Defensive depth highlights New York Rangers minor league prospect contingent

By Tony Piscotta
Ryan Graves - Hartford Wolf Pack

Photo: Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman and New York Rangers prospect Ryan Graves appeared in 74 games for the Wolf Pack in 2015-16, posting nine goals and 21 points in his AHL rookie season (courtesy of Graig Abel/Getty Images)



The real excitement for the New York Rangers organization in terms of prospects is in Europe and at the junior level, where several goalie and forward prospects are having outstanding seasons.

The AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack fell just short of a playoff spot, finishing sixth in the Atlantic Division. With a few notable exceptions, most of the players fueling the Wolf Pack’s playoff push were AHL veterans who do not appear to have high-end NHL potential. The Rangers also share an affiliate agreement with the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Formerly known as the Road Warriors, Greenville finished last in the league’s toughest division, the South Division.

Two players who skated for the Wolf Pack who may have an impact for the Rangers in the future are defensemen Brady Skjei and Ryan Graves. In fact, Skjei joined New York late in the year and saw regular ice time in the playoffs against Pittsburgh.

Among the forward group, 21-year-old Adam Tambellini scored 15 goals in 67 games in his first AHL season, but his all-around game is still developing.

Goalie Magnus Hellberg was one of the AHL’s better netminders again this season but saw just one period of action with the Rangers when he was called up due to an injury to Henrik Lundqvist. The Nashville Predators‘ second round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft recently turned 25 years old and will no longer be considered an NHL prospect based on the Hockey’s Future prospect criteria.

Forwards Josh Nicholls and Michael St. Croix are among the team’s leading scorers for the Swamp Rabbits but both are in their third year of pro hockey and neither are considered NHL prospects at this point.

There is one player worth watching with Greenville, 21-year-old forward Richard Nejezchleb. He has yet to sign an entry-level deal with New York but was a point-per-game scorer for the Swamp Rabbits before suffering an upper-body injury.

Hartford Wolf Pack

Magnus Hellberg, G, 25

Magnus Hellberg signed a two-year contract with the Rangers as a restricted free agent in July after three seasons in the Nashvillie organization. Antti Raanta, acquired by the Rangers from Chicago over the summer, edged Hellberg for the backup position behind Lundqvist, so the big Swedish goalie spent most of the season with the Wolf Pack, making his only NHL appearance in a December 20th game against Washington.

Hellberg has the size, skill set and athleticism to be an NHL goalie, and it is not uncommon for a goalie to develop a bit later than forwards or defensemen. He may never be the elite netminder that his draft status suggests but he has continued to improve and could push for a starter spot in the right situation.

Brady Skjei, D, 22

Brady Skjei is in his first professional season after leaving the University of Minnesota a year early and signing a three-year, entry-level deal with the Rangers last April. With veterans Ryan McDonagh, Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle in New York, the Rangers have the luxury of allowing Skjei to continue developing his game in the AHL.

The Lakeville, MN native appeared in his first two NHL games with the Rangers in December and rejoined New York late in the year. He had no points with 4 penalty minutes and was +1, averaging 17:44 minutes of ice time in seven regular season games. Skjei earned his two NHL points — both assists — and averaged almost 19 minutes of ice time in the Rangers’ five playoff games.

In his first full season with the Wolf Pack, Skjei played in all situations and was a key playmaker. That is expected to be his role with New York.

Ryan Graves, D, 20

Unlike the smooth skating, highly-skilled Skjei, Ryan Graves brings a more traditional skill set to the table. With his size (6’4″, 220 lbs.) and skating ability, he also has NHL potential — though his role will likely be that of a shut-down defender.

Selected to play in the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic, Graves’ success may be one of the bigger stories of the season for the Rangers’ organization. The first-year pro has a big shot from the point and can distribute the puck to start the attack but his real value is in his positional play and two-way game.

Mat Bodie, D, 26

Mat Bodie was signed to a two-year, entry-level contract as a free agent by the Rangers after leading Union College to a Frozen Four championship in the Spring of 2014. The leading scorer amongst defensemen in a group that included current Philadelphia Flyers‘ rookie Shayne Gostisbehere, Bodie plays a similar type of game to the Calder Trophy candidate.

With the depth in the Rangers’ organization, the 26-year-old has yet to crack the NHL lineup. His lack of bulk and defensive play is considered by some scouts as a liability at the NHL level. In 76 games with the Wolf Pack he scored 7 goals with 29 assists and was +5 with 38 penalty minutes.

Tommy Hughes, D, 24

Tommy Hughes is in the third year of his original entry-level contract with the Rangers, and the former London Knight has spent all of that time with the Wolf Pack.

A solid, stay-at-home defender, Hughes played a lower-pairing role for Hartford after missing much of the 2014-15 season due to injury. With several defensive prospects coming up through the Rangers’ system, his future with the organization is uncertain.

Calle Andersson, D, 21

Calle Andersson is the son of former New York and Binghamton Ranger Peter Andersson and was born in Switzerland when his father was playing for Lugano. He completed his first season with the Wolf Pack after skating for Lugano last year.

Andersson is a puck mover with some offensive skill to his game. As with many young attack-inclined players, his defensive game and positional play is still a work in progress.

Adam Tambellini, C/LW, 21

Adam Tambellini has arrived at the pro level earlier than expected, leaving the University of North Dakota during his freshman season in 2013-14 to play in the WHL and then making his pro debut this season as a 20-year-old after spending a full season with the Calgary Hitmen in 2014-15.

Skating on the top line for the Wolf Pack with minor league veteran center Chad Nehring, the team’s leading scorer, Tambellini finished as Hartford’s third-leading goal scorer as he steadily adjusted to the responsibilities of pro hockey. The son of one-time New York Islanders forward Steve Tambellini, he has a high hockey IQ and can play either center or wing.

Nicklas Jensen, RW, 23

Nicklas Jensen is a former Vancouver Canucks‘ first round pick (2011) who was acquired by the Rangers in January along with a sixth round pick for another former first-rounder, Emerson Etem. Jensen appeared in 24 games with the Canucks over three seasons but was with the AHL’s Utica Comets at the time of the trade.

After scoring just four goals in 27 games with the Comets prior to the trade, he scored 15 goals in 41 games with Hartford. Jensen’s rare combination of size, skill and skating ability suggest there is some potential but whether he is re-signed by New York following the season remains to be seen. He could be an interesting wild card for a Rangers’ team in need of goal scoring.

Marek Hrivik, LW, 24

Marek Hrivik made his long-awaited NHL debut with the Rangers on February 21st after spending nearly four seasons in Hartford. The 24-year-old from Slovakia played in four games with New York, recording an assist in a game against the Devils, before being returned to the Wolf Pack. He returned for one game with the Rangers in April. In 68 games for the Wolf Pack he scored 12 goals with 29 assists and was +3 with 18 penalty minutes.

A consistent scorer for the Moncton Wildcats in three junior seasons, he is Hartford’s second-leading scorer behind Nehring but has never been able to crack a Rangers’ lineup that often relies on acquisitions through trades. A big player with some decent offensive skills, Hrivik appears close to being NHL-ready but may have to head elsewhere to get an opportunity for more ice time.

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