A Look Around the Farm Heading into the New Year

By Michael Theodore
With 2002 approaching fast, the Rangers farm system finds itself ranked in the top half of the NHL but not within the top ten. Even though 2001’s first rounder Dan Blackburn has made the jump, the Rags still have half a dozen or so prospects worth mentioning and a few others who are appearing on the horizon and turning some heads. With the exception of several players, many of these kids are still a few seasons away from making any kind of professional noise. It is however interesting to point out that many of them were later draft picks who have been pleasant surprises.

First off we have to start with perhaps the Rangers best player outside the NHL at the moment, Rico Fata. Yes, the same Rico Fata who was claimed on waivers a couple of months ago and yes the same Rico Fata who was taken sixth overall by Calgary in 1998. If people could just put their pre-’98 expectations out of their way for a second they’d notice that Rico Fata is making tremendous strides in his third professional season. Granted he will never be the 100 point center everyone suggested he’d be as a 15-year-old playing in the OHL, but he still has the talent to be an effective two way winger. Despite being two months away from even turning 22, Fata has already double the experience most players his age have. Away from lofty expectations in Calgary, Fata is quietly scoring at a hundred point pace for the Hartford Wolfpack. He’s played every situation, has been solid defensively and has taken the body regularly. He’s been Hartford’s most consistent forward and also one of the AHL’s best over the past month. If his play keeps up, the Rangers might very well make him a call up around the all-star game and Fata might actually be able to contribute. He’s gained some confidence in the minors while rounding out his game, and while he won’t be a superstar, his speed and solid frame could be useful as a compliment player in the NHL.

If Rico Fata has been the Wolfpack’s most consistent forward than Jamie Lundmark would be his polar opposite. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued Lundmark in his first pro season. There are times where he seems at home in the AHL and other times where he seems a bit confused as to his purpose. Lundmark has yet to combine all of his abilities into one solid package this season. If he could find the balance between a pesky, annoying game and mix it with his first class speed and scoring touch, the Rangers could have a player similar to the Islanders Mike Peca. Lundmark will likely need most of, if not the entire season to get adjusted to the pro game.

Barrett Heisten was not expected to be a scorer at the pro level but the Rangers were certainly expecting more than 4 points in 19 games. Heisten whose future lies as a third or fourth line checker, appears to be in a funk since being demoted from the big club. He’s been shaky with the puck and at times seems to pressing too hard to put up points and get noticed. As soon as Heisten sticks to the basics and plays his game, he should be fine. The Rangers see him as a player who could score 10 goals provide some grit and check the other teams offensive players.

Jason Labarbera is a second year player who is having a solid to spectacular year for the Wolfpack. Having won the number one goalies spot for now, Jason is showing the form that made him Kirk McLean’s backup at the start of last season. Perhaps in the best shape of his career, Jason’s play has gone largely unnoticed only because of the play of a certain young 18 year old goalie currently up with the parent club. Still, Labarbera’s solid play is a good sign to the organization that there is some depth at the goalie position.

Peter Smrek has had a solid but not overly impressive season in the AHL. The Rangers would like to see him bang some bodies around more frequently, but are impressed with his poise. If not for the log jam at the NHL level, Smrek possibly would have been recalled around. In the meantime, Smrek needs to take charge of games physically a little more and give the Rangers a little more confidence in him as they shop Igor Ulanov around the league.

Mike Mottau would already be in the NHL if he were 2 inches taller. Instead he finds himself on the bubble as pretty good minor leaguer and borderline NHL’er. Mottau’s problem isn’t lack of size, it’s lack of compensation for that size. He doesn’t seem to think quick enough on his feet to avoid being plowed over sometimes, and if you’re a 6’0, 195 pound defenseman you better make sure you’ve got some nice offensive credentials. At 23, soon to be 24, Mottau’s hourglass is starting to get a little heavy at the bottom and he needs to break out this season or risk being a minor league all-star/7th defenseman for the rest of his career.

Martin Richter has been a solid stay at home defenseman for the Rangers and probably one of the better players at the position all year. Right now if the Rangers were in need of a defenseman, Richter would probably be the first to get the call. He doesn’t play a flashy game, but then again that’s exactly what the Rangers need right now on the blueline.

Layne Ulmer is not having the rookie season he or the Rangers envisioned. Layne’s lack of foot speed is hurting him at the pro level and it’s pretty evident he is going to need to work on it in order to succeed at the pro level. Layne’s toiling in the East Coast League currently and isn’t lighting it up there either. He needs to use his size to his advantage more and not make that extra pass that ends up going to the other team. A little confidence would go a long way right now in his game.

Johan Holmqvist isn’t winning over many fans in the Rangers hierarchy at the moment because for the second straight year he’s lost the number one goalie job in Hartford to someone he was supposed to beat out. Holmqvist who is 23, needs to start playing like the hidden gem he appeared to be a few years back or else next year he might find himself being replaced by someone else as the Wolfpack’s backup.

Filip Novak is back down in the WHL and playing a different kind of game then what one might expect from the puck moving defenseman. Aside from his usual offensive totals, Novak is using his larger frame to his advantage now. At a sturdy 6’2, 205 lbs, Novak is trying to fill the hole left when tough guy Barret Jackman moved up to the pro ranks. Filip has more responsibility now and the result is a much more complete defenseman then we’ve seen in the past.

Shawn Collymore’s game is starting to come around as the speedy center/winger is finding his niche in his third junior season. At first Shawn seemed to be trying too hard to force plays and create offense, however once he got used to the pace of the junior ranks he quickly began playing his normally solid game.

Ryan Hollweg has been perhaps one of the WHL’s and one of the Rangers most overlooked prospects. After a solid start, Ryan has taken it up a notch and is currently representing the USA in the World Junior Championships. If Ryan were on a better team he might receive more notice, instead he serves as Medicine Hat’s Mr. Everything. Playing in every situation has certainly helped Ryan to continue to improve his game. Ryan continues to infuriate the opposition and also has improved his own contributions offensively this year. If Ryan were even just 6’0 he’d have been a second or third round pick, but instead this 5’10 1/2 Center/Left Wing is going to have to continue to work hard to make it to the next level. Even still he could develop into a Todd Harvey type player over time.

Last but certainly not least, defenseman Bryce Lampman has been having a very solid first season in the college ranks. At 6’2, 200 pounds Lampman isn’t huge but plays a simple, effective game while adding a rough edge to it. He’ll likely need all four years to develop but Bryce has certainly been a very pleasant surprise so far for the Sather administration.