Here we are, the top ten! Of these ten prospects, four were not in January's top ten, and two weren't in the organization altogether. For better or worse, this is a very different looking list, and it's indicative of just how much the prospect pool has changed in the last six months. Let's take a lot at how things shake out. You can view my ranking of players 36-28 here, my ranking of players 27-19 here, and my ranking of players 18-11 here. You can view my January version of the prospect rankings here.
10 (N/A). Robin Kovacs, Left Wing, 18 Years Old, 2015 Third-Round Pick
Alex Nunn tipped me off on Kovacs prior to the draft, and we felt that he was the type of player the Rangers might target. Together we collaborated on this draft profile. It paid off. There's so much information on Kovacs there, but I'll give a short summary of what was said.
Kovacs is your typical Swedish forward. He skates well. He has tremendous hockey IQ. He plays a 200-foot game. He has great vision with the puck on his stick. Despite his smaller stature, he is a physical player. Where he really stands out is in his shooting. He has a fantastic wrist shot that has both power behind it as well as deception, since he gets shots off quickly. As such, he can not only score from in close but can power wristers past goaltenders from far out. Kovacs' 17 goals and 28 points for AIK put him first on the team in both categories. In fact, at just 17 years old, Kovacs led all Allsvenskan players (Swedish second division) under 20 years old in both points and points-per-game.
As Gordie Clark put it when I asked at the draft, Kovacs needs to mature more mentally than physically. Sometimes he takes selfish penalties, and sometimes he gets tunnel vision with the puck. That's fine. He's just a teenager, and those issues are a byproduct of what are ultimately great qualities for him to have. It's just about leveling them off, which I don't think will be an issue.
Clark also said at the draft that the Rangers aren't in a rush with Kovacs. Theoretically, the Rangers could sign him and send him to Hartford, but that's doubtful at best right now. The North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League have his rights, so he could make to move to North America and play there. An employee of a Swedish Hockey League team, however, told me that a move to an SHL team is most likely, with Frölunda particularly on the radar. Despite being a third-round pick, I don't think Kovacs is that far away from being NHL-ready. He has upside as an all-around solid player who can pot 25-30 goals in the NHL. The Rangers could have taken him early in the second round and I would have been thrilled. To grab him early in the third round after trading back from 57th overall is an incredible value, in my opinion, for the Rangers.
9 (N/A). Ryan Gropp, Left Wing, 18 Years Old, 2015 Second-Round Pick
Gropp was acquired with the 41st overall pick the Rangers received from Anaheim in the Carl Hagelin trade. Based on consensus, which had Gropp in the 50-60 range, it was a bit of a reach by the Rangers. But not by much. Derek Stepan is another player the Rangers reached for in the second round one time. It worked out just fine.
My initial opinion of the selection was lukewarm. Partially because of a few other names on the board that I liked, and partially because of what I'll call a "reverse size bias." NHL teams have a blatant bias towards size, and so when a player with size gets taken early, it's easy to get cynical about it. But after watching Gropp I can see where the Rangers were coming from with this selection. Gropp has a thick body at 6'2 and 185 pounds and can play a power forward game. But he also has very good skating ability, a good head on his shoulders, and a great shot. He's not going to make a crazy backhanded saucer pass across the offensive zone but his passes are direct and accurate. Something I noticed in my viewings is that he forces a lot of turnovers in the offensive zone; not by making big hits, but just by read the play and seeing where pucks are going. It certainly helps that he has a high motor. He needs some work on crashing the net and screening the goaltender, but that will come with time, I believe.
One of my big concerns with Gropp was a question of how much of his 30 goals and 28 assists was a product of being centered by Islanders' 16th overall pick Matt Barzal. When Barzal was out with an injury, Gropp still produced. So that's a very good sign. All indications are that he is a character kid. I still don't think Gropp would have been my personal choice at 41st overall, but I totally understand where the Rangers were coming from here. With power forwards becoming a dying breed, Gropp absolutely has the tools to become the modern NHL's standard of one. The tools are there for Gropp to turn into a home run selection, but even if not he still has legitimate upside as a top-six, goal scoring forward. This is the kind of draft pick where we should recognize that Gordie Clark is smarter than we are, and trust that he made the correct selection here.
8 (14). Igor Shesterkin, Goaltender, 19 Years Old, 2014 Fourth-Round Pick
Igor Shesterkin is my third-ranked goaltender in the prospect pool, which doesn't really paint a picture of how good he was last season. Shesterkin would be the top ranked goltending prospect for a handful of NHL teams.
After a dominant World Juniors performance, Shesterkin returned to Russia and continued to take care of business in the VHL and MHL; Russia's second division and junior league respectively. He even earned a brief call-up to SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, where he again played very well and even earned the praise of teammate Ilya Kovalchuk. Shesterkin was probably ready for the KHL in the second half of the season, but SKA had sufficient goaltending.
Shesterkin has a lot of Dominik Hasek and Ilya Bryzgalov in him. Like Hasek, he's abandoned a lot of traditional goaltending techniques in favor of his bizarre but effective method of swimming around the crease. Counter-intuitively, it's kind of reassuring to watch. Despite his chaotic, anarchic movements in net, he always projects a confidence in what he's doing and always seems in total control of the situation. That being said, he will need some work with Benoit Allaire in order to tighten up his game. Dominik Hasek was a freak of nature. Athleticism and instincts are very important, but in modern goaltending mechanics conquer all.
But Shesterkin, having signed a two-year contract to stay in the KHL, will have time to work on that. Shesterkin was one of the players teams were constantly asking the Rangers about last trading deadline. It's clear that his stock now is much higher than the 118th overall pick the Rangers used to select him just 13 months ago. He should be a full-time KHLer the next two seasons, and if he performs well then he'll go from a very good goaltending prospect to a borderline blue-chipper.
7 (18). Adam Tambellini, Center, 20 Years Old, 2013 Third-Round Pick
Congratulations to Adam Tambellini, who rose 11 spots in my rankings; the most of any prospect.
The Rangers sent Tambellini back to the Calgary Hitmen as an overager with the job of dominating the WHL, and that's exactly what he did. Hitmen forward Greg Chase demanded a trade from the organization, and his departure put Tambellini front-and-center. He took on the increased responsibility and scored 47 goals while adding 39 assists in 71 games, as well as an absurd 13 goals and 13 assists in 16 playoff games.
Tambellini addressed a lot of concerns from 12 and even six months ago. He's not quite at ideal weight yet, but he's added a lot more muscle and is not nearly the string bean he once was. Along with that came an increased ability to maintain possession just by shielding the puck as well as improved neutral zone play. His skating stride looked improved. His defensive play took a big step forward, and he became a lethal threat on the penalty kill. He was not nearly the one-trick pony that he looked like in his first season with the Hitmen. Combine that with the skills he always had; very good vision with the puck on his stick, good passing ability, and a better shot than most NHLers possess.
A cynic will note that Tambellini was 20 and playing against teenagers. And yes, that does dull the stats a bit. But Tambellini wasn't your typical overager, as it was only his first full season in the WHL and he was very young for an overager. By about February, it was clear that Tambellini had nothing left to prove in the WHL. The AHL is going to be a challenge for him this season, and I expect a period of growing pains. But the logjam of forwards the Rangers have means there is no pressure on Tambellini to make immediate progress. It will also take some time to see if he's better suited for center or the wing. Tambellini reminds me of the Islanders' Anders Lee in a lot of ways, and I think that's his ceiling. He's going to need two seasons in the AHL at least, but Tambellini has the potential to become a lethal goal scoring forward in the NHL.
6 (9). Ryan Graves, Defenseman, 20 Years Old, 2013 Fourth-Round Pick
I spoke with Graves in June and wrote up a pretty detailed account of his 2014-2015 season with the Quebec Remparts here. The short version is that he was an absolute beast in what should be his final junior season. After scoring just 10 goals in his first three seasons combined, he managed to put 15 in the net this season. It wasn't just a fluke run of luck, either. He consistently scored goals starting in the Fall and all the way to the Memorial Cup in late May. He's always had a hard shot, but working with Remparts' Head Coach and former NHL power play QB Philippe Boucher improved Graves' shooting accuracy. That added offense plus his already dynamite defensive game made Graves one of the top defensemen in the QMJHL.
Graves is exactly what you want in the modern version of a shutdown defenseman. The days of big defensemen being able to just overpower forwards is over now that the two-line pass has been removed and the rules are much stricter on clutching and grabbing. Being physical isn't enough anymore. You need to be able to skate and read plays. You need to be able to send outlet passes out of your own end and join the rush once in a while. Graves can do all of this. The Rangers could not have asked for a defensive defenseman drafted in the fourth round to develop any better than Graves has in the last two seasons. I fully anticipate him spending next season in Hartford, where it will take some time to adjust to the faster game. I have a feeling that he'll adapt, though, and Jeff Beukeboom is a great guy to mentor him. He'll need at least two seasons in Hartford, if not more, but Graves has upside as a shutdown second-pairing defenseman who perhaps even gets time on the power play.
5 (13). Brandon Halverson, Goaltender, 19 Years Old, 2014 Second-Round Pick
I also got to speak with Brandon Halverson recently, which you can read here. But again, here is a brief summary of his season. After a solid but inconsistent first half of the season, Halverson really hit his stride from January on. He had finally learned what it takes to be a full-time starter in the OHL in terms of his mental preparations. His mechanics and movements progressively became cleaner. He was not overshooting his angles nearly as much. By the end of the season he was one of the best goaltenders in the CHL.
Not that Halverson had any character issues, but from talking to him I got the sense that he took his development a lot more seriously now than he might have 12 months ago and, despite being just 19, is already thinking like a professional. He came into the Rangers' development camp a few weeks ago and looked better than basically everyone else. The Rangers rewarded him with an entry-level contract. Halverson is just the total package. He has size, he has mobility, and he's acquiring the mentality needed to become an NHL goaltender. His ability to play the puck doesn't hurt, either. I expect next season to be a breakout year for him. He's going to be an elite CHL goaltender, and he's going to battle with Alex Nedeljkovic for the starting gig with the US World Junior team. I'm philosophically against taking a goaltender in the first two rounds, but if you're going to take one then Halverson at 59th overall was a great value for the Rangers. He has all the tools to become an all-star goaltender in the NHL.
4 (11). Mackenzie Skapski, Goaltender, 21 Years Old, 2013 Sixth-Round Pick
To continue with the theme, I spoke to Skapski a few weeks ago about his first professional season, which you can read here. Plus, you have seen him play two games in the NHL. Most of you know all about him now.
I think that because of Shesterkin and Halverson, Skapski is taken for granted. What Skapski did last season as a sixth-round pick is literally unprecedented. Not many 20-year-old goaltenders get to even play in the NHL, and the ones that do are usually first- or second-round picks. Getting a shutout in his second career start? Buffalo or not, that's a special incident.
Stylistically, Skapski is very similar to Henrik Lundqvist. He's not overly aggressive in his angles. He has decent size and athleticism, but his mental makeup and mechanics are what separate him from the pack. His game is still rough around the edges, but fundamentally he is well ahead of where most 21-year-old goaltenders are. As high as I am on Halverson and Shesterkin, Skapski has put himself on par with the likes of top goaltending prospects such as Malcolm Subban and Anthony Stolarz, and has already gotten his feet wet in the NHL. As of now, he has a big head start in being the guy to take the torch from Lundqvist when that time comes. Skapski is going to spend next season as Hartford's starting goaltender, and the Rangers will evaluate from there. If he plays well in Hartford, then he could be in line to be Lundqvist's backup as soon as the 2016-2017 season.
3 (7). Oscar Lindberg, Center, 23 Years Old, Acquired Via Trade
There are two players ranked above Lindberg, but from strictly an NHL perspective he's the guy who will shine this season. Lindberg earned a call-up and made his NHL debut against the Calgary Flames in late February. He played well in that appearance, dominating possession and putting two shots on net in just 8:18 of playing time. He returned to Hartford and, along with winger Chris Bourque, created one of the top forward duos in the entire AHL. From March until the end of the season, including the playoffs, Lindberg scored 15 goals and added 21 assists in 34 games. The offense alone is enough to stick out, and when put in context of the fact that Lindberg is primarily a defensive center, it adds up to this; he has absolutely nothing left to prove at the AHL level. He's not just ready to get a couple games in the NHL. He's ready to be a full-time NHL forward.
Luckily, there's a spot there for the taking, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where he doesn't get it. Lindberg just signed a two-year contract extension - something I doubt he does if he has any concerns of going back to Hartford. Furthermore, he'd need to pass through waivers to be demoted, which the Rangers won't want to risk. Lindberg is never going to be an all-star, but as soon as next season I think he'll be a very good third-line center. Someone who can play the penalty kill, take key faceoffs and match up against top offensive lines, and can chip in some offense to boot.
2 (6). Pavel Buchnevich, Left Wing, 20 Years Old, 2013 Third-Round Pick
The Rangers have a number of forwards in the prospect pool who have the potential to become All-Stars. But those guys have a long development period ahead of them. With Anthony Duclair's departure, Buchnevich is the one true blue-chip forward in the prospect pool, and he becomes that much more important to the organization. Just look at how dominant he was in the KHL last season compared to all other U20 players. He didn't even have his best offense going in the World Juniors and still produced six points in seven games. When his KHL team, Severstal Cherepovets, ended their season, they sent Buchnevich to the junior team for some reason for their playoff run. There, he scored 8 goals in 11 games.
Buchnevich is just the complete package. He plays a very similar style to Evgeni Malkin. He is a great skater for his size, handles the puck well, makes amazing passes, and has a tremendous wrist shot. He can deke past defenders, or he can just use he tree trunk legs to power past them. He's very hard to knock off the puck. He's improved his defensive game tremendously. He's not going to plaster anyone through the boards, but he doesn't shy away when things get chippy and will even instigate shenanigans after whistles or go after an opponent who does something unfavorable to one of Buchnevich's teammates. The question is not if he will be an NHLer, but rather how good of one he will be. He seems a safe bet as a top-six forward, but he could very well be a consistent All-Star in the NHL. His stats in the KHL this past season were better than Vladimir Tarasenko's at the same age, and while it's not a promise of anything to come, it should give perspective on just how high the ceiling is for Buchnevich.
Despite the Rangers' urging, Buchnevich opted to stay in the KHL for one more season. It's disappointing but understandable. The Rangers probably would have asked him to spend some time in Hartford, and why would he want to do that when he can stay home and earn much more money? He plans on spending the next year learning English, and he'll have a chance to really make some noise in the KHL. By the time the 2016-2017 season rolls around, he'll likely be ready to jump into the Rangers' lineup right out of camp.
1 (2). Brady Skjei, Defenseman, 21 Years Old, 2012 First-Round Pick
The departure of Duclair means that Brady Skjei is the new top prospect in the organization. The Rangers wanted Skjei to sign last summer, but he chose to return to Minnesota for his junior season. There, he played like a man amongst boys. In the games he faced the Big Ten's top scorer, Michigan's Zach Hyman, he shut him down with ease. It was clear from the beginning that he was ready for the pros.
After Minnesota's season ended in the Spring, Skjei signed with the Rangers and he was immediately sent to Hartford. In his first game, the Wolf Pack dressed seven defenseman, including Skjei, and he got a handful of shifts. From then, he was immersed into the lineup as a regular. By the time the playoffs rolled around - as in, after a few weeks with the team - Skjei had worked his way up to Hartford's top pairing with Michael Kostka. He even got power play time, which is something he didn't experience much of with Minnesota.
At the risk of setting unfair expectations, Ryan McDonagh is the comparable for Skjei. There's not much of a contrast. They're both big and strong and can knock anyone off the puck. They're both elite skaters and elite one-on-one defenders. They're both masters of the outlet pass, can carry the puck, and can produce some offense. Is Skjei's ceiling as high as McDonagh's? Probably not. But in Skjei the Rangers have as good of a 21-year-old shutdown defenseman as you're going to find.
The Rangers have a very nice problem, which is that a stacked left side of the defense consisting of McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Keith Yandle makes it difficult to fit Skjei into the mix. I think he's ready, though. If it were up to me, the Rangers would move Kevin Klein or Dan Girardi and move Keith Yandle to the right side to accommodate Skjei. However, the likely outcome is Skjei starting the season with the Wolf Pack, which wouldn't be the end of the world. But he's very close to being a full-time NHLer, and I imagine we'll see him, at minimum, have a cameo with the Rangers at some point this upcoming season. He's a safe bet as a second-pairing, shutdown defenseman who can provide some offense, but the upside is there as a number-one defenseman.
That's it for my July 2015 version of New York Rangers' prospect rankings. As always, feel free to submit your questions and comments or tell my why I'm wrong in the comments. You can also reach out to me on Twitter. I'll be doing one more article on Monday offering a few thoughts on the state of the prospect pool. I wouldn't rule out the Rangers making another move, whether it's a signing or trade of some sort, that affects the prospect pool. Otherwise, World Junior development scrimmages start August 1st. That's not too far away! And we'll get started a fresh cycle of the prospect season.