15. Tim Gettinger, Center/Left Wing, 19 Years Old, Fifth-Round Pick (2016)
Previous Rank: 17
Gettinger’s rank does not do justice to the season that he had. Yes, going to 15 from 17 is a slight bump, but the radical facelift to the prospect pool prevented a major rise that he would have had in any other year. Including playoffs, he out-performed his pre-draft season by 17 goals. Pretty much every aspect of his game improved. His skating is better. His board play is better. He’s engaging in play much more than he was pre-draft, where there were often long periods of passive shifts. He does use his massive frame to plant in the slot and score garbage, John LeClair goals. But he also has a strong shot that he used much more this season. Now he’s scoring from the circles as well.
In my opinion, no Rangers prospect improved more over the last 12 months than Gettinger. The Rangers rewarded him with a contract, and he will be attending the USA’s U20 summer evaluation camp, which starts this weekend. Playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL is the best thing that could have happened to Gettinger. They’re a team that avoids dump-and-chase hockey at all costs. As such, Gettinger has been forced to expand his game. Whereas other teams would have molded him into the typical 6’6, 220 lb banger who struggles once he reaches the pro level, Getting instead making significant strides towards becoming a complete player. On top of the typical grinding game, this is a player with who can make finesse plays through the neutral zone and has puck poise in tight spots.
Three of the Greyhounds’ top-five forwards from last season are now graduating to pro hockey, meaning that Gettinger will have increased responsibility next season; both in terms of usage as well as in a leadership role. Another season with similar progress will make him a serious contender for a future bottom-six spot in the NHL.
14. Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, Center, 23 Years Old, Second-Round Pick (2012)
Previous Rank: 13
Nieves had a strange season. After a very successful short stint in Hartford in the spring of 2016, Nieves was poised to make a push for an NHL spot in training camp. Unfortunately, injuries derailed most of his preseason, and the coaching staff didn’t get a good enough look to give him a spot. He started out okay in Hartford and even earned his first career NHL game in mid-November. But injuries continued to hamper his year. He missed a lot of time with various issues, including concussions. When he did return, he didn’t look like himself. Add in - yet again I mention - the mess in Hartford around him, and it was a massive struggle to get anything going. He ended the season with just 18 points in 40 AHL games.
This is, historically, the part where I mention all of Nieves’ tools. He’s a great skater. He has good size (6’3, 219 lbs), decent puck poise, manages the boards well, and has good positional awareness in the defensive zone. Some things definitely did go right for him last season, and a lot of the bad was no fault of his own. In evaluating his tools as individual parts, he has almost everything a coach wants in a depth center. But this is now the sixth-straight summer I am sitting here trying to convince myself that “next year” is the one in which Nieves finally turns those raw tools into a finished, consistent product. At this point It’s fair to question if we’re Waiting for Godot.
The upcoming training camp will be Nieves’ best, if not last, chance to jump into the NHL. The Rangers still have a center spot open, and preferably it would be filled by a shutdown center; such as Nieves. The Rangers will want any reason to not move Miller back to center, and Lias Andersson, maturity notwithstanding, is still a fresh-faced 18-year-old who might be in over his head at the NHL level right now. Even if the Rangers do add a concrete NHL center before opening night, Nieves would likely be the top injury call-up from Hartford throughout the season. One way or another, the door is wide open for him. However, the excuses of growing pains and learning experiences are just about used up. It’s time for Nieves to sink or swim.
13. Nicklas Jensen, Left/Right Wing, 24 Years Old, Acquired Via Trade (2016)
Previous Rank: 12
Jensen was the shining star in an otherwise miserable season for the Hartford Wolf Pack. A vestige of the Carl Hagelin departure, Jensen scored 32 goals and added 33 assists in 70 AHL games last season. Per Garret Hohl of Hockey Data Inc, Jensen was 55.9% in Corsi over the 19 random games they tracked. He often created offense for himself, and usually made everyone around him play better. He’s a good skater for his size and has a big frame to go with it. The combination gives AHL defensemen fits. Do you stand him up and risk getting beat to the outside with a power move? Do you concede space and allow him to build momentum? Check out the individual effort on some of these goals from last season.
Jensen played seven games with the Rangers as an injury call-up. He didn’t generate any points, but he did compile a 60.6% Corsi in what were admittedly sheltered minutes. Nonetheless, that plus his AHL production should have earned him an extended look with the Rangers. I view him as an upgrade over Matt Puempel, certainly.
I say “should have” because Jensen somewhat surprisingly signed with Jokerit of the KHL this summer. The Rangers will still retain his rights, and the contract is only for one year. Unfortunately, it looks as if the Rangers might have lost Jensen to Europe for good. However, perhaps this could be a blessing in disguise. Playing with Jokerit is a step up, and should he perform well maybe it will aid his development and he can sign with the Rangers for 2018-2019. Unlikely, but possible.
12. Robin Kovacs, Left/Right Wing, 20 Years Old, Third-Round Pick (2015)
Previous Rank: 7
The Rangers were so impressed with Kovacs’ 15-16 season in Sweden that they signed him and brought him to North America as a 19-year-old. In hindsight, that was a mistake. I could berate that decision, but the truth is that I was in full agreement. I wrote this about Kovacs in last summer’s rankings.
“Another season in Sweden would hardly have done him any harm, but I don't see any reason why it would have made sense to delay his move across the pond. He shouldn't be out of his depth in Hartford and he's ready to make that next step in his development.”
Instead, the opposite was true. In 72 games with the Wolf Pack, he scored two goals in addition to 10 assists. Those would be poor numbers for a two-way defenseman. For a creative scoring winger? Alarm bells are ringing.
A heavy dose of context is mandatory to evaluate his season. Kovacs was brought over to a brand new country as a teenager. He was tasked with adapting to a new lifestyle as well as a new brand of hockey. Smaller rink, different kinds of skill sets, etc. The Wolf Pack coaching staff, for their part, did Kovacs absolutely no favors. There was no consistency in his line mates or his role. Often, he was on the fourth line getting limited ice time. The Wolf Pack, completely lacking in individual talent, created an offensive game plan that started and ended with “dump-and-chase.” It was a cynical brand of hockey that was completely primitive and ineffective. The team’s results speak for themselves. On a more personal level, it did not play to Kovacs’ strengths and was unlike anything he’s ever seen in Sweden, where rink size makes that kind of play non-existent. Yes, Kovacs has plenty of responsibility for how his season went. He didn't help his cause. Ultimately, though, he was set up to fail. So he failed epically.
I already mentioned Halverson as one player who gets a mulligan on last season due to overwhelming circumstances out of his control. Kovacs is the other. He was young, tasked with taking on a new life, and was poorly coached. The bad season drops him in the rankings. Hopefully the last 12 months were a reality check for him because he does have talent. The Wolf Pack will be better next year and will have a new coaching staff organizing everything. Continued struggles will completely sink his stock, but he could just as easily push his way back towards the top of the prospect pool as well.
11. Ryan Gropp, Left Wing, 20 Years Old, Second-Round Pick (2015)
Previous Rank: 4
It’s a competition between Kovacs and Gropp for the most disappointing 16-17 season. The big question I posed last summer was whether Gropp would show enough creativity and intelligence to provide offense in the AHL.
We didn’t get an answer to that question because he didn’t even make the Hartford squad out of training camp. Instead, he was sent back to the WHL for an overage year. That alone was enough to chalk up the 16-17 season as unsuccessful for Gropp. Overage years in the CHL are understandable for late-round project picks; not for someone drafted 41st overall. The Rangers’ scouting staff have publicly downplayed the WHL demotion, as they should. Privately, they would all agree this was not at all what they imagined for Gropp.
It got worse from there. He scored just 11 goals in his first 43 WHL games. For anecdotal perspective on how bad that is, Ryan Hollweg scored 25 goals in 52 games during his overage WHL season. Gropp did manage to salvage his season, though, potting 31 in his final 39 games (including playoffs). It's at best a partial coincidence that Gropp’s surge started right around when Matt Barzal, one of the best teenage centers in the world, returned from World Juniors to center his line.
In order to try to figure out where Gropp is at, I look at Jimmy Vesey. They have similar builds and similar playing styles. Vesey looks like he’ll become a middle-six winger who needs a quality playmaker on his line to get the most of his scoring ability. There’s nothing wrong with that. But even despite Vesey’s limitations, his hockey IQ is still miles ahead of Gropp’s. So what does that say of Gropp’s future?
I spoke to one scout who all but has written him off as a career AHLer. I am not ready to concede that point yet, or else I wouldn’t have ranked him this high. Nonetheless, no matter how good Gordie Clark’s poker face is, Gropp’s development is not going as planned so far. He turns 21 in September and will start the year in Hartford. The size, speed, and shooting combination is still intriguing, but his simplified north-south game isn’t going to work at the pro level. He’ll need to show meaningful improvement in how he thinks the game to really recuperate his stock as a prospect, and he’ll need to do it quickly or else a further plummet is inevitable.