10. Tyler Wall, Goaltender, 19 Years Old, Sixth-Round Pick (2016)
Previous Rank: 20
Earlier in these rankings, I discussed how playing at a lower level in his pre-draft year might have left 2017 6th-round pick Morgan Barron underexposed. The Rangers are currently reaping the rewards of a similar situation with 2016 draft pick Tyler Wall. After Wall dominated insignificant competition in the OJHL, it was no sure thing how he would perform as a true freshman for UMass-Lowell as part of the cutthroat Hockey East. In fact, there was no certainty he would see much action at all.
Wall was very good, though. He beat out Ducks’ draft pick Garrett Metcalf, despite being two years younger, and started 34 of UMass-Lowell's 41 games. There were moments where his inexperience and rawness showed, as he let in some soft goals. Overall, though, Wall was an above-average NCAA goaltender, posting a .918 save percentage as he helped the River Hawks become the Hockey East champions. He has the ideal goaltending frame and is compact but calculated in his movements within the crease. His pre-shot positioning is usually on point. The team in front of him was good, but this is not the case of a goalie benefitting from the product in front of him. Make no mistake; he was an integral part of his team’s success.
In a just world, Wall would be a heavy contender for Canada’s 2018 U20 world juniors team. However, circumstances work against him. Carter Hart and Michael DiPietro headline Canada’s strongest goaltending crop in a while, and Hockey Canada doesn’t exactly have a long history of giving NCAA players the benefit of the doubt. On merit, Wall at least deserves a look.
Wall is still multiple years away from turning pro - let alone reaching the NHL - but the Rangers’ scouting staff scores some major points for this late-round find. A year removed, he is already one of the better goaltending prospects in North America.
9. Ryan Graves, Defenseman, 22 Years Old, Fourth-Round Pick (2013)
Previous Rank: 3
As I will now say for the final time, the 2016-2017 Hartford Wolf Pack were a tremendous mess from top-to-bottom and that made it hard to properly evaluate anyone. To paraphrase Hall-of-Fame NFL running back Emmitt Smith, when you mix in few diamonds with a lot of cow poo, it all looks like poo. Nevertheless, Graves managed to have a steady season amongst the dysfunction. He earned an increased role with the team and usually featured on the team’s top pairing, doing the usual good job in shutdown minutes. The bigger change in him came offensively. He’s realized how big of a threat his powerful shot is, and was 12th among AHL defensemen (minimum 30 games played) in shots-per-game (2.51).
This is the season where things start to become a challenge for Graves. His skating is fine for the AHL level, but there’s little margin for error in the NHL. His straight-line speed is up to par.
However, worries are with his lateral movement and acceleration. Sometimes he’s prone to flat-footedness. I don’t doubt he will put the work in to improve it, but it’s hard to predict how much more it can be improved.
I also am looking forward to seeing how Graves responds to the competition around him. Hartford has been a poor team the last couple of years and Graves was the only defenseman with NHL upside. By no means do I question his work ethic or attitude, but some degree of complacency is natural for any human in such an unambitious environment. In the last few months, the Rangers have made a number of moves to overhaul the defense and push Graves down the depth chart. Rangers’ personnel have spoken multiple times about having young defensemen compete in training camp, and Graves has been notably absent when examples were named. My hope is that he uses that the added competition puts a chip on his shoulder and brings out the best of him.
I expect that Graves will again spend next season receiving key minutes in Hartford. It’s a matter of when, not if, the Rangers make openings on the left side by cutting ties with Nick Holden and Marc Staal. There will be opening as the #6 or #7 defenseman on the Rangers in two years. By virtue of recent additions, Graves has gone from a top contender for one of those spots to an outsider. Next season will be paramount if he is to make up that ground.
8. Alexei Bereglazov, Defenseman, 22 Years Old, Free-Agent Signing (2017)
Previous Rank: N/A
In the last few years, I’ve learned that a lot of networking and goes into scouting. With so many leagues all over the world and a finite number of days in the season, it’s impossible to cover all ground. So teams rely on networks they’ve built up to tip them off sometimes.
Per NHL.com the Rangers zeroed in on Bereglazov after former Rangers’ assistant coach Mike Pelino pitched him to President Glen Sather. Pelino coached Bereglazov at Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL for multiple years. The Rangers liked what they saw, and now he’s signed and competing for a roster spot.
I got a good look at Bereglazov myself during the Gagarin Cup Final (KHL Championship), where Bereglazov’s team faced off against Igor Shestyorkin’s SKA. He has the look of a shutdown defenseman, both by old and new philosophies. At 6’4 and 203 pounds, he has a massive frame that he uses well. He wins board battles both through strength and leverage. The same holds true for slot positioning, as he does a tremendous job of boxing out forwards in front of the net. Nobody is going to mistake him for Erik Karlsson, but in terms of transitioning the puck up ice, he did the job at the KHL level. He has a good first pass. He has confidence skating the puck through open ice.
Bereglazov will be a finalist for a roster spot in training camp. Right now it’s a bit unclear how the Rangers plan to make a spot available with both Marc Staal and Nick Holden still on the roster, but he would not have left one of the top teams outside of the NHL without the assurance that there would be a place for him. Furthermore, he has a clause in his contract that allows him to go back to Europe if he’s assigned to the AHL. I expect Bereglazov to make the Rangers’ roster out of training camp; even if it’s as the seventh defenseman. He has the makeup necessary to succeed as a depth shutdown defenseman in the modern NHL.
7. Neal Pionk, Defenseman, 22 Years Old, Free-Agent Signing (2017)
Previous Rank: N/A
In what was an incredibly aggressive spring for the Rangers in terms of signing free agent prospects, Pionk was definitely their best of the haul. Lack of size and playing high school hockey in 2014 resulted in no teams drafting Pionk at the 2014 Entry Draft. He’s since made scouts regret that. He was the USHL Defenseman of the Year in 2015. Then, he put together two solid years in the NCAA with Minnesota-Duluth. In fact, last season he was their top defenseman as they won the NCHC conference. He personally registered 34 points in 42 games along the way.
I saw very little NCHC hockey last season. Luckily, our friends at SBN College Hockey have. I am very trusting of their evaluations. Here is what they wrote of Pionk back in January.
“Pionk is a very good two-way defenseman thanks to his excellent skating ability and agility. He moves the puck up the ice reliably thanks to an ability to spin his way out of traffic and is an excellent outlet passer. His quickness also gives him the confidence to hold the line in the offensive zone, rather than giving up ice to give himself more cushion defensively.”
He’s just an okay defender one-on-one against the rush, but has an above average amount of toughness and physicality for a guy that will classify as a smaller defenseman at the next level.”
As with Bereglazov, the Rangers’ defense is crowded but nonetheless, the team expects Pionk to contend for a roster spot. Most college free agent signings are long-shots, but Pionk is the real deal. There were a number of teams who were after Pionk, so credit to the Rangers’ scouts and management for luring in a quality prospect who plays a position with much higher demand than supply.
6. Adam Huska, Goaltender, 20 Years Old, Seventh-Round Pick (2015)
Previous Rank: 9
Huska was dominant in the USHL in 2015-2016. Any reservations anyone might have had about him after were due to skepticism of the competition. In that regard, he is not too dissimilar from Tyler Wall.
So like Wall, Huska was thrown into the fire in 16-17. He joined UConn, a not-so-traditional hockey school that is building its pedigree in the highly competitive Hockey East. Goaltending duties were split between him and incumbent Robert Nichols, who is almost five years older. However, when the games started to really matter towards the end of the season - particularly in the conference tournament - Huska was given the reigns. Behind a relatively young and mediocre defense, Huska held down the fort for much of the season. He posted a .916 save percentage in 21 games. On average, he faced 34.2 shots per 60 minutes, which is an awful lot. Though it might not be what’s best for UConn, it does serve Huska’s development well. From what I saw, a fair share of those shots were high in quality as well.
Huska also started in net for Slovakia for the second-straight year at the U20 World Junior Championship. Yet again, he was their best player and kept them in games they had no business competing in.
For his age, Huska is well put together. He has high-end athleticism, and with his large frame, it means he can cover a lot of net in a hurry. The mechanics are still a work in progress, but it’s vastly improved from when the Rangers drafted him. He’s seeing shots through traffic better. His rebound control is improved.
There are a few goaltending prospects who are legitimate blue chippers. After them, Huska can match up with any U21 goaltender in the world. Goaltenders are magic unicorns whose development are hard to predict, but I have a lot of faith in Huska. He’s passed every test he’s faced with flying colors. He’s already putting his game together at a young age. His frame and athleticism make put his ceiling in the stratosphere.
Huska’s future is mostly in his hands. The Rangers wanted him to sign a year ago, but he chose the college route. There’s nothing wrong with him taking his time to develop in the NCAA. Especially because of UConn’s proximity to New York, which allows Goalie Coach Benoit Allaire to frequently check in. Though I do rank one goaltender in the Rangers’ prospect pool above him, Huska is the goaltender in the system with the highest upside.