The New York Rangers system took a hit due to graduations and trades, but a select few prospects stood out in respective categories. Some players surprised, like Adam Tambellini and Mackenzie Skapski, while others like Dylan McIlrath and Cristoval Nieves disappointed.
With most of these players already in the system for multiple seasons, it’s fair enough to classify them for their strengths, as referenced by the improved shot velocity of Ryan Graves and the speed of Danny Kristo.
Many players are on the cusp of their first NHL appearance, or perhaps a full-time opportunity with the Rangers. None are closer than Oscar Lindberg, who is a fit for the Rangers bottom-six next year, but top prospects Brady Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich are not far behind.
Hardest Worker: Oscar Lindberg, C, Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL)
Among New York Rangers prospects, there may not be a player who is more tenacious and determined than Oscar Lindberg. While he’s not blessed with offensive instincts, the defensive side of the game is something Lindberg studied willingly, preparing him for the professional game. In Hartford, Lindberg has excelled in the faceoff circle, and has often been used as a checking-line center.
A newfound emphasis on getting the puck to the net resulted in improved offensive totals, as Lindberg finished with 28 goals and 28 assists. Hartford recently advanced to the second round of the AHL playoffs, thanks in part to Lindberg’s contributions. It would not be surprising to see Lindberg get a look at training camp next year in a bottom-six role.
Hardest Shot: Ryan Graves, D, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
The offensive breakout certainly was surprising to see from Quebec Remparts defenseman Ryan Graves, but his defensive game is what will almost assuredly get him to the next level. Standing at 6’5”, 215 pounds, Graves possesses all the physical tools necessary to play tough minutes. However, his improved skating stride and focus on running the offense, especially on the powerplay, was an added and unexpected bonus.
Graves has one of the hardest shots in the QMJHL, as evidenced by one situation in which Graves broke his stick, yet still had enough force behind the shot to steer it by the opposing goalie. That shot resulted in a career-high 15-goal regular season in just 50 games. He elevated his game in the playoffs, scoring 5 more times as the Remparts advanced to the President’s Cup finals.
Best Defensive Prospect: Brady Skjei, D, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Often, selecting the best defensive prospect in a system proves to be a difficult choice. Not so in the case of the New York Rangers, as Brady Skjei was head and shoulders above the rest. The Rangers pursued Skjei unsuccessfully at the beginning of the season, as the rangy defenseman opted to return for a junior season in Minnesota.
That choice paid off for Skjei, who became the consummate defensive defenseman, breaking up plays and playing with an edge. Skjei guided the Golden Gophers to a Big Ten championship before officially signing with the Rangers for the remainder of the season. With Hartford, Skjei is already playing big minutes as the team is off to the second round of the playoffs. If Skjei’s development curve continues as expected, it won’t be long until he’s playing full-time for the Rangers.
Fastest Skater: Danny Kristo, RW, Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL)
Those waiting for Danny Kristo to take a major step forward in his development may be disappointed, as the speedster failed to improve in his second season in the AHL. Getting to the NHL has proven to be elusive for Kristo, but despite his shortcomings, there is one facet of his game that has remained consistent over the years—his electric skating ability.
There’s no doubt that Kristo has tremendous straight-line speed, but the area where he took the biggest stride forward was his use of that speed. Previously, Kristo was content using his wheels around the perimeter, but a noted emphasis on driving the net and changing speeds to slow the game down helped Kristo as the season progressed. Ultimately, he maintained a similar scoring pace over his first two AHL seasons, and if the NHL is eventually going to come calling, other facets of his game will need to catch up to his feet.
Prospect of the Year: Pavel Buchnevich, C/LW, Severstal (KHL)
Fans will have to wait another year to see Severstal forward Pavel Buchnevich in North America, but similar players have marinated in Europe only to go on to fantastic professional careers. Buchnevich is an elite forward, as referenced by his 13 goals and 17 assists in the KHL this season, totals ranking only behind fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov in scoring by a player under 20 years-old.
Buchnevich is a dynamic, impact forward who contributed with and without the puck. Regarded as an intellectually advanced player, Buchnevich also starred for Russia at this year’s World Junior Championships. There, he added one goal and five assists as the team finished with a silver medal. Buchnevich returned to Russia and destroyed MHL competition, where fellow Russian junior players couldn’t handle his elite abilities during a 20-point run over just 11 games.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Brandon Halverson, G, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Looking back at the last year of competition for Brandon Halverson, the tall, athletic goaltender was part of two consecutive Greyhound teams that bowed out to Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters. Despite the playoff setbacks, Halverson improved greatly in his first full season as a starter. He took a step forward in every statistical category, racking up 40 wins, 6 shutouts, and a .913 save-percentage in the regular season.
The playoffs proved to be difficult, where the loaded Sault Ste. Marie organization was expected to go further—especially after trade deadline acquisitions boosted the team in multiple facets. Looking ahead to next year, the Greyhounds will graduate nearly half of their roster. With the talent level decreasing around him, it will be noteworthy to see if Halverson is up to the task, setting himself up for success despite the circumstances.
Most Improved Prospect: Adam Tambellini, C/LW, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
Heading into this season, Adam Tambellini was the owner of a grand total of four points in the NCAA with North Dakota, and 39 more with the Calgary Hitmen. To say that Tambellini took a step forward is an understatement, while his Hitmen surprised many pundits who didn’t think that they would make a run in the playoffs. That sentiment was torn to shreds by Tambellini, who amassed 47 goals and 39 assists in 71 regular season contests.
The success continued in the playoffs, as Tambellini’s storybook season guided him to the front of the WHL playoff scoring race—a post he held until the conclusion of the second round. Tambellini finished with 13 goals and 13 assists in 16 playoff contests, as Calgary finally ran out of steam against the Brandon Wheat Kings, one of the WHL’s top teams. Despite the loss, Tambellini’s improved skill set and offensive production should serve him well as he transitions to Hartford, his first year on his entry-level contract.
Overachiever: Mackenzie Skapski, G, Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL)
Mackenzie Skapski’s rise to prominence this season came out of nowhere. Often listed at the bottom of the Rangers depth chart, Skapski began the season in the ECHL. That assignment didn’t last long, as an early season injury to veteran AHL goaltender Cedrick Desjardins opened the door for Skapski. He took the job and ran with it, appearing in 28 games with a record of 15-8-3, with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.
Skapski previously played in the WHL with Kootenay, putting together two quality seasons, but nothing like this was expected. His story took an interesting turn in February, when Skapski was recalled by the Rangers and put directly into the net for his first NHL start against the Buffalo Sabres. He gave up a goal 14 seconds into the game, but stopped the next 24 shots to earn his first NHL victory in a 3-1 final. He certainly surpassed expectations this season, and it’s very unlikely that Skapski will be at the bottom of the depth chart moving forward.
Underachiever: Dylan McIlrath, D, Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL)
The 2010 draft has been discussed often among New York Rangers fans, with hulking defenseman Dylan McIlrath leading the conversation. Taken 10th overall, McIlrath was touted as a physical, tough to play against defenseman that would skate through a wall for his teammates. Unfortunately, McIlrath has not done much beyond that assessment.
This season, McIlrath spent his second consecutive season in the AHL and posted the exact same numbers as last year in 11 additional games—not a great sign for his development. While it can be acknowledged that defenseman often need more time to put the puzzle together, it remains to be seen if McIlrath ever will. Passed over multiple times by organizational journeyman, McIlrath’s time to shine is fleeting—as are his prospects of competing full-time in the NHL.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Cristoval Nieves, C/LW, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Determining which player you are going to get out of Cristoval Nieves has proven to be a difficult task. At times, Nieves has displayed top-notch offensive skills, appearing on highlight reels across the country. Then, just one or two games later, Nieves floundered and struggled to carve a path for himself. That inconsistency is maddening for coaches, as referenced by Michigan coach Red Berenson’s move to switch Nieves to wing to lessen his responsibilities.
After a three-goal sophomore season, Nieves finished with only seven this year—low for a player who is capable of scoring in multiple ways. As a former second round pick, the Rangers are taking their time with Nieves, who is expected to return for a senior season as a leader with Michigan. Nieves is capable of becoming a top-six forward and rewarding the Rangers’ patience. However, consistency will be crucial if Nieves wants to reach his potential.