The 1999 NHL Entry Draft is projected as one of the deepest drafts in years. And for Neil Smith, it represents the most important draft in his tenure as general manager of the New York Rangers.
That’s because it could be his last.
With the Rangers having missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year, the pressure is on Smith to end that streak next season. And next season starts on June 26 at the Fleet Center in Boston. The Rangers will be picking 11th overall in this year’s draft, and it is up to Smith, Director of Scouting Martin Madden, and the rest of the Ranger scouting staff to select a cornerstone player for an organization that has very few of them.
Needs: The Rangers pool of young players and prospects is one of the shallowest in the NHL, so they have many holes to fill. But their most glaring need is at the wing position, specifically, wingers of the high-scoring variety. The Rangers haven’t had a pure sniper since the days of Mike Gartner. And their best prospect on the wings, Stefan Cherneski, is still recovering from a shattered kneecap. New York needs a scorer in their system, and they need it badly.
Another position of need is defense. The Rangers have a few nice prospects in Burke Henry, Kim Johnsson, and Mike Mottau, but they don’t have a franchise-type defenseman in the system. Brian Leetch is not going to be around forever.
Draft Strategy: While the Rangers have glaring needs at specific positions, their strategy under Smith has always been to choose the best player available. In 1997, when picking 19th, New York chose Cherneski, who was rated 12th by the Central Scouting Bureau. And last year, they snapped up Manny Malhotra when he fell to the seventh spot. Malhotra had been rated as high as third on some teams’ draft boards. So look for that trend to continue in Boston.
And while he has not been successful in recent attempts, Smith is always willing to explore the possibility of trading up or down in the draft. Last year, Smith attempted to move up to the second spot in order to draft David Legwand, using current Rangers Adam Graves and Niklas Sundstrom as trade bait. However, the San Jose Sharks, owners of the pick, decided to make a deal with the Nashville Predators, who were picking third, instead.
This year, expect Smith to make inquiries about moving up in the draft again. And this time, one of the Ranger goaltenders could be used as trade bait. The Rangers need to decide soon if either Mike Richter or Dan Cloutier have to be dealt, or they risk losing one of them for nothing in the 2000 expansion draft. Either netminder would be a tempting target for a team like Tampa Bay or Atlanta. But given the quality of players available at the top of the draft, the odds of the Rangers working out a trade are slim.
With that in mind, here are five players that the Rangers could be considering at the 11th spot:
Tim Connolly, C, Erie(OHL), 6’0″, 173 lbs.
1998-99 Stats: 34 goals, 34 assists, and 50 penalty minutes in 56 games
CSB Ranking: 4th among North American skaters
Connolly, a smooth-skating, goal-scoring pivot, was having a fine season for Erie when he broke the tibia in his right leg in a knee-to-knee collision on February 18, which put him on the shelf for the rest of the season. A consensus top-ten pick for most of the season, Connolly still has that lofty status, and will most likely be gone by the time the Rangers pick. However, concern over the injury just might drop him a bit, even though his leg is expected to be fully healed by Draft day.
While some scouts question his ability to use his wingers effectively, there are no questions about his ability to score goals. In an April column for USA Today, the Red Line Report’s Phil Colvin compared Connolly’s goal-scoring prowess to that of Joe Sakic’s.
Jani Rita, W, Jokerit(Fin.), 6’0″, 203 lbs.
1998-99 Stats: 3 goals, 2 assists, and 39 penalty minutes in 41 games
CSB Ranking: 5th among European skaters
Like Connolly, Rita was a consensus Top 10 pick who went down with a season-ending injury. For Rita, it was a kidney injury, suffered in a collision with Kings holdout Aki Berg in late March. It forced him to miss the Under-18 World Junior Championships in Germany, and while odds are that he wont be available by the time the Rangers pick, the injury has caused his stock to drop a bit.
Another concern of many scouts is that he doesn’t have top-flight goal-scoring ability, which could hamper him at the NHL level. However, Rita remains one of the most physically gifted players in the draft. He has a power forward’s build, is a great skater with tremendous acceleration, and has a big-time slap shot and wrist shot. Even though he missed the U-18 Championships, he opened a lot of scouts’ eyes at the World Junior Championships in January.
Taylor Pyatt, LW, Sudbury(OHL), 6’4″, 218 lbs.
1998-99 Stats: 37 goals, 38 assists, and 95 penalty minutes in 68 games
CSB Ranking: 8th among North American skaters
The first thing one notices about Pyatt is his tremendous size. Just 18, he could grow into a monster that dominates along the boards and in front of the net. But for a big man, Pyatt is a surprisingly quick skater, finishing second in the lap competition at the CHL Top Prospects skills contest in February. He also has the ability to score goals, and could be a significant power play weapon. Sixteen of his 37 goals were scored with the man advantage.
The knock on Pyatt is typical for a young power forward: He doesn’t use his size on a consistent enough basis. That, combined with the depth of forwards in the draft, will probably make him available for the Rangers at #11. However, Los Angeles is rumored to be very high on Pyatt, and could snatch him up at the eighth spot.
Jamie Lundmark, C, Moose Jaw(WHL), 6’0″, 174 lbs.
1998-99 Stats: 40 goals, 51 assists, and 121 penalty minutes in 70 games
CSB Ranking: 3rd among North American skaters
Although overshadowed by fellow WHL freshman Pavel Brendl, Lundmark still had an impressive first season. He hit the 40-goal mark, and finished third in rookie scoring. A versatile forward who could probably play on the wing as well as in the middle, Lundmark is a strong skater with good acceleration, a slick passer, and possesses a hard and accurate slap shot and wrist shot. He also has a feisty edge to his game, as his 121 penalty minutes indicate.
He’s a bit on the skinny side, but has time to physically mature. And his offensive ability simply cannot be ignored. Lundmark is rated very highly, and could easily go in the top ten, but there’s a good chance that he’ll still be around when the Rangers pick.
Kirill Safronov, D, St. Petersburg(Rus.), 6’2″, 190 lbs.
1998-99 Stats: 0 goals, 1 assist, and 22 penalty minutes in 34 games
CSB Ranking: 6th among European skaters
In a draft not very deep in defensemen, Safronov will most likely be the first blueliner chosen. He is a physical, well-rounded defenseman that can contribute at both ends of the ice. He also had a strong showing at this year World Junior Championships, as he helped Russia capture the gold medal. He doesn’t have top-flight offensive ability, but could become an all-around presence that eats up ice time in any situation.
At this point, Safronov is projected as a top-ten selection. Therefore, he will most likely be off the board by the time the Rangers pick. However, if he is available at #11, they will have to think long and hard about selecting him.
Draft Tidbits: While the Ranger draft philosophy is choosing the best player available, there was still a distinct theme to last year’s selections. New York went for size both up front and on the blue line, no player under six feet tall or 185 pounds was selected. That’s a trend that will most likely continue this season.
Another tendency of the Rangers is to select veteran European players in the later rounds of the draft, with the hope that at least one of them can step in and contribute immediately on the NHL level. Once again, Christer Rockstrom, New York’s European scout, will have to do his homework.
Prediction: If this is Neil Smith’s last draft, then he’s going to go out with a scorer. On June 26 in Boston, expect Jamie Lundmark to be the Rangers’ selection at #11.