New York Rangers prospects deep in goal, weak on the blueline

By Leslie Treff
Photo: Magnus Hellberg is part of a deep stable of New York Rangers goaltenders developing below the NHL level. (Courtesy of Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Magnus Hellberg is part of a deep stable of New York Rangers goaltenders developing below the NHL level. (Courtesy of Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The New York Rangers have had a regular, steady graduation of excellent prospects to the NHL over the last five to seven years, which has accounted in part for the competitiveness of the team. When combined with free-agent pickups who are in or just past their prime, the prospects have helped make the team a Stanley Cup contender for the last several years. The goal of every organization is to win a Cup, and every player on the team has a window of opportunity to do so. Certainly, star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is within his window, and the Rangers have surrounded him with the players to win either this season or in the next two or three.

The strategy to make the Rangers a contender has seen the team trade its first-round selections in exchange for established NHL players. Because it takes a steady influx of good, young talent to replenish the organization, the prospect depth is now depleted. The scouting staff have done their best with the draft slots available over the last three years, so there are bright spots in certain positions—particularly in net.

Right Wing

The player with the most potential at right wing is 2015 third-round selection, Robin Kovacs. Kovacs began the season in Sweden with the Allsvenskan’s AIK, and in November was promoted to the SHL. He has had a slow start for Rogle BK, averaging about 13 minutes of ice time per game, but the 19-year-old has offensive skill and can skate well. With at least another season in Europe coming up, do not expect to see him very soon, but he is expected to provide top-six skill for the Rangers in the future.

Daniel Bernhardt was a 19-year-old when drafted this past June. He attracted the Rangers’ attention as the 2014-15 scoring champion in Sweden’s J20 SuperElit league. However, his entry into the men’s leagues has yet to be as successful. During this season, he has played in both the SHL and now in the Allsvenskan (Almtuna IS) without much offensive success. Josh Nicholls and Michael Kantor are depth right wingers in the system; both are 23 years old, playing at the ECHL level with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.

Center

Aleksei Saarela, a third-round selection for the Rangers in 2015, was one of the leading scorers at the 2015 U18 World Championships in Switzerland last spring. The top prospect for New York at center, Saarela is in his second season as a member of Assat in the Finnish Liiga. Currently scoring at a rate of about a half-point-per-game, Saarela is eligible to play in North America next fall.

Another potential top-six prospect at center is Brad Morrison, who skates for the WHL’s Prince George Cougars. A streaky scorer this season, Morrison has yet to find consistency. Keegan Iverson has gotten off to a very good start this season. The alternate captain for the Portland Winterhawks, the aggressive, edgy Iverson has become more of a goal scorer this season. The two-way center projects to be more of a bottom-six forward in the NHL.

Playmaking centers Cristoval Nieves and Steven Fogarty are each in their final season of NCAA eligibility. Nieves, Michigan’s alternate captain, sustained a concussion in October and missed three games, however, he is back and playing well for the Wolverines. After Fogarty was elected team captain for Notre Dame for the second season in a row, he opened the 2015-16 Big East campaign with a hat trick against Penn State. Since then, he is posting points in about 50-percent of his games, but Fogarty is upping his chances of being signed by the Rangers at the end of his college career.

Oscar Lindberg, in his third pro season in North America, is now a full-time regular roster player in New York. A third line forward, he is the only forward in the system that was promoted to the NHL this season. Lindberg is playing so well that he is in the discussion for the Calder for best rookie.

Adam Tambellini is skating with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack in his rookie pro season. Despite being a natural center, Tambellini has been playing mostly on the wing since joining the team. He is more of a goal scorer than a playmaker, and is adjusting on a team that currently sits in the middle of the Atlantic Division.

Michael St. Croix is in the final year of his entry-level contract and has spent almost his entire pro career in the ECHL. Not expected to be signed again by the Rangers, St. Croix is playing out his contract as a depth player in the organization.

Left Wing

Winger Pavel Buchnevich is the top prospect in the Rangers system. Expected to be a first-line winger, Buchnevich has the skill and the touch to be an outstanding player in the NHL. This year, he is skating with Severstal Cherepovets of the KHL, and is posting more than 0.70 points per game. The Rangers were hoping that Buchnevich would arrive in North America in time for the 2015-16 season, however, it will be at least until the Fall of 2016 before he gets here. Expect him to immediately compete for a top-six roster spot when he gets here. 

Ryan Gropp is the best system left winger currently playing in North America. The only left winger in the organization that is not playing pro hockey, Gropp was the first player the Rangers selected in the 2015 entry draft. With good size and hands, he is another junior player skating in the WHL (Seattle) this season. Gropp is currently posting a point a game, playing alongside top prospect Mathew Barzal (NYI).

Richard Nejezchleb, Marek Hrivik, Chris McCarthy and Matt Lindblad are all playing in the North American pros. Nejezchleb was not producing offensively in his rookie season for the AHL Wolf Pack and was sent down to the ECHL in November. While a member of Greenville, he has done extremely well, and should be reassigned back to Hartford shortly. Hrivik is a fourth-year pro, playing in Hartford his entire pro career. Plagued by injuries in his first two seasons, Hrivik looks to be a solid half point-per-game producer in the AHL. This is likely not enough to make him a regular NHLer, but he could be an injury call up as time goes on. Both McCarthy and Lindblad are depth players for the Rangers.

Defensemen

Brady Skjei and Ryan Graves, the top defensive prospects in New York’s system, are both in their rookie professional seasons. Very different types of players, Skjei and Graves have been developing well this season. Skjei, who was originally projected to be a mostly stay-at-home blueliner, spent time at the University of Minnesota developing into more of a two-way player. Always possessing an excellent hard shot, Skjei is an excellent pass distributor who now regularly looks to break out of his own zone. Graves focuses more on his own end and being responsible there. He uses his 6-foot-4 frame very well and is positionally sound.

Dylan McIlrath, the 10th overall pick in 2010, has been promoted to the NHL roster this season as the team’s seventh defenseman. Nicknamed “The Undertaker” early in his career, he has played well in the few games in which he appeared this season. He has a specific skill set of toughness, which the Rangers have not needed as much this season to be successful, but he performs well when called upon.

Sergey Zborovskiy and Ryan Mantha are both big junior defensemen. Zborovskiy skates for the Regina Pats in the WHL and has a very large frame. He uses it well and is expected to be more of a defensive shutdown blueliner. This season he is working hard on his skating and his offensive game and has been successful at both. Mantha also has huge size and plays more of a two-way game than does Zborovskiy. Nevertheless, like Zborovskiy, Mantha is expected to be a mostly defensive defenseman in the NHL. Tyler Nanne is listed as a roster player for the Ohio State Buckeyes this season, but has yet to play a game.

Matt Bodie, Tommy Hughes, and Calle Andersson all patrol the blueline for the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. Andersson is a true offensive defenseman and has struggled in his first season in North America. He shared the offensive load until Petr Zamorsky was unconditionally waived toward the end of November, and it is hoped Andersson will now flourish and adjust well to the smaller rink. Hughes is in the final year of his entry level contract, and he is solid in his own zone. Not flashy, Hughes is a solid AHL player. Bodie is a two-way defenseman signed as a free agent out of Union College in 2014. He has good offensive instincts, but his thin frame has been an issue thus far. A good leader, Bodie was named alternate captain of the Wolf Pack this season, the 25-year-old does not look to have an NHL future within the Rangers organization. Samuel Noreau and Troy Donnay are both very big, tough defensemen, who currently skate in the ECHL.

Goaltending

Goaltending is the strongest position on the depth chart. Igor Shestyorkin is one of the top netminding prospects not yet in the NHL. He has spent some time as the backup for the KHL SKA St. Petersburg this season, never appearing in a game. Additionally, he has played in 17 games for the VHL team (Neva St. Petersburg). The 19-year-old has a .956 save percentage and 1.10 goals-against average, with four shutouts this season.

Marcus Hellberg and Mackenzie Skapski are manning the pipes in the AHL this season. Hellberg has been the number one in Hartford for most of the season. Backed up by Jeff Malcolm (who is on an AHL contract), Hellberg had an excellent October. He then lost four consecutive times in November, and Skapski was called in. Skapski began the season recovering from injury and then was sent down to Greenville for a two-game rehab assignment. Recalled on November 9, 2015, Skapski has been very good in the games he has played since being recalled. Expect Skapski to take over more and more as the season progresses, as he is very solid positionally and may be considered for Lundqvist’s backup in New York during the next year or two.

Brandon Halverson is having a tough season. After being drafted by the Rangers in the second round in 2014, Halverson returned to Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL and had a fine 2014-15 season. Halverson has struggled this season, losing eight of the 15 games that he has appeared in, but he continues to be a top netminding prospect for the Rangers. With excellent size and lateral movement, Halverson is a top goaltending prospect, who is expected to play again in this year’s U20 World Junior Championships.

Selected in the last round of the 2015 draft, Adam Huska is between the pipes for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers this season. With shutouts already this season, Huska leads the USHL in goals-against and save percentage. In his second year in North America, the 18-year old Slovakian has yet to make a college commitment.