Rangers 2009-10 AHL/ECHL prospects update

By Leslie Treff

The New York Rangers currently have 17 prospects playing in either the AHL or ECHL. Fourteen prospects have spent most of the 2009-10 season as members of the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack and three as ECHLers.

With a record of 3-5-0-2 over the last ten games, Hartford has not been very successful of late. This is at least partially because many of the team’s key players have been called up to the Rangers and played several games with the NHL team. Goaltender Chad Johnson has been up and down several times to serve as a backup to Henrik Lundqvist, after Steve Valiquette was waived and then reassigned to Hartford. AHL veteran PA Parenteau skated in 14 games with the NHL team, and during the month that he was with the Rangers, the Wolf Pack only won six of 15 games. Since Parenteau’s return, Hartford has won two of four games, and the Wolf Pack alternate captain has five points. Also up and down have been blueliners Ilkka Heikkinen and Bobby Sanguinetti, and forward Dane Byers. Since last week, Parenteau, Heikkinen, Sanguinetti, and Byers are all back with the team, and the Wolf Pack have played a much better game.

The ECHL Charlotte Checkers are the Rangers primary AA affiliate and all three of the Rangers prospects who have spent significant time in the ECHL this season have played in a Checkers uniform. Charlotte, which has NHL affiliations with both the Blueshirts and the Colorado Avalanche, is currently second in the South Division. Although the Checkers had a terrible four-game series against the division-leading South Carolina Stingrays earlier this month, this is the most successful season Charlotte has had in years. Currently, the Checkers have two Rangers prospects, Tysen Dowzak and Miika Wiikman, on the team roster. Ryan Hillier, who was previously assigned to the Checkers, was reassigned last month to the ECHL Wheeling Nailers.

Of the 17 prospects that the Rangers have assigned to either the AHL or ECHL, one is a  netminder, five are defensemen, and 11 are forwards.

Goaltender

Chad Johnson, Age 23
Acquired: Trade with Pittsburgh Penguins, 6/27/09

Originally drafted by the Penguins in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Johnson was acquired in exchange for a fifth round pick during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Signed to an entry-level contract by the Rangers on July 13, 2009, Johnson had been the CCHA Player of the Year and Goaltender of the Year for the 2008-09 season. Selected as the University of Alaska-Fairbanks MVP for last season, the Rangers were very high on Johnson when they signed him last summer.

After Johnson played very well in the Traverse City Rookie Tournament and into Rangers Training Camp, it was somewhat of a surprise when the rookie netminder had a shaky start to the Wolf Pack exhibition season and was very inconsistent early in the regular season. It was not until the end of October that Johnson regained the form that he had shown in training camp. Since that time, however, he has performed excellently with a 1.61 GAA and .946 save percentage in 11 games in November.  Johnson has been Lundqvist’s backup in New York for almost the entire month of December and has only appeared in two AHL contests since the beginning of the 28th of November. Johnson has lost both those games, and recorded a 2.43 GAA and .914 save percentage.

Although he has been the NHL backup since November, it is very uncertain whether or not Johnson is ready for that role on a permanent basis. He had an outstanding month of November, but Johnson has not yet even performed consistently on the AHL level, no less in the NHL. His presence on the Rangers has more to do with the poor performance by Valiquette than it does about Johnson’s readiness for the role.

Defense

Tysen Dowzak, Age 21
Acquired: Free Agent, signed October 14, 2008

Dowzak was signed by the Rangers after an excellent season with the WHL Kelowna Rockets and an impressive performance in the 1008 Traverse City Rookie Tournament. A tough defensive blueliner, Dowzak can hit and be a tough guy.

After a quick professional look in both the AHL and ECHL in the fall of 2008, Dowzak was returned to Kelwona for an overage season. This fall, Dowzak was sent to the Wolf Pack training camp and had some skating issues that caused him to be a step behind his opponents. After two pre-season games in Charlotte, he was sent to the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs of the Central Hockey League. Back in Charlotte as of early December, Dowzak has since recorded no points in seven games, while maintaining a -6 plus/minus rating.

Ilkka Heikkinen, Age 25
Acquired: Free Agent, signed May 20, 2009

Heikkinen was a highly sought after free agent while playing in Finland last season. The Rangers were able to sign him to a one-year deal and bring him over to North America this summer. After an impressive Development Camp in early July, there were high expectations that Heikkinen would fight for a Rangers roster spot in September’s training camp. But he looked like a completely different player when he took the ice with NHL players.

Tentative and slower, the signing did not appear to be as much of a coup when training camp began. Heikkinen was assigned to Hartford to begin the season. It did take longer than expected for him to adjust to the North American game, but there has been a steady improvement in his play over the course of the last three months. Heikkinen’s commitment to play in North America and learn the nuances of the play here have never been in question, and the strides he has made in doing so have resulted in him looking much more like the player we saw in Development Camp than the one in Training Camp. With 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists) and a + 5 rating in 26 AHL games, Heikkinen plays in all situations and as time has gone on over the course of the season has stepped up the physical part of his game.

Very deserving of the call-up to the Rangers that Heikkinen received early this month, he is an excellent two-way blueliner, with a very heavy shot. At the time he was reassigned, the defenseman was showing good vision and the ability to take the body in the AHL. He was somewhat hesitant after the call-up, and did not show his shot or excellent passing ability much at the NHL level. Heikkinen generally was positionally sound in his play, particularly after a bit of recklessness in his first game, but the offense was not there (in seven games, had no points and a +2 rating).

A restricted free agent after this season, the Rangers are anxious to get Heikkinen into as many NHL games as possible. However, he did not jump in and take the reins when he was called up, so he was reassigned to the Wolf Pack before Christmas. When he will get another call-up remains to be seen.

Bobby Sanguinetti, Age 21
Acquired: First Round (21st overall) 2006 NHL Entry Draft

Sanguinetti had a very good rookie season in Hartford during the 2008-09 campaign.  An offensive defenseman who always had defensive liabilities, Sanguinetti worked hard on his defensive game, preparing for a more defensive system in the NHL. He continued to work extremely hard over the summer on rounding out his game, and the New Jersey native was expected to be a top candidate for a spot on the Rangers roster this past fall.

Sanguinetti’s performance in the Rangers training camp was disappointing and with the emergence of Michael Del Zotto as the young phenom blueliner, Sanguinetti was bound for another season in Hartford. Although somewhat lost on many fans, he was close to making the team out of camp, despite some issues during the first few days.

Very disappointed with the assignment, Sanguinetti had an up and down first month. He would play extremely well in one game and then miss some crucial defensive assignments in the next. Paired with Heikkinen, and moving into November, Sanguinetti  settled down, and by the end of November, he had recorded 22 points (6 goals, 16 assists) in 21 games. The AHL’s most offensively productive defenseman, Sanguinetti was a top scorer in the league.

Called up to the Rangers for the first time on November 26, Sanguinetti played in three games where he made some crucial defensive errors that cost the Rangers goals. Returned to Hartford, he was then recalled on December 16th for two games. Sanguinetti looked a lot more comfortable positionally in his second call-up, but with the recall of Matt Gilroy from Hartford and Wade Redden being back in the game, Sanguinetti was returned to the Wolf Pack. Sanguinetti had no points in his debut month with the Rangers, and his play in the AHL this month has generally not been impressive (two assists in eight games, with a -11 rating). The New Jersey native looked much better in his game Sunday night, and remains a player on the bubble in the Rangers organization.

Michael Sauer, Age 22
Acquired: Second Round (50th overall) 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Sauer was the second blueliner chosen by the Rangers in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and unlike the first defenseman, Marc Staal, Sauer developed slowly over the last four years. This is his third professional season and he has been hampered by injuries at times thus far.

A defensive blueliner who plays in all situations, Sauer has been very solid on the blue line since early last season. Although he started a bit slow this season, with errant passes and positional errors, of late he is playing very well and appears to be NHL-ready.

Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ Director of Player Personnel, agrees and suggest that Sauer’s call-up is a matter of opportunity. "Both Sauer and [Corey] Potter play more of a defensive game than Heikkinen and Sanguinetti. The reason that they were called up, was that we needed offensive defenseman. If we needed a defensive blueliner, we’d call up either Sauer or Potter. Both played well when they were called upon in the past and both are ready now; it is a long season and its unlikely to be one without some injuries to our blueline. It will be up to the Hartford coaches at that point as to who is playing better hockey and gets the call, but in our eyes either should be able to step in."

Nigel Williams, Age 21
Acquired: Trade with Colorado Avalanche on July 16, 2009

Originally drafted in the second round (51st overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Williams is an offensive defenseman, who was very raw when he came to the Rangers this past summer. He did not move along very in well in Lake Erie last season, always better pushing forward than playing in his own end.

The Rangers exchanged defenseman Brian Fahey for Williams this past summer, hoping to give him a fresh start and an opportunity to develop without any pressure. It was tough start to the season, as Williams has many positional issues and was often scratched. But he has great size, good skating, and an excellent shot.

"JJ [Daigneault] is working with Williams on when to go and when not to; it’s a process, but there is no question that he is making strides," said Clark.

Since the middle of November, Williams has played a much better defensive game, while beginning to contribute to the offense. In 22 games, he has four points (one goal, three assists), with a plus/minus rating of +5. As a player who has offensive ability, he needs to shoot the puck more (he currently averages only about one shot per game), but slowly, Williams is putting his game together.

A high-risk, high-reward player, whether or not Williams develops into what the Rangers are hoping for will take at least another two years to determine.

Forwards

Dane Byers, LW, Age 23
Acquired: Second Round (48th overall) 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Byers is in his fourth professional season, and was recently named the captain of the Wolf Pack. A prototypical power forward, he is big and plants himself near to net when he is being effective. After losing what was hoped to be a breakout 2008-09 season with a knee injury requiring surgery, Byers came back with a vengeance in the playoffs last spring. 

It was expected that he would battle for an NHL roster spot this fall, but he was totally invisible from the beginning of the Rangers Training Camp and earned another start in Hartford. A player with bottom-six NHL potential, Byers was called up to the Rangers for five games early in the 2009-10 season. Although there were no real problems with his play, and he seemed to do well on the Blueshirts’ fourth line, the coaches decided that a different style of fourth-line play was in the team’s best interest and he was returned to the Wolf Pack.

Often playing on Hartford’s first line, Byers has 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 28 AHL games this season. His -6 plus/minus rating is one of the worst on the team, but over the years, Byers has generally been a responsible two-way player. He can fight, with two battles this month, but it’s questionable whether or not he could be a competent pugilist in the NHL.

Chris Chappell, LW, Age 21
Acquired: Free Agent, Signed July 2, 2009

Chappell was signed by the Rangers after he had an excellent overage 2008-09 season with the Saginaw Spirit. At 6’4" and 209 lbs, he is tough and looked to have developed some offensive ability in junior hockey. In training camp it became obvious that, if he was to be able to play at the NHL level, Chappell would have to improve his skating and positional work.

Assigned to the Checkers to begin the season, Chappell posted four points (one goal, three assists) during 11 games with the ECHL team. Called up to the Wolf Pack on November 9, Chappell appeared in six games with no points, and engaged in one fight. Reassigned to Charlotte on December 1, Chappell posted two of his four points thus far this season, before being placed on 21-day injured reserve on December 17.

Paul Crowder, C, Age 24
Acquired: Free Agent, Signed on May 19, 2009

Signed by the Wolf Pack last March after capturing the team MVP honors for his 2008-09 play with the University of Alaska-Anchorage, Crowder had three assists in 11 regular season games last season. The Rangers signed Crowder to a entry-level contract is one of the few true centers that the Rangers have at this level. A former WCHA Rookie of the Year, Crowder began this AHL season with six points in as many games. But since that time, his production has been sporadic, particularly in the month of December.

When Crowder stays actively involved in the offense, the results have been very good. More of a scoring center than a playmaking one, the big B.C. native may be better off on the wing. However, given the Rangers current dearth of centers, a switch is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Devin DiDiomete, LW, Age 21
Acquired: Free Agent, Signed October 20, 2008

Although selected by Calgary in the seventh round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Didiomete was never signed. The Rangers picked him up after his final year the OHL, where Didiomete posted a point a game on the Steven Stamkos-driven Sarnia Sting.

But Didiomete was not signed for his offensive prowess. Although at 5’11", the Stratford, Ontario native is not a big player; he is tough. He accumulated more than 200 PIM in each of his last three OHL seasons, and 239 PIM during his rookie 2008-09 campaign with the Wolf Pack.

During the pre-season this fall, Didiomete broke his arm, which had him sidelined for about five weeks. After serving as a color commentator for the Wolf Pack broadcasts and doing an excellent job, Didiomete was sent to Charlotte to rehab the arm. While with the Checkers, the winger posted three points in six games, and accumulated 46 PIM. Included among those PIM was a game misconduct (and subsequent suspension) in his second game back for starting a fight at 19:45 of the third period.

Since rejoining the Wolf Pack in late November, the undersized agitator has one assist in 14 games, plus 65 PIM. With eight fights this season, Didiomete is not afraid of anyone, and can create energy in a way that few in this organization can. Whether he can do so at the NHL level, without some of the skating skill necessary to keep up with the game these days is questionable, but he is fun to watch and will stick up for teammates, no matter the personal cost.

Brodie Dupont, C, Age 22
Acquired: Third Round (66th overall) 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Dupont was a good-sized grinding center when the Rangers drafted him out of the WHL Calgary Hitmen in the summer of 2005. Moved to the wing when he started his professional career, the Rangers weakness at the center position has Dupont returned to his natural position this season.

It is Dupont’s third year as a member of the Wolf Pack and the change in position, which has him centering the first or second line, and experience in the league are giving him more ice time and added leadership responsibilities.

Dupont has worked on his skating over the last couple of years, and is considered a "lunch pail" player — hard working, willing to grind it out. On less than a half point per game pace (7 goals and 7 assists in 34 games) this season, Dupont is not improving his offensive production, however, he is solid AHL player, who could eventually get a chance to play a fourth-line role in the NHL.

Evgeny Grachev, LW/C, Age 19
Acquired: Third Round (75th overall) 2008 NHL Entry Draft

Grachev had first to second-round talent, but the Rangers were able to select him in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft because there were fears that he would not leave Russia. However, the Rangers were able to place him with the OHL Brampton Battalion for the 2008-09 season and he’s stayed since then.

The young Russian won the OHL Rookie of the Year award, having led in points and goals. While in Brampton, it became clear that Grachev was a scoring center and not as much a playmaker, so he played quite a bit of the time on the wing. He learned to play in the slot and to start crashing the net.

As the No. 1 prospect in the Rangers organization and coming off such a dominating OHL season, there were high expectations for Grachev coming into the Rangers training camp this fall. He played well and almost made the NHL team. It was decided, however, that some seasoning in Hartford would be advantageous for Grachev’s development. What Grachev did not expect was that many of the ways that he played in Brampton would not work with the men in the pros.

"This happens to almost all young players who have dominated at the level below. They suddenly find that they can’t make the same moves. It just does not work when they get to the next level. So they have to adjust and it takes time," explained Clark when asked about Grachev’s slow start in Hartford.

Grachev’s effort level has been in question though, and while he does have 17 points (7 goals, 10 assists) in 34 games, only two of those points have been posted in the last 13 games. He is also carrying a -8. Despite Clark’s protestations otherwise, Grachev does not appear to be on the fast track to an NHL career. That does not mean that he won’t get there within a season or two, but early predictions of a mid to late-season call-up seem unlikely.

Ryan Hillier, LW, Age: 21
Acquired: Third Round (84th overall) 2006 NHL Entry Draft

Hillier was a budding star in the QMJHL when the Rangers drafted him in 2006. He had posted close to a point a game in his first full season as a member of the Halifax Mooseheads and had a scorer’s touch. Hillier began his professional career in the fall of 2008 after finally having surgery to correct a groin problem that held him back from skating for many months. Assigned to Charlotte after the surgery, Hillier took much of the 2008-09 year to regain his previous form. He never did become the prolific scorer that he been in Halifax.

Hillier got more of a look this pre-season in Hartford, but was was assigned to Charlotte in early October. He played well in October and received a call-up to the Wolf Pack in late October. But he posted no points in four games, and had positional issues. After being returned to Charlotte on October 31, Hillier skated in six more Checkers games before being reassigned to the Wheeling Nailers (on his request). In a total of 20 ECHL games this season, Hillier has recorded seven points (two goals, five assists), with six PIM, and a -2 rating.

It has been hard to judge Hillier’s professional career thus far. He spent the early 2008-09 season recovering from his groin surgery and then the rest regaining his skating form. There is no question that he should have had the surgery earlier and that his failure to do so affected his early professional play. Almost a year behind in development, Hillier wanted a change from Charlotte and got one in his assignment with the Nailers. He has not been tearing up the league since, and it is highly doubtful that his reassignment request was looked upon kindly by the Rangers. Hillier does have one more year on his entry-level contract, and thus some remaining time to impress either the Rangers or another organization, but the start of his professional career has not been good.

Jordan Owens, LW, Age: 23
Acquired: Free Agent, Signed May 5, 2009

A very hard worker, Owens was signed to an AHL contract in 2007 after an excellent overage season with the OHL Mississauga Ice Dogs. After two seasons with the Wolf Pack, the Rangers signed him to entry-level deal last May.

"I love this signing. Owens has been working, working and working and is getting stronger every year," an enthused Clark exclaimed.

Currently out with a facial injury, in 30 AHL games this season, Owens has recorded 13 points (5 goals, 8 assists), 37 PIM, and a team-leading +10.

"He is one of the best two-way players in Hartford, and despite having some injuries this season, which has kept his production down, with Owens’ hard work, he looks to have a real chance to make the Rangers next season," Clark said.   

Justin Soryal, LW, Age: 22
Acquired: Free Agent, March 23, 2008

Soryal was signed to an entry-level contract shortly after completed his final season with the OHL Peterborough Petes. A tough guy with offensive skills, the Rangers were hoping that these skills would transfer well to the professional ranks. He played well last season, putting up some points and developing into a decent fighter for the Wolf Pack. This season his production is way down (one assist in 26 games), and he has fought much less.

Currently out with a facial injury, Soryal’s chances of becoming an NHL player are diminishing as others in the organization are passing him by. With one more year on his entry-level contract, Soryal still has time to prove himself, however, he will have to improve his fighting ability to make it to the next level.

Dale Weise, RW, Age: 21
Acquired: Fourth Round (111th overall) 2008 NHL Entry Draft

Weise is a right winger in an organization that has a severe lack of depth at this position. A second-year pro, the Winnipeg native is proving this season that he is not just a character grinder who can point up occasional points.

A point-a-game player in his final year with the WHL Swift Current Broncos, Weise is almost up to that level in his 2009-10 production with Wolf Pack. Although on a slower pace in December, in 34 games this season, Weise has registered 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists).

Expected to compete for an NHL roster spot next fall, Weise is a leader in the room and has captain potential at the next level.

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