Skilled forwards featured prominently in New York Rangers prospect awards

By Leslie Treff

Cristoval

Photo: Forward Cristoval Nieves had an excellent freshman season at the University of Michigan, managing 29 points in 40 games. (courtesy of Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Many high-end New York Rangers prospects have graduated to the NHL over the last few years, and while that has resulted in a lot of success in the regular season, it has also created a dearth of elite young talent in the system. Despite this, several prospects who are currently in the system stood out during the 2012-13 season.

Prospect of the Year: Oscar Lindberg, C, Skelleftea (SEL)

When Lindberg came to the Rangers' organization in May 2011 from Phoenix in exchange for Ethan Werek, his potential appeared to be as a third-line two-way center who was good at faceoffs and possessed offensive upside. A change in expectation began during the 2011-12 season, when Lindberg began to show more of an offensive side to his game. This past season, Lindberg had excellent numbers (42 points in 55 regular season games and 12 points in 13 playoff games) for Skelleftea of the SEL, a nomination for league MVP, and was named playoff MVP. He also helped Sweden to a World Championship gold medal. Committed to playing in North America during the 2013-14 season, Lindberg will be competing for an NHL roster spot this fall.

Best Defensive Prospect: Dylan McIlrath, D, Connecticut Whale (AHL)

As a potential big tough, defensive defenseman, no one expected McIlrath to develop overnight. When drafted tenth overall in 2010, McIlrath had a tremendous amount of maturing to do, on top of learning the defensive game. The Rangers have nurtured him, slowly exposing McIlrath to increasing responsibility on and off the ice. The 2012-13 season was McIlrath's first season as a pro, and he made a good adjustment. There were times when he was absolutely invisible on the ice, but there were other times when he inflicted bone crushing hits and cleared the crease very well. The 21-year-old remains on target to become Rangers' opponents' most hated blueliner. Still refining his fighting skills and learning positioning, McIlrath is probably two to three years away from fully developing physically and becoming all the Rangers hoped for, but he is currently the best defensive prospect in the system.

Hardest Worker: Ryan Bourque, LW, Connecticut Whale (AHL)

Although a longshot to make the NHL in the next year or two, Bourque is one of the hardest workers in the system. A defensive forward, who can play in all situations, Bourque posted 15 points in 53 AHL games during the 2012-13 season. At this point, Bourque's NHL career will most likely be as a call up when needed, but he is an excellent worker and puts forth the effort to make him a valuable addition to the AHL team.

Hardest Shot: Brady Skjei, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)

Possessing a canon from the point, without question, Skjei has the hardest shot among all of the Rangers' prospects. Though Skjei is expected to be mostly a shutdown blueliner, he has an amazing shot and is expected to continue developing it during the rest of his collegiate career. In 36 regular season games this season, Skjei posted three points in a mostly depth role. Look for him to get significantly more time with the puck during the 2013-14 season.

Breakout Player of 2013-14: J.T. Miller, C, Connecticut Whale (AHL)/New York Rangers (NHL)

The 20-year old Miller turned pro after only one season in the CHL, and had a promising 2012-13 season. Although he did not post good numbers while a member of the NHL team (four points in 26 games), Miller showed lots of offensive promise in the AHL (23 points in 42 games) and is expected to compete for an NHL roster spot next fall.

Most Improved Prospect: Cristoval "Boo" Nieves, C, Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)

Nieves had a breakout season as a freshman at the University of Michigan. Possessing amazing skating and playmaking abilities, Nieves put up incredible numbers (29 points in 40 games) on a very mediocre team. Nieves had the raw talent when drafted, but really showed something extra this past season. He is expected to stay at Michigan for at least one more season.

Overacheiver: Michael St. Croix, C, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)

St. Croix had a strong fourth season in the WHL, finishing 92 points in 72 regular season games 26 points in 22 playoff games. A prolific scorer at the junior level for the last two seasons, St. Croix is expected to be a second to third line player at the NHL level. He has good, but not great skating and needs to work on the quickness of his decision-making. Expected to spend at least one year in the AHL, St. Croix should begin the 2013-14 season in the AHL.

Underachiever: Chris Kreider, LW, Connecticut Whale (AHL)/New York Rangers (NHL)

Kreider wowed everyone during the 2012 NHL playoffs with his quickness and willingness to give up the body. He played with high confidence and made mostly good decisions on the ice. In 2012-13 however, his first full professional season, Kreider was a completely different player. Slow decision-making, poor positioning, as well as an apparent lack of concentration and focus, Kreider did not look ready for the NHL (three points in 23 games). He still possesses great potential, he is the fastest skater among all of the Rangers' prospects, but he generally looks to have taken a step back in development this past season. However, there is some reason to think that his slip in development may have had something to do with the coaching. Under the old Rangers' regime, it was expected that all players play a lunchpail game. Although many players thrived, others did not. Kreider is a more offensive skilled player and he should benefit from the new coaching philosophy of Alain Vigneault.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Christian Thomas, RW, Connecticut Whale (AHL)

Small with good hands and great vision, Thomas had a slow adjustment to professional hockey this season. However, there were also times when he looked like he could be a top six NHL player. He posted about a half point per game (35 points in 73 games), which is not bad for a rookie, but not great either. Additionally, he did not step up when he had to in April to help with the Whale's playoff push. Thomas could turn out to be a top six player in the NHL, but he could easily be a bust. Next year should give a good indication as to the direction his career will take.

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