Having completed my 2020 New York Rangers prospect rankings, I asked you to submit any questions for me. I did my best to answer as many as possible. As always, thank you for reading these rankings every year. We’ll continue posting regular prospect content on the website as games continue and, in some cases, hopefully, begin soon.
If you were to place the organization's prospects into tiers, how would you group them?
Here is how I would tier my top-30 prospect list.
The Great and Powerful B
Looking at the depth and duplicate roles and positions in top 15, what prospects would you earmark as available for trade to address areas of weakness?
Let me first give the political non-answer that, aside from Alexis Lafrenière, every single prospect is available for trade if the right deal comes up. Beyond that, there are two obvious prospects to earmark for as potential trade assets in the near future.
First is Vitali Kravtsov. He’s redeeming himself in a big way in the KHL right now, but I don’t think that either side will 100% move past the difficulties of last season until, and unless, he comes back to North America and works his way into the NHL lineup.
Even beyond that is a big depth chart issue. If the Rangers decide to extend Pavel Buchnevich beyond this season, then it leaves no room in the top-six after him and Kaapo Kakko, not to say anything of Julien Gauthier. Moving someone to left wing was a potential workaround we theorized in the summer. Lafrenière’s acquisition renders that virtually impossible now. Something is going to have to give on right-wing very soon.
The other prospect is Braden Schneider. I know, I know. The Rangers not only just drafted him but went out of their way to move up the draft board to grab him.
The draft is about stockpiling assets. No team drafts a player and thinks, “Can’t wait to trade him!” In the big picture, however, teams understand that prospects have value in trades, and sometimes you have to move a few for the greater good. The Tampa Bay Lightning drafted Nolan Foote 27th overall in 2019 and then traded him to the Devils eight months later for Blake Coleman. The Penguins traded Kasperi Kapanen to the Maple Leafs for Phil Kessel almost exactly one year after drafting him 22nd overall.
When it comes to trade currency, it’s hard to think of a safer and more broadly appealing player type than a young, right-handed, shutdown defenseman who is close to NHL-ready. Within the next two years, it won’t be surprising to see the Rangers make a big move as they try to gear up for a run at contention. Who knows what the roster might look like then, but If Adam Fox and Nils Lundkvist are playing top-four minutes, not to mention Jacob Trouba and Tony DeAngelo, then it could make Schneider the obvious trade chip.
I am not actively predicting Schneider will be traded, but when you think of a prospect whom other teams would seek in a trade in a year or two and whom the Rangers may be able to absorb the loss of, I think Schneider checks many boxes, potentially.
Tough year to do this with so much confusion as to what leagues will play and when, but can you name 1 player in a make or break year and 1 player who could really surprise (in a good way) and jump up the rankings for next year?
Mike, a proud Michigan alumnus, is fishing for more Eric Ciccolini praise. Not happening this time, Mike!
I’m not going to call it a make-or-break year, but I think it will be pretty close to one for Tim Gettinger. He’ll be in his third pro season, turns 23 in April, and will be waiver eligible at the start of the 2021-22 season. When it comes to left wing depth, Brendan Lemieux is under contract for two more seasons and Morgan Barron just turned pro. the AHL season will be relatively short (if it happens at all) so Gettinger is going to have very little margin for error. He needs to have a very good season in order to put himself in the conversation, even if not fo this season. A very good year from him may be cause for the Rangers to move Lemieux as a cap casualty next summer. Or, at least, to put the roster in 2021-22 in a 13th forward capacity. Otherwise, Gettinger will surely be passed over for good.
I also think, in both directions, this is a pivotal season for Tarmo Reunanen. A strong showing in Harford could push him into the top-10, while a mediocre-or-worse one would drop him outside the top-20. If spends most of season on the NHL roster (unlikely, in my view) then he’ll graduate out of the rankings altogether. He turns 23 in March so there isn’t much runway for him even if this will be his North America debut.
As for a potential riser, I won’t be “surprised” but I think the potential is there for Vierling, assuming the OHL season can actually get underway. The pressure of the draft is done with and the drama in Flint is in the rearview mirror at this point. He’ll be Barrie’s number-one center and showed last season that he’s built a nice partnership with Flyers’ first-round pick Tyson Foerster. The opportunity is there for him to rack up the points and prove he deserved to be drafted much higher than the fifth-round.
Who are some of your favorite ‘hidden gem’ ‘under the radar’ Twitter accounts to follow for NHL prospect content in general?
I hope he isn’t hidden at this point, but I want to give a shoutout to Alex Nunn, who does a great job at following and reporting on the progress of the Rangers’ European prospects. He comes up clutch for me when I have needed him to capture a replay of something for me for use in future articles.
Also, Tobias is always inciteful and willing to tell me when he disagrees with me, which is always good for challenging one’s preconceived notions.
Anyone else a little bit concerned about Kakko’s hockey sense and ability to process the game quickly? I saw an article a few weeks ago that pointed out that he doesn’t use his teammates especially well, or always make good decisions when attacking with the puck. So I watched some games of his and…I kind of agree. He often skated himself into trouble or failed to make use of his teammates as outlets. I worry that he may not ever justify being selected 2nd overall – I worry he may top out as a 50 or 60 point player. Which in a vacuum is awesome, but you’d like more out of a guy picked where he was. Does anyone else share these concerns? Hopefully I’m missing something or overthinking it.
As I wrote in February, yes, you’re allowed to be a little bit anxious about Kaapo Kakko! I completely understand the collective desire to protect the kid from being eaten alive by the pressure of the New York market, not to mention the inevitable hot takes and overly harsh criticisms from hockey’s biggest attention seekers. But come on. Everyone thought he was NHL ready and he wasn’t. We can’t pretend that’s nothing.
Let me explain why his situation is different from typical concerns for other prospects and why I still believe he’s going to end up in the ballpark of where everyone originally anticipated.
Let’s use former seventh-overall pick Lias Andersson as an example. His value as a prospect peaked in January of 2018. He was playing very well for Frölunda, with seven goals and seven assists in 22 games, and was coming off a tremendous World Junior Championship performance in which he scored six goals and added an assist in seven games.
Even while playing the best hockey of his life, I and others were expressing concerns about some of the problems in his game. His skating was poor. He was heavily reliant on linemates to create his shooting opportunities. He wasn’t showing vision with the puck, any ability to beat defenders 1v1, nor a capacity for problem-solving. While playing in the SHL and the World Junior Championship, Andersson was displaying problems in his game that some feared would be exacerbated at the NHL level.
Compare that to Kakko, who has been absolutely dominant at every level he played prior to the Rangers. He was nearly a point-per-game player in Liiga against grown men, some of whom previously played in the NHL. He was even a force at the 2019 World Championship, scoring six goals in 10 games.
Nobody was accusing Kakko of having problems in his game that wouldn’t translate. Quite the opposite in fact, as his NHL-readiness was a massive talking point in the debate between him and Jack Hughes at the 2019 Draft. Nobody criticized him for holding the puck too long in the offensive when playing in Liiga, nor for not shooting frequently enough.
The distinction I’m making here is that Kakko’s problems in the NHL last season were not lingering issues but instead brand new problems. The level of hockey is at its highest and, for the first time in his pro hockey career, what he’s always done isn’t working. He’s going to have to make adjustments to his game. The foundation for his game is phenomenal and he’s still very young. He’s a hard worker and determined to become the best player he can be. I’m not making any promises, but I maintain confidence he’s going to figure this out.
What happens if the 20-21 AHL season is cancelled (ECHL already cancelled)? Not just in terms of ELC years, but lack of development for players who don’t yet have a spot on the Rangers? Wall for example, or Barron. Can they play in any other leagues? What are options?
I spoke to an NHL scout about this in November regarding OHL and WHL prospects. His answer was that it’s a massive concern but that NHL teams are hamstrung.
Players are theoretically supposed to be reporting to NHL training camp in a matter of weeks and yet there are still very few details about what the 2020-21 season will actually entail. There are a million different problems to figure out. The COVID situation could mean teams need expanded rosters. If that happens, what does it mean for the AHL? In normal circumstances, maybe the Rangers decide that K’Andre Miller and Morgan Barron are better off getting lots of minutes in the AHL. If the AHL season gets canceled and those two have no means of playing elsewhere, though, do they decide that they have to get them minutes in the NHL for the sake of development even if they believe (rightly or wrongly) it will come at the cost of winning games?
There are so many moving parts and it’s difficult to know how this plays out. Suffice to say that prospects not getting games and having their development stunted is big issue, but it’s going to affect every team.
What is your confidence level on Hartford as a development spot for prospects? How much has it changed since Knoblauch took over?
Certainly a lot higher than it was two years ago. Knoblauch is a modern thinker of the game with a lot of experience developing young players. They’ve added help to mentor goaltenders and they poached their video coach from the USHL’s incredibly progressive Chicago Steel. Chris Drury, now in charge of running the team, is praised by everyone I’ve spoken to as a great person who communicates well with players. Even when Hartford’s roster was stripped of so many key players — Igor Shesterkin, Joey Keane, and Phil di Giuseppe among them — they still saved face.
The big test is coming, though. Last season’s time didn’t have many notable prospects who needed developmental help. There’s an influx coming in the next two years whose fates will likely be decided at the AHL level. That’s when will have a full idea of how well prepared the Rangers are to turn those 50/50 prospects into NHLers.
Do you think Lafrenière coming in takes off some pressure from Kaapo Kakko?
I could see how it might. Lafrenière was the number-one overall pick, is fresher in everyone’s minds, and is going to draw a lot of attention from fans, media, and opposing coaches. Maybe it takes the pressure off of Kakko.
Or, maybe it creates more pressure for him. Maybe he feels pressure to perform that much more now that there’s a new guy in town whom everyone is excited about. There are minutes to earn at special teams, future contracts, jersey sales, etc.
I don’t doubt that Kakko is thrilled that Lafrenière is joining him in New York in the quest to become a dynasty. Beyond that, it’s impossible to know what the psychological impact will be. Different people react to circumstances in different manners.
Where would Joey Keane have ranked on your list?
I would have put him seventh on the prospect list, which puts him exactly where Julien Gauthier was on my under-24 list.
Ten months later, I still think the trade was an even swap on value. As has been established, the Rangers made this trade with the depth chart in mind. The outlook for Keane establishing a spot on the Rangers’ right defensive side wasn’t great due to numbers, while secondary scoring depth on the wing was a clear issue last season. However, I also believe the Rangers felt they were selling high on Keane. They liked him enough to draft him in the third round, sign him, and promote him to the NHL, but I also think they looked at his 2019-20 performance and saw it as a time to maximize a return.
Is this the most exciting time for you in terms of covering Rangers prospects?
I suppose that depends on how you define “exciting.” For sure, this is the best the Rangers’ prospect pool has ever been. It is fun to watch so many talented players with the potential to become impactful NHLers as part of what everyone hopes will be an organic build towards a Stanley Cup.
It’s also a lot of work. Back in 2013-14, the Rangers had only a few relevant prospects and it meant I could really hone in on them. I must have watched half of Anthony Duclair’s and Ryan Graves’ games. Now, I’m spread very thin and I have to make choices. I’m very much looking forward to when the Rangers consolidate so many of these players in AHL Hartford, where I can watch them all at once.
I’m watching games and taking notes for a reason, though. Joe doesn’t have me held hostage and I’m doing it wilfully. It’s a fun time to do what I’m doing, for sure.