The Rangers have seven prospects who are currently members of CHL teams. Five of these players were 2008 draft selections, including two, Evgeny Grachev and Tomas Kundratek, who are imports, playing major junior hockey for the first time this year. Tysen Dowzak, who was signed as a free agent in October 2008 and was expected to play professional hockey this season, was returned to his CHL team after five AHL and ECHL games. Antoine Lafleur, who was a 2007 NHL Entry Draft selection, is playing in the QMJHL as an overager.
Michael Del Zotto, D
Acquired: First Round, 20th overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: Oshawa Generals
With top offensive blueline talent, in Del Zotto, the Rangers saw a character player with very good vision. After an excellent Rangers training camp and Traverse City Rookie Tournament, Del Zotto was returned to Oshawa for his third CHL season. Now an alternate captain with the Generals, questions about Del Zotto have always centered around his coverage in his own zone and his discipline on the ice. He continues to work on these issues this season, and is making great progress.
According to Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ Director of Player Personnel, “a big difference in Del Zotto this season is his conditioning. Since Adam Graves and Peter DeBoer have been involved in Oshawa, the whole team’s conditioning regimen has changed, and now Michael is a finely-tuned athlete. He wowed us from Conditioning Camp this summer on through the fall, but now, we are seeing that he is a better thinker of the game and with the conditioning changes, he is quicker. We expect that Del Zotto will surprise a lot of guys next fall, and be competing for a spot on the Rangers roster.”
Evgeny Grachev, C/LW
Acquired: Third Round, 75th overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: Brampton Battalion
The Rangers drafted Grachev in the third round, after he had an excellent 2007-08 season within the Russian Yaroslavl Lokomotiv organization. With the lack of a transfer agreement in place and the financial realities of drafting Russian players looming large, NHL teams passed on Grachev in the first two rounds of this past June’s NHL Entry Draft. However, Clark said that he was sure that he was coming over all along.
“Our Russian scout said that Evgeny wanted to play hockey in North America this season and he had not steered us wrong yet. So Evgeny was an easy selection in that spot in the draft.”
There were a lot of hurdles to jump through though; a lot of paperwork to complete, but Grachev was able to join the Blueshirts during training camp and then the Brampton Battalion.
“Stan [Butler, Director of Hockey Operations and Head Coach of the OHL Brampton Battalion] worked really hard to get everything in order — get the paperwork done so he could play junior hockey," Clark said. "Then they put him with a very good billet family and he has adjusted really well. You could see that after the recent Canada-Russian Challenge game, where Evgeny was playing for Russia and [Cody] Hodgson for Canada. They are teammates in Brampton and were so glad for each other being named the best player for their teams after the game, it was a real sign that Evgeny has fit in.”
While in Brampton, Grachev has shown that he has the scoring touch. Currently the OHL’s leading rookie scorer, Grachev has been switched from center to left wing, and plays on a line with top 2009 NHL Entry Draft prospect Matt Duchene and Scott Tanski.
Clark commented, “Evgeny was never a playmaking center, he had more of a scoring touch, so the switch to winger is natural. He has a pro shot and can protect the puck really well; now we also see that he can score from beyond just in front of the net.”
Grachev still has to work on consistent effort and 60-minute play, but his North American debut has been very exciting and the Rangers are expecting big things from Grachev over the coming years.
Mitch Gaulton, D
Acquired: Sixth Round, 171st overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: Erie Otters
Gaulton missed more than half of last season with an elbow injury, but the Rangers still decided to draft him in the sixth round.
According to Clark, “he was the best person available at that spot, and we were very impressed with his performance in his underage year. We had been following him closely and we liked what we saw.”
Clark acknowledged that there were risks in selecting the injured blueliner, but said “we knew that the injury was not career-ending. Although we were hoping that he would not require surgery, it was eventually decided that surgery would be the best thing for him. Then it was a matter of making sure that the reconstruction of his elbow had the proper tension so he can play, which required a little adjustment.”
Gaulton has recently been seen on the ice with his junior team, the Erie Otters, and will be examined by Rangers doctors this month. Although originally he was expected to miss the entire 2008-09 season, Gaulton’s recovery appears to be ahead of schedule and it is possible that the Otters defenseman may play as early as next month.
Chris Doyle, C
Acquired: Fifth Round, 141st overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: PEI Rocket
Once one of the top-rated Canadian 1990-born players, Doyle dropped to the fifth round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, where the Rangers selected him at 141st overall. His offensive skills were never an issue, but teams saw him as rather one-dimensional, and there were questions about his work ethic. Doyle is off to a great start offensively again this season, leading the Rocket in points thus far. As a result, he was recently named QMJHL’s Offensive Player of the Week.
But when asked about the enigmatic center, Clark said, “he was a tough read when we talked to him, but if there were work habits issues. Chris sure has cleaned up his act. He always had an NHL shot, Chris is not the most gifted skater among the prospects that we have. Traverse City was a wake-up call for Chris, in that now he looks to work out, knowing that he is going to need stamina and conditioning to have a successful professional career.”
Antoine Lafleur, G
Acquired: Second Round, 48th overall, 2007 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Lafleur is the only Rangers 2007 draft selection that is playing in the CHL. Now an overager with the Huskies, Lafleur spent his first three major junior years toiling for the PEI Rocket. Lafleur’s 2006-07 draft season was by far his best, and his performance and size attracted the Rangers to select him in the NHL Entry Draft before several other more highly rated eligible netminders. However, he had a horrible 2007-08 campaign and was without a junior team going into the 2008-09 season.
“Antoine had a very good fall 2007 Rangers Training Camp, but did not do enough lower body work last season," Clark said. "His play really suffered for it. However, he had a good camp again this year, but he wasn’t really ready for professional play. So we had to find a junior spot for him, and it’s hard to find that kind of spot for an overage goaltender. He was really fortunate to find one with Rouyn-Noranda."
Lafleur has shared the Huskies netminding duties with Matthew Dopud this season, and while he has a winning record (7-4), he still has quite a bit of work to do in preparation for a professional career.
Tomas Kundratek, D
Acquired: Third Round, 90th overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: Medicine Hat Tigers
Kundratek, a defensive blueliner, missed the first month of the season with a broken finger, which set his adjustment back quite a bit.
“In the Czech Republic, he played against men and he is naturally very strong,” according to Clark. “Kundratek was another player that we knew was coming over here this season, and it was really very unfortunate that he broke his finger and could not play to start the season. He is a defensive, move-the-puck-up guy, with lots of grit and toughness.”
Clark’s excitement about Kundratek is shared by the Czech National Team staff. The blueliner has been playing regularly for the Tigers since his return to the ice in late October, and although, he has only posted four assists, his excellent play in his own zone has gotten Kundratek an invite to the Czech Republic WJC selection camp later this month.
Tysen Dowzak, D
Acquired: Free Agent, Signed October 2008
CHL Team: Kelowna Rockets
Dowzak went undrafted in his two years of eligibility, and wasn’t even on the Rangers radar most of that time, according to Clark. But his simple defensive style, phenomenal conditioning, and hard play in front of his own net caught the Rangers eye late last season. An invite to Traverse City and the Rangers Training Camp followed this fall. Dowzak was very impressive in both venues, and he was signed to an NHL entry-level contract in October.
“We really liked Tysen’s play, so we were excited to sign him. His play in both Hartford and Charlotte revealed that he still needed some maturity in his game, and he still has a few things to learn before he will be ready for professional play,” Clark said.
Despite Clark’s protest that the return of Dowzak to Kelowna was not a demotion, if the Minnesota native had been ready to patrol the blueline in Hartford, it would have filled a big defensive void on the AHL team.