New York Rangers continue to produce excellent prospects

By Leslie Treff
Photo: Chris Kreider has shown remarkable development over the past two seasons with Boston College but still may be a season or two away from contributing at the NHL level. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Although the Rangers recently graduated two top twenty prospects, Derek Stepan and Michael Sauer, the quality of the remaining top twenty remains very high. With only one top 10 selection in the NHL Entry Draft in the past five years, the team continues to produce players that are playing well in the NHL. Several more top six forwards appear to be on the horizon.

The current list contains 13 forwards, five defensemen, and two goaltenders. Two are currently members of the Rangers NHL roster, six with the AHL Connecticut Whale, seven in the CHL, three in the NCAA, and two in Europe. Fifteen of the players were drafted by New York, three were signed as free agents, and two were obtained in trades.

1. (1) Chris Kreider, LW, 8.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 19th overall, 2009

Chris Kreider recently added Most Valuable Player at the 2011 Beanpot to his many accolades over the last two years. The 19-year-old Boston College sophomore represented the United States for the second year in a row at the World Junior Championships, posting six points (four goals, two assists) in as many games in Buffalo this winter. Kreider’s regular season statistics at Boston College (23 points–11 goals, 12 assists–in 31 games), were not dominating nor was he named either to the Hockey East Conference all-star teams or honorable mentions.

Last week, during the final game of the regular season, Kreider sustained a broken jaw, which required surgery and is expected to keep him out of the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. It is very possible that Kreider will sign a professional contract with the Rangers by the end of the summer. However, the fleet forward was extremely raw when he was drafted by the Rangers in the summer of 2009, and while he continues to develop, it might not yet be sufficient enough for him to see time in the NHL. If he does decide to leave college, Kreider will begin next season in the AHL.

2. (5) Ryan McDonagh, D, 7.5B
Acquired: Trade with Montreal, June 2009

Ryan McDonagh was acquired as part of the trade that sent Scott Gomez to Montreal, and the Rangers only smile when talking about McDonagh’s development since the trade. McDonagh was unsure whether he should return to the University of Wisconsin for his senior season or to sign an entry-level contract before this season. After a very good development camp last summer and some assurances from the Rangers that they felt that he was ready for professional play, he became a professional. McDonagh started the season slowly and was assigned to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. Called up to the NHL team in early January, McDonagh has since become a staple on the Rangers’ blue line. Still learning, McDonagh will continue to develop on both sides of the puck, but he is solid addition to a very young defensive corps.

3. (10) Christian Thomas, RW, 8.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 40th overall, 2010

Of all the Rangers’ prospects, Thomas has been the most surprisingly positive. Currently leading the OHL in goals and in the top 10 in total scoring, Thomas has opened eyes as a possible future elite NHL player. The Oshawa Generals’ alternate captain is the son of former NHLer Steve Thomas, and recently they became the first father-son duo to both score more than 50 goals in an OHL regular season.

Last week Thomas was named the OHL Player of the Week for the second time this season, and won the OHL Eastern Conference coaches poll for Most Dangerous in the Goal Area and Best Shot. Despite his diminutive stature, Thomas has great speed and good hockey sense to go along with his great hands.

It is probable that Thomas will be ready for professional play next fall. However, given his age, he will fall within the rule that either he play with the NHL team or be returned to his junior team. Thomas will be closely watched in both development camp and training camp next Fall to determine his immediate future.

4. (2) Evgeny Grachev, C/LW, 8.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 75th overall, 2008

Evgeny Grachev was drafted in the third round out of Russia and would have been a higher selection had the NHL teams been certain that he would be willing to play in North America in the fall of 2008. Grachev’s 2008-09 season as a member of the OHL Brampton Battalion was outstanding, and it was expected that he would continue to develop on schedule. There was some question as to whether he was ready for professional play in the fall of 2009, however, Grachev was anxious to make the jump and spent the season as a member of the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. His play was lackluster for most of the year and Grachev’s offensive production was way off his junior numbers. With one year of professional play behind him, it was hoped that Grachev would explode this season and approach his junior numbers.

Stronger on the puck and more of a presence on the ice, Grachev has one of the best plus/minus ratings on the Connecticut Whale. However, his offensive production is nowhere near what has been expected. At just 21 years old, Grachev was called up to the NHL this season and was fairly invisible on the ice. His career is far from over, but, if he is to reach his potential, Grachev needs to become a more consistent offensive contributor.

5. (4) Mats Zuccarello, RW/LW, 7.5C
Acquired: Free Agent, May 2010

Speedy, small, gritty, with great hands, Mats Zuccarello was an exciting signing for the Rangers last summer. However, he needed some time to adjust to the smaller North American rink, so he was assigned to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack out of the Rangers’ training camp. He started slow in Hartford, but by early November, Zuccarello had found his scoring touch and was one of the more dynamic players in the AHL. Called up to the NHL in late December, he scored the first of his two game-winners in his sixth game.

It is very clear that Zuccarello has great hands, creativity and speed. Whether or not he remains a long-term NHLer though will depend on his ability to show greater strength on and off the puck. He is easily overpowered and struggles for positioning. More strength will be needed to play for any length of time at this level.

6. (6) Dylan McIlrath, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 1st round, 10th overall, 2010

Dylan McIlrath is the player the Rangers drafted to fill the role of a mean, hard-nosed defensive blueliner. Big and strong, McIlrath likes to fight and will not back off from anyone. A crease clearer, McIlrath will need quite a bit of time to fill out and get stronger before he is ready for the NHL. Additionally, he will need to learn to play better in his own end and distribute the puck. Recently signed to an NHL entry-level contract, McIlrath is expected to play one more year of junior hockey before joining the professional ranks. He will however get a look in training camp this fall.

7. (9) Carl Hagelin, LW, 6.5B
Acquired: 6th Round, 168th overall, 2007

Carl Hagelin will shortly complete a distinguished career at the University of Michigan-distinguished because he is a scholar/athlete and he is young for a fourth-year college player. This past week, Hagelin was named the CCHA’s Best Defensive Forward, after a regular season of leading the Wolverines in goals (15), assists (22) and points. Michigan’s co-captain also led the team in power play goals (six), game-winning goals (five) and plus/minus (plus-14).

Hagelin is expected to join the AHL Connecticut Whale after his collegiate season is completed. His performance in development and training camps will determine whether or not he is a serious candidate for a third-line NHL role next fall.

8. (12) Ryan Bourque, C, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 80th overall, 2009

Recently signed by the Rangers to an entry-level contract, Ryan Bourque is currently playing for the QMJHL‘s Quebec Remparts in his final season of junior hockey. An exciting, flashy player with excellent speed and a quick release, Bourque sees the ice well and posted more than a point per game this season. However, he is very small and is injury-prone. Whether Bourque will be able to overcome these obstacles to have a solid professional career remains to be seen. He is expected to join the AHL Connecticut Whale next fall.

9. (7) Ethan Werek, C, 7.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 40th overall, 2009

A series of injuries have hampered Werek’s junior career, but when he is healthy, Werek is a hard-nosed center, who loves to crash the net and use his body along the boards. After recovering from an injury suffered in Rangers’ training camp this Fall, Werek began this season on fire with the OHL Kingston Fronts. His 18 points in 12 games, including three game winning goals, was followed by being selected as an assistant captain in the Super Series against Russian prospects. But then he suffered another injury, did not play from December 10, 2010 until January 26, 2011, and shortly after his return scored a hat-trick for the Fonts.

Unfortunately, injuries have become a pattern for the talented Ontario native, but he is expected to be signed to an entry-level contract and begin his career with the AHL Connecticut Whale next fall.

10. (8) Chad Johnson, G, 7.0C
Acquired: Trade with Pittsburgh, June 2009

Johnson was acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for a fifth-round pick during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and after an impressive showing in Traverse City and the Rangers’ main training camp, Johnson began the 2009-10 season with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. By November 2009, he was one of the leading AHL goaltenders, and then was called up to the NHL to back up Henrik Lundqvist for most of the season. With the signing of Marty Biron as the NHL backup for the 2010-11 season, Johnson was playing most of the games in Connecticut. He was not consistent between the pipes, which was at least partially because of the team in front of him. He has not shown readiness for NHL backup duties yet, however with the recent injury to Biron, Johnson has been called up to do just that. With Biron signed for one more year, it is not expected that Johnson will fill the NHL backup role on a full-time basis for at least another year.

11. (12) Pavel Valentenko, D, 6.5C
Acquired: Trade With Montreal, June 2009

Pavel Valentenko came to the Rangers as part of the trade that sent Scott Gomez to Montreal and brought Ryan McDonagh to New York. At the time, Valentenko had returned to Russia to attend to family matters and was playing in the KHL.

Valentenko returned to North America for the 2010-11 season, and in training camp last fall, the shut-down defenseman was very impressive. Assigned to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack to start the season, he began slowly, however over the course of the season, the agitating stay-at-home blueliner has played extremely well. Currently leading the Connecticut Whale in plus/minus, Valentenko is NHL-ready.

With restricted free agency in the offing, it is unclear what Valentenko’s future is within the organization. Should he choose to remain in North America, Valentenko will compete for a full-time roster spot on the NHL team next fall.

12. (15) Tomas Kundratek, D, 6.5C
Acquired: Third round, 90th overall, 2008

Tomas Kundratek is a solid physical defensive defenseman, who is a good puck mover with a nice shot. In his first season as a professional in the AHL, Kundratek has had a good season as a member of the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale and continues to develop. He has good height, but at age 21, still needs to fill out and get stronger.

Expect Kundratek to get a good look next fall in the Rangers’ training camp, however, he may need another season in the AHL prior to being ready to move to the next level.

13. (14) Dale Weise, RW, 6.0B
Acquired: 4th round, 111th overall, 2008

Dale Weise is a gritty character winger, who has offensive upside. In his third season in the AHL, Weise was arguably NHL-ready last season. So it was no surprise when he got his call-up to the Rangers in December. Despite participating in three fights, Weise registered zero points in 10 games, which triggered his return to the AHL in January. Since his return to the Connecticut Whale, however, Weise is scoring on a point a game pace and is expected to get another shot at the NHL next fall.

14. (NR) Jesper Fasth, RW/LW, 7.0C
Acquired: 6th round, 157th overall, 2010

Jesper Fasth debuts at number 14 on the Rangers Top 20 based upon his outstanding performance at the 2011 World Junior Championships (six points in as many games) and his play in the Swedish Elite League. A highly talented goal scorer, with excellent speed and good vision, Fasth has the upside of a second line NHL player. Signed through the 2011-12 season in Sweden with HV71 Jonkoping, Fasth is not expected to play in North America for at least one more year.

15. (16) Roman Horak, LW, 6.5C
Acquired: 5th round, 127th overall, 2009

Roman Horak has been a major contributor to the WHL Chilliwack Bruins this season, playing in all situations and increasing his offensive production to place second among his teammates in scoring. A member of the Czech Republic‘s 2011 U20 World Championship team, Horak’s game has developed well this season.

Expected to join the AHL Connecticut Whale next fall, Horak is an excellent two-way winger, who sees the ice well and has good hands.

16. (NR) Cam Talbot, G, 6.5C
Acquired: Free Agent, April 2010

Signed after his third year between the pipes for the University of Alabama-Huntsville, Talbot has spent time with the ECHL Greenville Warriors, AHL Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale, and the NHL New York Rangers this season. Although he did not play a game as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup, he had the opportunity to sit on the bench earlier this month before being returned to Connecticut.

The big netminder has very good lateral movement, a good glove, and comes out to challenge shooters very well. Currently sharing the netminding duties in Connecticut with veteran Dov Grumet-Morris, Talbot will need two to three more years of experience prior to being NHL-ready.

17. (17) Andrew Yogan, C, 7.0D
Acquired: 4th round, 100th overall, 2010

Yogan lost most of this season due to shoulder surgery, and just returned to the OHL Erie Otters last month. He does have good size, good hands, very good skating skills and potentially second-line offensive abilities. He scored a hat trick earlier this month and is expected to continue to contribute to the Otters offense through the OHL playoffs.

Having lost this year of development, it will take longer for the Rangers to decide whether or not to offer Yogan an entry-level contract. The organization has one more year to make any such decisions.

18. (18) Mikhail Pashnin, D, 6.5D
Acquired: 7th round, 200th overall, 2009

Mikhail Pashnin participated in the Rangers development camp last summer and was impressive in that brief appearance. A solid defensive defenseman, Pashnin was drafted first overall in the initial KHL draft. However, the Rangers were aware of the fact that Pashnin had interest in playing in North America. Although Pashnin has played for CSKA Moscow for the past two seasons, whether or not he will return to play in the KHL next season is currently uncertain.

19. (NR) Jason Wilson, LW, 6.0C
Acquired: 5th round, 130th overall, 2010

Currently in his overage season with the OHL Niagara Ice Dogs, Wilson was an older draftee last summer. A tough winger, with some offensive upside, Wilson is likely to play in the AHL next season, while the Rangers monitor his development, prior to deciding whether to sign Wilson to an entry-level contract.

20. (NR) Max Campbell, C, 7.0D
Acquired: 5th Round, 138th overall, 2007

Campbell was drafted out of junior "B" and has been slow to develop during his collegiate career at the University of Western Michigan. It has only been in his senior year, under new coaching, that Campbell has performed in the manner expected of him.

Still slight and needing to fill out, Campbell is an excellent skater, with good hands. He will almost certainly fill a role as a power play specialist at the next level. Whether he can play on a regular shift above the fourth line in the NHL is still in question, but given his excellent numbers this year, Campbell is almost certain to be signed to an NHL entry-level contract in the coming months.