10. Joey Keane, Right Defense
2018 Ranking: 18
Acquired Via: 2018 Draft (Third Round)
Joey Keane’s 2018-2019 season can be best summed up by the Gartner Hype Cycle. Absolutely insane expectations at the very beginning, significant disillusionment in the middle, and then a more mature, measured display of his capabilities towards the end.
Keane was one of the last few invitees to US World Junior Summer Showcase, and he made the most of the opportunity. By all accounts, he was one of the standout players at the camp for the USA, and surprisingly but deservingly survived cuts to make the condensed roster.
The run of good play continued into Rangers’ training camp in September. He stuck around pretty far into the preseason and did not look out of place even against legitimate pro players. After he was sent back to the OHL, I had wondered if I completely missed the mark on him.
He crashed down to earth during the actual season.
Actually, he started his OHL campaign very well, registering eight points in seven games with Barrie. A play like this one encapsulates the kind of confidence he was playing with at the time.
However, his play tailed off from there, registering just 13 points in 21 games during his remaining time with the Colts, which is mediocre production for a 19-year-old getting the offensive opportunities he was. Keane did not end up making the USA’s world junior team.
A midseason trade to the London Knights reinvigorated him. While his offensive output decreased, the context is what matters. In Barrie, Keane was heavily leaned on in all situations; in London, the offensive burden went to Evan Bouchard and Adam Boqvist. With more talent around him — and with a more defined, realistic role in London — Keane flourished.
“Thought he struggled early in the year with Barrie. Wasn’t as dynamic as he was last year. The trade to London helped and when he first got there he was awesome. Arguably better than Bouchard and Boqvist,” is what one NHL scout said to me back in March.
Keane has the makings of a modern shutdown defenseman. He reads the game well in the defensive end and has good body positioning when defending rushes. If your team is ever in a position when it’s facing an odd-man rush, Keane is a player you hope is defending it. He has such a great understanding of how to take away the most dangerous options on those types of plays. Even at just 6-feet tall, he is a capable 1v1 defender. He cuts off the right lanes at the right times in the defensive zone. His skating is impressive and he eats up ground quickly, lending him to be quite good at putting out fires on the backcheck (#6 and #7 in the following clips).
On the offensive side, he’s a catalyst. He doesn’t possess fancy hands, but with smarts and speed he shifts around with the puck and creates a lot of zone entries.
Of all the rankings I made last summer, Keane is the one I really regret. Others like Reunanen and Barron were big risers, but in Keane’s case I simply just had it wrong. I do stand by some of what I said at the time. There were higher upside players available at 88th overall, and I still see Keane as merely a No. 4 to 6 defenseman in the NHL.
However, I underestimated how close he was to the No. 4 side of that assessment. Furthermore, I did not really comprehend just how polished he was. I was wrong to say that Keane was not worthy of a third-round selection; the Rangers had this one right.
Keane has proven all he needs to in the OHL, and he’s too good for the ECHL. The depth chart isn’t conducive to him realistically making the NHL roster in training camp, but I’m sure the Rangers would love for him to humor them. I expect Keane not only to spend the season in Hartford but to be a needle-mover at the AHL level immediately. I don’t think it’s out of the question for him to earn a call-up or two during the season, either.
9. Yegor Rykov, Left Defense
2018 Ranking: 8
Acquired Via: Trade (2018)
After multiple years of getting buried on SKA’s depth chart, Rykov finally received an opportunity this past season when they transferred him over to HC Sochi in October. Now on a team without endless spending power, Rykov finally had a realistic shot of getting minutes, and he did. Rykov appeared in 47 games, good for second among Sochi defensemen. And while Sochi isn’t stacked like SKA, it is still a perfectly decent KHL team, and Rykov had to beat out some competent players to earn that playing time. Rykov had the opportunity to play under Sergei Zubov at Sochi, and the influence was evident.
Admittedly, Rykov’s numbers were uninspiring, with just three goals and six assists. However, Sochi was a weak offensive team across the board, and he made his impact on play regardless. Rykov is a sturdy 6’2, 205 pounds, and he is a very efficient skater, making him a well-rounded shutdown defenseman. The skating alone does him wonders, as he uses long strides to eat up ice quickly and closes gaps in the neutral zone with ease. He has the strength to knock players off the puck and win board battles. He uses his reach to disrupt play and force turnovers.
On the puck, Rykov is a heady, efficient player, though not flashy. While he’s not a significant goal creator, he can do the things beforehand that leads to offense for his team. He reads the ice well and can both skate the puck forward or find teammates for passes. He likes to activate in the offensive zone, even skating below the goal line at times. He’s not a go-to player in the offensive end, but he’ll participate in the play and do his part to keep the machine running. He has pretty good vision and sets up his fair share of scoring opportunities.
Rykov made the decision to sign with the Rangers this summer. The consensus seems to have penciled in Libor Hajek for a spot on the opening night lineup, and he may very well find himself there. But I think that assumption really undersells Rykov’s prospects. This is 22-year-old who has proven himself quite valuable in the world’s second-best league. He has a quality track record in Russia as well as in international play. He is physically mature and built for the NHL. Perhaps the adjustment to the North American game will prove too overwhelming for him at first, so he could just as well find himself in Hartford. Still, I think he is at least going to receive serious consideration from Head Coach David Quinn and his staff
Rykov isn’t a sexy player, but the potential is there to be a reliable, minute-eating defenseman. The kind that playoff teams are always paying a premium for at the trading deadline to fix their depth.
8. Morgan Barron, Center/Left Wing
2018 Ranking: 21
Acquired Via: 2017 Draft (Sixth Round)
Barron had a pleasantly surprising freshman season at Cornell in 2017-2018, but with the caveat that he was erratic. He had as many pedestrian games as he did notable ones, and his play trailed off in the second half of the season. The goal for 2018-2019, then, was for him to build on that and become a more consistent force.
Barron delivered. He was — at least in my viewings — Cornell’s best player. That’s no small feat given that Barron was 19 and the team’s average age was 21.6 years old (via Elite Prospects). He tripled his goal-scoring production, potting 15, and added 19 assists for a total of 34 points in 36 games. Barron was a shooting machine, finishing games with between seven and 10 shots at times. Over the full season, he averaged 4.22 shots-per-game, which was fourth among all NCAA players, many of whom are several years older. .
Barron’s game has finally caught up to his body, and he has really blossomed. At 6’3 and 214 pounds, he at times straight up bullies the competition. He powers his way to the net and wins board battles with ease (watch for #27 in white).
With his size and workrate, Barron is exhausting to defend. Opposing players have to exert a lot just to have a fighter’s chance in battles. He creates so many second and third possession opportunities for his team.
In possession, too, he is so difficult to knock off the puck. He has a lot of inertia. Try to count how many times a Colgate player attempts to disrupt Barron’s rush physically, and notice how undeterred he is the whole way.
Do not mistake him for being a pure physical player. Barron is creative, carries the puck with authority and can make some inventive passes. On the power play, he does not set up above the crease as one might expect, but is instead deployed on the half-wall. For his size, he is a pretty dynamic skater. There’s work to be done there once he turns pro and the game is quicker, but he’s within striking distance of where he needs to be. He has competent straight-line speed, and while he can just as well force his way through defenders physically, he also has the nimbleness to move around obstacles just the same. I think improvements to his skating are not make-or-break for him as a player, but instead may dictate just how good he becomes.
Barron could have turned pro for the 2019-2020 season, but he opted to return Cornell for his junior season. There aren’t really any holes in his game relative to the level of play, and so the only real objective for Barron is to dominate play. There’s no reason he can’t push himself into the conversation as one of the best players in college hockey.
At this point, I think Barron is more likely to play in the NHL than not, which is quite incredible given that he was an extremely underdeveloped sixth-round selection just two summers ago. Full credit to the Rangers’ scouting staff for finding a hell of a player deep into the draft. It’s still not clear what kind of player he can become, though. Barron has bounced between center and left wing at Cornell, and he could easily end up at either position. I think the Rangers will become quite pleased if Barron turns into a versatile, two-way third-liner.
7. Matthew Robertson, Left Defense
2018 Ranking: N/A
Acquired Via: 2019 Draft (Second Round)
For full disclosure: This is mostly a copy-and-paste of my writeup on Robertson following the draft. I saw him play quite a bit during the year and am satisfied with what I wrote at the time.
Robertson is a player I’ve seen play quite often and I am fully prepared to grade right now. Not an exhilarating pick, but still a very good one. The term “big, shutdown defenseman” is often poison when it comes to discussing prospects (more on that later), but Robertson is one of the few for whom it’s a deserved and endearing label.
At 6’3 and 201 pounds, Robertson is not only big but physically mature. One of the qualities that separates him from the classic big, dopey defenseman is his feet. It’s not that he has spectacular straight-line speed, but rather that he has mobile legs, meaning he can turn quickly and adjust his body on the fly to maintain proper positioning. His lateral movement is efficient, and he can turn quickly. Robertson’s long reach comes in handy and he is adept at getting his stick in to jam up puck carriers and create turnovers.
Here are just a couple of examples (First clip #22 in white, second clip #3 in white).
Another encouraging aspect of Robertson’s game is that he is a strong puck mover. No, he’s not going to lead rushes or send saucers across two zones to spring a breakaway. But he makes smart reads on the first pass from the defensive zone. He’s not a player who throws the puck away or loses the it in his feet.
His offensive skills are best described as adequate. Chances are he won’t be a big point producer at the NHL level, but he does possess enough talent to keep the opposition honest and do a requisite job of making a positive impact. His passing is, again, efficient though unspectacular. He can make passes and keep plays alive, and while he’s not a big playmaker, he is a play driver. Robertson is quite good at completing passes through the neutral zone. Mitch Brown of The Athletic found that Robertson hovered around the 90th percentile within the CHL last year in terms of creating zone exits and entries. Once in a while he can put the puck in the net as well.
A constant battle I find myself dealing with is in regards to the production of shutdown defenseman. The argument that people cling to in regards to players like Lindgren and Hajek is that registering points is “not their job.” That’s not how hockey works; certainly not modern hockey. No, a shutdown defenseman doesn’t need to be a big point producer, but they have to have the requisite ability to contribute to the play. Do that successfully and points are going to come just by happenstance. And if you can’t do it at lower levels then your game is not going to translate at the highest one. Robertson is a great example of what a shutdown defenseman should look like in juniors. Is he particularly gifted? No. But he is a catalyst for getting the puck into the offensive end and can hold his own from there.
Robertson won’t make anyone giddy, but scouts and development personnel will sleep well at night knowing that he’s in their system. He’s as safe of a bet as one will find in the second round to carve out a long, respectable NHL career. A scout in Canada reached out to say that he thought the Rangers got great value at No. 49 and that Robertson reminds him of Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm. I think that’s a great comparison both stylistically as well as a best-case scenario for his development. Like Ekholm, Robertson is a true shutdown defenseman in the modern NHL.
6. Nils Lundkvist, Right Defense
2018 Ranking: 5
Acquired Via: 2018 Draft (First Round)
Lundkvist had a largely inconspicuous post-draft season, but that does not mean it was a bad one. The Swedish defenseman started the campaign with a fairly strong showing at the World Junior Summer Showcase. Lundkvist proved capable on both sides of the puck at the event. Defensively, he shut down a number of rushes, while offensively he showed a willingness to carry the puck towards the danger areas in the offensive zone.
His actual league season was challenging, though that’s not always a bad thing. His SHL team, Lulea, were the second-best team in the league and had a fairly loaded defensive corps. As such, Lundkvist had a hard time finding playing time, aided by the team’s propensity for favoring veterans. At the start of the season, Lundkvist was lucky to see 12 minutes on the best of nights. The lowest point came when Lulea made him a fourth-line winger for a couple of games just so he could take some shifts.
At the World Juniors, Lundkvist played reasonably well, registering two points in five games for Sweden. However, he was a victim of the depth chart there too, with Adam Boqvist, Erik Brannstrom, and Rasmus Sandin offering extremely tough competition for minutes.
In the latter stages of the Swedish domestic season, Lundkvist started to get more playing time with Lulea, consistently posting between 15 and 17 minutes per night. An ankle injury sidelined him for a while, but he returned for the playoffs and featured more than ever before.
Despite the suboptimal circumstances and a rough start to the season, Lundkvist still has quite a bit to show for it. Even despite the limited minutes, Lundkvist earned his fair share of points on the scoresheet. Here is how he compares to a few cherrypicked defenders in their Draft-plus-one seasons who play a similar style to Lundkvist.
This is not to say that, therefore, Lundkvist is decidedly as good as or better than these players, but rather to point out that he actually did very well even if it doesn’t appear like that at face value. Lundkvist was a positive contributor to the offensive side. He appeared to add some velocity to his shot and it became a legitimate threat for not only his goals, but for creating opportunities for forwards above the crease.
The underlying numbers are fairly encouraging as well. Lundqvist posted a 50.07 Corsi For percentage, which puts him just about in line with the team average.
As far as viewings go, I saw a player who clearly belonged in the SHL but who also was enduring some growing pains. His defensive output was inconsistent, but not for lack of effort. He’s still working on body positioning and timing his defensive actions; when to stay in front of his man and hold his position versus when to got for a pokecheck, for instance.
This past season was a struggle for Lundkvist, but in the same way that the first gym visit after taking time off is a struggle. He’s a better player now having gone through it. I have Lundkvist ranked sixth, but that speaks more to the five incredible prospects the Rangers have ahead of him. In fact, I nearly put him in the top-five, and I wonder if he’s a victim of his usage. It’s hard to be overly bullish on a player who didn’t really get a chance to prove himself last season. Where does he rank right now in different circumstances?
Lundkvist’s development is a bit slower of a burn than I originally anticipated, but in a backward way that may be a good thing. The Rangers right defense portion of the team’s depth chart is very crowded right now, and keeping all of them long-term is not realistic. It’s worth noting that Lundkvist has a late birthday and is still just 18. Stashing him in Sweden for another year or two while that situation sorts itself out might be best for both his and the team’s needs. However, the time has come for him to have a full-time role in the SHL, and Lulea’s defense is not particularly easier to crack than it was last season. It will be interesting to see whether he can find consistent playing time in Lulea or whether he might get loaned out elsewhere.