Projects prevalent in New York Rangers Top 20 prospects

By Mike Farkas

Brady Skjei - New York Rangers

Photo: New York Rangers prospect Brady Skjei played his first seven regular season games in the NHL this season and even appeared in all five of the Rangers playoff games (courtesy Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire).

 

 

10. (10) Dylan McIlrath, D, 6.0B
Drafted: 1st round, 10th overall, 2010

Much talked about 2010 draft pick, Dylan McIlrath became a semi-regular NHL player in 2015-16 for the first time. Obviously, he has never been much for puck skills, so his two goals and two assists in 34 games is not terribly surprising, or relevant really, given his play style. Cutting away the draft pick itself, the controversy and all the hoopla, to just evaluate the player himself: McIlrath did just fine for a rookie in fairly limited time.

At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, McIlrath is like Satan on skates for opposing forwards going to the net. His skating has improved overall; the stride still looks a bit goofy and loose, plus the lateral mobility is not as keen as coaches would like to see in the hyper-speed game that we have today, but he can survive if he reads the play well enough. If he can get down the positioning, he could end up being a Hal Gill type of player. Like Gill, McIlrath never passes up an opportunity to spank the puck on net from distance, as he is not a gifted passer or handler, but he can crank it. He is still a work in progress even at 24 years old, but if he can avoid chasing after hits on the rush, he has a future as a bottom pairing, physical defenseman.

9. (NR) Malte Stromwall, RW, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, April 2016

Well-travelled winger Malte Stromwall will end up somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard next season as a member of the New York Rangers organization. The somewhat slender Swede has tried his hand in the WHL, three SHL teams and three Allsvenskan teams since 2013. His point-per-game season with Tri-City (WHL) notwithstanding, Stromwall broke out in a big way last year with 25 goals and 42 points in a tough-to-crack second-tier Swedish League. His goal total placed him second in the entire league behind another former WHL standout, Mitch Wahl.

Stromwall’s best asset is his shot. He is good enough to be a mid-range scorer at most levels of hockey with his release and his first-step quickness. The 21 year old right hander is not a very tough player or all that well-versed in the defensive side of the puck however. He makes his living as a streak-and-score winger down the right side or near the left post on the power play.

8. (8) Robin Kovacs, LW, 6.5C
Drafted: 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2015

For the second consecutive season, Robin Kovacs led all junior-aged players in Allsvenskan goal scoring. His 21 goals in 44 games put him fifth in the entire league in that category, with everyone ahead of him having played at least five more games. Kovacs has seen very little time at the SHL level, though he is projected to be a top-level player next season; there remains the chance that the Rangers sign him and play him in the AHL.

Kovacs brings an interesting set of skills to the table. First, he is very annoying to play against. An agitator by trade, the penalties can go both ways with a rabble-rouser like Kovacs. He displays a good grasp of change-of-pace skating when on the attack to throw off defenders and buy him some more time. He is not short on passing ability, but he is a shoot-first player that loves the half slapper. The overall skill package, as it appears now, could fall either way in terms of translating to the NHL, as he is not a finished product at 19.

7. (11) Adam Tambellini, C/LW, 6.5C
Drafted: 3rd round, 65th overall, 2013

Something of a late bloomer, Adam Tambellini went the BCHL route to preserve NCAA eligibility. But, after 16 games at the University of North Dakota, Tambellini finished the 2013-14 season with the Calgary Hitmen (WHL). Maybe not satisfied with the split and lack of exposure to high level competition, the Rangers sent the Edmonton native back to Calgary as an overager where he scored 47 goals and 86 points in 71 games. The extra year in the WHL was to try to massage some of that offensive potential out of him without just inserting him into pro hockey one year removed from Junior A. As a rookie in the AHL, Tambellini potted 17 goals, which is nothing to sneeze at on a team that struggled to really open up the game offensively for much of the year.

The best asset for Tambellini is his shot. He has a great wrist shot and he can shoot a moving puck just as well. He is probably more suited to being a winger at the pro level given his skill set. Plus, it takes him a few strides to really get up to speed; his first couple steps are not great.

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

Though he is possibly a little out of place among this ragamuffin lot of heavy, ornery players, Brad Morrison is making the best of it. His club, the Prince George Cougars (WHL), have had a rough go of it over the years and the transition to better days is still a work in progress. In the midst of it, however, their top pick from the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft is starting to turn some heads with his lightning-quick dashes and circus-like maneuvers. It has not yet consistently translated into big points when the skill set is considered, but 28 goals and 62 points in 72 games is certainly respectable.

Morrison can move around in the lineup, but he has been a second line center who can really take advantage of weak matchups. He is hovering around six foot, but maybe generously listed at 170 pounds. He has a boatload of cheeky moves and maneuvers, he can change the direction of the attack and dazzle would-be defenders with great hands and puck-on-a-string magic tricks. Despite his style of play and his size, he really is not very timid either; Morrison is not at all tethered to the perimeter. He will have another year of junior hockey to start refining his game so he can make an impact at the pro level.

5. (6) Ryan Gropp, LW, 7.0C
Drafted: 2nd round, 41st overall, 2015

Seattle Thunderbirds forward Ryan Gropp is who the Rangers chose to invest in with the highest pick that they have had since selecting Brady Skjei 28th overall back in 2012. Though he has spent much of the last two seasons with dish-master Mathew Barzal, Gropp is an impressive player in his own right. He posted back-to-back 30 goal seasons in the WHL before turning pro, including a career high in goals (34), assists (36) and points (70) in 2015-16. The 6-foot-2, 187 pound winger still won’t turn 20 until training camp this fall, so he has a lot of room to go on his development arc.

Despite his size, Gropp is not a power forward in the traditional sense. In fact, he really does not care for the corners of the rink much at all. He keeps his nose clean at pretty much all times. That said, he is a very fast player, especially for his size and has a nice scoring touch. With more practice, he could be a mid-range scorer as a pro with his stride and release. He has come a long way in the last 18 months, but he needs to improve on his ability to get open in the high rent areas of the rink and up his game-to-game work ethic.

4. (5) Ryan Graves, D, 7.0C
Drafted: 4th round, 110th overall, 2013

Raw pro rookie Ryan Graves made a positive impact on a fairly weak Hartford roster in 2015-16. He had nine goals from the blueline to lead all club d-men on a team that only had one 20-goal scorer overall. Graves started to gain the trust of his coaching staff and played in all situations as the year wore on. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the Nova Scotia native packs a powerful punch in all aspects.

A lot of prospects can be labeled with the “intriguing upside” tag, but Graves might be the most apt to get that label in this group. A big man, Graves’ skating has improved since his days in the QMJHL and now really just his first step needs improvement; the rest of his skating mechanics are more than serviceable. He has a rocket of a shot too and a level of comfort for playing on the right side despite being a left-handed shot. He has really yet to find his stride defensively – there is a lot of inconsistency to work out. Graves does not appear to have a Nicklas Lidstrom-like sixth sense about what is going to happen next, but he has his helmet on the right way out there – he may just be some good coaching and experience away from being a Jason Garrison type of player.

3. (2) Brady Skjei, D, 7.0C
Drafted: 1st round, 28th overall, 2012

After a three-year tour with the University of Minnesota, Brady Skjei’s long-awaited pro debut came to pass to in 2015-16. Moreover, he even got a tablespoon-sized serving of NHL play late in the season and into the playoffs, where he played all five games in a loss to Pittsburgh. The rangy, mobile defenseman quickly became a big minute-muncher on a woeful Hartford club. He finished with 28 points in 68 games, second best among defensemen on the club. This offensive activity is a promising sign after a notably unproductive collegiate career; Skjei never finished any better than third among Gopher defensemen in points, scoring just 27 points in 109 NCAA games.

At 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, armed with splendid multi-directional skating ability, Skjei seems like a player on track to do great things. However, there are some issues that need work and have needed work since being drafted. He does not have very strong technical skills, which limits his ability to be a three-zone puck carrier through traffic – though he certainly has the speed to take it the distance if the ice is relatively open. But more importantly, he seems a little slow to process things on the rink and the errors lend themselves to more than just plain old inexperience. On sustained attack time against, Skjei often loses track of players or gets caught behind the net or just drifting into dead space, and even when the puck is regained, he is often a half-beat late on making himself available for outlet passes for his partner. Hopefully more experience will help to fill some of these holes.

2. (3) Igor Shestyorkin, G, 8.0C
Drafted: 4th round, 118th overall, 2014

Though he did have some KHL time as a teenager and was splendid in the 2015 World Junior Championships, Igor Shestyorkin really made a name for himself at the pro level this season. He erased all comers in the VHL (Russia’s second tier league) with a 1.19 goals against average and .954 save percentage in 25 games. Both stats are league records. He also came up to the KHL and did not look the least bit out of place as a 20 year old. He served as the primary backup down the stretch for a dynamite SKA club into the playoffs and it seems likely he will share the nets with Mikko Koskinen next season. Shestyorkin was named as the third string goaltender for Team Russia at the 2016 World Championships.

Shestyorkin oozes potential with his high level of athleticism and excellent movement. He needs to find a goaltending coach that jives with his somewhat flamboyant style to help him maximize his potential. He has a little bit of everything in his game sometimes, which isn’t terrible for a young goalie: sometimes he’s butterfly, sometimes he’s acrobatic, there’s some VH setups on the posts, some paddle down reactions and even some adventurous stickhandling maneuvers. NHL shooters love un-set feet and that’s something Shestyorkin will need to improve upon in addition to his very low glove placement. As he matures and adapts to higher competition, the young Russian’s future will become clearer.

1. (1) Pavel Buchnevich, LW, 8.0C
Drafted: 3rd round, 75th overall, 2013

A veteran of more than 150 KHL games by the age of 21, the Russian standout has impressed domestically and on the world stage. A late season trade sent the young forward to SKA from Cherepovets, which did curtail his production and ice time a bit, as SKA had a much less flimsy roster than the last place team from Cherepovets. For perspective, despite leaving the team with one-third of the season remaining, Buchnevich still finished second on the Severstal-sponsored club in goals and points.

He is a technical, Russian-taught winger with lightning quick hands and subtle puck protection ability, almost reminiscent of a young Evgeni Malkin (not that he necessarily has that kind of upside, but stylistically, there are some similarities). Buchnevich is a very good and efficient skater and has nice small area footwork with a high degree of escapability. The playmaking acumen will really explode if he finds a chemistry match at the NHL level to work with, as his passing is, at times, sublime – at other times, though, can be a little too adventurous. Armed with a very easy release, he can get the puck up in a hurry or the left-handed shooter can bore a hole in a goaltender with a mid-range slapshot. The former third round pick can be engaging in terms of physical battles, but he is not a punishing hitter by any means. The Rangers signed the potential stud to a three-year, entry-level contract on May 13; candidly, it is difficult to envision a scenario where he is not on the NHL roster on opening night.

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