Rangers 2008 system audit

By Leslie Treff

With seven drafted players on their NHL roster, the Rangers are in the middle of the pack of NHL teams. Management has combined a commitment to a rebuild with some big-name signings over the past two seasons. Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, and Wade Redden have been added, along with home-grown players, such as Ryan Callahan, Nigel Dawes, Brandon Dubinsky, Lauri Korpikoski, and Marc Staal

However, it is important to note that the Rangers organization is one of the very few with only two first-round selections, Korpikoski and Staal, playing with the NHL team. Several of the team’s first-round selections earlier in the decade either never played for the NHL team or did not play in a Rangers’ uniform for long. Unfortunately, the Rangers lost one of their most talented first-round selections when Alexei Cherepanov passed away last month.

There are still two first-round selections in the organization, Bobby Sanguinetti and Michael Del Zotto, both of whom are highly-skilled defensemen. Sanguinetti, drafted in 2006, has just begun his professional career, and Del Zotto was just selected in June 2008.

Center

This is one of the Rangers strongest positions in the organization. With four excellent centers currently on the NHL team, there is a logjam at the position for any aspiring prospect. There are currently 12 centers who are prospects, including six in the Top 20. Artem Anisimov is the top prospect in the system at this time, and has the best chance to play for the NHL team next season. Big, strong, with excellent instincts, Anisimov is expected to be NHL-ready by the fall of 2009. Evgeny Grachev, who was drafted in 2008, is currently playing in Brampton of the OHL. Grachev is very talented, and uses his big frame very well. Given his penchant for scoring goals and the organization’s need for big wingers, Grachev may become a winger prior to beginning professional play.

Fellow CHLer Chris Doyle is on track to have a 100-point season with the PEI Rocket of the QMJHL. A fifth-round 2008 draft selection, Doyle can score goals, as well as take face-offs and be the playmaker. His big frame is an added bonus. The Rangers expect Doyle to spend one additional season in the QMJHL before turning pro in the fall of 2010.

Another talented 2008 draft selection, Derek Stepan, is also waiting in the wings. Currently attending the University of Wisconsin, Stepan has started well in college and expects to spend several years there. The Rangers have two other collegiate centers, including Max Campbell, a sophomore at the University of Western Michigan, and Danny Hobbs, a freshman at U Mass-Amherst. Campbell, who was a prolific scorer in Junior B, has more than two more years to show the Rangers that he is worthy of an entry-level NHL contract. Hobbs has just begun his college career after a very successful two seasons in the USHL.

Tom Pyatt and Brodie Dupont are both in their second professional season, and both are playing for the Hartford Wolf Pack. Pyatt is more of defensive forward, and he spent quite a few games last season with the ECHL Charlotte Checkers. He arrived in camp on fire this season and solidified his place on the Hartford roster. Dupont is a completely different player, with the size, toughness and nose for the net to become a power forward. He has been playing on the left wing almost exclusively in Hartford this season and continues to develop very well.

The Rangers continue to own the rights to David Skokan, Zdenek Bahensky, and Lukas Zeliska. However, all three have returned to Europe and are unlikely to ever play for the NHL team.

Joe Barnes was sent to Charlotte last month. The third-year pro has never been able to produce with any consistency at the AHL level, and he is not likely to figure into the Rangers plans in the future.

Right Wing

Right wing is the Rangers weakest organizational position. The team has only four prospects at that position, which is made even more problematic by the fact that two are playing in Europe and are questionable returns to North America, and one has been skating as a center at the AHL level for most of the last two years. Of the four, Greg Moore and Dale Weise are right-hand shots, and Andreas Jamtin and David Kveton shoot left.

At 24, Moore is a former collegiate player, and is the furthest along of the four in his professional career. During the 2007-08 season, Moore played six games with the Rangers and was second on the Wolf Pack in scoring. An excellent face-off man and defensive forward, Moore has been skating as a center for most of the last two seasons. However, his long-term future with the NHL team, either at center or on the wing is in doubt as others in the organization appear to be passing or have passed the Lisbon, Maine native.

The performance of 20-year-old Weise has made him the surprise of the 2008 NHL entry draft. The fourth-round selection was very impressive in the Rangers training camp. Not afraid to crash the net, Weise has third-line NHL potential. He began the season producing well in Hartford, but his numbers have fallen off of late.

Jamtin and Kveton have returned to Europe. Jamtin, a tough guy with offensive upside, had played games with both Hartford and Charlotte this season, but just a few days ago agreed to a contract with Linkopings HC of Sweden, in the Champions Hockey League. Kveton, who was a member of the QMJHL Gatineau Olympiques during the 2006-07 season and attended the Rangers development camp this summer has been playing for Trinec Ocelari HC in the Czech Republic for the past two seasons. Unlikely to be willing to play in the AHL or ECHL, Kveton is a long-shot to play for the Rangers.

Left Wing

The Rangers have 10 prospects who skate on the left wing. Korpikoski is the only player at this position with any amount of  NHL experience. A speedy player with outstanding hands, Korpikoski is the top left wing prospect in the system. Currently a member of the Rangers, this is the former Finnish Junior A League star’s second stint with the NHL team this season. Dane Byers, Devin Didiomete, and Justin Soryal are all Rangers’ left wing prospects playing for the AHL Wolf Pack this season. Didiomete and Soryal are both in their rookie years fresh out of the OHL. Both were signed for their toughness and have the potential to be third-line NHL players. Byers, a fourth-year professional, is one of the Rangers’ top prospects, however, after a very good start to the season, he injured his left knee and will most likely not play again during the 2008-09 campaign.

Rookies Tomas Zaborsky and Ryan Hillier were assigned to Charlotte last month. Although Zaborsky had a productive October, his offensive output has slowed considerably this month. Consistent effort and output will be necessary for him to be promoted to the AHL level. Hillier is experiencing a very rough adjustment to professional play, with only two assists in 13 games. He started the season recovering from a groin injury, not having skated during much of the summer.

Carl Hagelin is in his second year at the University of Michigan. Currently second on the team in points, Hagelin has shown himself to be a very good playmaker, in addition to having an excellent shot. In addition to Hagelin, the Rangers have two left wingers who are playing university hockey. Eric Hunter is in his second year playing at the University of Alberta. Last year, Hunter was an over a point a game player. Although, he is not producing at the same rate this season, Hunter has increased production this month on the No. 1 ranked CIS team. Greg Beller will be playing for the University of Manitoba this season. Because he was required to sit out a full year after his last game at Yale University, Beller was not eligible to play for the Bisons until this month.

Roman Psurny, a Czech left winger who spent two years in the WHL several years ago, is still technically a Rangers’ property. However, the forward returned to Europe in 2006 and is not expected to return to North America in the near future.

Defense

There is no question that defense has been an issue for the NHL team for the past few years, and that blueliners take longer to develop than forwards. Rangers management has tried to rectify its weaknesses at this position by selecting defensemen in the first round of the NHL entry draft in three out of the last four years. Marc Staal, the team’s top pick in 2005, is already a regular player in New York. Two other first-round selections, Bobby Sanguinetti and Michael Del Zotto, are in the system and playing well. However, both need more development before they will be ready for NHL play. 

In total, the Rangers have nine blueline prospects in their system, including three currently playing in Hartford.  The aforementioned Sanguinetti is a rookie professional, and is currently tied for 13th among league defensemen in total points. Questions about Sanguinetti’s defensive play have plagued him throughout his junior career, and although he has not yet put them to rest, progress is certainly being made in this area. He will most likely compete for an NHL roster spot next season.

Michael Sauer, one of the Rangers’ defensive blueline prospects, has recently returned to AHL play from injury. Now in his sophomore professional season, Sauer is expected to make a large contribution to the weak Wolf Pack blueline this season. Corey Potter is already making such a contribution. However, he is still working on disciplined play, which has thus far kept him from a promotion to the NHL team.

The undrafted Michael Busto was a big point producer in his overage year in the WHL, and is in his second year with Charlotte. After a decent but not great rookie season, Busto has really struggled this season and is not expected to become an NHL player any time soon.

Four of the Rangers blueline prospects are members of CHL teams. The top prospect at this level is Del Zotto, the 2008 first-round selection who looked very good in camp this fall. Aggressive and hungry, the Rangers are excited about Del Zotto who is one of the leading defensemen in the OHL. Expected to spend the 2009-10 season in junior hockey, the Rangers are hoping that Del Zotto will be ready for the NHL to start the 2010-11 season.

In addition to Del Zotto, the Rangers selected two other defensemen in the 2008 NHL entry draft who are members of CHL teams. Tomas Kundratek, a Czech defensive blueliner, was the Blueshirts’ third-round selection. He has been playing with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL this season. Still adjusting to North American play, Kundratek is making progress with his game. Mitch Gaulton, who was already injured at the time of the draft, was the Blueshirts sixth selection in the entry draft. Further examination of Gaulton’s arm revealed that surgery was necessary, and the young Ontario native, who is a member of the Erie Otters, will miss this season of play rehabbing the arm.

The Rangers invited Tysen Dowzak to camp this fall, and his excellent, gritty, play earned the Minnesota native an NHL entry-level contract. Short on blueliners in Hartford, management was hoping that Dowzak would adapt well to skate in the AHL. It quickly became obvious that Dowzak was not ready to play at that level. When he was assigned to Charlotte and did no better, Dowzak was returned to the WHL Kelowna Rockets.

One of the most disappointing news developments among prospects this past summer was Ivan Baranka’s defection to Russia for the 2008-09 season. Considered to be a contender for an NHL roster spot, it was a blow to the organization to lose the Slovakian blueliner. However, Baranka’s numbers have taken a dive with Moscow Spartak. A return to North American play is certainly possible for Baranka sometime in the future.

Goaltending

It is no secret that the Rangers expect Henrik Lundqvist to be in net for the NHL team for many years. That said, the Blueshirts have three netminders in the system, including two excellent goalies at the AHL level.  Miika Wiikman is an excellent, smaller netminder in his second year of AHL play. Wiikman’s win-loss record does not reveal how many games he saved for the Wolf Pack, or how close he has kept the games this season. Somewhat more inconsistent than last year, Wiikman has the potential to be a journeyman netminder in the NHL.

This is Matt Zaba’s second professional season, following four years at Colorado College.  His performance with the ECHL Idaho Steelheads turned heads last year and earned him a long look this fall. Assigned backup duties in Hartford this season, Zaba has only played a few games thus far. However, his performance earlier this month on several weeks of rest was outstanding. This underrated netminder has more potential than first seen, and the Rangers are anxious to see what he can do over the course of the season.

Antoine Lafleur was the Rangers second-round selection in 2007. After a horrible 2007-08 with the QMJHL PEI Rocket, the big netminder came into the Traverse City Rookie Tournament and Rangers training camp with many doubts surrounding him. After playing unevenly through this evaluation period, it was decided that Lafleur would be sent back to junior to play an overage year. He has had an up and down season thus far, and his future is uncertain.

Overall

The Rangers have strong prospects in goal and on defense. With the passing of Cherepanov, the Rangers are weaker up front, particularly at right wing. The team is seeking a compensatory pick for the loss of Cherepanov, and will most likely focus on getting some scoring wingers in the upcoming drafts.