2019 New York Rangers Draft Grades

Welcome to year five of draft day grades, everyone! We’re celebrating the fifth year with some Kaapo Kakko, which is just the best. If you want a trip down memory lane, see the first three year’s worth of links below:

(Mike and I broke down the 2019 NHL Draft on this week’s podcast — Ep. 146. Listen to that here.)

2015 | 2016 | 2017

As is tradition, I will now grade my own grades a year out from the 2018 NHL Draft, which you can review here.

Vitali Kravtsov — I graded Kravtsov with an “A” despite the Rangers passing on Oliver Wahlstrom to draft him. I highlighted some of the reasons why the high-upside pick made a ton of sense even though it was a different name called than what we wanted:

Before the draft started, Adam tried to explain that while the Rangers might not pick the players we want them to, that doesn’t mean they’re bad players. Did I want Wahlstrom? Yes. Did I have Kravtsov as one of my sleeper picks in the first round? Yes, yes I did. So much so that a month and a half ago I said I would be fine with the Rangers taking him at nine (presuming Wahlstrom was off the board). Even if leaving him there (where the Islanders eventually took him) stings, the Rangers swung hard for talent. And there’s evidence to suggest Kravtsov might be one of the best players in this class.

There is a belief, and take from it what you will, that Wahlstrom’s historic season was helped, in part, to being part of the most talented USDP team the country has ever churned out. That he benefited from being the next guy after teams focused on next year’s 1st overall pick Jack Hughes. That might be people making excuses for how far he slid, but it’s something out there that at least has some logic behind it.

Jeff Gorton and Gordie Clark, a year out, look like geniuses. Wahlstrom had a semi-catastrophic season with Boston College, and Kravtsov was dynamic for his age/team being terrible in the KHL, and signed an ELC this summer to join the Rangers. This was a huge win for the Rangers.

I loved: The selections of K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. Both players blew post-draft expectations out of the water, and rounded out an absolutely grand slam of a first round for the Rangers last year. Miller was one of the highest scoring defensive freshman in the NCAA last year, and Lundkvist had a top-10 season for a U18 player in the SHL in terms of offense. Both players will likely rank very high on Adam’s New York Rangers Prospect Rankings (coming soon!), and the Rangers’ pool has never been deeper, so it’s not even by default. What a huge win by the Rangers here.

I also loved the Riley Hughes selection as a very late sleeper. Hughes plied his trade in the BCHL where he had 28 points in 53 games, then put up 21 points in 15 playoff games. He dominated in the way we expected him to dominate a lesser league. He’ll play for Northeastern next year, where we’ll get a better idea of where his trajectory is.

I liked: The picks of Joey Keane and Jacob Ragnarsson. Ragnarsson put himself on the radar of potentially having an NHL future, and Keane got off to a skyrocketing start in the OHL before he was traded to London mid-year and lost some of his offensive edge. Still, Keane signed an ELC this summer and should have a crack at making a point about himself in Hartford. Ragnarsson (who I gave a C, more because of who was passed over to get him) might grade out to be an NHL defenseman somewhere down the line.

I also liked Lauri Pajuniemi as a later round skill pick. Pajuniemi had very little growth in Liiga this year (seven points in 32 games two years ago, and 13 points in 44 games in his post-draft year) so this one doesn’t look good a year out. Obviously a lot can change, but you’d still like to see a bigger jump from him year to year.

I hated: Nico Gross (graded at a D), and actually failed the selections of Olof Lindbom and Simon Kjellberg. Kjellberg, the son of a Rangers’ scout, wasn’t an NHL prospect a year ago and isn’t one today. He put up a whopping five points in 58 USHL games, and will play at RPI next year in the NCAA. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to him.

Lindbom was another player who had his selection graded based on who was left on the board. The Rangers passed up on at least three first-round rated talents to select him 39th overall — when most experts didn’t even have him atop the goalie rankings of the 2018 draft. Lindbom had injuries that derailed this past year, but put up semi-respectable numbers when he was playing. Goalies are voodoo so who knows, but he will take some time.

As for Gross, I didn’t understand the pick then and I’m not sure I do now. He had 20 points in 56 OHL games, and two assists in seven games for Switzerland in the World Juniors — where he wore an “A.” Gross was always a character pick, but I’m not sure there’s an NHL player here.

I will, once again, give myself a very good grade on last year’s grades. I’m giving myself an A.

Now onto this year.

Kaapo Kakko (F) in the 1st Round (2nd overall)
Draft Coverage | BSB’s draft ranking

Grade: A++

Analysis: Yes I put two “+” signs after the “A.” I would put a million if I can, but I think SB Nation’s dashboard would freeze and not publish, and then you all would complain because you live for these grades.

Anyway, back to Kakko.

We have spoken about him extensively since the Rangers won the draft lottery, and for good reason. He changes everything, literally. He outscored players like Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov in Liiga in his draft year, while playing on a worse team. He’s an ox of a human, even at the young age of 18. Kakko’s also fresh off a gold medal in the World Championship this summer where he scored six goals and added an assist in 10 games — his second gold medal of the year, as he won the 2019 World Junior Championship with Finland in a tournament where he had five points in seven games. Oh, he also won the U18 World Juniors with Finland last year with 10 points in seven games.

He’s projected to be a star in the NHL (again, franchise-changing prospect and generational are two different things, Kakko is the former) and the type of scoring winger the Rangers haven’t had in a long, long time. There’s not much more to say here, the Rangers got Kakko and we should all be thanking the Hockey Gods for that every day.

Matthew Robertson (D) in the 2nd Round (49th overall)
Draft Coverage | Adam’s Knee-Jerk Reaction

Grade: A-

Analysis: I’m torn on this pick. Robertson is one of the highest-floor players in the draft (aside from the obvious exceptions), meaning he’s almost a safe bet to be an NHL defenseman. Getting a guy like that 49th overall isn’t bad at all, and the only thing keeping this from being an “A” for me is personal bias because Nicholas Robertson (taken by the Leafs 53rd overall) was one of the youngest players in the draft; he’s a known shot-generator who had over a point per game for Peterborough in the OHL last year. I love betting on young talent with upside (similar to Filip Chytil).

That said, Matthew Robertson was projected mid-year to be a first-round talent, and remained that on some boards. By all accounts he’s one of the smartest players in the draft, an excellent skater, and actually a “mobile two-way defenseman.” I say actually because that terminology is often thrown around for guys who simply aren’t that type of player at all. A loose comparison for Robertson is someone like Anton Stralman, a defenseman who can actually skate and makes a great first pass.

I would bet part of Robertson’s drop off in the rankings came from his “lack” of offense — with 33 points in 52 games. He did add eight points in 16 playoff games, but the offense isn’t what you should be looking at with him.

Robertson is a possession monster, and can make moves to keep the puck on his stick and get it out of the zone. He defends well, can make a nice spring pass, but most of all he’s reliable with the puck on his tape. Almost all of these things are cliche comments for defensemen who are big, hulking, and don’t possess much skill; for Robertson they’re actual talents. Oh, he’s also 6’4” and 201 pounds. Size is a secondary concern for me, but when the talent is there it’s nice to have (like Kakko).

Karl Henriksson (C) in the 2nd Round (58th overall)
Draft Coverage | Adam’s Knee-Jerk Reaction Here

Grade: A

Analysis: The more I read about Henriksson and looked into pre-draft notes/rankings, the more I fell in love with this pick. Henriksson fell to the end of the second round for two reasons: 1) he’s an undersized forward and teams still avoid those players like the plague (look at Paul Fenton gushing about all his selections being taller than him despite the Wild having a bad draft ... wonder why), and 2) he played on a line with Lucas Raymond who is expected to be a top-five pick in next year’s draft.

A deeper dive into the numbers shows a different story about Raymond’s impact. Evan has a model that shows where offense comes from for specific players. The bigger the line to the name, the more offense runs through that player. Where Henriksson has a line to himself, there’s only his primary assist on the goal (meaning there was no secondary assist).

As you can see, Henriksson distributed his offense pretty fairly, and it’s safe to say he wasn’t relying on Raymond for his offense. Henriksson was one of the highest scorers in the J20 SuperElite with 49 points in 45 games (he also had nine points in six playoff games).  Henriksson was also one of the top players in the U18 WJC where he had nine points in seven games. Corey Pronman called him “one of the best playmakers at that level” when talking about the SuperElite league.

Scott Wheeler also spoke to Henriksson’s talent in his review of the Rangers’ Day 2.

The Karl Henriksson pick at No. 58 fits that same mould too. He’s a little guy with loads of talent as a passer. If he can get a little stronger and learn to go to the net, he’ll be good.

Zachary Jones (D) in the 3rd Round (68th overall)
Draft Coverage | Adam’s Knee-Jerk Reaction

Grade: A

Analysis: Jones is another undersized prospect who is loaded with skill — a dramatic and welcome change from previous Rangers’ drafts. Jones dominated the USHL last year for Tri-City, posting 52 points in 56 games, plus five points in six playoff games. He will play at UMass (Amherst) next year in the NCAA.

Wheeler had Jones as one of his sleepers of the draft, and Pronman raved about his skill level and hockey sense:

Jones was one of the best defensemen in the USHL this season. He’s not the biggest or fastest defenseman, but he’s great with the puck on his stick. Jones has a high skill level, great offensive instincts, and is not afraid to try and make a play. He often joins the rush, pinches off the blueline and can thread difficult passes. His awareness with the puck is fantastic. He finds seams consistently, his point shots find teammates sticks, and I’ve even seen an assist where he banked a point shot off the boards and around the net intentionally.

Jones is another skilled pick, and the Rangers took a big swing on a player for upside rather than “intangibles” that don’t mean much (more on that, sadly, in a minute). Jones has the ability to beat guys on the rush, can make those seam passes that have you out of your seat, and has enough hockey sense that he was able to cover gaffs consistently. How much he’ll need to work on the defense remains to be seen, but guys with OK skating and great hockey sense get by just fine in the NHL; still, it will take some work to get there. He’ll get plenty of chances at UMass where he might be asked to step in right away.

There were some concerns that Jones saw his numbers explode due to 30-goal defenseman (no, that’s not a typo) Ronnie Attard. Once again we go to Evan...

There is some expected offense running through Attard (who was an “overage” for the USHL), but like Evan said it’s not crazy. This was a really good bet by Gorton and company.

Hunter Skinner (D) in the 4th Round (112th overall)
Draft Coverage Here | Adam’s Knee-Jerk Reaction

Grade: D

Analysis: I am happy to say that Skinner is the first — and only — pick I did not love in this year’s draft. Skinner is a former forward to converted to defense, and that’s why this grade doesn’t get a straight “F.”

The only drafting service that had Skinner ranked at all was NHL Central Scouting, which had him ranked as the 120th NA ranked prospect in the draft. He was taken 153rd overall by Muskegon in the USHL Futures Draft in 2017 and didn’t really do anything to justify being taken 41 slots higher in the NHL draft.

Once you enter this stage in the draft, there are a lot of crap-shoots anyway, so using a flyer on a hulking not-that-great-of-a-skater defenseman isn’t something to explode about. But when it comes at the expense of, say, Tuukka Tieksola getting taken nine picks later, it’s bad. The Rangers are very clearly banking on Skinner’s lack of positional experience turning him into a gem, but Skinner is not K’Andre Miller — who was also a recent defensive convert. This feels like another one of those Gordie Clark “we know better than you” specials that we’ll all be scoffing at in a year.

Leevi Aaltonen (F) in the 5th Round (130th overall)
Draft Coverage | Adam’s Knee-Jerk Reaction

Grade: A

Analysis: In a draft that saw the Rangers grade well-to-excellent from all notable pundits, Aaltonen was the team’s biggest plus pick. Meaning, he was the player who was ranked the highest that the Rangers got lower than they should have. According to Wheeler, Aaltonen was picked 39 spaces after he should have been.

Keeping with the trend of undersized skill, Aaltonen and all of his 5’9” frame boasts outstanding skill and speed. He had 36 points in 29 Jr. A SM-liiga games for the U20 KalPa team, and scored a point per game in the U18 WJC for Finland. I said on this week’s Bantering the Blueshirts that Aaltonen’s underage numbers in the Finnish junior leagues reminded me a lot of Aleksi Saarela. Let’s hope he has that kind of impact for the Rangers (and doesn’t get traded for an ageing Eric Staal).

Adam Edstrom (C/W) in the 6th Round (161st overall)
Draft Coverage | Adam’s Knee-Jerk Reaction

Grade: B

Analysis: Edstrom is a hulking forward who can skate and has a scorer’s touch. His numbers in the SuperElit didn’t blow anyone out of the water (16 points in 20 games, but 11 of those were goals). He did spend 15 games in the SHL, but he averaged less than five minutes a night and recorded just one assist.

A loose comparable to Edstrom is a fourth line center with some offensive pop like Brian Boyle. That’s a fine player to grab in the sixth round, and this draft wasn’t exactly loaded with higher-upside players once you passed the first round. This is a fine selection for this part of the draft.

Eric Ciccolini (RW) in the 7th Round (205th overall)
Draft Coverage | Adam’s Knee-Jerk Reaction

Grade: B+

Analysis: Two years ago Cale Makar fell to 4th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft because teams were worried his eye-popping offense and ability was “too good to be true” because it was coming in the AJHL and not a more traditional feeder league. Two years later Makar had 49 points in 41 games for UMass (Amherst) and then posted six points in 10 playoff games for Colorado.

I am not comparing Ciccolini to Makar in skill, but I am saying that Ciccolini might have fallen to the seventh round for the same reasons Makar fell fourth. Ciccolini will play for Michigan University next year, but he played 48 games in the OJHL last year, which raised some eyebrows. There, he had 62 points in 48 games (added five points in five playoff games) and won the league’s “Prospect of the Year” honors.

Pronman raved about his skating, but called his skill and vision “mediocre.” Again, we’re not talking about Makar here. That said, other scouts have told me they see a little more offensive sense/skill than others do, and think some might have walked away with a bad taste in their mouth due to him playing in the OJHL. For what it’s worth, Ciccolini seemed to draw markers all over the map. McKeen’s Hockey had him ranked 178th, while Hockeyprospect.com had him at 79th, and two more in the middle.

For a seventh round flyer, this is a totally acceptable pick.

Final Review

The Rangers got the biggest grab in Kakko, but the rest of the draft was excellent. Almost everyone in the space agreed the Rangers had one of the best drafts of any team, and that’s even excluding Kakko in some respects. The Rangers finally drove toward skill rather than size, and they got some very good lottery tickets in the process.