Rangers junior prospects update

By Leslie Treff

The New York Rangers have 13 prospects currently playing in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), including two in the QMJHL, six in the OHL, and five in the WHL. In addition, David Kveton (4th Rd, 104th overall, 2006) began the season as a member of the QMJHL Gatineau Olympiques. However, after playing five games in the CHL, Kveton decided to return to his home club (Vsetin HC) in the Czech Republic.

Thirteen is the largest number of prospects that the Rangers have had playing major junior hockey in several years. The high number reflects the large number of CHLers drafted by the NHL team in 2005, as well as the fact that most of the 2006 European draft selections committed to playing in North America this season. Although Kveton eventually decided to return to the Czech Republic, three of the four 2006 European draft picks began the 2006-07 season in the CHL. Of the two who now remain in North America, Tomas Zaborsky plays for Saginaw Spirit in the OHL and Lukas Zeliska for the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL.

QMJHL

Two Rangers prospects, both forwards, are currently playing in the QMJHL.

Marc-Andre Cliché, RW
Drafted: Second Round (56 Overall) 2005
Team: Lewiston MAINEiacs
Height: 6’0; Weight: 178
DOB: 3/23/87

After an excellent 2005-06 season (82 points in 66 games), where he placed second on the Lewiston MAINEiacs and in the top 30 in the league in scoring, a lot was expected of Cliche during 2006-07. He had a good, but not outstanding, Traverse City Prospects Tournament and main camp, and, as expected was returned to Lewiston to begin his fourth season in the Q. Since that time Cliche has been named team captain, and is adjusting well to the leadership role. After attending the Summer Selection Camp for the U20 Canadian National Junior Team, Cliche was just yesterday named as one of the 38 players to attend the National Junior Team Selection Camp next week in Calgary.

Additionally, Cliche was selected to represent the QMJHL in the 2006 ADT Canada-Russia Challenge played last month. He played in both tournament games, and while he was quiet offensively in the first, Cliche exploded in the second game. With two goals in the first period, Cliche played an outstanding game. Not only was he the primary goal scorer in the game, but his face-off wins were just as impressive. Named the game’s first star, his performance in the Challenge was a reflection of Cliche’s maturing game.

Used in all situations when playing for the MAINEiacs, Cliche is presently second on the team in scoring with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) in 28 games (24 PIM and +14 plus/minus).
Although his face-off win percentage during the regular season has declined somewhat (now less than 51 percent), overall, thus far, Cliche has taken his game up a notch. He is developing leadership skills, playing a solid two-way game, and making things happen on the ice. Three things that should really help Cliche make the transition to professional play next fall.

Ryan Hillier, LW
Drafted: Third Round (84th overall) 2006
Team: Halifax Mooseheads
Height: 6’0; Weight: 195
DOB: 1/25/88

Hillier has had an up and down season thus far in 2006-07. It is his third as a member of the Halifax Mooseheads, and after playing on the team’s top line steadily in 2005-06, Hillier has seen mostly second line action this year. With 22 points (14 goals, 8 assists), 37 PIM, and a –9 plus/minus in 32 games, the speedy left winger is sixth on the Mooseheads in scoring. After an excellent month of October, where Hillier scored eight goals (10 total points) in 11 games (+4 plus/minus), he had a letdown in November. However, just this past Sunday, he had a three-point game (1 goal, 2 assists), and was named the game’s first star.

Despite some uneven play this season, including some defensive lapses that are worrisome, Hillier is still a player to watch. He was selected to play for Canada in the recent ADT Canada-Russia Challenge, and in the two QMJHL/Russia games, he contributed one goal, and his play since the exhibition series has improved.

To be fair, the complexion of the Mooseheads team has changed greatly from last season to this one, and Hillier does not often play on a line with the team’s top players. However, he needs to consistently play a better mental game and to become a two-way player who can be counted on to consistently make things happen on the ice.

Hillier’s speed, playmaking, and puckhandling skills were prominent among the reasons that the Rangers selected him in the third round of last year’s draft. If he can tighten up his defensive game, and become more consistent overall, Hillier has the talent to develop into a very good professional player.

OHL

The Rangers currently have six prospects playing in the OHL, including four defensemen and two forwards. Both the forwards are currently playing for the West Division leading Saginaw Spirit.

Tom Pyatt, C
Drafted: Fourth Round (107th overall) 2005
Team: Saginaw Spirit
Height: 5’11; Weight: 180
DOB: 2/14/87

Just selected to attend Canada’s National Junior U20 Selection Camp in Calgary next week, Pyatt is having an outstanding season in 2006-07. Always known as a defensive forward, Pyatt has stepped up his offensive game this season and his numbers reflect the changes he has made. When asked about the change in his game, Pyatt told HF that it was “a change in my attitude along with linemates who have lots of ability.”

The very focused center currently has 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 32 OHL games. While this increased production is at least partially attributable to a much better team overall, it is clear to anyone who watches Pyatt that he is playing with a different, more offensively minded, attitude on the ice. However, his defensive game has not suffered from the change—his plus/minus is currently at +20.

The Spirit’s alternate captain has a hockey bloodline (his brother Taylor plays for Vancouver) and excellent skills. When combined with his single-minded focus on hockey, Pyatt’s stock has been continually rising. Now in his last year in the OHL, Pyatt is almost certain to become a member of the Hartford Wolf Pack next fall.

Tomas Zaborsky, LW
Drafted: Fifth Round (137th overall) 2006
Team: Saginaw Spirit
Height: 6’0; Weight: 181
DOB: 11/14/87

Prior to being drafted by the Rangers, the Slovakian-born winger was huge offensive star with Dukla Trencin of the U20 Slovakia Extraliga. In 2005-06, he registered 61 points (39 goals, 22 assists) in 42 games, with a +59 plus/minus for his European team. In his first season playing North American hockey, Zaborsky has responded to his new challenges with passion and skill. At the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, Zaborsky showed that his European numbers were not a fluke—he registered three goals in as many games. Zaborsky has continued his excellent on-ice adjustment to North American play by putting up very good numbers in Saginaw, where the abundance of talent has somewhat limited his ice time. In 29 games with the Spirit, he has recorded 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists), with 8 PIM and +7 plus/minus.

An exciting two-way player, Zaborsky has very soft hands, and an excellent wrist shot. When these attributes are combined with outstanding offensive instincts, he has at least second-line potential. However, his fiery personality and highly competitive nature can at times get in his own way. If he is to achieve his potential, Zaborsky must harness his emotions. If he can do so, and keep developing his on-ice skills, he will be a fun player to watch in the NHL.

Marc Staal, D
Drafted: First Round (12th overall) 2005
Team: Sudbury Wolves
Height: 6’4; Weight: 205
DOB: 1/13/87

When Staal said goodbye and thanked his teammates and coaching staff last spring, he believed that he had completed his OHL career. Although touted as a shut-em-down defenseman, Staal scored 11 goals and registered 38 assists (with a plus/minus of +12) in 57 games during the 2005-06 regular season. He was team captain, and over the course of the season had been an OHL Player of the Week, captain of the Eastern OHL All-Star team, and won a defensive award at the 2006 U20 World Junior Championship tournament. So it was generally thought that he had accomplished all he could at this level, and that he would not be returning to Sudbury to play this year.

It has been a difficult turn of events for him to be playing with the Wolves again in 2006-07, made all the more difficult by the fact that his younger brother Jordan has stayed on the roster of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins. However, because under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Staal had to either play in the NHL or be sent back to Sudbury, he has returned to the CHL for the 2006-07 season.

After his impressive 2005-06 major junior season, Staal was assigned by the Rangers to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack during their playoff run last spring. Clearly not used to playing with skaters at the AHL level, Staal seemed overmatched and eventually was scratched from the lineup. He did not have the speed and strength required to play at the AHL level. According to Staal, he worked on both those issues over the summer and came to the New York Rangers main training camp this fall with high hopes of making the team. Although one of the last players to be cut in pre-season, he was returned to Sudbury on Sept. 30.

Since returning to the OHL, Staal has accumulated 16 points (5 goals, 11 assists), with 41 PIM and a +4 plus/minus in 26 games. His increased speed is obvious, both in his skating and the release on his shots. However, he is not as dominating on the ice as he should be. According to his coach, Mike Foligno, Staal “had a letdown when he first returned from the Rangers, but he has steadied himself.” However, since Nov. 1, Staal has played in 13 games and has seven points, with an even plus/minus, and it appears that thus far, his best play was in October.

Staal leaves for the Canadian Junior Team Selection Camp in Calgary later this week, where he will compete for a position on the Canadian U20 team roster. It is likely to raise his spirit and his game, which should translate to better play when he returns to junior hockey later this month.

Bob Sanguinetti, D
Drafted: First Round (21st overall) 2006
Team: Owen Sound Attack
Height: 6’2, Weight: 183
DOB: 2/29/88

Now in his third-year as a member of the Owen Sound Attack, Sanguinetti has accumulated 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in 29 games thus far in 2006-07. He is one of the leading OHL scorers among defensemen, and is in his second season as the alternate captain of the Attack. With a very high hockey IQ and excellent offensive skills, Sanguinetti is a top offensive D-man prospect. However, over the last two years, it has become apparent that some of his defensive lapses may hold him back. Sanguinetti often jumps into the play while leaving his own end unprotected, and by the end of last year it had become a major problem for him. Originally expected to go higher in the 2006 NHL Draft, Sanguinetti’s stock dropped because of defensive worries.

While very active offensive defensemen are a staple in Owen Sound, Sanguinetti really needs to tighten up the defensive aspect of his game. Currently, his plus/minus is at –10; last season it was –6. Sanguinetti does see the ice very well, and is able to move the puck cleanly and quickly, even in traffic. His speed, passing skills, balance and good hockey sense combine to make Sanguinetti a special player. If he can adjust his style somewhat, the Rangers will be very lucky to have been able to select him at No. 21 overall in the 2006 NHL Draft.

Dalyn Flatt, D
Drafted: Third Round (77th overall) 2005
Team: Owen Sound Attack
Height: 6’3; Weight: 215
DOB: 10/07/86

After spending three full seasons in the Western Hockey League, Flatt decided to come east to finish his junior career. After beginning the 2006-07 season with the Kootenay Ice, Flatt signed a contract with the Owen Sound Attack in early October. Although originally drafted by the Rangers for his grit and presence on the ice, Flatt spent his first month in the OHL impressing on both ends of the ice. In 10 games in October, Flatt had one goal and two assists, with a +8 plus/minus. Flatt was named the Attack’s Defenseman of the Month. Since that time Flatt has continued to do well with Owen Sound, recording six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in 23 games, and accumulating 73 PIM. His very respectable +11 plus/minus is one of the best in the league.

After a disappointing season in 2005-06, Flatt has done extremely well this year. He has shown great physical presence and excellent defensive skills. Flatt still needs to improve his on-ice discipline, taking more strategic penalties (he currently has 73 PIM, one of the top ten penalty takers in the league), but with his size and ability to take care of his own end, Flatt has re-emerged as a very good NHL prospect.

Trevor Koverko, D
Drafted: Fifth Round (147 Overall) 2005
Team: Oshawa Generals
Height: 6’3; Weight: 215
DOB: 3/22/87

Koverko, a big stay-at-home defenseman, was traded to the Oshawa Generals last June to shore up the Generals’ defense. Koverko, who was named a team alternate captain this past fall, has a large on-ice physical presence and engages in aggressive play in his own end. After a disappointing 2005-06 season, which was marred by a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, it was hoped that Koverko would regain his 2004-05 form this season. While he does seem to be picking up his offensive game (Koverko has 9 assists in 27 games), his –17 reveals a continuing pattern of defensive lapses.

Koverko has not thus far developed as was hoped when he was drafted in 2005. His status as a Rangers’ prospect is in jeopardy if he does not improve his play during the rest of the season.

WHL

The Rangers have five prospects currently playing in the WHL, including four forwards and one defenseman. Of the five prospects in the league, two (both of them forwards) were drafted in 2006.

Eric Hunter, LW
Drafted: Sixth Round (174th overall) 2006
Team: Prince George Cougars
Height: 6’1, Weight: 198 lbs.
Birthdate: 8/11/86

Currently in his overage year as a member of the Prince George Cougars, Hunter was recently named the captain of the team. In his fourth season with Prince George, Hunter was last year’s team MVP, and was expected to provide a leadership role this season. Although the team has spent the early part of the 2006-07 season in transition, with a large number of personnel changes, both on the ice and behind the bench, Hunter has remained solid, both on and off the ice. With 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists), 57 PIM, and a –2 plus/minus in 29 games, he is the team leader in goals, points, as well as PIM.

There is no question that Hunter has the talent to play professional hockey, and when he was drafted by the Rangers last summer, it was the second time Hunter heard his name called from the draft podium. In 2004, Hunter was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks (eighth round, 229th overall), but was released by the NHL team the following spring. After Hunter had a breakout season in 2005-06, the Rangers decided to take a chance on him in the sixth round of last summer’s draft. A high-risk, high-reward player, Hunter has a nose for the net and protects the puck very well. If he continues to develop over the course of this season, he will most likely start the season in Hartford in 2007-08.

Lukas Zeliska, C
Drafted: Seventh Round (204th overall) 2006
Team: Prince Albert Raiders
Height: 5’11, Weight: 176
Birthdate: 1/8/88

After being chosen 11th overall in last summer’s CHL Import Draft, Zeliska has been playing for the Prince Albert Raiders since the beginning of the 2006-07 season. With 20 points (3 goals, 17 assists), 38 PIM and an even plus/minus in 28 games, Zeliska is the fifth leading scorer on the team. Just this past weekend, he scored the game-winning goal in a shootout victory over Regina, and is on a six-game scoring streak. Although Zeliska had some initial problems adjusting to the North American style of play and attitude, he now plays on the top line with Ryan DePape and fellow rookie, Matt Robertson. By early December, the line had more than 90 points, and Zeliska had become an integral part of the team. A great natural shot, Zeliska is also an excellent playmaker with very good wheels. Additionally, his on-ice vision is exceptional. With second line high-end potential, the issue for Zeliska has been his work ethic. If he has resolved those problems, Zeliska may be one of the more successful late round Rangers’ selections.

Brodie Dupont, C
Drafted: Third Round (66 Overall) 2005
Team: Calgary Hitmen
Height: 6’2; Weight: 205
DOB: 2/17/87

Of all the Rangers prospects playing in the CHL this season, the one that has made the most of his opportunities is Brodie Dupont. Currently, the twelfth leading scorer in the WHL, Dupont has 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists), 40 PIM and a +15 plus/minus in 32 games with the Calgary Hitmen. This offensive production is somewhat of a surprise, because when the Rangers drafted Dupont during the summer of 2005, the team was impressed by his physical game and good hands; he was gritty, smart and a solid two-way player.

This season Dupont has shown a larger offensive upside than expected. He played very well at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in early September, impressing the Rangers’ management with his raw scoring ability, north-south game, and physical play. He then took that style into the regular season, and is one of the stars of the league. Just last week he took his newfound offensive prowess onto the ice in the two WHL games in the 2006 ADT Canada-Russia Challenge. On Friday night, he had three goals and an assist in the WHL’s 8-1 defeat of the Russian Select team.

Over the last six months, Dupont has developed into a legitimate second line prospect. Whether his scoring ability at this level can convert to an offensive threat in professional hockey remains to be seen, but such thoughts are a luxury that the Rangers did not expect to ponder when they drafted Dupont in the summer of 2005.

Ryan Russell, C
Drafted: Seventh Round (211th overall) 2005
Team: Kootenay Ice
Height: 5’10; Weight: 165
DOB: 5/02/87

Russell has begun his fourth season with the Kootenay Ice and there is every indication that this consistent contributor to the team will continue to be a big asset to his team. Thus far in 16 games, Russell has accumulated 19 points (11 goals, 8 assists), with 13 PIM, while maintaining a +6 plus/minus. Russell missed a month of the season with a broken finger, but he was back in action in time to represent his country in the 2006 ADT Canada/Russia Challenge held last week. Although somewhat off his game since his return on Nov. 24, Russell has a tremendous work ethic and is expected to return to form over time. The injury was especially devastating to Russell because he is a finesse player, who uses his wonderfully soft hands to create plays.

Russell is also a very speedy skater, who has excellent on-ice vision. His finesse style of play is a lot of fun to watch, and his creativity on the ice is matched by only a few of the other current Rangers prospects. Russell issues remain his lack of size and strength, and while he has played better and better in traffic and has improved his puck protection abilities, he must continue to strengthen these skills to be successful in professional hockey.

Michael Sauer, D
Drafted: Second Round (40th overall) 2005
Team: Portland Winter Hawks
Height: 6’3; Weight: 205
DOB: 8/07/87

Sauer is in his third season with the Portland Winter Hawks. Now one of Portland’s alternate captains, this is the first season since Sauer was drafted by the Rangers where he has not had a career threatening injury. In the 27 games in which he has played during the 2006-07 season, Sauer has scored 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists), with 36 PIM, while maintaining a –2 plus/minus.

The big blueliner had a very disappointing November, and must step up his game to make the most of this season. When the Rangers selected Sauer in the 2005 NHL draft, it was for his offensive abilities from the blue line. He was a player who combined size, excellent skating ability, good on-ice vision and a high hockey IQ. However, thus far, with the many injuries over the last two seasons, as well as his slow start in 2006-07, the expectations placed upon him have not yet panned out. There is no question that Sauer’s development is delayed, and because the Rangers signed Sauer to a professional contract last summer, some of the time pressures on his development are lessened. If necessary, he will be able to play another overage year of junior hockey, if the Rangers feel it will be helpful.

Sauer is definitely a work in progress, and at this point it is hard to predict where it will take him. An excellent second half to this season will erase a lot of the doubts that cast a shadow on him now.


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