Last week I released my July 2015 New York Rangers Prospect Rankings. You can view players 36-18 here, players 27-19 here, players 18-11 here, and players 10-1 here. I could talk forever about New York Rangers' prospects. It's what I do. Unfortunately, that would lead to some awfully long and unreadable articles. So I'll use this space to give some last thoughts on the rankings and the current state of the prospect pool that I couldn't otherwise fit in the rankings themselves.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Oh how things change. Just three years ago the Rangers had, quite easily, the worst goaltending pool in the NHL. Now, they have one of the best. You'd be hard pressed to find more than a few teams that have three goaltenders who could match up with Skapski, Halverson, and Shesterkin. Adam Huska is a nice wildcard and long-term project. Suddenly, goaltending has become, by far, the biggest strength of the Rangers' prospect pool. And it's not a coincidence that it comes at a time where Henrik Lundqvist probably has just 3-4 years left of his relative prime. I don't think having three at the top is a problem. At the absolute earliest, it's going to take 2.5 years for all three to be pushing for a spot in the NHL. If there's a trade to be made that makes the Rangers better for a Cup run in the next 12 months then, sure, move one to make it happen. But moving a goalie because you have a few good ones doesn't make sense right now. Let Skapski, Halverson, and Shesterkin all develop at their own pace for the next couple of seasons. Then you can see where everyone is at and make decisions.
The weakness for the Rangers right now is on defense. Brady Skjei is an absolute stud, but beyond him there are problems. Prospects like Dylan McIlrath, Petr Zamorsky and Calle Andersson are well developed and not too far off from the NHL, but lack much upside. Kids like Tyler Nanne and Ryan Mantha have upside, but are huge projects and not at all on the NHL radar right now. Ryan Graves is somewhere in between both camps. It's not an immediate problem, since the Rangers' defense is locked in for this coming season, but in a few seasons it will matter. Boyle will likely retire, we don't know the fate of Yandle beyond this season, and Girardi, Klein, and Staal will all be aging and could even be cap casualties. Over the next 24 months, Gordie Clark's biggest task will be adding some defensemen with top-four upside.
Where Do the Rangers Rank?
Your prospect pool is only as good as it stands in comparison to the other 29 NHL teams. So where does that put the Rangers? Well, it's going to depend on whom you ask. Mainstream prospect collaborators are probably going to rank the Rangers very low. Skjei and Buchnevich are great prospects but not world class like, say, Sam Reinhart or Andrei Vasilevsky. Beyond that, the Rangers have good prospects but nothing that will stand out on a global scale. This is always misleading, in my opinion. Particularly when it comes to the Rangers. Just two seasons ago the Rangers were said to have the worst prospect pool in the NHL. Twelve months later, Cam Talbot, Anthony Duclair and Pavel Buchnevich exploded onto the scene, while Brady Skjei became one of the top NCAA defensemen. Though not to the degree of those four, last season had a similar surge for certain prospects; most notably Skapski, but also Igor Shesterkin and Jesper Fast. The point being that the Rangers' scouting staff, for the most part, knows what it is doing. You have to trust that two prospects who had previously been glossed over will push themselves onto the global radar in the next season.
That being said, yes, the Rangers prospect pool is not great. But that's in part the product of a lot of good things. Obviously, your prospect pool is going to take a major hit when you trade three first-round picks, two second-round pick, and Anthony Duclair all within the last 3 seasons. One looks at the New Jersey Devils and sees a miserable prospect pool, and it's largely the result of poor drafting. That's not the case at all for the Rangers, as they've drafted very well given the circumstances. They just have lacked the assets to draft big-time prospects as a result of contending the last few seasons.
The other aspect of this is that the Rangers promoted three damn good players in Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Jesper Fast last season. Fast is the oldest of them all, and won't be 24 unitl December. Technically they aren't prospects, but they serve the same purpose as a prospect; a talented player who can serve the team for years to come. In fact, they're better to have because they are proven commodities. Look at a good prospect pool, such as the Detroit Red Wings. Anthony Mantha is probably their second-best prospect, and yet I wouldn't hesitate to take Hayes over him. Toronto has a surefire top-10 prospect pool in the NHL, and yet J.T Miller would be, at absolute worst, their fourth-best prospect if he was still eligible. Emerson Etem, who just turned 23 in June, fits the same mold as Miller. Jesper Fast will have a better NHL career than 85% of players drafted in the second round the last few seasons.
Then you can go up a tier and see players like Derek Stepan, who just turned 25, Chris Kreider, who turned 23 in April, and Ryan McDonagh, who just turned 26 in June. In terms of guys that are technically prospects, they Rangers are lacking, yes. But what's better than having great prospects is having great young talent who are already proven in the NHL. in terms of young talent who will be valuable to the team long-term, the Rangers are very well off.
Prospects To Watch
As I said earlier, the Rangers' prospect pool has been fortunate to have a few big risers the last few seasons. Here are three guys who I feel have a chance to make a statement this season and surge up the rankings.
3. Ryan Mantha
It took Mantha a long time to figure things out last season, but by the end he was looking good. The hope is that it carries over into this upcoming season. He'll be locked into a top-four spot on Niagara's defense, and they're going to be a major contender in the OHL. Mantha should also be receiving more PP time. The foundation is there for Mantha to boost his stock in a big way.
2. Calle Andersson
Andersson has a lot of individual abilities I like but hasn't been able to show them consistently. He was injury-riddled for much of his time in Sweden the first two years after being drafted. He got off to a bad start last season, and though he did finally put it together with Lugano, the Swiss league isn't exactly the best litmus test. I don't expect fireworks from Andersson in his first season in North America, but a solid campaign in Hartford would be significant for his development.
1. Aleksi Saarela
As I said in the rankings, Saarela is the one guy most likely to shoot up the board like Duclair and Buchnevich did. He'll be playing legitimate minutes for a decent team in Finland and will surely have a big role for the Fins at the World Juniors. This is a player who 12 months ago was seen as a top-45 value at the draft. If his health holds up then a jump to the top-10 could be in his future.
Finally, let's end with some bits and pieces of prospect news that has come out in the last week or so.
Richard Nezejchleb: As I said in his writeup, it's unclear where Nejezchleb will be playing next season since he is too old for juniors but not signed to a contract anywhere. Well, Nejezchleb spoke to media in the Czech Republic and implied that the plan for him is to start next season in Hartford. We'll see if that's on an AHL contract or if the Rangers sign him.
Robin Kovacs: Kovacs' contract with AIK expired this summer, and it was also unclear where he would play. Two days ago he signed a contract with Rögle, who were just promoted to the Swedish Hockey League. However, he will be loaned back to AIK in the second tier for next season. He can be summoned to Rögle at any point, though, whether because of injury or because they want to make a change.
Calle Andersson: I anticipated that Andersson would be making the move to North America, but nothing was official until two days ago, when his team in Switzerland, Lugano, announced that he would be doing so.
Sergey Zborovskiy: Here's an interesting interview he did. Zborovskiy speaks about being drafted and how he has adapted to North America.
Traverse City: We're about five weeks away from the Traverse City Tournament, and some of the Rangers' invites are starting to trickle out. One is Mark Simpson, a center who plays for Acadie-Bathurst of the QMJHL. Admittedly, I know very little about him. The other invite announced, however, I do know about, and it's defenseman Jerret Smith. Smith is a teammate of Ryan Gropp with the Seattle Thunderbirds. He had a breakout season in 2014-2015 and is solid both offensively and defensively. No particular traits stand out, really, but he was a steady presence alongside top Ducks' prospect Shea Theodore. It wouldn't shock me if the Rangers were to sign him if he has a good overage season.