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January 2015 New York Rangers Prospect Rankings: 12-1

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How is the Rangers' prospect pool shaping up? This is the final part of a three-part series that will look at the progress of the prospects and rank them accordingly.

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Here we are. The final 12. The Rangers have a lot of depth in the prospect pool and I can not stress that enough. But these are the top guns. Clearly, not all will pan out, but the expectation is that the majority of these 12 will play an NHL game at some point in the future (if they haven't already), and hopefully a decent number of them will make themselves home at Madison Square Garden. To view prospects ranked 24-13 visit this link. To see players ranked 36-25 visit this link. To see, at least in my mind, the top 12 players in the Rangers' system... here you are. A final reminder that the number in parenthesis is where I had each player ranked in July.

12 (11). Cristoval "Boo" Nieves, Forward, 21 Years Old, 2012 Second-Round Pick

Nieves suffered a disastrous sophomore season in which the Rangers actually sent Adam Graves to Michigan in order to give him a pep-talk, but he finished the season strong with 12 points in the final 10 games. Nieves carried that momentum over to this season as famed Michigan Head Coach Red Berenson moved the natural center to the wing due to Michigan's loaded depth chart in the middle. It's an interesting move. Nieves is primarily a playmaker, which would seemingly make him a better fit as a center, but is also an amazing skater, which is best utilized on the outside. In any case, the move has worked, as Nieves has four goals and 12 assists in 20 games. At 6'3, Nieves is a big player, but he didn't utilize that size last season. This offseason he spent a lot of time in the gym, and now he plays to his size. He's more willing to battle for loose pucks, and he shields it successfully when its in his possession. That's how he's able to score highlight-reel goals like this one.

To an extent, Nieves had some awful puck luck last season, but even when accounting for that I viewed him with a bit of skepticism going into this season. Nine months later and Nieves looks like a brand new player. He plays a more complete game, and his confidence is much higher. The two obviously contribute to each other. Players like Mats Zuccarello and Martin St. Louis have proven that one can be a playmaker from the wing, so it'll be interesting to see where Nieves slots going forward. But his versatility certainly only helps his case.

Could Nieves sign with the Rangers this summer? It's possible. I imagine he's going to go back to Michigan for his senior season, though. There's no chance he'd be ready for the NHL, and he'd likely be in line for an increased role at Michigan. Even then, I foresee him needing time in the minors.

11 (13). Mackenzie Skapski, Goaltender, 20 Years Old, 2013 Sixth-Round Pick

Though technically eligible to return to the WHL for an overage year, which is somewhat common for goaltenders, the Rangers knew going into the season that Skapski was going to kept in the professional ranks. The only question was where. Initially, Skapski was sent to the ECHL as Cédrick Desjardins and Jason Missiaen manned the net for Hartford. He would play only one game with the Greenville Road Warriors before Desjardins suffered a minor injury. Skapski was told he would be given one start during the three-game weekend. Missiaen was awful (as I previously discussed) during that span. Skapski earned a shutout in his first career AHL start. Desjardins was healthy immediately after, but Skapski remained. He hasn't looked back. Through 22 games, Skapski has a .913 save percentage and has fully earned the trust of Head Coach Ken Gernander. Skapski is not only in Hartford for developmental purposes. He actually is an important player on the team and gives them a chance to win most nights.

Sticking in the AHL as a 20-year-old goaltender is impressive in itself, but what's astounding is how consistent he's been. Some nights are better than others, of course, but there's no panic in his game. Despite playing against guys much older than he and who have NHL experience, he does not look intimidated in the crease. Former Ranger Steve Valiquette - who knows a thing or two about goaltending - confirmed for me a thought that I've held for a long time; Skapski is remarkably similar to Henrik Lundqvist in his style and demeanor. He's 6'3, which is right around the ideal size for a goaltender, and is athletic enough. But like Lundqvist, Skapski's abilities lie mainly in his mechanics and brain. He reads the play incredibly well. His mechanics are very strong. It's a reason why he was one of the best breakaway/shootout goaltenders in juniors last year and has only been beaten on a penalty shot or shootout attempt once this season in what I believe is eight or nine attempts. Like Lundqvist, he doesn't get rattled easily; bad goals and bad games are quickly forgotten. Like Lundqvist, he's intense and perfection-oriented to the point that it's probably unhealthy. In no way am I asserting that Skapski will be as good as Lundqvist; that would be an absurd declaration. But it's easy to see why the Rangers are high on Skapski. He's still a few years away from being NHL-ready, but he stands as the (prematurely) early frontrunner to take the torch from Lundqvist when that time comes.

10 (6). Conor Allen, Defenseman, 24 Years Old, Free Agent Signing

He had a bumpy but productive first professional season with the Wolf Pack last season. This season, he theoretically was ready to push for a spot on the NHL roster, but what room was there for him? Staal and McDonagh were clearly not going anywhere, and John Moore would have needed an epically disastrous training camp to get supplanted. Throw in Matt Hunwick's solid preseason, and Allen had no chance. He was called up to the Rangers in early November when injuries and a Moore suspension plagued the blue-line, and Allen performed reasonably well. In four games with the Rangers, he accumulated a 56.5% Corsi and was largely able to keep up with the speed of the game. It's important to note that his Corsi was greatly influenced by Vigneault purposely sheltering his minutes, starting him very often in the offensive zone and against lesser competition. Nonetheless, Allen skated on NHL ice against NHL-caliber players and did a pretty decent job considering the learning curve he was experiencing and the unfamiliarity with his defensive partner.

Allen is a tricky one to figure out. He looks good in Hartford, but not in the way that Miller or Fast did where it was obvious the AHL was no longer a challenge. It seems like his development has sort of plateaued. Five goals and 12 assists in 36 games is pretty good, but he still makes errors with the puck on his stick and in coverage defensively. Allen will be 25 in a little bit more than a week. Is he just a classic case of an AHL/NHL tweener? Or does he require a legitimate stay in the NHL to improve? There's only so much learning and improving that can be done in a league in which Kris Newbury and Micheal Haley are the peak of competition. At some point, a player like Allen has to be thrown into the fire. On a worse team Allen might have already been given his chance, and maybe he's in the NHL right now. It would be a shame if Allen never got that chance with the Rangers. The clock is ticking, but he is not too far off from the standard of a third-pairing defenseman in the NHL.

9 (10). Ryan Graves, Defenseman, 19 Years Old, 2013 Fourth Round Pick

Putting Graves this high – particularly right in front of Allen – is definitely one of my boldest decisions. Allow me to attempt to justify it. After playing a key role in the Val-d'Or Foreurs' run to the Memorial Cup last spring, Graves was traded to the Quebec Remparts, who will be participating in the Memorial Cup as hosts this season. Shoulder surgery in the offseason sidelined Graves for all of the Rangers' training camp and the start of the QMJHL season. By November he was healthy enough to play, and in his first game with the Remparts scored a goal. It foreshadowed what was to come for Graves. Drafted as a pure defensive-defenseman, Graves has channeled his inner Kevin Klein and has amazingly amassed eight goals and 11 assists through 28 games.

Is the production legitimate? Partially. He skates well for his size. Nobody's going to mistake him for Brian Leetch, but he passes the puck well enough. His slapshot might be the hardest in the Rangers' system. Put a body in front of the goaltender and any Graves slapshot from the blue-line is dangerous. Here's a perfect example of that:

Look at that sheer power. He BROKE HIS STICK on that shot, and the puck still had enough velocity to not only go on net, but beat the goalie high. That all being said, I spoke with Graves a few weeks ago and, while he acknowledged trying to improve his offensive game, he knows that it's not going to be a major part of his game as a pro. Supplementing offense is nice, but Graves's career will go only as far as his progression as a shutdown defenseman. He's huge and physical. He uses that frame to block shots. But he's also good at the more finesse aspects of defense. He uses his long reach to poke pucks loose and break up entries by forwards rushing through the neutral zone. He has enough speed to keep up with most forwards and has the IQ to position himself well enough to not get beat one-on-one. He'll turn pro next season, and we'll see if he can keep up with the increased speed of the game. While I don't think the upside is amazingly high for Graves, I think he projects favorably as a good #4 or #5 defenseman who plays key PK minutes.

8 (3). Dylan McIlrath, Defenseman, 22 Years Old, 2010 First Round Pick

McIlrath hasn't gotten a fair shake in many ways. Should the Rangers have drafted Vladimir Tarasenko or Cam Fowler 10th overall in 2010? Probably. Hindsight is 20/20, and what's done is done. While we can analyze that decision forever, it shouldn't effect the perception of McIlrath's development in itself.

The story for McIlrath is similar to Allen's. He came into training camp in a position to compete for a roster spot, but with none to actually be won. Only an injury to one of Girardi, Boyle, or Klein would have given him that chance. McIlrath looked much better this time around than the 2013 preseason, but off to Hartford he went anyway. McIlrath has earned first-pairing minutes in Hartford the entire season and has done a pretty good job in the role. McIlrath was brought up for one game against the Blues during the spell of injuries. Tarasenko made him look silly on his power play goal (though Michael Kostka put McIlrath in a difficult spot to begin with and was primarily at fault), and that only inflated the narrative.

Gordie Clark spoke to HockeyProspect.com in November and he claimed that this season would "make or break" McIlrath, and that's probably right. He'll be 23 in April, and the Rangers would have to put him on waivers next Fall if he doesn't make the team out of training camp. Like Allen, I think McIlrath deserves a chance. Instead of keeping Kostka in the lineup, while the Rangers were losing anyway, I wish Vigneault would have given McIlrath those extra six games with the Rangers to prove his worth. Maybe he would have been in over his head. Maybe he would have adjusted to the level of play and learned something from it. But like I said with Allen, and as Clark has stated himself, there's only one way to find out. The Rangers are looking to return to the Stanley Cup Final and will probably look hard into acquiring another defenseman. McIlrath won't get his chance this season unless injuries really hit the Rangers, but next year he hopefully has a shot. He's improved his game in a lot of ways. His skating is better, and he's moved towards using his brain to make plays instead of trying to just outmuscle everybody. Don't let the 2010 Draft cloud judgment of him. I'm certain that if McIlrath was a late-round pick or a free agent signing then people view him more favorably.

7 (4). Oscar Lindberg, Forward, 23 Years Old, Acquired Via Trade

It took Lindberg some time last season to adjust to North American hockey after coming over from Sweden, but eventually he found his game and became one of the better Hartford players. Going into training camp this season, Lindberg had an outside shot of making the team. Hayes clearly won the Rangers' third-line center spot, while Miller was great as well. Lindberg was sent back to Hartford, and it's been mostly good for him this season. Lindberg to only Chris Bourque in goals (11) and assists (14) in 40 games with the team. He seems more active and engaged every shift. Last season it felt like Lindberg was waiting for the play to come to him, whereas this season he's actively looking to make plays with the puck. The "eye test" makes it clear that Lindberg is shooting more, and the stats confirm it; he's averaging 2.95 shots every game, whereas last season he was averaging only 2.32. Aside from that, he continues to be a great defensive center who plays PK minutes and is excellent in the faceoff circle. Lindberg is the kind of player who is barely noticeable in small stretches but becomes very appreciated when viewed over the course of a season.

I'm a bit disappointed that Lindberg hasn't been given a shot at some point with the Rangers this season (noticing a trend?) even if only for a game or two. I think he's played well enough to earn it, and his ability to win faceoffs alone makes him worth more than Tanner Glass. In short, I think Oscar Lindberg is ready for a legitimate chance in the NHL. It might take him a few stints to break the barrier and stick, like with Fast, but I think he's proven enough in Hartford to face that next hurdle in his development. Though Lindberg doesn't possess much upside, he has a good chance of becoming a quality bottom-six center in the NHL.

6 (7). Jesper Fast, Forward, 23 Years Old, 2010 Sixth Round Pick

In his second season in North America, Fast made the Rangers out of training camp but was sent to Hartford soon after. He was one of Hartford's top players, playing very good defense on the wing while tallying nine points in 11 games. With the Rangers struggling in mid-November, they sought to make a change, and banished Ryan Malone while calling up Fast. He's remained thus far in the Rangers' bottom-six, and it doesn't look like he'll be heading back to Hartford anytime soon. Fast has six points in 28 games since being recalled, and this season has a 48.3% Corsi when not on the ice at the same time as Tanner Glass; a perfectly respectable number for a rookie who is starting in the defensive zone very often. It appears that Fast has earned the trust of Vigneault, and particularly in those defensive shifts. If you're viewing this website, then there's a good chance you've watched a Rangers game or two this season. You don't need me to give a winded scouting report. He's a good skater. He's reliable defensively and can create some offense occasionally. I believe he'll get better in that regard as he gets more and more confident. He needs to break out of his shell a little and lessen the timidness.

How can a player who has more or less solidified himself as an NHLer be ranked only sixth in the system? It's about upside. Fast still has a lot of room for improvement, but in the grand scheme what you see is what you get, I think. He's going to be a good bottom-six forward in the NHL for a number of years. Those players are important, but they're far from irreplaceable. A 30-goal forward or a 20-minute defenseman? Not so much. But there's no shame in that for Fast. At a young age, he's cracked a lineup that is built for a playoff run, and that in itself speaks volumes of his ability and makeup as a player.

5 (8). Pavel Buchnevich, Forward, 19 Years Old, 2013 Third Round Pick

Last season Buchnevich played solid hockey in the KHL as an 18-year-old and was one of Russia's key players at the World Junior Championship, leading many to question how he fell to the Rangers in the third round. This year, he's done nothing but make those voices louder. In his second full season in the KHL with Severstal Cherepovets, Buchnevich has really stepped up and been a top contributor. He's consistently getting 17-19 minutes every game, which is not exactly common for teenagers in the KHL. He's obliterated the numbers from last year - 7 goals, 11 assists in 40 games - with 10 goals and 13 assists in 37 games this season. For perspective, only Capitals' forward Evgeny Kuznetsov has posted more points in a KHL season as a 19-year-old. At the World Junior Championship this winter, Buchnevich was again a key contributor for Russia as they won the silver medal. He tallied six points in seven games and often made offense out of nothing by himself. Buchnevich is the complete package; he's very Malkin-esque. He's big and strong, but most importantly uses that size well. He wins puck battles and is able to possess the puck and muscle past defenders. He also has very good speed and hands. He can score with a few dekes, or simply by plowing past defenders. A versatile offensive player whose game will translate to North American hockey. He's a great passer of the puck, and in fact sometimes is too unselfish. Sometimes he needs to just blast a shot, like he's very much capable of, instead of trying to thread an unnecessary pass. Defensively, Buchnevich has work to do, but it's more about learning the right coverages as opposed to him being lazy. The effort is there. We'll see what kind of player Buchnevich ultimately turns into, but it's a matter of when – not if – he's in the NHL. That first requires him making the move to North America. The so-called "Russian Factor" is a non-factor, in my eyes. I spoke to his agent last month and all indications were that both sides want to make it work. I'd say the odds favor Buchnevich signing with the Rangers this summer. At worst, he'd only need a few months in Hartford to deal with the transition. Here's what Alex Nunn had to say:

"Every aspect of Buchnevich’s game has taken a step forward in 2014/15. He’s bigger, stronger and far more confident. Perhaps most importantly, he has embraced the added responsibility of being Severstal’s go-to guy this season. There’s an extra gear there now and his play has blossomed with it. A full international roster spot at the Karjala Cup in Sweden last year was hard-earned and a firm indicator as to what Russian coaching staff think of perhaps their best young player."

Unless Buchnevich and the Rangers pull off a stunner and he signs for the playoff run (like with Kreider), I imagine Buchnevich will represent Russia at the World Championship this Spring.

4 (1). J.T. Miller, Forward, 21 Years Old, 2011 First Round Pick

After two years of bouncing between the AHL and NHL, Miller made the opening night roster again this season, lasted three games, and then was sent down. Unlike last season, he remained in Hartford for a while. Why? You'll have to ask Alain Vigneault. While the like of Chris Mueller and Ryan Malone were contributing very little on the fourth line, Miller was absolutely dominating the AHL. He totaled 15 points in 18 games, but it's more than that. The game just didn't look like a challenge for him. He'd continually skate up and down the ice with the puck, and very few players could catch him. When he messed up, it seemed more out of developing bad habits while bored as opposed to not being good enough. My first article for Blueshirt Banter discussed this situation and how mind-boggling it was.

Finally, he was called up to play against the Flyers. Miller embarrassed Ray Emery with a goal and assisted another. It seems like he's finally sticking with the Rangers. Through 20 games since that call-up, Miller has five goals and five assists; perfectly solid numbers for a player who is averaging under 13 minutes per night and a 52.2% Corsi.

And yet, there's still this uneasiness. It still doesn't really feel like Vigneault has full faith in Miller. He's been scratched twice since December, and there's this intangible aura of skepticism that surrounds their relationship. J.T. Miller is playing the best hockey of his career, but is it enough? Will a couple bad games mean he ends up back in Hartford? Are the Rangers prepared to move Miller for a bigger piece of the puzzle? Will Miller ever get to a point where his inclusion in the lineup is a given? I'm not sold he's there yet in Vigneault's mind, regardless of whether that's fair.

After all that – Miller sticking in the NHL for a lengthy period of time and playing well - I've dropped Miller three spots in my rankings; from the top of the totem pole down to fourth. How is that possible? It has nothing to do with Miller and everything to do with the three guys ahead of him. I think Miller is going to be very similar to Brandon Dubinsky; a 45-50 point forward who can play center or wing, forechecks hard, plays defense, and brings some sandpaper and personality. That's of course a quality player to have on your hockey team. I just think the three guys I've ranked ahead of Miller have higher upside. But that doesn't take away from the player Miller is quickly becoming. It's been a long time since his first NHL game in February of 2013, so it's easy to forget that J.T. Miller is only 21 years old. We're still 4-5 years away from his peak, and unless a legitimate star is offered to the Rangers via trade I think moving him would be a mistake.

3 (N/A). Kevin Hayes, Forward, 22 Years Old, Free Agent Signing

It doesn't make sense to talk about Hayes in the context of where he stood on the depth chart last July; at that point he wasn't even in the Rangers' organization. The 2010 Blackhawks' first-round pick had finished up a brilliant senior season at Boston College with by far his best season; 27 goals and 38 assists in 40 games on the best line in college hockey. Hayes' rights expired on August 16, meaning that the Blackhawks no longer had exclusivity and Hayes could speak with – and then sign with – any NHL team. Luckily for the Rangers, he chose to sign with them.

Hayes had a mixed preseason, but showed he had an NHL future. In fact, he made the opening night lineup. Since then, it's been a slow but steady development. His six goals and 10 assists in 41 games are far from jaw-dropping, but that does not paint the entire picture. After playing wing in college, Hayes has been transitioning to center, which is a pretty significant responsibility at the NHL level. With all of Vigneault's (mostly justified) tinkering early in the season, it's also been difficult for Hayes to get consistent linemates that he can build chemistry with. A 50.6% Corsi is solid for a rookie adjusting to center. It shows he hasn't been a defensive liability.

I imagine Hayes' development is going tedious and gradual. But for all of Vigneault's impatience regarding Miller, he seems to be happy to accept some lumps with Hayes. He still has timidness in his game. In college, on a line with Johnny Gaudreau, it was very easy to make creative plays in the offensive zone. Against NHLers, it's obviously much more difficult. Sometimes Hayes needs to just take the shot when it's available instead of looking for the perfect passing play. Sometimes he needs to shoot quickly instead of trying to maximize the shot quality. There's a lot to like, though. Most of the time his patience with the puck is justified. Whereas a lot of players would panic and dump the puck up the ice or, if it's in the offensive zone, just throw it on net or behind the goal-line, Hayes doesn't succumb to being pressured and waits for plays to develop. He uses his size similarly to Nash to hold onto the puck and brush off defenders. Hayes has all the tools necessary to become a legitimate second-line center in the NHL. We might not see it for a while, but the payoff will be worth it.

2(2). Brady Skjei, Defenseman, 20 Years Old, 2012 First Round Pick

Putting Skjei this high is, in my opinion, the boldest ranking on my entire list. There are three players in this very article who are on the NHL roster right now and contributing to a winning team. And here is Brady Skjei, a junior in college, ahead of them all. Maybe I'm crazy, but I truly believe it's justified.

After a very good sophomore season with the University of Minnesota, Skjei attended the Rangers' summer prospect camp this summer, non-committal on his future. The Rangers, meanwhile, heavily implied that they were ready to sign Skjei. He instead opted to return to Minnesota for his junior season.

At Minnesota, one of the top college teams in the country, Skjei has consistently been arguably the team's best player. One goal and five points don't back that up, but he's the textbook definition of a shutdown defenseman. Very much like McDonagh. He can skate with anyone you throw at him. Once lanky and questioned on his work ethic, Skjei is now built like a horse and knocks players off the puck with ease. His outlet passes are precise. He gets the puck on net. His hockey IQ is through the roof. His mistakes are rare. The only negative thing to say about Skjei this season is that he's had some trouble staying healthy; two extended injuries have limited him to only 14 games so far this season.

I think Skjei is ready for the NHL now. I mean literally now. Next game. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but my margin for error is not very big here. Assuming Skjei foregoes his junior senior season and signs with the Rangers, I think he's going to compete for a roster in training camp. At worst, he'll need a few months in Hartford just as McDonagh did. Especially with McDonagh and Staal locked up on the left side, Vigneault would have an easy time sheltering his minutes as he adjusts. I don't think Skjei will be as good as McDonagh, but I think the effect will be similar. In a few years he'll be capable of shutting down most scoring forrwards. I feel very comfortable is projecting him as a quality second-pairing, 18-minutes-per-night defenseman. And I don't think he's too far off. Good defensemen are incredibly hard to find, and the few that exist are treated like national treasures. As good as Miller and Hayes are, they're more replaceable than a quality top-4 defenseman would be. I'm ready to take that leap of faith with Skjei.

1(5). Anthony Duclair, Forward, 19 Yeas Old, 2013 Third Round Pick

How sweet the first half of this season must have been for Anthony Duclair. We're a bit more than 18 months removed from the 2013 draft, when hundreds of NHL scouts flagged Duclair and let him drop into late into the third round. Since then, he's scored 50 goals and become a QMJHL finalist, surprised everyone in the Rangers' organization and made the opening night roster as a 19-year-old, scored his first NHL goal in an epic win, and contributed eight points on the best line at the entire World Junior Championships, helping Canada win its first gold medal since 2009. Lots of scouts must be scratching their heads at how they let Duclair slip, and Patrick Roy in particular, having coached Duclair with the Quebec Remparts prior to moving to the Avalanche, particularly looks ridiculous.

Duclair being ranked first is rather simple; he's the best combination of NHL-readiness in the entire system. Unlike players such as Buchnevich and Skjei, Duclair has already played at the NHL level and shown he can keep up; 7 points in 18 NHL games is solid production for someone who only turned 19 in August. He possessed a 51.3% Corsi, which shows he was holding up in possession and wasn't a serious defensive liability. Both of those numbers are particularly impressive considering, like Hayes early on, he didn't have consistent linemates. With some better shooting luck (only 5.6%), he'd have tallied a few more goals.

And unlike Miller and Hayes, who are already NHL-caliber and will develop into good players, Duclair has superstar potential. The combination of speed, hands, playmaking ability, scoring touch are unmatched in the system. He needs some work in defensive coverages, but he'll put in the work to fix those issues. He also needs to grow and add some muscle. That's just a combination of having a couple good summers in the gym and letting nature take over. Barring injury or something crazy, Duclair should have no problems developing into a top-six forward, and has legitimate All-Star potential.

Concluding Thoughts

The Rangers' prospect pool is far from the best in the NHL, but that's what happens when you finish high in the standings consistently and trade three consecutive first round picks for Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis. I'd say there are no regrets there. Still, Rangers' Head Scout Gordie Clark and the rest of the staff have done a very good job of compiling this prospect pool given the circumstances. The trading deadline will change everything, depending on if the Rangers trade any draft picks or prospects. As the prospect pool stands now, though, I think the Rangers are pretty set in goal and are strong on the wings. Talent is the priority, and they'll make decisions primarily off of that Still, either with trades, signings, or drafting, the Rangers would probably like to add an offensive-minded center and a few defensemen to the prospect pool before the start of next season.

That's it for this version of my prospect rankings. I hope you reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together. As always, leave any thoughts and questions in the comments section. Also, if you have any suggestions for how I should write these posts going forward (not the rankings themselves) please let me know as well. Whether it's a format change or something else you think would improve these articles. I'll be doing this all over again in July, and I'm always open to new ideas. In the meantime, I will continue to provide frequent updates of the prospects the rest of the way both on Blueshirt Banter as well as on Twitter. Thanks for reading!