Since the lockout, the Rangers have been very publicly throwing all sorts of cash at free agents. This, on the surface, has caused the Rangers to have multiple long contracts with high salary cap hits, leaving the Rangers really strapped for cap space. This is leaving a very sour taste in Rangers fans mouths, who are calling for a big youth movement. However, under the surface, the Rangers have been going through the youth movement, and have very quietly stockpiled a plethora of young, promising prospects and core roster players. While most of the high-end talent is still a few years away, many of these young players are making an impact on the current Rangers roster. The Rangers organization has been pretty effective at integrating young players into the lineup at the proper time:
Henrik Lundqvist: The franchise goalie and cornerstone of the franchise was the diamond in the rough that many fans still believe the organization is looking for. Selected in the 7th round of the 2000 draft, Lundqvist forced himself on to the roster in 2005 as a backup, but quickly usurped the starting role from Kevin Weekes midway through the year.
The 2006-2007 season was where we as fans saw a first glimpse of the future. Ryan Callahan participated in 14 games, while Brandon Dubinsky made a late season debut, skating in 6 games. The biggest impact was made by defenseman Dan Girardi, who played his way into the lineup as a regular, playing in 34 games. Although Girardi was the only big contributor this season, it was a sign of things to come for the Rangers, just two full seasons removed from an epic fire sale.
From the 2006-2007 trio, only Ryan Callahan did not play all 82 games in the 2007-2008 campaign, and that was due to a knee injury. Brandon Dubinsky showed promise, putting up 40 points in what was technically his rookie season, having missed the cutoff in 2006-2007. Added to the mix this year was shut down defenseman Marc Staal, who played 80 games and had a solid rookie year paired with Dan Girardi.
The 2008-2009 season was a bit of a stopgap year for the Rangers youth movement. Having packaged defenseman Fedor Tyutin for forward Nik Zherdev, the Rangers were hoping to trade from their surplus on defense to add a young scorer. Although Zherdev, just 24 at the time of the trade, did not work out, it was an attempt by the Rangers to add to the young core that was slowly developing both in the NHL and in the farm system. Between 2007-2009, the Rangers had four additional skaters make their debuts on Broadway: Dane Byers, Mike Sauer, Corey Potter, and highly touted Artem Anisimov.
Last season was a lot like the 2007-2008 season, and saw the Rangers introduce several new youngsters to the core lineup. Michael Del Zotto followed Marc Staal's lead, making the jump straight from Canadian Juniors and making an impact on the Rangers roster. Matt Gilroy, another rookie defenseman, hit the proverbial NCAA wall after 40 games last year, and was benched during the stretch run, but played in 69 games and will look to improve his performance next season. Artem Anisimov, mentioned above, played a full season, putting together solid offensive numbers in an extremely limited role. As his ice time grows, his point production will also.
Looking ahead: 2010-2011:
This upcoming season may see the introduction of wingers Dale Weise and Dane Byers, with Byers hopefully being given a legitimate shot to make the team. Neither are top-six wingers, but would fill a role on the team as third and fourth liners, respectively. Newly signed Norwegian sensation Mats Zuccarello-Aasen probably will not make the Rangers roster out of camp, but should be a solid midseason call up. Assuming Ryan McDonagh signs, expect him to make an impact close to what Dan Girardi made during his first full season with the Rangers.
Looking ahead: 2011-2012:
Derek Stepan and Evgeny Grachev will hopefully lead the class of 2011-2012 Rangers youngsters, and not a moment too soon. Both are top-six potential, something the Rangers sorely need. It is possible that these play their way on to the team earlier, but this is a more realistic goal for them.
Looking ahead: 2012-2013 and beyond:
First round pick Chris Kreider, who plans on turning pro after the 2010-2011 season, may be NHL ready after a full season in Hartford. Also, look for Ethan Werek to challenge for a spot in the 2012-2013 season with Kreider. Around the time that Kreider and Werek are challenging for a roster spot, expect newly drafted Dylan McIlrath, who is a mean SOB, to be on his way to a roster spot as well.
Before the 2010-2011 season even starts, the Rangers will have successfully introduced eight young, home-grown players into the NHL club. By the end of the 2011-2012 season, that number may jump from 8 to as high as 14. The youth movement you all have wanted has under construction for years, and we are beginning to see the rewards of successful drafting. The Rangers youth movement is under the radar because of two things: high profile overpayment of free agents (which everyone notices), and making the playoffs, or being in the hunt. Both are reasons why the Rangers fan base has been overlooking the current youth movement, but rest-assured, the youth movement not only will happen, it is happening.