Rangers AHL/ECHL prospects update

By Leslie Treff

The Rangers have 18 players regularly playing with either the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack or ECHL Charlotte Checkers. Of the 18, three are netminders, five are defensemen, and 10 are forwards. Additionally, two other players, Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan, currently with the NHL team, have seen action in the AHL this season. Dawes and Callahan have played 20 and 11 games, respectively, for Hartford.
 

  Goaltenders

 
  Al Montoya, G
  Height: 6’2; Weight: 193
  Acquired: First round, 6th overall, 2004
 
This is Montoya’s third year as a member of the Hartford Wolf Pack, and after two solid, albeit injury-shortened, professional years, there were high expectations that he would be NHL-ready some time this season. Unfortunately, Montoya’s play has been very  inconsistent over the past several months, and at this point, his fellow Hartford netminder, Miika Wiikman, is playing the majority of the games. 
 
In preseason, Montoya remained with the NHL club for a long stretch, seeing action in net and experiencing his first NHL fight.  However, it became clear that Montoya’s development would be best served by the steady playing time with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, and he began the season with the Wolf Pack. The former first-round selection was inconsistent during the first two months of the season–sometimes playing at a very high level between the pipes and at other times, playing a lackluster game at best. Then in December, it appeared that he had hit his stride. With the exception of one mid-month horrendous game, Montoya had a terrific month. He recorded a 1.95 GAA and a .932 save percentage in eight games. Just as quickly, in January, the wheels fell off, and with Wiikman playing at a very high level over the past six weeks, Montoya has mostly been relegated to a backup role.
 
According to Hartford Wolf Pack Head Coach Ken Gernander, Rangers’ goaltending coach Benoit Allaire has worked with Montoya several times over the last few weeks.  Allaire has "given us drills to work on with Monty–so that when he does get his
opportunities, he is seeing the puck, his footwork is there, and he is strong and focused."   It remains to be seen whether Montoya can show the consistency that is needed to become a No. 1 netminder in the NHL. There is no question that goaltenders take longer to develop, however, it has to be a disappointment that he has not shown more consistent play this season.
 
 
  Matt Zaba, G
  Height:6’1; Weight: 185
  Acquired: Free Agent, Signed August 20, 2007
 
The Rangers signed Zaba after four excellent seasons at Colorado College. He was one of four minor league goaltenders in the Rangers’ training camp this past September, and after he had a good, but not spectacular training camp, Zaba was sent to Charlotte to begin his rookie professional year.
 
Zaba is one of eight netminders who have played for the Checkers this season, as between call-ups and injuries, the team has struggled at times to find a consistent goaltender between the pipes. Zaba only appeared in nine games between October and
early January, and he had consistency problems from the start. He would play well every second game — in between, he would seem to lose focus.
 
It was clear that he needed a change of scenery, with more regular playing time, and on Jan. 11, 2008, this was accomplished through a loan to the ECHL Idaho Steelheads.  Since joining the Steelheads last month, Zaba has appeared in five games and has won each of them. Last Saturday night, he recorded his first professional shutout against the Phoenix Roadrunners.
 
Zaba will share the netminding duties with fellow rookie Kellen Briggs in Idaho, so he will not get an enormous amount of playing time. However, the loan of the young goaltender has worked for the Steelheads (who have a veteran netminder on IR) and for Zaba, who has vastly improved his play while in Idaho.
 
 
  Chris Holt, G
  Height: 6’3; Weight: 221
  Acquired: Sixth Round, 180th overall, 2003
 
Holt has bounced between Hartford and Charlotte during each of his three professional seasons. The 22-year-old netminder began the 2007-08 season in Charlotte, but was almost immediately called-up to Hartford, where he played very well until felled by a knee injury in November. While with the AHL team, Holt posted a 5-3 record, with a 2.48 GAA and a .903 save percentage.
 
After Holt’s performance in Rangers’ training camp this past Fall revealed that he was not quite ready to face NHL-caliber shots, the young netminder has been working hard to  improve his positioning and footwork. Thus far this season, in 11 games between the pipes for Charlotte, Holt is 6-4-1, with a 2.63 GAA and a .920 save percentage. 
 
Consistency in net will be the key to Holts’ achieving his goal of playing in the NHL.  However, with three professional netminding prospects in the organization, one in juniors, a top goalie between the pipes for the Rangers, and a top netminder on an AHL contract in Hartford, the organization is now crowded with prospects at this position.  Holt is not high on this list, however, he surprised everyone once before when he was signed to a professional contract in 2005 out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Don’t bet against him now.
 

  Defense

  
  Michael Sauer, D
  Height: 6’3; Weight: 206
  Acquired: Second Round, 40th overall, 2005
 
Sauer is in his first year of professional hockey and he has impressed all who watch him.   According to his head coach, Gernander, "Sauer had a terrific rookie tournament in Traverse City, and a very good training camp with the Rangers. There is a very promising future for him; he works very hard and is very receptive to everything we have to tell him."  But Gernander cautioned about expecting too much from Sauer too soon, "defense is a tough position, where a lot needs to be learned."
 
One of the few Wolf Pack players and the only blueliner with a negative plus/minus ratio (-4), Sauer has seven points (2 goals, 5 assists) in 42 games. (He missed six games due to concussion symptoms in late November/early December.). However, the statistics do not tell the entire story, as Sauer, a mostly defensive blueliner, continues to progress.  He is expected to spend at least one more season in Hartford.
 
 
  Ivan Baranka, D
  Height: 6’3"; Weight: 205
  Acquired: Second Round, 50th overall, 2003
 
Baranka is a defenseman of unquestionable talent. The problem has been that in three professional seasons, he has seen injury after injury shorten his playing year. Thus far in 2007-08, Baranka has missed 11 games with two separate injuries, including the latest, a shoulder problem. In 35 AHL games this season, Baranka has 16 points (4 goals, 12 assists), with a +8 plus/minus ratio.
 
The young blueliner got his first call-up to the Rangers in late November. In his only NHL in his career thus far, Baranka had an assist on a game winning goal by Rangers winger Colton Orr.  With the Rangers defensive woes, both in play and in injuries,
Baranka has an opportunity to return to the NHL club before the regular season is completed. However, his injuries raise continuing concerns about his durability in a sport that requires an incredible amount physically.

 
  Corey Potter, D
  Height: 6’3; Weight:205
  Acquired: Fourth Round, 122nd overall, 2003
 
After four years at Michigan State, Potter began his professional career during the 2006-07 season. Older than most of the rookies on the club, Potter had an excellent first year (30 games, 2 goals, 8 assists, +10), earning him an NHL entry contract and high expectations for this season.  He has not disappointed. As of Saturday, Potter was second in the league in plus/minus for a defenseman (+19). Steady on the blueline, he plays in all situations. Potter recently got a call-up to the Rangers to practice with the team, however, he was immediately reassigned to Hartford later that day.

Potter is s solid, steady player, with excellent hockey smarts and a good first pass. Although he has  limited offensive upside, given Potter’s steady, unhurried play and his ability to man his own zone in all situations, he has real NHL potential.
 

Dave Liffiton, D
Height: 6’2; Weight: 210
Acquired: March 9, 2004 Trade with Colorado (originally drafted second round, 63rd overall, 2003) 
 
Liffiton is one of the more experienced blueliners on the Hartford Wolf Pack roster. Now in his fourth professional season, the big blueliner is running out of time to impress the Rangers and convince them that he is NHL material. Somewhat slow afoot, Liffiton is a defensive defenseman with very limited offensive upside.  Thus far, he has registered two assists in 16 games this season. Out 34 games in November and December with post-concussion symptoms, Liffiton has just begun to do what he does best–intimidate opponents and agitate whenever he is on the ice. A long-shot to become a regular player in the NHL, Liffiton’s status with the organization long-term is in doubt.
 

Michael Busto, D
Height: 6’1; Weight: 210
Acquired: Free Agent, signed May 2, 2007

Busto was signed after completing his overage season with the WHL Kootenay Ice. A prolific scorer, who was very responsible in his own zone in his final two junior seasons, the Rangers were hoping that Busto would compete for a spot on the blueline in Hartford. However, due to post-concussion symptoms, Busto was not ready to play in his first professional game until the end of November. The Rangers assigned him to Charlotte to begin his season, and Busto has remained there, playing 24 games thus far (2 goals, 3 assists, -4). Busto will need more time to adjust to professional play before his potential can be accurately assessed.

Forwards

Alex Bourret, RW
Height: 5’11"; Weight: 205
Acquired: February 27, 2007 Trade with Atlanta (originally drafted, First Round, 16th overall, 2005)

Bourret is without question one of the most talented prospects in the Rangers’ organization. His creativity and puck handling skills are second to none, however, he has struggled this season, and continues to work to find the consistency necessary to play at the next level..

After the trade that brought the speedy to the New York organization, Bourret completed the 2006-07 season with 18 points in 23 games. Happy to be on a line with Nigel Dawes, Bourret blossomed in the Wolf Pack environment. Some of the Hartford roster changes in 2007-08 have, however, particularly affected Bourret. With Dawes spending quite a bit of time in New York, and when with the Wolf Pack, often playing on the power play or PK without Bourret, the speedy winger has struggled to find a partner to feed the puck to. The lack of a Dawes-type player  to pass to has resulted in Bourret often forcing the play, causing unnecessary turnovers. Head Coach Gernander writes this off to the young player’s maturation process, "sometimes you make some progress and backslide a bit. Alex has to develop a more consistent game, but there is no definite timetable for this; it’s all part of the development process."

Thus far this season, Bourret has 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists), and a -2 rating in 40 games. He is tied for the league lead in game-winning goals, with 6.

Artem Anisimov, C
Height: 6’3; Weight: 190
Acquired: Second Round, 54th overall, 2006

Anisimov is the Wolf Pack’s leading rookie scorer this season. With 23 points (in 44 games), the young center is tied for sixth in scoring among the entire team. Anisimov centers Hartford’s first line, and is an excellent faceoff man, but he shines brightest making plays.

Anisimov also participated in the 2008 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic last month. In seven games, he recorded 4four points (1 goal, 3 assists).Anisimov played on a line with another Rangers top prospect, Alex Cherepanov. Together they put together two beautiful goals to contribute to Russia‘s bronze medal at the WJCs.

The rookie Russian centerman has first- to second-line NHL potential.     
 
 
Tom Pyatt, C
Height: 5’11; Weight: 182
Acquired: Fourth Round, 107th overall, 2005

After a highly successful fourth season of junior hockey, Pyatt has brought his excellent work habits to his professional career. A smaller forward, with excellent hockey sense, Pyatt has become a penalty kill specialist. Head Coach Gernander explains, "he’s a defensive type forward, who is very good on the PK, which is not quite as physical as five on five. With [Pyatt's] excellent skating, it seems to work out better for him on the PK. Pyatt’s game is coming along all the time," Gernander added.

Whether or not Pyatt has the size and strength to become an NHL player remains to be seen, but he is adjusting well to the professional game. In 38 games, he has registered 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) and a +5 rating.

 
Lauri Korpikoski, LW
Height: 6’1; Weight: 190
Acquired: First Round, 19th overall, 2004

Korpikoski is an incredible skater, who has top notch puckhandling skills, and the ability to demonstrate excellent defensive instincts. He is used in all situations and is one of the team’s most effective penalty killers. Consistency issues as well as adjustment to the number of games played in North America plagued the talented winger last season. Some of those problems have been remedied, however, Head Coach Gernander still sees room for improvement. "He will show us a flash of incredible skill and then, for whatever reason, he will take the puck into traffic, and get poke checked, leading to an opposition scoring chance. [Korpikoski] has that incredible skills package, so we are just continuing to work on his timing and reading of on-ice situations."

Currently, Korpikoski is fourth among active players on the Wolf Pack in scoring. With 10 goals and 14 assists in 49 games (with a plus/minus of +10), the Finnish winger is on target to match last season’s offensive production. If he can improve his decision-making and make the consistently correct play, he should be NHL-ready next season.

Dane Byers, LW
Height: 6’3"; Weight: 199
Acquired: Second Round, 48th overall, 2004

Byers had an unexpectedly offensively productive rookie season in 2006-07. With 47 points in 78 games, he was one of the leading point producers on the team. Byers has returned this season, without his 2006-07 linemates, and equaled his offensive production. Additionally, his plus/minus rating has improved to +16. Just this past week, Byers was rewarded with a call-up to the NHL Rangers.

There is no question that Byers likes to mix-it-up, and never seems to avoid a chance to stick up for a teammate or raise the energy level of the game, but he is much more than that. Byers plants himself in front of an opponent’s goal and is very hard to move. Additionally, he has very good hands for a big man, and can tip the puck with some of the best in the AHL.

Byers is tough, has good hands, and scores almost all his goals near the top of the crease. He is still working on consistency and will probably need the rest of this season before becoming a permanent NHL player, but he is almost NHL-ready, and should be an excellent addition to the Rangers roster next season.

Hugh Jessiman, RW
Height: 6’6; Weight: 231
Acquired: First Round, 12th overall, 2003

Jessiman has made great progress in his game this year. He has raised his level of intensity several orders of magnitude, and is much stronger on the puck. Balance is still an issue, but he has a much improved skating stride and claims to be having fun playing the game again. He has also put his well-publicized boxing lessons to use this season. According to Gernander, "Hugh has really upped the ante in the physical part of the game. He’s had some big time scraps this year and, since getting here, he has been pretty cagey about picking his spots for fights, in terms of when it benefits the team or when he needs to stick up for one of his teammates. He is a very good team guy, and his mates really like him." Although out over the last two weeks with an elbow problem, Jessiman is always available for community work and is close to returning to the ice.

This is the final year of Jessiman’s entry-level contract. He is anxious to get an extension and feels that he has really improved sufficiently to a good shot at getting one. He definitely has improved his game to where this is a possibility, however, it is still unclear as to whether he will ever become a regular NHL player. In Jessiman’s case, it really is true that power forwards are slow in developing. It is unfortunate that the Rangers will have to make their decision by this summer. One more year of AHL play is probably needed to have a more realistic idea of whether Jessiman will likely play in the NHL.
    

Brody Dupont, LW
Height: 6’2; Weight: 210
Acquired: Third Round, 66th overall, 2005

Dupont started off the 2007-08 season slowly, adjusting to the professional game, and the new expectations of him. The big winger had become an offensive powerhouse in his final two years of junior play, and he was hoping to continue that in Hartford. However, it was not until his sixth game of the season that he scored his first goal. It was the first of his rookie league-leading two shorthanded goals on the season. Dupont then went on a tear in November, recording 11 points in 14 games.

He has since slowed down offensively and has concentrated on playing a very solid defensive game. A regular on the penalty kill, Dupont occasionally uses his size to intimidate, but needs to do more of it to make it to the next level. He will need at least one more year of AHL play before being NHL-ready.

Greg Moore, RW
Height: 6’1; Weight: 209
Acquired: March 6, 2004 Trade with Calgary (originally drafted fifth round, 143rd overall, 2003)

Moore is one of the biggest surprises among the Rangers’ prospects this season. One of the last cuts from the Rangers in the Fall 2006 pre-season, Moore was hoping to get another look at the NHL squad last season. But when he got to the Wolf Pack, he was told that he was not training properly and had to change his diet. Gernander says of Moore, "he then made an incredible investment in his conditioning. When a guy shows that level of commitment – he’s got a goal and he’s striving to achieve it–its not an accident or by circumstance that he has come onto the scene like this." Moore recently played in the AHL All-Star Game and is currently tied for the league lead in plus/minus rating (+23). Second on the team in total points (39 in 42 games), he just completed his seventh round trip between the NHL and AHL team this season.

A forward that is very solid defensively with some NHL offensive upside, Moore has been playing center quite a bit for the Wolf Pack. He plays in all situations, is solid on the penalty kill, and has the wheels and the hockey sense to make all defensive plays that are necessary. It is only a matter of a short time before his promotion to the NHL is permanent.

Joe Barnes, C
Height: 6’3; Weight: 212
Acquired: July 17, 2007 Trade with Carolina (originally drafted third round, 64th overall, 2005)

Barnes was traded to the Rangers as part of the deal last summer that sent Matt Cullen back to Carolina. In his rookie 2006-07 AHL season, Barnes suffered a concussion and was only able to skate in 15 games. He was assigned to Charlotte after training camp this Fall, and, after playing in five ECHL games, he suffered what proved to be a season ending knee injury on Oct. 30, 2007.

Bruce Graham, C
Height: 6’6; Weight: 230
Acquired: Second Round, 51st overall, 2004

Graham is in his final year of his three-year entry-level contract. He had spent most of time during those years playing in the ECHL, recalled to Hartford when an injury arose. Graham had a breakout season in Charlotte last year, with 56 points in 65 games (+1 plus/minus rating). He has continued to do so this season, averaging almost a point a game, but is not able to keep that level of offensive production when he is promoted to the Wolf Pack. He was recalled to Hartford earlier this week. Prior to the current recall, Graham had played in 19 games, and recorded 4 points, with a -5 ratio. 

 
  
 

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