The period of mid-July through the end of August is always miserable. There's very little going on in the hockey world, and so you have journalists and bloggers dedicated absurd amounts of time to fringe signings and other trivial fluff pieces. At some point in the next month you're going to see a 700-word article on Blueshirt Banter dedicated to a picture of Chris Kreider rock climbing, or something. It's going to be awful.
Which is why this series of articles is a saving grace for me, and I hope it is for you as well. The draft is a few weeks in the past. The busy period of free agency is done with. Things can, and maybe will, still change, The Rangers might still make a cap-clearing move, and perhaps that brings in a new prospect. They might also decide to sign an undrafted player or two. But for now, the Rangers have 36 players in the organization whom I consider "prospects." There were a number of departures from and additions to the prospect pool in the last few months.
Departures: Anthony Duclair (trade), Kevin Hayes (graduated), J.T. Miller (graduated), Jesper Fast (graduated), Conor Allen (free agent), Danny Kristo (free agent), Ryan Haggerty (trade), Daniel Walcott (trade), Jason Missiaen (free agent).
Additions: Ryan Gropp (draft), Robin Kovacs (draft), Sergey Zborovskiy (draft), Aleksi Saarela (draft), Brad Morrison (draft), Daniel Bernhardt (draft), Adam Huska (draft), Magnus Hellberg (trade), Carl Klingberg (trade).
A number of big names are gone from the prospect pool. In fact, five of my top-10 ranked Rangers prospects from January are either no longer with the organization or have graduated from prospect status. Thus, there were a lot of open spots for some of the current 36 prospects to move into. For better or worse, the Rangers' prospect pool looks very different from how it did six months ago. As a reminder, these prospects are ranked in the order of how I perceive their value independent of the Rangers' depth chart. In other words, if I was running an expansion team, in what order would I value these prospects for their long-term outlook?
We'll start this four-part series with players ranked 36 through 28, and I'm warning you now that this portion of the series isn't going to be particularly fun. Please note that each prospect's ranking in January (if applicable) is in parenthesis.
36 (36). Michael Kantor, Right Winger, 23 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
Since January 29th of 2014, or in approximately the last 18 months, Michael Kantor has played in exactly three hockey games. He's been dealt a few serious injury blows, which is in part bad luck and in part a product of his energetic, physical playing style. There hasn't really been much of any information released regarding his current status.
There honestly is not much to say here. Even prior to the injuries, Kantor's peak was in the form of a Brandon Prust; a fourth-line checking forward. In 28 career AHL games, he has zero points. He hasn't even played a game at any level since mid-October. Kantor has just one year left on his contract, and is already 23. Even when he has been able to get on the ice, he's barely been able to stick at the AHL level. it will take a Herculean season for him to earn new contract with the Rangers.
35 (35). Josh Nicholls, Right Wing, 23 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
Nicholls had a very good season for the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL, producing 21 goals and 22 assists in 53 games. However, he was irrelevant in his limited time with the Hartford Wolf Pack, generating one assist in five games.
It was a no-risk gamble signing Nicholls out of juniors, where he was consistently scored above a point-per-game. However, it just hasn't translated to any level higher than the ECHL yet. Like Kantor, Nicholls is in the final year of his contract. A number of departures from the organization - Kristo, Haggerty, Chris Bourque, etc. - means that there will be openings on the wing in Hartford this season. It's now or never for Nicholls. He needs a big training camp and must not only stick in Hartford, but produce some offense if he is to earn another contract with the Rangers.
34 (33). Samuel Noreau, Defenseman, 22 Years Old, 2011 Fifth-Round Pick
Twelve months ago, Noreau was perhaps a dark-horse prospect after having a reasonably successful first season in the ECHL as a 20-year-old and looked to have some upside as a physical defenseman. However, his development has more or less stagnated since. He's been a solid ECHL defenseman but not a standout by any means. When he was called up to the Wolf Pack early in the season, he looked lethargic and struggled to keep up with the pace. His skating is miles away from NHL-caliber and, at 22, I doubt he's going to ever acquire the necessary ability to be even a 7th defenseman in the NHL.
Despite some departures, there is an overflow of right-handed defensemen who will be battling for spots in Hartford. It's tough to see Noreau winning a spot in Hartford out of camp, though it is certainly possible. Big defensemen sometimes have weird developmental curves, so the door isn't completely shut on Noreau, but he too will need a big 2015-2016 season to remain in the organization beyond this upcoming season.
33 (32). Chris McCarthy, Forward, 23 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
The Rangers' usage of McCarthy last season, his first as a pro, was a bit strange. Signed out of the University of Vermont, McCarthy is a smart, energetic forward with some offensive ability. In his five games with the Wolf Pack, he provided that; one goal in his five games on a checking line. At a minimum, he is a player who would be a character, hard working center or winger for Hartford's fourth line. Instead, the Wolf Pack opted to use a few players who weren't even Rangers' property. So McCarthy spent most of last season in the ECHL, producing 39 points in 63 games for the Greenville Road Warriors.
I imagine McCarthy is going to get a lot more time with the Wolf Pack this season. However, he too faces the two problems common to the previously named prospects; he turns 24 on July 30th and has just one final year remaining on his contract.
32 (30). Troy Donnay, Defenseman, 21 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
Donnay reminds me of those 7'5 teenagers from The Gambia that NBA teams will invite to summer camps despite them never playing basketball before. At 6'7, Donnay would quite easily be on of the five tallest defensemen in the NHL. He's just a mammoth on the ice. He has a wide wingspan and uses it well to break up plays with his stick. Obviously, he has a physical advantage over most.
But like those kids NBA teams invite, the size doesn't make up for the lack of technical ability. Donnay's skating, while certainly improved from a year ago, is still not even close to NHL-caliber. Even still, he is "only" 205 pounds. Most physical defenseman with his frame - Andrej Sustr and Tyler Myers, for example - are in the 220-pound range. Donnay not adding that kind of muscle would defeat the purpose of his potential upside, but on the other hand I'd be very nervous about what an extra 15 pounds would do to his already poor skating.
Donnay was a pretty important player on defense for the Erie Otters during their run to the OHL Finals, but from a developmental standpoint I thought he stagnated this season. I asked someone working for a team in Canadian juniors to share his thoughts on Donnay, and he responded by saying that Donnay has "zero value" as an NHL prospect and that he "never understood the signing." I'm not going to go that far, because as a free pickup I can understand why the Rangers wanted to take a flyer on his unique size. But Donnay has a long road ahead of him if he is to become even a good AHL defenseman. He'll probably start next season in the ECHL and will try to work his way up from there. If the stars align, then perhaps there is upside as a #6, penalty-killing defenseman.
31 (31). Michael St. Croix, Center, 22 Years Old, 2011 Fourth-Round Pick
There was a time where St. Croix was much higher on the list. During the 2011-2012 season, there was debate over whether he or fellow WHL forward Mark Stone was the better late-round steal. Stone was nominated for the Calder Trophy this past season. St. Croix, on the other hand, was still trying to figure his game out in the ECHL. He did put up good numbers with the Road Warriors for a second season in a row; 41 points in 59 games. However, he didn't even so much as earn a game in the AHL.
We're beyond the "wait and see" point with St. Croix. There aren't many non-goaltenders who have spent over 100 games in the ECHL and went on to play in the NHL, and the few that have mostly consist of enforcers and physical defensemen. St. Croix - an offensive-minded center - getting any sustainable time in the NHL after spending two seasons in the ECHL would be close to unprecedented. He must make the Wolf Pack out of camp this Fall and show progress in his development if he is to have a future with the Rangers after his contract expires next summer.
30 (28). Tommy Hughes, Defenseman, 23 Years Old, Free Agent Signing
Hughes had an up-and-down season with the Wolf Pack, consistently being shuffled in and out of the lineup. However, he ended very strong. On a stacked Hartford defense, Hughes played very well on Hartford's third pairing and was solid during the playoffs; in fact, he scored a Game Seven overtime winner against the Hershey Bears to send Hartford to the second round.
I've said this before about Hughes, but the problem with him is that he doesn't particularly excel in any area. He's just perfectly decent at just about everything defensively and lacks any tangible offensive muster. One just has to look at how hard it's been for Dylan McIlrath to crack the Rangers the last year or so. Where does that leave Hughes, who is clearly an inferior defenseman at the same age? Hughes has stuck in the AHL the last two seasons and has been very reliable at the level, which is much more than can be said about any of the players ranked below him. However, I think he's very close to peaking out, and he's not close to breaking into the NHL. Stranger things have happened, but for now he appears to be a solid AHL defenseman and nothing beyond that.
29 (N/A). Carl Klingberg, Left Wing, 24 Years Old, Acquired Via Trade
Klingberg was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets close to the 2015 trading deadline, as the Rangers sent Lee Stempniak to Winnipeg in order to make room for the impending James Sheppard acquisition. In his limited time in Hartford, Klingberg played pretty well. He produced 11 points in 13 games, and then four goals and three assists in Hartford's run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Klingberg has a nice combination of size and speed. Where things fall apart for him, I think, are in his head. He doesn't have great offensive instincts, and he's not a particularly savvy defensive player.
Klingberg is the classic tweener. A very good AHLer, but not quite good enough for a legitimate role in the NHL. He could do a patchwork job on the fourth line for a few games if absolutely necessary, but beyond that I don't see him as a long-term NHLer. This summer he opted to sign with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of the Kontinental Hockey League. Because they offered him a qualifying offer, the Rangers do retain his rights. However, I don't foresee him having a future with the organization beyond that technicality.
28 (N/A). Sergey Zborovskiy, Defenseman, 18 Years Old, 2015 Third-Round Pick
This evaluation was very hard for me to get through for two reasons. First, I'm a huge fan of the Rangers' scouting staff. Secondly, it is not fun to criticize an 18-year-old who is just a month away from being drafted. But I can't figure out what the Rangers were doing when they selected Zborovskiy in the third round of this past draft.
At 6'4 and 190 pounds, Zborovskiy is huge for an 18-year-old. Size is nice, but is also becoming less and less meaningful with every passing NHL season. Zborovskiy does use the size well, though. He's an absolute monster along the boards and does a good job of pinning forwards, not allowing them much room to move. He also is vicious in front of his goaltender. He uses his long wingspan to give forwards with the puck a hard time, and it makes him particularly useful no the penalty kill, where it's important to limit the available ice.
However, the bulk of his game is lacking. The other side of the coin when it comes to his physicality is that he is reckless. He takes a lot of unnecessary penalties. His skating is also, though not quite at Donnay levels, below par. He struggles to keep up with speedy wingers and watching him skate back for pucks dumped into the corners is incredibly painful. When he does get the puck in the defensive zone, he lacks the poise to make the right decisions and often gives the puck away.
In the offensive zone, he can control the puck and isn't afraid to move down low with it. He also has a pretty strong slap shot. However, the offensive upside is limited; just three goals and 16 assists in 71 regular season games this past season.
Here is the good news. Zborovskiy is only 18, and it was his first season both playing and living in North America. So he's very raw. Ryan Graves, a similarly built defenseman who made significant strides between the time he was drafted and now, is an example of why you sometimes just need to give a player time to marinate. So I understand that this the Rangers taking a leap of faith and hoping that the dice roll favorably on Zborovskiy in his development. But these kinds of players are there to be taken in the later rounds of the draft. There was so much talent left on the board at 79th overall, but instead the Rangers opted for a massive project who has the look of a third-pairing defenseman. I very much hope to be wrong about Zborovskiy, but I, along with many WHL people, am mystified by this selection.
Players ranked 27 through 19 will be released tomorrow. And I promise it will provide a more optimistic perspective than this portion of the rankings did.