The Rangers had seven prospects playing in the CHL during the 2008-09 season. Three are still involved in major junior playoff games, while one other has joined the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack on an ATO this past week. For three other young Rangers prospects, their seasons are now completed.
The Rangers had three prospects in the OHL this season — two defensemen and a winger.
Michael Del Zotto, D
Acquired: First Round, 20th overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: OHL London Knights
Traded at the deadline from the Oshawa Generals to the London Knights, Del Zotto is an integral part of the Knights current run at the Memorial Cup. Playing alongside Washington Capitals prospect John Carlson, the two blueliners are perhaps the best defensive pair in junior hockey.
Posting more than a point a game this season, Del Zotto was named a league all-star and was sixth among all blueliners in the league in offensive production (62 games, 13 goals, 50 assists, 78 PIM, -3 plus/minus).
Del Zotto is an outstanding passer of the puck, with incredible on-ice vision and great instincts.
“He will definitely be competing for a roster spot on the Rangers blue line in the fall,” Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ Director of Player Personnel said. “Michael can really snap the puck around, move it up the ice. He plays very hard and finishes his checks, and since last summer, Michael has really thickened up. We are very happy with his progress this season and are looking forward to seeing him in development camp this summer.”
Evgeny Grachev, C/LW
Acquired: Third Round, 75th overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: OHL Brampton Battalion
Currently playing in Brampton’s series against Belleville, Grachev is second among rookies in total playoff points, and already has two game-winning goals. During the regular season, the left winger posted 80 points (40 goals, 40 assists) in 60 games with 22 PIM and a +48 plus./minus rating.
There is not enough space to list all of the accolades Grachev received for his outstanding rookie major junior performance. Named OHL Rookie of the Year earlier this month, he was twice previous named Rookie of the Month during the season. He was the league’s leading scorer among first year players, and Grachev posted 21 multi-point games, with six game-winning goals.
Recently named to the First Team OHL Rookie team, Grachev was also named in the OHL Coaches Poll as the Most Dangerous in the Goal Area (tied), and second in the Best Shot and Best Skater categories.
According to Clark, “Grachev had a tremendous year. It was one of those situations that worked out 100 percent. His coaches, teammates, billets; it just was an excellent situation and, as a result, the adjustment has been very good. We are really looking forward to seeing him in training camp in the fall, and will be looking really closely to see if he is ready. Yes Grachev is eligible to play in Hartford for the 2009-10 season, but there is also a chance that he will be on the NHL roster.”
Mitch Gaulton, D
Acquired: Sixth Round, 171st overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: OHL Erie Otters
Gaulton had sustained an elbow injury prior to being drafted by the Rangers last summer. At the time, it was uncertain whether or not the elbow had to be reconstructed, but after surgery was indicated, a long recovery was predicted. Originally estimated to be on course for a year-long recovery, Gaulton returned to game play in January.
In 22 games, the blueliner recorded one goal, five assists, with four PIM and a –5 plus/minus rating. Unfortunately, his return may have been premature.
“Mitch was way out of shape when he came back. He just wasn’t ready to play," commented Clark. "We are looking forward to getting him to New York to see the doctors and talk again to him about fitness."
After working hard to rehab his elbow, Gaulton will now have to work hard on his fitness and make a strong commitment to stay in shape to have a future within the Rangers organization.
The Rangers had a forward and a goaltender playing in the Q this season.
Doyle has amazing abilities with the puck and he started the 2008-09 season on fire. For the first six weeks of the season, Doyle was among the top scorers in the league. After his back acted up, his contributions were less consistent, but overall Doyle had a good season, with 72 points (30 goals, 42 assists) in 59 games (79 PIM, -13 plus/minus).
There are, however, still questions about his two-way play, “but his game is going in the right direction,” Clark said. “The fact that the Rocket had a better team this season helped Chris, and we are looking forward to seeing him progress.”
Expected to spend at least one more season in the CHL, the Rangers will be inviting Doyle to New York for the summer development camp and then to Traverse City in the fall.
Antoine LaFleur, G
Acquired: Second Round, 48th overall, 2007 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: QMJHL Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
LaFleur was returned to the QMJHL for overage year after the Rangers determined that he was not ready for professional play last fall. He had an up and down season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies this past season (32 games, 13-14-0, 3.40 GAA, .870 save percentage), which ended with a quirky finger injury last month.
“Antoine was unable to take the Huskies into the playoffs, but he was competitive in the Q this season," Clark said. "He did show last year that he can handle rookie camp, but Antoine’s game needs to move forward. We really wanted him to work on his lower half, but he wanted to train another way. That has really hurt his progress."
LaFleur’s stats and the Rangers discouraging comments about their second-round 2007 draft selection’s training regimen makes it doubtful that LaFleur will be offered an ELC prior to the June deadline.
Two of the Rangers’ defensive prospects played in the WHL this season.
Tomas Kundratek, D
Acquired: Third Round, 90th overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft
CHL Team: WHL Medicine Hat Tigers
After an excellent season in the WHL, Kundratek joined the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack last week.
“Tomas has already played against men in the Czech Republic, so we really want to see how he plays with AHL guys. We think he really may be ready to play at this level,” commented Clark shortly before Kundratek signed the ATO. “With players whose junior teams go far into the playoffs — that type of competition is helpful for development, but at the same time limits the players’ opportunities to play against professionals in the AHL.”
Kundratek is a defensive blueliner, who got a late start to the 2008-09 season due to a broken finger, which kept him off the ice for the first month. He did well, and then played for his country in the U20 WJCs in Ottawa in late December/early January. The Rangers liked his play on the international stage, but were really impressed with Kundratek’s game on his return to Medicine Hat.
“It was a growth experience for him, another piece of his development, and he returned to the Tigers an even better player,” Clark said.
In 51 WHL games, Kundratek posted 23 points (4 goals, 19 assists), 63 PIM, and a +8 plus/minus rating during the regular season. Expect the Czech Republic native to join the Wolf Pack next fall.
Tysen Dowzak, D
Acquired: Free Agent, Signed October 2008
CHL Team: WHL Kelowna Rockets
An effective, gritty, tough defensive blueliner, Dowzak has the potential to be the kind of defenseman that the Rangers need on their NHL team. At 6’5, the undrafted Minnesota native is intimidating and not afraid to throw his size around or drop the gloves when necessary. He was not ready for professional play when he was signed last fall, so he was sent back to junior hockey for an overage year, but Clark says that the Rangers loved what they saw of Dowzak in Traverse City and training camp last September.
“This was not a demotion for Tysen,” explained the Rangers Director of Player Personnel. “He just was not ready for professional play. And now Tysen is getting the experience of the WHL playoffs. And if Kelowna is eliminated, we want him to go to Hartford and be with the Wolf Pack.”
The road looks to be long for Dowzak, who will start next season with either the Wolf Pack or the ECHL Charlotte Checkers.