Let’s first make note of the players I have outside my top-40 prospects in the New York Rangers’ organization. Ranked alphabetically, they are:
Now, let’s move on to the top-40.
40. Simon Kjellberg, Left Defenseman
2017 Ranking: N/A
Acquired Via: 2018 Draft (Sixth Round)
Nobody at Blueshirt Banter has ever seen him play. As such, it’s hard to offer a specific scouting report of Kjellberg. I’m also not sure how much that matters.
Kjellberg had 9 points in 43 games in the Swedish SuperElit, which is Sweden’s top junior league. Even for a shutdown defenseman, that is meager output for what is a relatively low level of play. The overwhelming majority - and by that, I mean dozens upon dozens - of 17-year-old defensemen to put up similar production never played an NHL game. I was able to find a few needles in a big haystack; players with a similar output who did manage to make the NHL in some capacity. They are:
- Christian Folin
- Peter Granberg
- Calle Rosen
- Tim Heed
- Henrik Tallinder
Tallinder was a serviceable third-pairing defenseman in the NHL for about six seasons. The others are NHL/AHL tweeners.
He has also not represented Sweden in a meaningful capacity; only a few unimportant games at the U17 level. That the Swedish Hockey Federation did not even so much as give him a cup of coffee in lesser U18 games this past season indicates they don’t particularly think highly of him.
So why did the Rangers draft him? Well, he is 6’3 and 190 pounds. That is impressive size. Size also means nothing if he can not play the game at a sufficient level.
I think it’s also more than fair to question biases. The Rangers’ Swedish-based scout is Patrik Kjellberg. Simon is his son. Do I think the Rangers explicitly drafted someone they did not think was good at hockey as a favor? No, I do not. I think they do see Simon as a player who could one day be in the NHL. However, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the selection was absent of sentimentalism.
A sixth-round pick is a long-shot to make the NHL to begin with, but there were opportunities to take players with upside. Instead they took a player who, historically speaking, will have to beat immense odds just to become a #6 defenseman in the NHL.
39. Brandon Crawley, Left Defenseman
2017 Ranking: 26
Acquired Via: 2017 Draft (Fourth Round)
At a Traverse City Tournament last September that was heavily disappointing for the Rangers, Crawley was one of the few bright spots. He was a strong one-on-one defender and even chipped in a bit offensively. Then, in the preseason, he earned a longer than expected stay with the Rangers and even scored against the Devils. And while I did not like the Rangers’ drafting of Crawley in the fourth round, by October I thought maybe they were onto something.
However, his season in the AHL was lackluster. On a subpar Hartford team that was ripe with opportunity for young players to earn increased roles, Crawley mostly served as a third-pairing defenseman and even found himself in the press box a handful of time. His skating became an issue, as he had a tougher time keeping up with the speed of the game. Five points in 64 games is not very good, even for a 20-year-old defensive defenseman.
With the number of defensemen the Rangers have signed to professional contracts now, it will probably be difficult for Crawley to earn significant AHL minutes. In fact, it’s possible he finds himself in the ECHL next season. He’s going to turn into a solid pro defenseman, but he’s going to need to show much more for the NHL to be a realistic proposition.
38. Nico Gross, Left Defenseman
2017 Ranking: N/A
Acquired Via: 2018 Draft (Fourth Round)
To be frank, I did not like this pick at all. Are there certain qualities to like? Sure. Gross has solid size and plays a pretty physical game. His time playing on international rinks shows, as he is a pretty good skater.
At the end of the day, though, the numbers look very bad. Four goals and 10 assists in 58 games at the OHL level is extremely poor. And as I alluded to with Kjellberg, even shutdown defensemen at the NHL level tend to have put up solid numbers in junior hockey. The microdata isn’t great, either. The Athletic’s Mitch Brown tracked a number of CHL games from this past season. Though Gross graded pretty well on zone entries, he was lackluster in many other areas; generating scoring chances, on-ice Corsi, and zone entry prevention.
If there’s reason for optimism with Gross, it’s that he is a Swiss defenseman who was playing in his first OHL season. The transition from the second Swiss division the OHL isn’t an easy one; both in terms of the level of play and adjustment to a smaller ice surface as well as the culture shock that must come with moving to a different continent as a 17-year-old. He also played pretty well at the U18 World Championship.
Still, the outlook for Gross is as a potential third-pairing defenseman, and with not particularly great odds. Those are the kinds of players a team should be looking to sign as free agents; the Rangers did well with John GIlmour, as an example. There is simply too much value left on the board early in the fourth round to justify selecting a player like Gross, though that is what the Rangers did.
37. Chris Nell, Goaltender
2017 Ranking: 30
Acquired Via: Free Agency (2017)
One of the many free agent signings the Rangers made out of the NCAA in the Spring of 2017, Nell performed well at the 2017 Traverse City Tournament behind a porous defense. In training camp, he earned an AHL spot over Brandon Halverson.
Things got tough during the season, though. Nell had a few very strong performances with the Wolf Pack, but those were outnumbered by pedestrian showings. By early December, the Rangers decided they needed to try and stop the bleeding, and so they signed former NHL goaltender Marek Mazanec out of the KHL while demoting Nell to the ECHL. In the ECHL, moved around to various teams in search of playing time, and had mixed results.
In fairness to Nell, the Wolf Pack averaged way too many quality shots against, and it would have been unrealistic to expect any rookie goaltender to look good in that situation. But Nell is now nearly 24 years old and doesn’t have much time left to make an impact. Alexandar Georgiev and Marek Mazanec have clearly established themselves above Nell in the depth chart, and Igor Shestyorkin likely signs for the 2019-2020 season. He’s going to have a small window of opportunity to prove himself and stay in the Rangers’ organization.
36. Tarmo Reunanen, Left Defenseman
2017 Ranking: 23
Acquired Via: 2016 Draft (Fourth Round)
Reunanen started the season as the seventh defenseman for TPS in the Finish Liiga. In my early viewings, I thought he played very well and deserved an elevated role. TPS obliged by moving him into a top-four role. I thought he played reasonably well at times, and struggled at other times. Pretty standard for a 19-year-old playing against men.
TPS struggled, and then they received 2016 fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi, a left-handed defenseman on loan from the Canucks. Reunanen became the odd man out, and barely played before being transferred to Lukko in January. He played a limited role for them as well, and was even relegated to playing in Finland’s second division for a couple of games.
Reunanen is far from blameless, as the offensive defenseman really did not produce when given chances. But I do think last year looks different for Reunanen in a different situation. In a vacuum, coming to North America would make sense, but the Rangers have such a logjam on defense as is that there isn’t a spot for him in the AHL.
The odds are stacked against Reunanen, but holding his own in a top men’s league as a 19-year-old isn’t nothing. He is under contract with Lukko again for 2018-2019, and he needs to receive consistent playing time.