011. After two years of professional play in both Greenville and Hartford, it was expected that the 23-year old, 6'8 netminder would take over the number one AHL job this season. However, Missiaen's play has been inconsistent and Stajcer looks to be in the lead for that job.

Skapski was the final player selected by the Rangers in the 2013 NHL Draft following an impressive year with the Kootenay Ice. The 19-year-old has not played as well this season. Consistency remains an issue for him, which will need to be corrected to earn an entry-level contract from the Rangers.