The successful rebuild of the New York Rangers has been based on the identity of speed, grittiness, and character. Eleven of the roster players have developed in the system, and the Rangers are not afraid to promote young players at any time of the year. Although the point of having a system through which prospects develop is to graduate them to the NHL roster, sustained success can leave a system needing replenishment.
Heading into the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the Rangers were the Atlantic Division winners and then, in the playoffs, came within two games of making a Stanley Cup finals appearance. The Rangers' on-ice success left them selecting 28th in the first and 59th in the second rounds, and trades left them with only four selections overall. Selecting players at the end of first round is very different from the middle (where New York has picked for several years) and it is no secret the Rangers were trying to package the selection as part of a deal that would bring Rick Nash to New York. But, when that did not happen, the team focused on their greatest needs-bringing a puck-moving defenseman and a potential elite netminder (who could be groomed to eventually take over for the Vezina-winning goalie Henrik Lundqvist) into the fold.
Unable to trade up to pick up the netminder they were interested in, the Rangers drafted two defenseman in Pittsburgh, including one that is an excellent puck mover, and three forwards. The first two of the draftees were US-born, and has often been the case recently; the final two selections were from Europe. Three of the four Rangers draft picks attended Development Camp at the Madison Square Garden Training Center in the week following the draft, and the descriptions that follow include evaluations of their performances there.
With their first round selection, the Rangers have continued their trend of picking bigger players with exceptional skating ability. A potential two-way defenseman, with an excellent shot and a big body, Brady Skjei also has very good hockey sense. He skated in 60 games with the U.S. NTDP Under-18 Team last season, recording 23 points (four goals and 19 assists) and 36 penalty minutes. Familiar with international play, Skjei skated for the United States in the World Under 17 Challenge in Winnipeg/Portage La Prairie, MN in 2011 (four points in six games) and in the U-18 WJCs this past spring in the Czech Republic (where the United States won the gold medal). The Minnesota native was also recently invited to the U-20 U.S. National Evaluation Camp, which will take place in August in Lake Placid. Committed to the University of Minnesota this fall, Skjei is likely to play for the Golden Gophers for two to three years before signing an entry-level contract.
Skjei arrived a little late at Rangers Development Camp last month and only stayed for two practices. Skjei literally got off the plane and laced up his skates, and not surprisingly, on his arrival day, Skjei's timing was one step off. But his excellent vision was immediately apparent, and on the second day, Skjei seemed to be more comfortable, and his skills and speed began to show. It is hard to evaluate how well he would have done had he stayed the entire camp, but Skjei certainly showed flashes of why the Rangers were excited to select the young blueliner at 28th overall.
Cristoval Nieves, C – Kent School (NE Prep)
2nd round, 59th overall
Height: 6'2 Weight 192 lbs
Cristoval "Boo" Nieves is another Rangers selection who has excellent speed. First drawing attention at the 2011 Ivan Hlinka Tournament (where he posted three assists in four games), Nieves had an excellent prep season in 2011-12 (39 points in 22 games). After his season at Kent, Nieves joined the USHL Indiana Ice, where he posted 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 13 games. He is committed to the University of Michigan this fall, but should he decide to go the major junior route, his rights are owned by the Saginaw Spirit.
Nieves, a native of Syracuse, New York, had a very impressive development camp. Noticeable on every shift, Boo, who had been known to play more of a perimeter game, continually used his big body to drive to net and set up there. It is a potential change of position (the big center has until now been more as a playmaker), but Nieves has the speed and body type to be very effective in front of an opponent's net.
The Rangers selected a true puck-moving defenseman in the fourth round. Calle Andersson has been posting good offensive numbers his entire junior career, including during international play.
Last season, Andersson registered 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) with Farjestad J20, as well as six points in 14 total international games for Sweden. Andersson (who was not invited to Sweden's U20 camp later this month) has one more year on his contract in Sweden and is expected to play in the SEL for the 2012-13 season. Depending upon how he does there, Andersson may be ready to play in North America the following season.
Andersson came to the Rangers' development camp last month and was very visible at times off the offensive blue line. He has good speed and a very crisp first pass. He will need some time to develop in Europe and then to get used to the NHL-size rink and play more of a positional game, but Andersson has the potential to be a more offensive addition to the Rangers blue line.
Thomas Spelling, LW/RW – Herning Blue Fox (Denmark)
5th round, 142nd overall
Height: 6'1 Weight 176 lbs
The Rangers made two trades with the Nashville Predators during the draft, including the one that brought Thomas Spelling into the New York system. In the first trade, the Rangers sent its third round selection this year (89th overall) to the Preds for Nashville's third round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The Blueshirts later made another swap with the Predators, picking up the 142nd selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for the Rangers' fifth round selection in next year's draft.
Spelling, a big winger with an incredibly fast release, has produced excellent numbers in Denmark, as well as in international play. In 2011-12, he ranked sixth in Denmark's AL-Bank Ligaen with 21 goals, and tied for second on his Herning team with 37 points in 33 games. In the playoffs, he posted 10 goals and 10 assists in 17 games.
In addition, Spelling is no stranger to international competition. In 2011, he was a member of Denmark's U18 team (Division 1B), where he posted five goals (including two on the powerplay) and five assists in five games. Spelling was a big part of that championship team in Slovenia, that led Denmark to be promoted to the top division for 2012. This past winter, Spelling represented Denmak in the 2012 U-20 WJCs in Alberta. Spelling posted a goal and three assists in six games on a team that was eventually relegated to the lower division for next year.
Spelling will be playing for Rogle in the SEL next season. He has signed a two-year contract with the club and is not expected to come to North America to play hockey until at least the fall of 2014.