Rangers prospects strong in goal, weak elsewhere

By Leslie Treff
Photo: Pavel Buchnevich’s six points helped Russia to a silver-medal finish at the 2015 World Junior Championships. (Courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Photo: Pavel Buchnevich’s six points helped Russia to a silver-medal finish at the 2015 World Junior Championships. (Courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

 

The summer of 2015 has seen big changes in the New York Rangers’ front office. After 15 years as president and general manager of the team, Glen Sather stepped down as GM on July 1. The club appointed former assistant GM Jeff Gorton to succeed him, and although Sather has retained his title as president, he will be less involved with day-to-day decisions this season and will not be pulling the trigger on trades.

In addition, the club has named 34-year-old Steve Greeley as Assistant Director of Player Personnel, and appointed former Ranger Chris Drury as the Director of Player Development. Both Greeley and Drury will be working with Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark, who has been in charge of drafting prospects for the last 10 seasons and, at age 63, has expressed interest in giving up his post in the near future.

A change at the top does not however impact New York’s aspirations for a Stanley Cup. Just this week, Head Coach Alain Vigneault stated that his aim is to win the Cup this season. Although the Rangers won the President’s Trophy last year, have gone far into the playoffs for both of the past two seasons, and have one of the best defensive corps in hockey, the team has not hoisted the Cup since 1994. This is not for lack of effort, which over the last few years has included quite a few trades to bring in experienced talent to help make that dream come true.

The problem with the trades, however, has been that they have depleted the prospect pipeline by trading away first and second-round draft picks, as well as promising prospects (the most notable being Anthony Duclair), and put the team tight against the salary cap (which necessitated the offseason trade of speedster and possession-hog Carl Hagelin to Anaheim). Without a first-round draft selection since 2012 (and not another until 2017), the Rangers have constantly had to look for hidden gem prospects in the mid rounds, where a skaters’ chance of making it to the NHL is slim.

Despite the generally weak organizational prospect group, there is one position at which the Rangers’ prospect pool is very strong—there are three excellent and two very good goaltending prospects now developing in the Rangers system (not coincidently, this is the one position that does not rely on a healthy supply of high draft selections). With another six years on all-star netminder Henrik Lundqvist’s contract, only two or three of the goaltending prospects are expected to be useful to the team long-term. One has to think that, over time, Gorton and staff will contemplate trading at least a couple of the goalies to shore up one or more of the weaker spots in the prospect depth chart.

20. (NR) Daniel Bernhardt, RW, 6.5 D
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2015

The winner of the scoring title in Sweden’s J20 SuperElit league last year, 19 year-old Bernhardt was very impressive in Development Camp this summer. A wizard at handling the puck, Bernhardt has excellent speed and good size. The Rangers were hoping that Bernhardt would play North American junior hockey this season (he was selected 105th overall by the London Knights in the CHL Import Draft). However, prior to leaving development camp, Bernhardt informed the Rangers that he would be returning to Europe for at least one, and likely two, more years of development. Recently loaned from Djurgardens IF of the SHL to Almtuna IS of the Allsvenskan, Bernhardt will continue to work on his strength and overall game.

19. (20) Ryan Mantha, D, 6.0 C
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2014

Big and imposing, Mantha is an excellent puck mover. Foot speed and positioning have always been his weaknesses and he has been working very hard on these qualities since being drafted by the Rangers in 2014. At one time committed to the University of North Dakota, Mantha spent his draft season with the USHL’s champion Indiana Ice. Rather than join the USHL Muskegon Lumberjacks for the 2014-15 season (chosen through the USHL dispersal draft), Mantha decided instead to skate with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs. Showing toughness, improving his decision-making and quickness, Mantha had a very good freshman OHL season. He will return to the IceDogs for 2015-16, where he is expected to play a leading role on one of the CHL’s top teams.

18. (15) Keegan Iverson, C, 6.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 85th overall, 2014

A grinding center, Iverson is a Minnesota native who does not shy away from physical altercations. Known for his work ethic and grit, Iverson failed to show the expected offensive upside early last season, but he finished the regular season with 18 points in 19 games (nine goals, nine assists) during the months of February and March. Iverson has the tools to be an effective bottom six player in the NHL; this season, he will need to show that he can perform consistently to gain an NHL entry-level contract.

17. (19) Steven Fogarty, C, 6.0 C
Drafted, 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2011

One of the Rangers’ older prospects, the 22-year-old Fogarty has entered his senior year at Notre Dame (the Rangers will have to decide whether to sign him to an NHL entry level contract by next August). It has been a long road for Fogarty, who graduated from Edina High School in Minnesota, played in the BCHL and now is an Academic All-American at Notre Dame. Fogarty will skate with a “C” on his sweater for the Fighting Irish for the second straight season in 2015-16. He had his best offensive season with Notre Dame in 2014-15 (21 points in 39 games). Expected to be a two-way center at the next level, Fogarty is good on face offs and excellent at blocking shots.

16. (NR) Aleksi Saarela, C, 7.0 D
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2015

A big part of Finland’s silver medal team at the 2015 U18 World Junior Championships, Saarela was one of the leading scorers with eight points in seven games. With an excellent shot and great speed, Saarela is in his second season playing in the Liiga in Finland. He is not large, but he has good body strength and is very strong on the puck. With excellent hockey sense, vision, and quick hands, Saarela can be a playmaker and a goal-scorer equally. Expected to spend at least one more season in Europe, Saarela, who has struggled somewhat with injuries thus far in his career, is healthy this season and anxious to show that he can contribute in a big way in Assat. Saarela is projected to be a top six forward in the NHL.

15. (NR) Brad Morrison, C, 7.0 D
Drafted 4th round, 113th overall, 2015

A smaller, offensively gifted player, Morrison has excellent vision, hockey smarts, and great hands. Willing to play with jam in traffic, he is especially effective on the power play. With Prince George last season, Morrison showed off his skills, posting 49 points in 67 regular season games and seven points in five playoff contests. The Rangers are looking for Morrison to bulk up and play more defensive hockey in his own zone. A good puck possession player, the Rangers project Morrison to be a top six forward at the professional level.

14. (13) Richard Nejezchleb, LW, 6.5 C
Drafted 5th round, 122nd overall, 2014

The 21-year-old Nejezchleb is currently in training camp and in negotiation with the Rangers as to where he will start the season. He had a solid, but not dominating, overage WHL season (51 points in 49 regular season games), and the Rangers can keep his rights until next June without signing him. Expected to be a top-nine scoring forward in the professional game, Nejezchleb is strong on the puck, fights well for possession along the boards, and can go to the net and get dirty goals.

13. (16) Mackenzie Skapski, G, 6.5 C
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2013

Skapski played very well at age 20 in his two NHL appearances last season. Poised and controlled between the pipes, Skapski surprised most everyone with his excellent play. He is currently recovering from arthroscopic surgery he underwent last June to repair a labral tear in his right hip. Expected to return early in the season, he should be the number one in Hartford. Now behind Antti Raanta and Magnus Hellberg in the Rangers depth chart for the season, Skapski is likely to remain with the Wolf Pack for the entire 2015-16 season.

12. (10) Boo Nieves, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2012

Nieves is entering his senior and final season at the University of Michigan. After an outstanding freshman year in 2012-13, Nieves has since put up very good, but not exceptional, numbers (28 points in 35 games last season). With good speed and hands, the Rangers expect Nieves to be a top-nine forward at the next level. Recently named an alternate captain with the Wolverines, the Rangers are looking for more than 0.8 points per game from Nieves during the 2015-16 season.

11. (9) Adam Tambellini, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2013

Tambellini will begin his professional career in Hartford this fall, after an impressive sophomore season with the Calgary Hitmen (86 points in 71 regular season games; 26 points in 16 post-season contests). Tambellini has had a big frame since he was drafted, but particularly over the last season has filled out well, and since he was drafted two years ago, he has improved in all areas of his game. Although expected to start as a center with the Wolf Pack, he could also play on the wing at the professional level, as he is a goal scorer and has the ability to go to the front of the net.

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