It is the middle of January, which makes it the very beginning of the year as far as Gregorian calendar (and modern society) is concerned. The world of hockey prospects works on a slightly different schedule, however. The NHL draft was in late June, with free agency and a period of trades following soon after. We're about six months removed from that time period, and thus a bit more than halfway through the prospect "season." With training camp well in the past, all of the junior, minor league, NCAA, and European seasons have been underway for some time, and the World Junior Championship just recently finished up.
It's the perfect time to evaluate how the players in the New York Rangers' prospect pool have been progressing. This will be a three-part series in which I rank the prospects in the Rangers' system, from the very bottom and working all the way up to the very top. The Rangers signed Kevin Hayes as a free agent back in August, but moved Andrew Yogan in a trade to the Florida Panthers prior to the start of the season. Thus, there remain 36 prospects in the Rangers' system. Here are a few notes to keep in perspective before we get into the rankings.
- I have seen almost all of these players in some capacity since the start of the season. For some, that means 10+ games. For others, it might mean two or three games. For a few, I have seen nothing beyond a few highlights, and thus am relying largely on what I’ve heard from people I trust. In the cases where my viewings were limited (or non-existent) I will make it very clear.
- I have done my best job to be completely objective in these rankings. That being said, I’m human. I’ve already noted that I’ve seen some players more than others, and thus that might unconsciously affect my rankings in some form.
- My rankings take a whole number of criteria into account. Ability and upside are obviously paramount. NHL-readiness matters as well. Ultimately, I'm ranking these players as commodities. If the NHL theoretically held a dispersal draft of all, and all teams ignored individual need, what is the order in which these prospects would get selected?
- A number of people in the prospect community have helped me along the way. Some of them have provided info on players I haven't been able to see enough of. Some have simply offered a different perspective. Some are just generally knowledgeable people who deserve credit for their work. Some people whose work I highly recommend following are Cody Nickolet (WHL), Brock Otten (OHL) Nate Wells (NCAA), Jérôme Bérubé (QMJHL), SBNation's own Jeff Cox (NCAA) and the SBNation College Hockey site, Neate Sager (OHL), Alex SerenRosso (Russia), Corey Pronman (general prospect coverage), Brendan Ross (general prospect coverage), and Chris Peters (USA). This list is by no means all-encompassing, and I apologize to anyone unintentionally omitted.
- In addition to those people, you should follow Blueshirt Banter's own Alex Nunn, who does a fantastic job of covering the Rangers' prospects playing in Europe and contributed to this writeup.
- What is my criteria for what constitutes a "prospect"? I don't have any official limitations and instead decide on a case-by-case basis. After considering all of their situations, I decided that Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Jesper Fast all will be included as "prospects." Hopefully they'll all have established themselves enough in the coming months to be off the list next July. For now, I'm counting them.
- You can see my rankings from last July, which I did while with The New York Rangers Blog, here. It's interesting to look how what I said about certain players then and how it looks in the context of what I'll be writing about them now.
36 (35). Michael Kantor, Forward, 22 Years Old, Undrafted Free Agent
It's hard to evaluate a player if he doesn't actually play. Injuries derailed Kantor's 2013-2014 season and he ended up with zero points in 27 AHL games as well as three assists in three ECHL games. This season, he's been hit with the injury bug again, playing only once with the Wolf Pack and twice with the Road Warriors. Kantor's upside is limited to being a fourth-line checker in the form of a Derek Dorsett, which doesn't make him a marquee prospect to begin with, and he can't even get into a game right now. He's only a few weeks from turning 23, so it's not as if time is on his side here, either. He's going to need to get healthy quickly and then play some very impressive hockey in the next 18 months if he has any chance of having his contract renewed when it expires in the summer of 2016. It's a shame that it's played out like this so far for such a hard-working player who grew up a Rangers fan, but that's the unfortunate reality of Kantor's situation.
35 (36). Josh Nicholls, Forward, 22 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
One could have gotten away with writing off last season as a transition period for Nicholls, who spent his first pro season almost exclusively in the ECHL and was pointless in six games he did play with the Hartford Wolf Pack. This year has been more of the same, though. He failed to make the Wolf Pack out of training camp and has spent most of the season in the ECHL. His offensive production has certainly increased, with 24 points through 24 games. The slew of injuries to Rangers players early in the season forced a handful of players from Hartford up to the Rangers, and in turn gave Nicholls a shot with the Wolf Pack again. He registered one assist in those five games and didn't stand out in any meaningful way. Nicholls is a purely offensive forward, and so for him to not show any signs of production in the AHL at 22 (he'll be 23 in April) makes it difficult to imagine a future in the NHL. There have been late bloomers before, so who knows. But right now Nicholls serves as little more than organizational filler.
34 (33). Jason Missiaen, Goaltender, 24 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
I wrote back in July, while with The New York Rangers Blog, that I was surprised the Rangers re-signed Missiaen. He was subpar for the Wolf Pack in 2013-2014 after he was handed the starting job once Cam Talbot was called up to the Rangers, and with goaltending almost single-handedly tanking an otherwise solid Wolf Pack team I figured that the Rangers would clean house. This season, Missiaen started as backup to quality AHL goaltender Cédrick Desjardins, who was signed in the summer. Desjardins was hit with a minor injury, and Missiaen failed miserably in his place. In total, Missiaen initially played four games with the Wolf Pack this season, posting a 3.78 Goals Against Average and .881 Save Percentage. Twenty-year-old Mackenzie Skapski, who was called up as backup to Missiaen during that spell, convincingly outperformed him. While it does say plenty about Skapski (whom we'll get to later), it's a damning statement about Missiaen that the Rangers would send him, now 24 years old, to the ECHL upon Desjardins' return. To add insult to injury, when Skapski would later suffer a minor injury and miss a weekend's worth of games, Jeff Malcolm, not even under contract by the Rangers, was recalled to the Wolf Pack to fill in. And after Desjardins suffered a season-ending injury, Missiaen was brought up temporarily, played one game, and was then sent back to the ECHL after the team signed veteran Yann Danis.
Missiaen has a massive frame and has moments where he's able to make crazy saves because of it. It's understandable why Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire wanted to take a flyer on Missiaen, but it just hasn't worked out. Barring injury or Skapski having an incredibly rough time, Missiaen will likely remain in the ECHL the remainder of the season and won't be retained this summer, when his contract expires.
33 (31). Sam Noreau, Defenseman, 21 Years Old, 2011 Fifth-Round Pick
After spending most of the 2013-2014 season in the ECHL – a no-shame situation for a 20-year-old defenseman – I was reasonably optimistic that he'd make the jump this season to the AHL. It just hasn't happened. Noreau started the season in the ECHL again, and when called up to the Wolf Pack looked totally out of place. His skating still is not good enough. He looked overwhelmed by the overall speed of the game and made poor decisions with the puck in his own end. When the Rangers were hit with injuries and John Moore's suspension and had to call up Kostka, Allen, and McIlrath, the Wolf Pack opted to sign a couple of random ECHLers to fill the void instead of calling up Noreau. That speaks immensely of how those making decisions in Hartford feel about Noreau right now.
Noreau will be 22 on January 31st, which to be fair is still fairly young for a big defenseman. The ECHL isn't automatically a death sentence. Still, similar ECHL alumni like Stu Bickel and Sheldon Brookbank – who don't exactly set a high standard to begin with - didn't need two full ECHL seasons. It's still relatively early in his development, but the odds seem to be very much against Noreau turning into a relevant NHLer.
32 (14). Chris McCarthy, Forward, 23 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
Whoops. That's all I can really say about my ranking of McCarthy this past summer. A free agent signing last Spring after an impressive season with the University of Vermont, I had high hopes for McCarthy going into training camp this season, and presumably the Rangers did as well when they named him captain of the Traverse City team. In fact, I felt he had an outside chance of putting himself into the discussion for a spot on the Rangers' bottom-six. However, he started the season in the ECHL. He has 19 points in 31 games there, which is solid production for a player who does a lot of good things away from the box score. He's also scored a goal in five games with the Wolf Pack. While he wasn't exactly taking the AHL by storm, I thought he looked good enough in a checking role and I'm a bit surprised that the Rangers would rather play veteran stopgaps like Joey Crabb and Ryan Potulny than someone like Chris McCarthy, who they surely believe has upside or else they wouldn't have bothered recruiting him last Spring. A bit of a weird situation. He has a decent combination of size, skating ability, shooting ability, and a willingness to battle. I'd still like to believe that he has upside as a checking-line forward in the NHL.
31 (25). Michael St. Croix, Forward, 21 Years Old, 2011 Fourth-Round Pick
I haven't seen St. Croix play this year outside of a couple highlights. As has been a common theme so far, it's incredibly disappointing that St. Croix has been unable to bring his game to that next level and stick in Hartford. To be fair, Hartford is pretty loaded at center with Mueller, Lindberg, and at times J.T. Miller. Presumably, the Rangers would rather St. Croix get 20 minutes a night in Greenville than 10 minutes in a checking role; something that doesn't suit a pure playmaking center like St. Croix. Back in the ECHL for a second season, St. Croix has five goals and 16 assists in 28 games. A small injury has sidelined him for a bit.
The good news for St. Croix is that he's 21 years old. Players who are stylistically similar to him – Daniel Briere, Pierre Parenteau, David Desharnais being a few – also went through a few frustrating years in the minor leagues before the light switch went on. St. Croix's vision and quick hands are not at all worth giving up on just yet. But he certainly hasn't progressed as quickly as the Rangers probably hoped.
30 (32). Troy Donnay, Defenseman, 20 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
Signed in the summer of 2013, Donnay was sent back to the Erie Otters of the OHL for an overage season. It was probably the right decision for everyone involved. Donnay was not at all ready for the AHL and he'd probably only get 10-15 minutes per game in the ECHL. The OHL is by no means "below" Donnay, and the departures of defensemen Adam Pelech and Spencer Abraham meant he would get a ton of minutes for a very good Erie team. It has more or less gone to plan. CHL Stats estimates that Donnay averages 23:43 per game, and I'd guess that he's pretty close to that number. An injury earlier in the season sidelined him for a bit of time, but Donnay should be relatively content with the entirety of his season so far; solid defense and 19 points in 30 games for the Otters. People like to point out that Donnay is, as of publishing this, a +24, but it's honestly just another example of how pointless +/- is as a stat. Donnay is constantly playing with highly talented players such as Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, and some guy named Connor McDavid; I think Joe Fortunato would have a high +/- playing with them.
To be honest, I have a lot of concerns with Donnay. He'd be a much more intriguing prospect if it was 1997 instead of 2015. The game has changed, and mobility is everything. Try to name many NHL defensemen who are bad skaters but are otherwise quality players. They exist, but it's an quickly shrinking number. Well, Donnay, as much as he's improved the last 18 months, is still a poor skater. I'm skeptical he'll be able to keep up with the speed of the AHL, let alone the NHL.
Still I totally get why the Rangers signed Donnay. At 6'7 and 190 pounds of pure muscle he has the potential to fill out and become an absolute mammoth of a defenseman. As the old saying goes, you can't teach size. If the stars align for Donnay, then he has the potential to turn into a shutdown defenseman capable of making life difficult for opposing forwards. As a free pickup, who not take a chance on him?
29 (22). Ryan Mantha, Defenseman, 18 Years Old, 2014 Fourth-Round Pick
Being drafted last summer was surely a great moment for Mantha. Unfortunately, things quickly went downhill from there. Mantha was committed to play for the University of North Dakota but was declared academically ineligible. While the OHL was supposedly very much on his radar and he may very well have foregone the NCAA anyway, the choice was effectively made for him. Mantha joined up with the Niagara IceDogs and it was immediately obvious that he would need time to adapt to the level of competition. Then, in only his fifth game, he injured his back and was sidelined for a while. He was ready to play about six weeks later, but the IceDogs had a logjam on defense. Thus, Mantha was given the Stu Bickel Treatment© and played wing on the fourth line. Amazingly, he scored in his first game back, and playing anywhere is better than sitting. Still, it's far from ideal for his development as a defenseman. Eventually, though, he was moved back to his natural spot on defense, and he's slowly getting it together.
Mantha is very raw, but that's usually the norm for defensemen drafted after the top-100 picks. He doesn't turn 19 until June 18th, so Mantha is still at the very beginning of his developmental clock. He's a big, projectable defenseman who skates adequately and passes the puck well. The stats don't reflect it – two goals and six assists in 27 games – but he has a decent amount of offense in his repertoire. For Mantha, aside from natural maturing, he needs a lot of work in terms of the tactical/positional aspects of playing defense. Good coaching in itself can go a long way in fixing that, though. I wouldn't micro-analyze Mantha for a while. Let's see where he's at in a year.
28 (28). Tommy Hughes, Defenseman, 22 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
Excuse my Yogi Berra impression, but Tommy Hughes is an interesting prospect in that there's nothing about him that's at all interesting. I had him ranked 28th in the system last summer, and here he sits once again. I have no strong complaints about Hughes, and I don't have any significant compliments, either. He impressively slotted into some important minutes for Hartford right away last season as a rookie, and while he's obviously become more comfortable in the role as time has gone on, he hasn't made any significant steps forward in his game. He has no blatant weaknesses, but nothing really stands out. He's remarkably average in every way.
A part of me wants to write him off as a good minor leaguer and nothing more or less. On the other hand, he is only 22. If he was a junior or senior in college right now, then I imagine he'd be making a name for himself like Conor Allen and Mat Bodie were at a similar age. I think Hughes is a pretty good thinker of the game but doesn't have the physical tools to push himself to that next level. If he really works on his skating them he might be able to hit that next gear and push for a spot in the NHL. With only three points in 28 games, Hughes has incredibly limited offensive upside. He really will have to mold himself into a shutdown defenseman to make the jump. There are some aspects of his game that fit that build, but he's not quite there right now. We'll see if can get there.
27 (20). Calle Andersson, Defenseman, 20 Years Old, 2012 Fourth-Round Pick
Whether the Rangers would offer Calle Andersson, whose rights were to expire last June, a contract appeared to be a coinflip. A slew of injuries made it difficult to get a real long look at Andersson from a developmental perspective. Ultimately, the Rangers did sign him before loaning him to EV Zug in the Swiss National League A. An offensive defenseman, Andersson was heavily disappointing, producing only one goal and two assists in 18 games. Andersson was then traded to HC Lugano, where his father (and former Ranger) Peter is an assistant coach. Andersson has improved his output since the move, with four goals and seven assists in 20 games. Andersson is one of the few players I haven't actually seen this season, so I'm going to introduce Alex Nunn, who does a great job of tracking the Rangers' European prospects, to the discussion. Alex has seen Andersson a few times this season and has much better perspective on him than I do. Here are his thoughts on Andersson:
"It’s been an inconsistent year for Andersson, having transferred between clubs in Switzerland after deciding to leave Sweden at the end of 2013/14. He began the season with EV Zug, struggling for even-strength minutes and powerplay time, before switching to HC Lugano with whom his father Peter is an Assistant Coach. Opportunity there has been plentiful and Andersson’s production has spiked accordingly. Does need to be playing against a higher level of competition I feel."
I think Alex's last sentence really hits the nail on the head. The Swiss league is decent, but not good enough to really get a feel for where Andersson is at as NHL prospect. Better competition will make him a better player as well. He is only 20 years old, so some time logging huge minutes against grown men and full-blown professionals isn't the worst thing. But I would think the jump to North America has to come soon if he is to have a future with the Rangers.
26 (24). Marek Hrivik, Forward, 23 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
In a vacuum, I've actually been impressed with Hrivik's body of work this season. I thought he had a nice preseason with the Rangers. He struggled mightily in the points department for much of the first half of the AHL season, scoring only two goals with one assist in the first 23 games. However, there was a lot of bad luck involved there – he was shooting plenty but couldn't get bounces – and his defensive game was improved. He has 11 points in his last 16 games, so he's starting to heat up and play up to his ability. At face value, I think Hrivik has made some very nice strides in his game from this season as compared to last year. He's a more matured, complete player.
At the end of the day, though, my long-term outlook on him remains the same. I don't see where he fits in at the NHL level. Players like Lee Stempniak are superior and already broken in, and can be picked up on the cheap, as the Rangers learned this summer. Jesper Fast was thriving in Hartford and it still took him a long time to break the barrier, while Duclair was shipped to Quebec because of there being no place for him right now. Where does that leave a guy like Hrivik? He doesn't have the upside that makes the growing pains worth it, and he's not polished enough to justify being handed an NHL spot. I think Hrivik could tread water on the Rangers' fourth line for a handful of games if, for whatever reason, he was needed as a band-aid. But that's about it. I just don't see where the long-term potential lies. I think he's going to be a quality player in the AHL and perhaps eventually in one of the top European leagues.
25 (30). Tyler Nanne, Defenseman, 18 Years Old, 2014 Fifth-Round Pick
We end the first part of my prospect rankings on a high note, as Nanne is the first guy on this list who tinges me with excitement whenever I hear his name or watch him play. That's not to say that many of the previous players don't have intriguing aspects to their game, but Nanne is just a bit different. He is a pure offensive defenseman who, like Andersson, had a lot of problems generating offense and needed a change of scenery. Scoring one goal and adding two assists in 14 games in the USHL is simply not good enough for an offensive defenseman, but the Sioux Falls Stampede traded him to the Madison Capitols and he has since potted six goals with four assists in 16 games.
Nanne is this low simply because he is, by a wide margin, the most raw prospect in the entire system. Nanne is playing in the USHL because he didn't feel he was even ready for college hockey yet; he's committed to Ohio State for the Fall of 2015. I spoke to Nanne earlier this season and he acknowledged that he has a lot of growth to do. His defensive game is a work in progress, and at 5'10 and 175 pounds some literal growth would serve him well. He admits he has a bit of maturing to do both on and off the ice. Nanne was the captain of the best high school team in Minnesota and is the grandson of former NHLer and Minnesota hockey legend Lou Nanne. He's a very popular guy in his hometown and I get the sense that he's not used to being "just another player." Ultimately, he's 18 and has the right intentions. He'll grow mentally and physically just as any teenager does. Despite his size, he has one of the hardest shots in the entire prospect pool. He's a good skater, carries the puck with confidence, and generally makes things happen offensively.
I watched one game of Nanne last year and one game so far this season. Nanne is exactly the kind of player I think the Rangers should be drafting in the later rounds. He's a massive project. But even if he's not a "safe" pick, the upside is tremendous and worth the gamble. Other players drafted in the later rounds might be more put together at the moment, but unlike them it doesn't take too much stretching of the imagination to envision Nanne as a future star. He has legitimate upside as a game-changing power play QB in the mold of a Rafalski or Torey Krug.
That's all for today. Offer any thoughts or questions in the comments section. Part Two, featuring prospects ranked 24 through 13, will be published on Wednesday.