Rangers organizational depth analysis, Fall 2009

By Leslie Treff

There have been few front office or coaching changes in the Rangers organization to start this season. In August 2009, Mark Messier was named as a Special Assistant to the President, and since that time has been sitting in on meetings, attending practices and games, scouting, and generally learning the ins and outs of Rangers management.

Mike Sullivan was hired in July 2009, as an assistant coach to Head Coach John Tortorella. Sullivan previously held the same position with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2007-08 season.

All other hockey operations, coaching, and scouting positions remain the same. However, with the hiring of Tortorella in February 2009, the Rangers style of play has changed significantly. With the implementation of a more up-tempo game, the Rangers have sought and highly value more offensively aggressive and tougher players.

There are 17 new prospects in the Rangers stable since last Spring, and the prospect depth chart is much stronger at every position except right wing. Very active in the signing of free agent prospects last spring and summer, as well as obtaining prospects via trade prior to the season, the Rangers now are third in Hockey’s Future’s organizational rankings.

Left Wing

The Rangers have 12 left wing prospects in the organization. The most highly rated is Evgeny Grachev, who was drafted as a center, but has been playing on the wing for most of the last two seasons. Grachev, now with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, is very strong on the puck, has a great shot, and has already been called-up once to the Rangers in this, his rookie professional, season. Expected to be a regular member of the NHL team either later in the season or to begin the 2009-10 campaign, Grachev is the top prospect on left wing and in the entire Rangers system.

Five other left wingers in the Rangers system play in Hartford. Among them, Dane Byers is one with the highest upside. After being sidelined almost all of last season with a knee injury, Byers has gotten off to a slow start in the 2009-10 campaign. The Pack’s other wingers who play on the left side include Jordan Owens, Justin Soryal, Devin Didiomete, and Ryan Hillier.

Owens, signed in May 2009, after an excellent season with the Wolf Pack, was undrafted and toiled three years in Hartford and Charlotte before being signed to an entry-level contract. A good hard-nosed player with excellent work ethic, Owens is a long shot to become a regular player in the NHL. Didiomete was signed as a free agent before last season, almost strictly as an enforcer. Although at 5’11" Didiomete is not big, he is fearless and never runs away from a fight. Currently sidelined with a broken arm, Didiomete has taken to doing the color commentary for the Pack games. He is excellent at it, and may follow former Wolf Pack pugilist PJ Stock after his hockey days are done. 

Hillier was recently called up to Hartford from the Checkers, where he has played since turning pro in 2008. Hillier was an offensive force in his junior career, but his adjustment to professional play was delayed somewhat last season due to injury. For Hillier, much of his future will depend on his ability to take advantage of his present opportunity.

Justin Soryal can play the game and also answer the bell if called upon to defend teammates. Signed in 2008 as a free agent, Soryal is one of the toughest players on the Hartford team. Likely to get an opportunity in the NHL on the fourth line, Soryal is big and strong, with very little offensive upside.  

Chris Chappell was signed as a free agent this past summer, after an excellent fourth season with the OHL Saginaw Spirit. Big, with a tough game, Chappell was assigned to the Checkers during training camp.

Four of the left wingers in the Rangers organization are playing collegiate hockey. The highest ranked is Chris Kreider, who was the Rangers first selection in the 2009 NHL entry draft. Big, fast, with a high hockey IQ, Kreider is already one of the team’s top wingers as a freshman at Boston College. Coming from high school hockey, Hockey East play is a huge adjustment for Kreider, but thus far, he has responded well.

Carl Hagelin entered the University of Michigan the fall after he was selected by the Rangers in the sixth round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Expected to be a very smart second- to third-line player when he was drafted, he has proved to have much more offensive upside than originally expected. An athlete-scholar, Hagelin is expected to complete his degree before playing professional hockey.

Eric Hunter and Greg Beller remain on the Rangers reserve list, with Hunter attending the University of Alberta, and skating on its first line as an alternate captain. Beller is currently at the University of Manitoba. Neither figure in the Rangers’ future plans.

Tomas Zaborsky, who was drafted as a left winger, but has played center for the last three years, was assigned to the Checkers at the start of the 2009-10 season. Rather than accept the assignment, he joined Assat Pori of the Finnish elite league. Whether he will return to North America later this season or in the future is uncertain.

Roman Psurny is currently playing for HC Slovan Ustecti Lvi in the Czech Republic and is not expected to return to North America in the foreseeable future.

Center

The Rangers currently have 14 center prospects in their organization, including one, Artem Anisimov, who currently plays with the NHL team.

Anisimov is the third line center for the Rangers, after posting a fabulous 2008-09 rookie professional season with the Wolf Pack. Although off to a slow start offensively with the Rangers, Anisimov is an excellent two-way player who is expected to put up decent numbers during the 2009-10 campaign.

Also with the NHL team is Brian Boyle, who is centering the team’s fourth line. Not much of an offensive threat at this level, Boyle is an energy player who forechecks well.

Other centers who are playing professionally within the Rangers organization include Paul Crowder and Brodie Dupont. Crowder is in his first professional season as a member of the Wolf Pack. He had a good NHL camp and recently has been centering Hartford’s first line. Not afraid to go to the net, Crowder has good hands and is an excellent playmaker. Already one of the leading offensive producers for the Wolf Pack, the 24-year-old former free agent could find himself in New York by the end of the year.

Dupont is a third-year professional who more often plays on the wing than at center. A tough, hard-nosed player, Dupont has some offensive upside, but is more likely to get into a fight than score a goal.

Three of the Rangers center prospects play in the NCAA. The highest rated of them is Derek Stepan, currently a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. Stepan has speed, hockey smarts, good hands, and excellent vision in his repertoire. He has the potential to be a future first line center for the Blueshirts, but he is several years away from getting that opportunity. There is, however, a very good chance that Stepan will only play two to three years of collegiate hockey.

This is Max Campbell‘s third season of NCAA hockey. A junior at the University of Western Michigan, Campbell had some adjustment issues in his freshman season. However, he had a much better sophomore year during 2008-09, and is expected to put up even better numbers this season, Campbell is a long shot to fulfill his potential as a power-play specialist in the NHL, however, a sudden spurt in development could improve his chances.

Danny Hobbs is in his sophomore season at the University of Massachusetts. After getting very little ice time last season, Hobbs is playing on the left wing this year, and seeing more playing time. Still very much a long shot to make the NHL, Hobbs is expected to remain in college for his entire four years of eligibility.

Four of the centers in the Rangers system are playing in the Canadian Hockey League. Ethan Werek, Ryan Bourque, and Roman Horak were all selected by New York in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Werek was selected in the middle of the second round. The now second-year Kingston Front, Werek was fifth among OHL rookies in total points during the 2008-09 regular season. Expected to be a late first-round to early second-round pick, a plethora of prospects in that category allowed the Rangers to pick him up at 47th overall. A hard worker who plays well along the boards and likes to go to the net, Werek was an excellent pickup for the Rangers in the mid second round.

Bourque is a highly skilled, small center, who has excellent vision and creativity with the puck. Currently a rookie with the QMJHL Quebec Remparts, Bourque has started his major junior career well, but is expected to take a full five years to become NHL-ready.

Horak was selected by the Rangers in the fifth round of this past year’s NHL draft. A good skater, with excellent hockey sense and very good hands, Horak was impressive in the Traverse City Rookie Tournament this fall. Currently a rookie with the WHL Chilliwack Bruins, Horak is one of the top rookie scorers in the league.

Chris Doyle, a fifth-round pick in 2008, is hoped to be a power play specialist as a professional. However, despite his offensive abilities, Doyle has engaged in several on- and off-ice incidents this year and last that may hamper his standing with the Rangers. An NHL entry-level contract for the QMJHL PEI Rocket center is not likely in coming.

Three prospects, David Skokan, Lukas Zeliska, and Zdenek Bahensky have all at one time played hockey in North America, but returned to Europe. After playing major junior hockey with the QMJHL Rimouski Oceanic and then, in July 2008, signing an AHL contract, Skokan returned to his former team Propad HK SKP. Currently skating for HC Slovan Bratislava in the Slovak Extraliga Skokan is not expected to return to North America. Zeliska is a member of HC Havirov in the Czech 02 Division. After spending one season with the WHL Prince Albert Raiders in 2006-07, he is also not expected to return to North America. Finally, Bahensky is centering for Mlada Boleslav of the Czech Extraliga. Bahensky spent three years in North American hockey, including at the major junior and professional levels. Although he remains on the Rangers reserve list, he does not figure in their future plans.

Right Wing

The Rangers only have two right wingers in their entire stable of prospects, one of which is in Europe and not likely to return to North America any time in the near future. David Kveton is playing in the Czech Extraliga for HC Ocelari Trinec of the Czech Extraliga. This is the second season that Kveton has played extremely well with this club, and his third since returning to the Czech Republic after a stint in the QMJHL. Kveton’s experience in Gatineau during the 2006-07 season does not make him pre-disposed to come back to North America for a minor league position. Since the Rangers generally are not willing to guarantee any player an NHL slot, the have not been able to lure Kveton back to North America. Whether or not this will change over the next year or two remains to be seen.

The only other right wing in the system is Dale Weise, who currently plays for the Wolf Pack. Weise is a gritty, smart, potential third- to fourth-line NHL player, who should be NHL ready sometime this year, or next Fall at the latest. Still only 21 years old, Weise plays like an AHL veteran-solid and steady, almost always making the correct play. Limited offensive upside makes him a bottom six NHL player, but with the shortage of players at this position within the system and the grittiness of his play, absent injury, Weise’s opportunity should come soon enough.

Defense

Fourteen blueliners are prospects within the Rangers organization. Two, Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy, are playing on the roster of the NHL team. Five others are playing professionally, four are playing in the Canadian Hockey League, two in Europe, and one in college.

Del Zotto, just 19, is currently quarterbacking the power play for the Rangers. With excellent vision and anticipation of the play ahead of him, Del Zotto has a very high hockey IQ. Supremely confident, Del Zotto apprears to be the power-play quarterback that the Rangers have been lacking for many years.

Gilroy came highly touted as an offensive wizard who loves to jump into the play, and is somewhat weak defensively. However, thus far, he has been learning defensive positioning fairly well, and has not been more of a liability in that area than other Rangers blueliners. Whether or not Gilroy can live up to the offensive expectations, however, will take some time to discern.

With the graduation of Corey Potter, due to age, there are currently four other Rangers defensive prospects playing in Hartford. Two, Michael Sauer and Bobby Sanguinetti, played with the Wolf Pack last season. Ilkka Heikkinen and Nigel Williams are newcomers to the team.

Sauer is a defensive blueliner, who was expected to get a long look with the NHL team this Fall. It was somewhat surprising that he was sent down early in training camp, but he is not a jump-into-the-play type defenseman, and did not fit what the Rangers were looking for at this time. Sauer is very responsible in his own end, and when he is playing well, is quite invisible. Whether that will fit into the Rangers style of play over the long run remains to be seen.

Sanguinetti was expected to become a member of the NHL team this fall. However, the offensive blueliner had concentrated on becoming more defensively sound toward the end of last season and over the summer. Therefore, he had a very difficult time with the Rangers training camp and in the pre-season, and Del Zotto eventually won the open blueline spot. However, Sanguinetti’s work has not been wasted. Now a much more defensively responsible offensive blueliner, he should be playing in the NHL, if not later this season, then next Fall.

Heikkinen was signed as a free agent in May 2009 after six seasons in the Finnish SM-liiga. A highly sought after offensive defenseman, at 24 years old, Heikkinen was expected to vie for one of the two open defensive spots on the Rangers this Fall. However, after an excellent development camp in July, Heikkinen was not very impressive in the main training camp. Assigned to Hartford to begin the 2009-10 campaign, Heikkinen has been one of the best players on the team since the beginning of the season.

Williams was traded by the Colorado Avalanche to the Rangers on July 16, 2009. A highly-touted offensive blueliner, last season Williams was second among his AHL Lake Erie Monster defensemen in points. Assigned to the Wolf Pack, Williams has had a difficult time thus far in his professional career playing positionally in his own zone. Speed and anticipation of the play have been issues thus far. Williams would greatly improve his chances of becoming an NHL player by making significant changes to his defensive game.

Tysen Dowzak was signed by the Rangers after he showed tremendous grit in the Traverse City Rookie Tournament in the Fall of 2008. Not ready for professional play, Dowzak was returned to his junior club (the WHL Kelowna Rockets) for the 2008-09 season. Assigned to begin the 2009-10 season with Checkers, Dowzak was subsequently reassigned to the Central Hockey League’s Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs.

Ryan McDonagh is the only Rangers’ defensive prospect that is currently playing collegiate hockey. A junior at the University of Wisconsin, McDonagh was the Montreal Canadiens‘ first round selection in 2007. Acquired by the Rangers as part of the June 2009 trade that sent Scott Gomez to the Habs, McDonagh is a good two-way defenseman, who likes to hit as well as step up on the play. Currently a tri-captain of the Badgers, McDonagh is a natural leader, who has academic as well as hockey ability. It is likely that he will turn pro after this season.

Tomas Kundratek, Sam Klassen, Daniel Maggio, and Mitch Gaulton are all blueliners playing major junior hockey this season.

Kundratek, a mostly defensive blueliner with an NHL shot, skated for the WHL Medicine Hat Tigers during the 2008-09 season. Now almost 20, the Czech blueliner was hoping to play in the AHL this season. However, he just was not strong enough to play professionally, and was reassigned back to the Tigers when the other juniors were returned to their respective teams in September. Not desiring to return to major junior hockey, Kundratek requested to be sent to Hartford’s training camp. The Rangers agreed, and the young defenseman looked overmatched there too. He finally accepted the reassignment and has readjusted well to WHL play. When he fills out some, Kundratek will be a very good professional player with a booming shot and very responsible defensive play. Keeping him in North America until he gets there is the challenge.

Klassen was signed by the Rangers as a free agent in August 2009. The 20-year-old is a tough blueliner, very responsible in his own zone, and not afraid to drop the gloves when necessary. It was thought that he was ready for professional play, however, after the Traverse City Rookie Tournament, a portion of the Rangers main training camp, and Hartford’s camp, Klassen was returned to his junior team, the WHL Saskatoon Blades. He will begin his professional career next season, likely in either Hartford or Charlotte.

Daniel Maggio was a sixth-round selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. A very hard-working, tough blueliner, Maggio was coming off a severe knee injury that kept him out of action for a good part of the 2008-09 season. A former first-round selection by the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL draft, Maggio has taken quite a bit of time to develop into what was originally hoped for. He is now performing at the expected level, and there is a very good chance that the Rangers got a late-round steal in this hard-hitting defenseman.

This was not the first year that the Rangers selected a severely injured defenseman in an NHL Entry Draft. The Blueshirts selected Mitch Gaulton in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. Gaulton was coming off an arm injury that would eventually require elbow reconstruction surgery. Although Gaulton missed most of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, he is back on track this season, his fourth as a member of the OHL Erie Otters. Gaulton’s development is way behind his age group, but he has quite a bit of potential, so it is not likely that the Rangers will cut him loose any time soon.

Pavel Valentenko and Mikhail Pashnin are European blueliners who at this point have no intention to play in North America anytime soon. Valentenko was obtained as part of the trade that sent Scott Gomez to Montreal. Currently recovering from shoulder surgery that will keep him sidelined several months, Valentenko is a member of the KHL Moscow Dynamo team.

Pashnin was the Rangers final round selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. A strong skater with toughness, and good strength, Pashnin has excellent hockey sense. A first-round selection in the first KHL junior draft in 2009, Pashnin is a member of the Moscow CSKA.

Goaltending

Including Matt Zaba, who is no longer a prospect because of age, the Rangers have four netminders in the system. The three prospects are Chad Johnson, Scott Stajcer, and Miika Wiikman.

Johnson was acquired by the Rangers from the Pittsburgh Penguins in June 2009, in exchange for a fifth-round pick. An outstanding netminder who was the CCHA Player and Goaltender of the Year for 2008-09, Johnson was a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award last season. Johnson tends to think things through, adjusting to players’ speed and skill. His style is to let the puck hit him and then cover up. Although this leads to rebounds out front, he challenges and stays very square to the shooter, which led to his success in college. This may not be as easy at the professional level, where the play is faster, opponents get to the net quicker, and rebounds out front are most costly. Johnson’s ability to make the necessary adjustments will determine how successful his career will be.

Stajcer was selected by the Rangers in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. A reactive goalie who relies on instincts, Stajcer is now in his third year as a member of the OHL Owen Sound Attack. For the first time carrying the bulk of the netminding duties, Stajcer will gain quite a bit of experience this season. The Rangers were very impressed with his performance in Traverse City, as well as the main training camp, and Stajcer will be getting many opportunities to work with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire over the coming years to further improve upon his technique. Not expected to become a professional until after the 2010-11 hockey season, Stajcer is just beginning his journey with the Rangers organization.
    
Wiikman is in the final season of a two-year entry level NHL contract. After an excellent 2007-08, Wiikman took over the No. 1 duties in Hartford. After an injury sidelined him during last season, Zaba took over as the No. 1 netminder. Things are less clear this season with Wiikman, Johnson, and Zaba vying for the position. After groin problems in the pre-season, Wiikman was assigned to Charlotte. However, he played well since his recall, and it is possible that he will once again be the No. 1 between the pipes for the AHL team before season’s end.