10. Brett Berard, Wing, Providence College (NCAA)
2019 Ranking: N/A
Acquired Via: 2020 Draft (Fifth Round)
Pound-for-pound (in more ways than one) Berard was the Rangers’ best value pick of the 2020 Draft. At least, in my opinion. The diminutive forward was seen by the consensus as a borderline second-round talent prior to the 2020 draft but fell to the Rangers in the fifth round.
Berard is an energetic winger who brings a varied skillset to the table. I think the Rangers will hope, especially given his size, that Berard can take his skating to a higher level in the coming years, but that’s not to say he isn’t already speedy. With a quick couple of pushes he can get to top speed from a standstill, which makes him a threat on transitions and loose puck opportunities in open ice. He’s shifty and complements enough straight-line ability to back off defenders but then quickly pivot laterally and make a dangerous carry east-to-west.
Some scouts view Berard as a better passer than shooter. I tend to rate his shooting ability better. Regardless, the overarching takeaway is that Berard is a multi-faceted offensive threat. I don’t think he’ll be a player who becomes known for a particular ability or who will have a defined role on a team. His usefulness in different facets will instead make him the kind of player who can do different jobs on different lines depending on the circumstances.
Contrary to what one might expect due to his size (5’8, 163 pounds), Berard likes to operate from the high-trafficked areas of the offensive zone. He battles for inside positioning around the slot. He doesn’t need much space to get a release off quickly and he has the hands to seamlessly lift the puck into the top corners of the net.
Berard plays with a tremendous motor. He’s relentless most shifts, buzzing around and looking to get involved in the play. When the puck is dumped behind the opposing defense, he’s going to put in the effort to try to win the race, or at least start the forecheck put the retriever under duress.
In my eyes, Berard has two issues holding him back right now and potentially in the future. First, his size, or at least a need to adapt to his size. Berard is fearless on the ice but the laws of physics apply nonetheless. In his first college game last weekend I counted three occasions in which he was blown up. To his credit, he immediately bounced up, rejoined the play, and continued to play his game, but that’s still going to be a problem when it comes to winning or keeping possession and, of course, potential injuries. Berard is going to need to learn how to get stronger on his feet and, at times, avoid contact.
His defensive game is also a work in progress. Similar to the physical side of his game, his problems are not for lack of effort necessarily. He plays with intensity and generally is willing to put in the work for his team. Sometimes he does get caught puck watching in the defensive zone, though. The speed of the game is much faster in college and he got called out by his coach for a lackluster showing in a miserable 9-0 loss to Boston College.
As bad as that game was, his first for Providence was a strong display of what he can do for his team, generating three shots on goal and drawing two penalties with determined puck carries.
Putting prospects, and their likelihood of success, into context is sometimes difficult. If I said I believe that Berard has a one-in-four chance in becoming an NHLer then I’m noting that the odds are stacked against him. Yet, only around 10% of fifth-round selections, if even that many, make the NHL. Nobody is making any promises about Berard as a prospect but the Rangers got well above slot value. He should have gone no later than the third round. I feel comfortable enough predicting that Berard will sign with the Rangers after three, maybe four, years at Providence. From there, we’ll see. Berard’s ceiling is as a middle-six NHL winger who drives offense in a number of ways.
9. Mathew Robertson, Left Defense, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
2019 Ranking: 8
Acquired Via: 2019 Draft (Second Round)
In a lot of ways Robertson deserves respect for the way in which he stepped up for his team. The Oil Kings lost their three-top scorers from the 2018-19 season and their top defenseman, Conner McDonald, demanded and received a trade early in the 2019-20 season. Robertson, a shutdown defenseman, was not only the team’s unequivocal number-one defenseman, but also now forced into roles that don’t fully suit his game; offensive driver, power play defenseman, and breakout initiator.
Robertson stepped up out of his comfort zone and delivered respectable results. He produced 13 goals and 34 assists in 60 games. Edmonton finished with a 42-12-0-10 record, which was aided by the additions of some very good forwards but which would not have been possible without Robertson playing a Hedman-esque role.
In terms of his development and long-term NHL outlook, though, I’d describe Robertson’s 2019-20 as lukewarm at best. When you account for his age and increased usage, Robertson’s 47 points in 60 games aren’t much of an improvement over his previous season’s numbers.
Robertson was recently sent home from Canada’s World Junior camp. The official explanation is unclear as to whether he was cut for health or performance reasons. As far as I saw, he did not have a good camp. In scrimmages some of my concerns about his game were highlighted. When he has his head up and time to process what’s in front of him, he can make plays with the puck. Under pressure, though, he sometimes panics. On the defensive side, he’s lost his man in the slot multiple times and been on the wrong side of rebounds.
His opposition is processing the game a fraction of a second quicker than he seems able to right now on both sides of the puck. As he climbs up the pro ladder, which he will, because he’s good enough at least to do that, the difference between success and failure becomes razor thin.
There’s still plenty to like. He’s not going to be a point producer at the NHL level but he’s shown sufficient capabilities in moving the puck and putting shots on net. There’s reason to believe that, with development, he can become an NHL defenseman who doesn’t handle the puck like a grenade.
The bread-and-butter of his game as a big, physical defenseman still stands. He’s rangy and gets his stick in the way to interrupt puck carriers who are trying to rush with the puck or trying to fire off a shot. He’s a neutral zone disrupter and is a strong skater for his size.
Robertson was in my top-10 last season and I had no hesitation in putting him here once again. He does need to make strides in the quickness with which he plays the game soon. The WHL season is in jeopardy due to COVID concerns so who knows if he will actually get a chance to show it this season.
I’m also slightly downgrading my view of his ceiling. Last summer I rated Robertson as a possible number-three defenseman. I’m not going to categorically rule out that upside for him, but I think a more realistic hope is that Robertson becomes a capable 4/5. If he becomes that kind of player, who plays shutdown minutes, the penalty kill, and can adequately move the puck and score a goal once in a while, the Rangers will still be pleased that their 49th-overall selection became that kind of presence.
8. Karl Henriksson, Center, Frölunda HC (SHL)
2019 Ranking: 11
Acquired Via: 2019 Draft (Second Round)
Henriksson’s development has been a very slow burn in ways that are largely out of his control. In 2019-20, Frölunda’s roster was deep enough to make Henriksson an outsider. Aside from a few games in which he earned very limited minutes with the Swedish giants, for the first half of the season he was relegated to their J20 team, where he dominated against teenagers well below his abilities.
Mercifully, Frölunda loaned him to Södertälje of the Allsvenskan; Sweden’s second division. With just one assist in 15 games, Henriksson didn’t exactly excel. Still, struggling against that level of competition is a better scenario than learning nothing in the J20.
At the World Juniors he played much better. The point totals don’t fully reflect it — one goal and two assists in seven games — but his partnership with now-Red Wings prospect Lucas Raymond was on display.
This season, Henriksson has returned to Frölunda and has finally earned meaningful minutes. In fact, he’s recently featured on the team’s first line... as a left-winger. Henriksson represents the Rangers’ best hope of developing a center within their current prospect pool and so they really need him to play in the middle. However, they’re also probably content enough that he’s finally getting icetime at the SHL level. Even if it’s as Joel Lundqvist’s winger.
The move to wing has also forced Henriksson out of his comfort zone. He’s typically the playmaker on a line, holding the puck, commanding play, and setting up teammates for shots. With Frölunda, that’s Lundqvist’s job. Henriksson has a job to do off the puck in getting open for shots and crash the crease for screens and rebounds. It’s frustrating to watch if you’re hoping to see him making creative, fancy plays that show up in the scoresheet and make for nice GIFs, but it will be a net-positive for his long-term development, I think. He’s going to become a more well-rounded player.
Frölunda has also put a lot of trust in him defensively. He kills penalties and the coaching staff shows no hesitation in throwing him on the ice to defend leads. Henriksson is improving in ways that won’t show up on the stat sheet until future seasons.
At his best, Henriksson is a playmaker who can dice with the puck past defenders using his strong skating abilities. Maybe he ends up on the wing long-term, but the Rangers will do everything to make it work at center first. The Rangers might be tempted to sign him at the end of this season so they can bring him over to Hartford and have control of his icetime and position.
I do think they’ve learned some harsh lessons the last few years with Lias Andersson and Robin Kovács, who both struggled in the AHL in ways that they never could recover from. At least, as Rangers property. Meanwhile, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast each spent three seasons in Sweden before moving to North America. It might be best to let Henriksson continue to marinate at Frölunda for another season, at least. It might be a while before he ever sniffs the NHL, but the Rangers knew he was a long-term project the moment they drafted him. There’s still plenty of reason to believe Henriksson has the skillset to become a middle-six NHL center.
7. Morgan Barron, Left Wing, Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL)
2019 Ranking: 8
Acquired Via: 2017 Draft (Sixth Round)
You have to feel some sympathy for Barron. He headed to Cornell University in 2017-18 to help revive a men’s program that was once one of college hockey’s best. In many ways, he succeeded. Cornell were regular season champions of the ECAC in each of his three seasons. But 2019-20 was always going to be his one and final chance to take the Big Red to the next level. Barron, leading his team in goals and points, was in the Hobey Baker discussion. Cornell were one of the top-five teams in the country and had a serious chance to make the Frozen Four for the first time since 2003.
Then, the pandemic abruptly canceled the remainder of the season in the most anticlimactic fashion possible. Perhaps Barron considered a return to Cornell to deal with unfinished business, but he did ultimately make the decision to forego a senior season and sign with the Rangers in July. This ended up being a very good decision, as Cornell ended up canceling its 2020-21 season.
Frankly, Barron was overripe, if anything. He could have signed with the Rangers after his sophomore season but chose to return to college for his own reasons. When the Rangers drafted Barron, he was a kid with raw physical skill but who hadn’t really figured out how to make the best of it. Three years later and he’s a force to be reckoned with. He was always good at shielding the puck, but now he’s learned how to protect it while maneuvering into shooting positions. While there is no comparison to be made here in terms of upside, he’s developing that Jagr-esque ability to use his legs and hips to keep defenders at bay while carrying from the perimeter to the circles.
He would outright dominate shifts often, dragging two or even three defenders with him in the offensive zone because that’s sometimes what it took to get him off the puck. He was physically overwhelming and would often win second- and third- pucks to keep plays alive in the offensive and neutral zones. He was a shot-generating machine.
Now the more difficult tests come. His size and strength is still going to be a major advantage even at the pro level, but the disparity won’t be as big. His skating as good enough for college hockey, but it’s fair to question if that might be the thing which holds him back at the NHL level. I think it’s an area he’ll have to improve, although the foundation is there. Barron has some experience playing center at both the high school and college levels, and perhaps the Rangers’ depth chart might lead to them giving him a chance in that role. It’s far more likely that Barron’s pro career is spent at left wing. He’ll challenge for an NHL spot when training camp begins for the 2020-21 season and he has a relatively good chance of peaking as a physical third-line winger who adds supplementary offense.
6. Braden Schneider, Right Defense, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
2019 Ranking: N/A
Acquired Via: 2020 Draft (First Round)
I wrote a detailed scouting report for Schneider following the Rangers’ selection of him back in October.
In essence, Schneider is a shutdown defenseman who, in theory, is built for the modern game. He already has pro-level size and strength at 6’2 and 209 pounds. He’s a great complement to a partner who frequently pinches because Schneider anticipates plays well and has good enough feet to suffocate neutral zone carries. Despite the stereotype of a big, physical defenseman, Schneider’s defensive style is less about throwing players through the boards and more about suffocating puck carriers’ time and space.
While we can debate Schneider’s upside, it is absolutely incorrect to compare him to big, oafish defensemen who can’t stickhandle a puck. As I noted in my piece, for instance, Schneider’s draft year scoring numbers were more than double that of Dylan McIlrath’s.
I want to get a bit more into detail about that using an unlikely inspiration; Dan Girardi. Ironically, maybe the area where former Ranger didn’t get enough credit was in his offensive zone contributions. Girardi averaged five goals and 18 assists per 82 games in his career. Those aren’t numbers that will send anyone to an All-Star Game, but that’s actually fairly good production compared to most players with a similar role. How did he do it? It’s not that he was a great skater. He didn’t have very good passing ability. His shot intimidated nobody.
What Girardi was quite good at was getting pucks past layers of defenders and on net. I see a similar ability in Schneider.
Maybe this isn’t a highlight-reel goal, but it’s one that is repeatable and translates to the NHL. Schneider does a good job of carrying the puck into a shooting position, recognizing that the lane has closed, and patiently carrying it further until the lane develops. He isn’t trying to blast it past the goaltender but instead keeps the shot ice level, hoping for a deflection or rebound, which he got. A lesser player would have shot it as hard as possible and hoped for the best, which not only would have decreased the chance of a goal for his team but also risks a transition breakaway if it’s blocked by the first layer.
Schneider has looked very good in Canada’s World Junior camp and should make the team. I hesitate to call anyone a surefire NHLer (see the Lias Andersson debacle), but Schneider is about as close as anyone available at 19th overall can be. I could see him challenging for an NHL job as soon as September of 2022. As I wrote in my scouting report, one NHL scout called his skillset a “3.5/5 across the board.” There are no standout weaknesses in his game but, by the same token, no abilities that make him a particularly exciting prospect. That he ranks sixth on this list is not an indictment of his abilities, as he’d be no worse than a top-three prospect for most other teams. He has the potential to be a shutdown second-pairing defenseman who anchors the penalty kill.
Catch up on previous entries in this series through the link below.