Once known as an organization that put mostly free-agents and high-profile traded for skaters on the Madison Square Garden ice, since returning from the lockout, The New York Rangers are taking a different approach to building its NHL team. Still known for signing some big name free agents, with mixed results, New York is looking more and more to developing its drafted and undrafted young prospects. Currently, eight of the Rangers roster players have come through the system, including two former first-round selections and four second-round picks. Therefore, the relevance of the depth in the system now has increased significantly when projecting the organization’s future success.
Currently, the Rangers are strongest on defense within the system and weakest at right wing.
The Rangers’ organization is strong along the left wing, with several players who were drafted as centers recently converting to this position. Most notably, top rated forward, Chris Kreider, New York’s first round selection in 2009, has been converted from center to left wing in his play with the Boston College Eagles. With first-line potential, Kreider is the top prospect at this position and in the organization. Although off to a slow start to begin the 2010-11 season, he is expected to play for the United States in the World Junior Championships next month and gain more tournament experience before considering his options next summer.
Evgeny Grachev, who played on left wing almost exclusively last season, has seen some time back at center during 2010-11, but is expected to be a second liner on the wing in the NHL within the next 12 months. He did get a "cup of coffee" in the NHL over the last month, after a slow start in Hartford, and it is hoped that upon his return, Grachev will step up his production at the AHL level.
Moving up on the depth chart at this position is University of Michigan senior Carl Hagelin, who will be graduating this coming spring and is expected to join the Rangers organization at that time. An excellent two-way player, who understands the game extremely well, Hagelin is hoped to be a future fixture on the Blueshirts’ third line. A very competent forward at killing penalties, and able to make significant offensive contributions, Hagelin is very much in the Rangers’ plans.
Both Justin Soryal and Devin DiDiomete have been racking up the fighting minutes in the AHL, hoping to find fourth-line energy roles on the NHL team. Neither has much offensive upside, but with the recent trade of Hartford Wolf Pack former captain, Dan Byers to Columbus, Soryal and Didiomete are currently the most NHL-ready other left wingers in the system.
On paper at least, this is the position at which the Rangers have the most players in the organization. However, many of these players are more scoring than playmaking centers and several have been converted to wingers.
The top player in the system at this position is Derek Stepan, who is currently a member of the NHL roster. After leaving the University of Wisconsin this past summer, Stepan had an outstanding training camp and broke into the NHL with a hat trick in his first game. He continues to adjust to this level of play, and is expected to eventually find a first to second line role with the NHL team.
Ethan Werek, who was impressive in Traverse City and the Rangers main training camp before falling to a knee injury, has continued his OHL career on a tear. A Kingston Fronts alternate captain, Werek is second on the team in scoring and currently playing in the Subway Super Series. Expected to be a second to third line center in the NHL, Werek should join the Rangers’ AHL affiliate next fall.
When Roman Horak was drafted by the Rangers in the fifth round of the NHL Entry Draft 2009, New York was fairly certain that he’d play junior hockey in North America that fall, but he was a long shot to make the NHL. Horak really impressed in the 2009 Traverse City Rookie Tournament and continued to have a fine season in his WHL campaign with the Chilliwack Bruins. His development was more apparent at this year’s Traverse City tournament and the Rangers are now saying that they see him as the NHL team’s potential future third-line center. An excellent penalty killer, with a strong offensive upside, Horak continues his rise within the Rangers depth chart.
Other players of note at this position are Ryan Bourque, who has good offensive upside but has been often injured in his two QMJHL seasons, Andrew Yogan, who has not played this season due to a shoulder injury, and Max Campbell, the former junior "B" scoring champion who has had an undistinguished collegiate career until this season.
The top prospect in the organization at right wing is Mats Zuccarello-Aasen (now known as Mats Zuccarello). Although listed as a left winger on the Rangers organizational chart, he has been playing on the right side in Hartford all season. The highly-touted free agent was signed by the Rangers this past summer and it has taken him some time to get adjusted to North American play. There are signs though that he is ready to produce offensively as was originally expected. A potential top-six forward in the NHL, the Rangers are hoping that Zuccarello will get hot soon and earn a promotion to New York.
Dale Weise is a teammate of Zuccarello and one of the Rangers’ top two-way players in Hartford. Now in his third season in the Rangers’ system, Weise was arguably ready for a promotion to a bottom six role in the NHL last season, but did not really get a chance to play. Beaten out at the Rangers training camp this Fall, Weise has been out with a wrist injury and subsequent surgery since mid-October and is not expected back until December. A very hard worker on the ice, with excellent leadership skills, Weise should get his chance on an NHL call-up later in the season.
Another player the Rangers are high on at right wing is the diminutive Christian
Thomas, who is currently the OHL Oshawa Generals’ leading scorer. A 2010 second-round pick for New York, Thomas is in his third season in the OHL, but will need quite a bit more seasoning before becoming NHL ready. He is, however, projected to become a top-six player in the NHL.
The Rangers’ organization is loaded on defense, from the current 20-year-old NHL blueliner Michael Del Zotto to NHL third pairing defenseman Michael Sauer, to Ryan McDonagh, Tomas Kundratek, and Pavel Valentenko all three of whom are staples on the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. Dylan McIlrath, who instills fear into the hearts of opposing players rounds out the top group of prospects at this position.
Del Zotto burst onto the NHL scene last season and is the only legitimate top offensive defenseman in the system. McDonagh should be a good two-way second pairing NHL defenseman in the future, but has struggled in the jump from college play to the professional level. McDonagh is likely to spend all of this season in the AHL and to compete for a roster spot in New York next fall.
Sauer is a potential second to third pairing blueliner, currently in the sixth to seventh man role on the NHL team. Very solid in his own zone, Sauer was a staple for three, very good, seasons in Hartford. Injuries have been an issue for him in the past, however, if he can stay healthy, Sauer should be a solid defensive NHL blueliner in the NHL.
Somewhat of a surprise in his first professional season, Tomas Kundratek has been the best young blueliner in Hartford this year. Currently getting top pairing minutes, Kundratek is an excellent defensive defenseman, with good vision and positioning. With a very good shot from the point and outlet pass, Kundratek has gotten bigger and stronger since last season. If he continues to perform as he has thus far, expect Kundratek to make giant leaps on the depth chart.
Pavel Valentenko almost made the Rangers coming out of camp this season, with his booming shot from the point and tough physical play in the corners and around the net. He has played a lesser role than expected since being sent to Hartford to start the season, but Valentenko was an excellent acquisition for the Rangers in the Scott Gomez trade.
Dylan McIlrath was the Rangers first-round selection in this past year’s NHL Entry Draft, and although widely criticized for the pick, the Rangers saw toughness in McIlrath, defensive abilities, and room to grow that made him unique among the top prospects in the draft. There is no question that McIlrath started the season slowly, but he has picked up his play recently. Patience with the WHL Moose Jaw Warrior will be required as it will take quite a bit of time for McIlrath to grow into the player that the Rangers hope that he will be, but if he does, the Rangers will have found a player to complement an almost complete group of prospects.
Both Johnson and Talbot are graduates of the NCAA and each signed as a free agent with the NHL team. Johnson, who was expected to be the number one netminder for the AHL team, is struggling this season in Hartford. In part, it is because of the team on the ice in front of him, but Johnson has been very inconsistent between the pipes. Hoped to be the future backup to Henrik Lundqvist, Johnson has a lot of work to do on rebound control and lateral movement before he can fill that role.
Talbot has only gotten two starts this season for the Wolf Pack, the first of which resulted in a shutout and an injury that kept him out of action for two weeks. Talbot was signed after an excellent season with the University of Alabama and is another possible backup to Lundqvist in the coming seasons.
Scott Stajcer‘s post-draft performances with the OHL Owen Sound Attack had been good but not special until this season. After several seasons with low finishes in the OHL, the Attack have an excellent team in 2010-11, and Stajcer finally has a chance to prove whether he is worthy of an entry-level contract. His performance during critical games during the regular season and the post-season will determine his fate in the Rangers’ system. At present, he is a player on the bubble.