For a website that does a decent amount of prospect analysis, you’re not going to find much mention of 2018 fourth-round pick Nico Gross over the past few years. That’s not because he isn’t a top prospect; depth players in the Rangers’ organization get quite a bit of coverage here.
There simply hasn’t been much reason to write about Gross since the Rangers drafted him 16 months ago. The selection was uninspiring, as the Swiss defenseman had just four goals and 10 assists in 58 OHL games in his draft season. His 2018-2019 campaign saw little progress on the offensive end, with 20 points in 56 games.
Gross is a shutdown defenseman, but as we have pointed out numerous times on Blueshirt Banter, good NHL shutdown defensemen typically produce a respectable number of points at the junior level. Tracking data done by The Athletic’s Mitch Brown also showed that Gross tended to get stuck in his end of the rink far too often. In our 2019 Prospect Rankings, we had Gross as the 33rd-ranked prospect in the organization; a total afterthought.
The 2019-2020 OHL season began in mid-September, and Gross is finally starting to show some life. This past Thursday, Gross remarkably scored a hat-trick against the North Bay Battalion.
Gross then followed that up with another goal on Sunday against Saginaw.
With four goals in seven games this season, Gross has already matched his OHL career high. Add in two assists, and Gross is beginning to really show some offensive competence. With 15 shots, he’s also on pace to more than double his total from last season.
There are a few important qualifiers, though, as one goal was a gifted empty netter while the other three were on the power play. He needs to show the ability to add offense at five-on-five, especially since he’s not going to see power play time at even the AHL level.
Oshawa is also a strong offensive team with multiple high-caliber OHL players. A rising tide lifts all boats, and Gross is for sure benefitting from the talent around him.
Still, it’s progress that he’s even scoring at all, and these aren’t flukey goals reliant on bad goaltending or fortunate ricochets. Those power play goals are impressive shots that deserved to find the back of the net.
Gross has also made improvements on the defensive side of the puck. Despite his reputation as a shutdown defenseman, he’s had major issues with his footwork and gap control, leading to his getting burned on the outside lanes by any winger with skating ability. Though there’s still a lot of work to do, that deficiency wasn’t as pronounced in the games I’ve seen so far.
And while Gross has always had a bit of an edge to his game, he has taken that to another level this season and has become a real physical force.
Gross is going to have to show this the length of the OHL season (plus at the 2020 World Junior Championships for Switzerland) to really move the needle, and even then he’d face an uphill battle to carve out an NHL career.
Even so, a previously irrelevant prospect is giving reasons to keep an eye on him for now, and the timing of it is fairly important. The Rangers’ rights to Gross expire at the end of June, and so they’ll have to make a decision on whether to offer him an entry-level contract or lose him. Going into the season he did not appear anywhere close to deserving one. If he continues to play like he has so far, then he may just make a convincing case.