The New York Rangers currently have four prospects playing for the Charlotte Checkers, the team’s ECHL affiliate, forwards Zdenek Bahensky, Lee Falardeau, and Bruce Graham, as well as goaltender Chris Holt.
The Checkers are currently 15-10-0-1, and are sitting fourth among eight teams in the South Division of the ECHL’s American Conference. Graham and Holt have played particularly important roles in Charlotte’s winning ways, and if the Checkers are to capture a playoff slot, both of these Rangers prospects must continue to perform at a high level. With call-ups to the AHL always a possibility, at this point the Checkers’ chances to make the playoffs are still up in the air.
Of the Rangers’ forwards playing in Charlotte this season, the most successful has been Bruce Graham. Graham’s 26 points in as many games are second on the team in scoring, and he is the only Rangers’ ECHL prospect who has a positive plus/minus.
Bruce Graham, C
Drafted: Second Round (51st overall) 2004
Height: 6’6, Weight: 235
Graham may have finally gotten his game in where he wants it. After being drafted by the Rangers for his size and strength in front of the net in 2004, Graham returned to junior hockey and played very well for the QMJHL Moncton Wildcats in 2004-05. In a surprise move, after the Rangers’ training camp in the fall of 2005, the NHL team signed Graham and sent him to Hartford. The big center showed signs that he belonged in the professional game, when, in November 2005, he was felled by a lingering illness that sapped his energy for the entire rest of the 2005-06. Graham was out of action for approximately two months last season due to his illness and when he returned, he looked like he was playing in slow motion. For all intents and purposes, his season was a total bust and could not be used to evaluate his long-term potential.
The Rangers took Graham to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament this past September to get another look at him. He played very well in the first game, throwing his weight around and winning the majority of his face-offs. Very positively visible on the ice, Graham appeared to have turned things around, but then he sustained a hip pointer in the second game and sat out the rest of the tournament. As visible as Graham was in the first game in Traverse City, that is how invisible he was in the Rangers’ main training camp. He was sent to Hartford with the first group of professionals who were returned to their minor league teams, and Graham attended the Wolf Pack fall 2006 training camp.
Graham was reassigned to Charlotte to start the season, and has played in all 26 of the Checkers games. With 26 points (17 goals, 9 assists), 34 PIM, and + 2 plus/minus, Graham appears to be healthy and is one of the best players on the team. His skating has improved, his face-off techniques are top notch, and he is much stronger and harder to move from in front of the net. Just this past weekend, Graham had a hat trick against the Trenton Titans. Graham has proved he can play at this level and deserves a chance to play in the AHL. Whether he can adjust to the much faster play in the “AAA” level remains to be seen, but he has worked hard to improve his skating, balance and physical strength. It is very likely that Graham will see AHL action shortly.
Zdenek Bahensky, RW
Drafted: Third Round (73rd overall) 2004
Height: 6’2 Weight: 195
Bahensky, who plays on both the right and left wings, is in his rookie professional North American season. Signed to an AHL contract last June, the Rangers do retain the rights to the Czech-born player, who was drafted prior to the adoption of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The Rangers drafted Bahensky after he spent two seasons with the Czech Junior League’s Litvinov team. There he distinguished himself by accumulating 204 PIM during the 2003-04 regular season. Ranked 24th among European skaters overall by the NHL Central Scouting Service in 2004, the Rangers selected Bahensky for his grit, speed, and quick release on his shot. Bahensky, who had made it clear that he was coming to North America to play hockey, was then picked first overall by the Saskatoon Blades in the 2004 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. Over two seasons in the WHL, Bahensky played 131 regular season games, registering 86 points (33 goals, 53 assists) and 177 PIM, while maintaining a +24 plus/minus.
The speedy winger opened his rookie professional season with the AHL Wolf Pack. However, only two weeks into the season, on Oct. 17, Hartford loaned Bahensky to the Checkers. Since arriving in Charlotte, Bahensky has played in 24 games, accumulating six points (3 goals, 3 assists), with 43 PIM and a –5 plus/minus.
A very physical two-way player, Bahensky has good wheels and quick shot. With the logjam of Rangers’ prospects on the Wolf Pack roster, he did not get much of a chance to prove himself in the AHL. But Bahensky has not responded to the opportunity to showcase his talents at this level. His numbers are mediocre at best, and he does not play a consistent game on the ice. Bahensky did record a goal and an assist in two games this past weekend. He needs to continue this production, as well as focusing on playing an upbeat, physical, disciplined game to move back up to the AHL.
Lee Falardeau, C
Drafted: Second Round (33rd overall) 2002
Height: 6’4, Weight: 215
Falardeau is a product of the United States NTDP, where he played on both the U-17 and U-18 teams. He enrolled at Michigan State University, and just prior to the start of his senior season, Falardeau signed an entry-level contract with the Rangers. Not a standout offensively during his collegiate years, Falardeau was physical, smart (he was named to the CCHA All-Academic Team), and excellent on face-offs.
In his two previous professional seasons, Falardeau split his time between Charlotte and Hartford. In 2005-06, Falardeau played 64 games for the AHL Wolf Pack, serving as the team’s checking center and as a regular on the penalty kill. With a +10 plus/minus and 22 points (5 goals, 17 assists) last season, there were high expectations for him to take an even larger role this season.
Falardeau, however, along with the rest of the Wolf Pack, got off to a very poor early start in 2006-07. In 16 games with Hartford, he had three points (1 goal, 2 assists), and a –6 plus/minus. He was reassigned to Charlotte late last month, and has since appeared in seven games. He has recorded five points (4 goals, 1 assist, 4 PIM and –1 plus/minus), and his level of play has improved substantially. Scratched from last weekend’s games and put on the three-day IR, there was some worry that an injury may impede his progress back to the AHL. However, according to the Checkers, Falardeau only suffered a slight groin injury last week, and is expected to return to the action this coming weekend. Continued good two-way play will guarantee Falardeau’s return to the AHL.
With only two goaltending prospects in the entire system, the Rangers have placed Al Montoya with the Wolf Pack and Chris Holt with the Checkers.
Chris Holt, G
Drafted: Sixth Round (180th overall) 2003
Height: 6’3, Weight: 230
Now in his second year of professional netminding, Holt shares the goaltending duties in Charlotte with veteran Alex Westlund. In 18 games this season, Holt is 9-8-0-1, with a 3.27 GAA and an .898 save percentage.
After a stellar career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Holt has had an up and down professional performance thus far. Unexpectedly signed in the fall of 2005, after his sophomore year in college, Holt shuttled between Charlotte, Hartford and the Rangers during the 2005-06 season. He never settled into a rhythm, but he was able to impress in the AHL playoffs. Holt was spectacular in net in the post-season last spring, playing in three AHL games after the Hartford starting netminder, Montoya, was felled by a shoulder injury. In the three playoff games, Holt was 2-1, with a 2.96 GAA and a .912 save percentage.
After his spectacular performance last spring, there were high hopes for Holt this fall. Holt was keeping a level head though, and at the start of this season, it was his firm desire to play with one team (even at the ECHL level) and get the experience being an everyday netminder. For the most part this has happened in Charlotte, where Holt has been the No. 1 guy between the pipes. Over many games, Holt started to show weaknesses that need to be addressed. While at times, he has been successful, he has been inconsistent, often following a great save with a bad goal. Additionally, Holt needs to work on fundamentals, as he often goes down too early and tends not to get square to the shooter in time (often because he plays too deep in the net).
As goalies often take longer to hone their skills, it is really too early to tell whether Holt will be a successful netminder at the NHL level. He has shown, however, that for right now, his placement at the ECHL level is appropriate.
One other Blueshirts prospect, Rick Kozak, is playing at the “AA” level. Kozak began the season with Charlotte, was recently reassigned to the Central Hockey League’s (CHL) Memphis RiverKings. Kozak is the first Rangers prospect playing in the CHL as part of an affiliation agreement signed with Memphis in September of 2005. Kozak (6’2, 210) has played for all three of the Blueshirts’ minor league affiliates since signing an entry-level contract with the Rangers in the summer of 2005. This season, Kozak has six points (5 goals, 1 assist) and 30 PM in seven games for Memphis, as well as five points (3 goals, 2 assists) in 11 games (41 PIM) for the Checkers prior to his late November reassignment.
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