There are few ways that “business as normal” can describe anything happening in the NHL right now, but the annual June 1st deadline for signing prospects with expiring rights appears to still be in effect.
While many calendar dates this off-season are still up in the air, the 'Must Sign By' date of June 1st for certain drafted players is still in effect.— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) May 25, 2020
Here is the list of players that each club must sign by next Monday at 5:00pm ET, otherwise they will lose their signing rights. pic.twitter.com/x4WxJ9tUfR
For the Rangers, that means a decision has to be made on defenseman Nico Gross. Drafting players out of the Ontario Hockey League typically means teams have two years to sign those prospects or else they lose their rights and the players re-enter the draft. Gross was a fourth-round pick in 2018 and so his rights expire in the coming days.
I personally was not enthralled with the selection of Gross at the time, and not much has changed since. The Swiss defensemen had not historically produced much offense, but he does deserve credit for increasing his output this season.
Still, that’s not to say that those numbers are particularly encouraging. His point total this season is lukewarm to begin with. Of those 33 points, only 14 came at even strength. The Oshawa Generals had a weak group of defensemen this year which put Gross into power play situations almost by default. Gross has developed a pretty decent shot, which accounts for some of his goals, but he also benefitted from a quality group of forwards including former high draft picks Phil Tomasino and, for part of the season, Serron Noel.
Gross won’t sniff the power play at higher levels, and it’s difficult to account for him generating much offense otherwise. He struggles to make quick decisions with the puck from the back-end, and that problem will only grow at higher levels of North American hockey when forecheckers close down on him more quickly. He’s a pretty good skater, but not so much that he’s a weapon in transition or particularly good at skating the puck up the ice.
He stands roughly 6’2, 180, with room to grow. It lends well to his physical playing style. Particularly this season in the OHL, he was aggressive behind the goal line and in the trafficked areas of the slot. But there are still concerns about his overall defensive ability. Despite that decent skating ability, his movement is inefficient. He takes these long, looping crossovers when skating backwards and as a result he struggles to close gaps.
In my view, Gross is an all-around decent player at the junior level but lacks any qualities that specifically lend well to higher levels of play.
I reached out to others in the OHL scouting community to check my own biases and didn’t receive much pushback in my analysis. One NHL scout admitted that Gross is not a prospect he would advise his team to sign to an entry-level contract.
Brock Otten, who runs OHL Prospects, is a modern thinker of the game but also, in my view, generally has more time for prospects of Gross’ skillset than I do. He acknowledged that Gross improved this season and likes some of his abilities, but also shares concern about how his game projects at the NHL level and called it a “toss-up” as to whether the Rangers should sign him.
“The tools are there for him to be an NHL defender (think third pairing, PK guy), but I’m not sure he processes the game quick enough to survive, and my guess would be that the Rangers are pondering the same thing,” Otten said. “I do think he can ‘defend’ at the NHL level, especially in transition. But I have serious concerns (as do you) about whether he’d turn the puck over multiple times a game.”
Teams draft players hoping to develop them into NHLers, but there is something to be said for organizational depth as well. You need to fill out lineups in the AHL and ECHL. One other consideration for the Rangers is what the depth chart will look like in the next few years. The Rangers are well stocked with left-handed defensemen. K’Andre Miller, Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov, Matthew Robertson, Zac Jones, and Tarmo Reunanen are among the left-handed defensemen who could see time in Hartford over the next couple of seasons. There could be room for Gross on the back-end of the AHL roster or as a top ECHL defenseman, but the depth chart isn’t screaming out for his addition particularly.
Gross gained relative notoriety in scouting circles for playing nearly a full season of professional hockey in his home country of Switzerland as a 16-year-old. My bet on Gross’ long-term outlook is that he will have a long, healthy career back home. The style of play better suits his game as the larger ice surface affords him more time with the puck and margin for error in his gap control.
However, the Rangers have been more bullish on Gross than others, so it would not be a surprise if they do decide to sign him before June 1st’s deadline.