Blueshirt Banter 2020 New York Rangers Prospect Rankings: Top-24 Under-24

An overview of the Rangers’ entire youth movement

For the second year in-a-row, I will be supplementing the Blueshirt Banter New York Rangers Prospect Rankings with a ranking of players in the organization under the age of 24. There are two reasons I’ve decided to do so.

First, it’s an easy way to compromise on the messy debate of who does and does not qualify as a prospect. Last year, I counted Filip Chytil as “graduated” from prospect status. Then, he started the season in Hartford. It’s basically impossible to create “prospect” criteria that 100-percent passes the smell test for every player, so this ensures that everyone gets accounted for in some capacity.

Or so I thought. Igor Shesterkin, who has played all of 13 NHL games and is clearly a massive part of the future, is too old to qualify for this list. Oh well. Can’t win them all.

Second, it’s a way to give a full picture of the team’s future. Again, the nature of who is a “prospect” is largely semantical and misses the greater picture, which is to evaluate a team’s long-term future. Especially when comparing the Rangers to 30 other NHL teams, it makes little sense to penalize the Rangers for having successfully graduated Ryan Lindgren while rewarding them for Kravtsov’s inability to breach the NHL thus far, as one example. We’re evaluating a long-term outlook.

I’m only going to offer analysis for players who weren’t already accounted for in the prospect rankings. Please follow this link if you wish to read (or re-read) my ranking of the Rangers’ top-35 prospects.

As a reminder, I plan to publish a mailbag later this week in which I answer your questions about my rankings, any individual players, or the state of the prospect pool. Please leave any questions in the comments section here or send them to me on Twitter.

24. OIiver Tärnström, Center

Age: 18

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 18

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A

23. Hunter Skinner, Right Defense

Age: 19

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 17

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: Missed the Cut

22. Tarmo Reunanen, Left Defense

Age: 22

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 16

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 20

21. Will Cuylle, Left Wing

Age: 18

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 15

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A

20. Tyler Wall, Goaltender

Age: 22

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 14

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 24

19. Brett Howden, Center

Age: 22

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: (Graduated)

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 10

Upon the Rangers’ acquisition of Howden in the massive 2018 trading deadline deal with Tampa Bay, I thought he was a very safe bet to become an NHLer. In the most literal sense, that has become true. He’s already played 134 NHL regular-season games. Prospect evaluators typically use a 200-game threshold for deeming a player to have “made” the NHL. Howden will likely get there.

What I really meant, and what people hope for when looking at a prospect, is that Howden would become a positive contributor at the NHL level. So far, that has hardly been the case. As I wrote in detail in March, the problem with Howden right now is not only that he’s generally struggled, but that there aren’t really any areas within the game that offer an idea of what role he could be suited for. He has no identity as a hockey player right now. Head Coach David Quinn has defended Howden by praising his attitude and intentions. To me, that is all the more reason he should have been sent to Hartford. If Howden is trying his best and doing what is asked of him, then it means he’s having problems processing and keeping up with the speed of the game. An AHL stint would allow him to have allowed him a chance to catch his bearings and work his way up to an NHL tempo.

It’s true that Howden is only 22, but it’s also true that he has been statistically one of the worst players in the NHL over the last two seasons. He has a lot of ground to make up to become a contributing NHLer and not much time to do so. At some point, development has to turn into winning and the Rangers soon won’t be able to keep players on the roster who are a consistent impediment to winning.

I’m still ranking him on this list because he does have physical tools and a quality junior hockey resume. He’s big, skates well enough for his size, and has good hands around the net. He needs to become more aware of his surroundings on the ice and think more quickly. Maybe some time in Hartford would do him well, or maybe new assistant Jacques Martin can be the one to get through to him. He has the tools to become a capable bottom-six center, but he’s running out of time.

18. Evan Vierling, Center

Age: 18

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 13

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A

17. Lauri Pajuniemi, Left Wing

Age: 21

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 12

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: (Missed the Cut)

16. Dylan Garand, Goaltender

Age: 18

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 11

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A

15. Ryan Lindgren, Left Defense

Age: 22

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: Graduated

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: (Missed the Cut)

I absolutely should have ranked Lindgren higher last season, but the essence of what I believed about him still holds up, in my opinion. He’s a physical defender who boxes out the net-front well, battles in the corners, and is willing to put his body in front of shooters and eat pucks. He skates pretty well and he can hold the puck and make basic passes without incident.

It’s still doubtlessly true that he is a limited player who benefitted from having an All-Star caliber partner in Adam Fox. He’s a major drain on offense, which he got away with last season because the Rangers were so desperate for anything resembling competent defensive ability And, again, a partner who could make up the ground on his behalf.

How would Lindgren fair with any other partner? That’s still up in the air. My low ranking of him last year was not predicated on a belief he could not become an NHL defenseman, but that his ceiling was very low as a depth defenseman with limited areas of influence. A year later, I’m more assured of his NHL capabilities, but no further moved on where his upside lies. If he can become a capable third-pairing defenseman on a cheap contract for the next four years then the Rangers will be quite content. If not, there are always depth players available. There are players on this list with far fewer NHL assurances, but who offer upside to become the type of player who is difficult to find.

14. Brett Berard, Left Wing

Age: 18

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 10

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A

13. Matthew Robertson, Left Defense

Age: 19

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 9

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 11

12. Karl Henriksson, Center

Age: 19

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 8

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 16

11. Morgan Barron, Left Wing

Age: 22

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 7

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 13

10. Julien Gauthier, Right Wing

Age: 23

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: N/A

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A

Acquired at the trading deadline in return for prospect Joey Keane, an evaluation of Gauthier by the basic numbers will not inspire confidence; no goals and two assists in 15 games (including the play-in series vs Carolina).

One has to dig deeper to see the sources of inspiration. First, as Mike pointed out in Gauthier’s report card, he saw a lot of minutes with Greg McKegg and Brendan Lemieux. Lemieux is good in his role but he cannot drive possession nor pass the puck. McKegg was a black hole on the ice. Not a situation conducive to playing into Gauthier’s strengths.

Gauthier was largely left to create offense by himself, and while it would be a lie to say he excelled at doing so, he definitely had his moments. He drew multiple penalties with bursts of speed carrying the puck in the neutral zone, including a penalty shot against San Jose. His possession metrics were certainly stable, especially given his linemates.

Gauthier is not a complete player, but the talents he does possess are high-caliber. At 6’4 and nearly 230 pounds, he’s incredibly strong, and his straight-line speed is incredible. There are few players in the world who possess his combination of size and velocity. He has a strong wrist shot and is also a beast around the net front, with the strength to make life miserable for defenders and good enough hands to find deflections and rebounds.

It is possible that Gauthier is simply not well-rounded enough for the NHL, but it’s also very easy to look at him and see Kreider-lite. The Rangers badly need to put him in a position to succeed in 2020-21, and with Fast’s departure he will likely get his chance in top-nine minutes with legitimate linemates who possess the ability to make the most of Gauthier’s talents. Gauthier has legitimate top-six, 20-plus goal upside but also could settle into a depth role as a forechecker who chips in the occasional goal.

9. Braden Schneider, Right Defense

Age: 19

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 6

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A

8. Zac Jones, Left Defense

Age: 20

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 5

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 17

7. Vitaly Kravtsov, Right Wing

Age: 20

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 4

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 3

6. K’Andre Miller, Left Defense

Age: 20

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 3

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 4

5. Nils Lundkvist, Right Defense

Age: 20

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 2

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 8

4. Filip Chytil, Center

Age: 21

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: N/A

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 2

After spending the entire 2018-19 season with the Rangers, Chytil was a shocking, but not necessarily undeserving, cut from the Rangers’ opening night roster. The Rangers were trying to light a fire under him after a mediocre training camp. Message received, as Chytil dominated with the Wolf Pack in every facet of the game and produced nine points in nine games.

The Rangers called him up. Chytil had an up-and-down season but was ultimately a positive contributor. Chytil has no single incredible ability but instead layers multiple qualities to become a dynamic player. When he wants, he carries the puck with authority. He’s a creative passer and is also adept at finding scoring positions and getting off a quick release. Defense is a work in progress but he’s made tangible strides. He’s already bulkier than when he made his NHL debut. He’s no longer getting blown up twice per game.

All things considered, 14 goals and 9 assists in 60 games in pretty good given his role on the team as a third-line center who didn’t feature on the top power-play unit. His problem at this point, at least speaking broadly, is consistency. He had five-game stretches where he looked fantastic followed by a long stretch where he was fairly invisible.

That’s perfectly fine. It’s easy to get frustrated with Chytil, as I think some fans, with the idea that he’s now spent parts of three seasons in the NHL — 144 regular season games — and has yet to really break out. It’s easy to forget, given that resume, just how young he is. Chytil finished the 2019-20 season, summer play-in series included, as a 20-year-old. He is only four months older than K’Andre Miller. There’s an alternate universe where Chytil is coming off a stupendous season in the NCAA or the Czech Republic and he’s a shiny new toy whom everyone is excited about. It’s an inconvenient truth, but Kakko probably dragged Chytil down last season; he shined between Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider when Zibanejad went down with an injury.

Chytil has already passed the baseline test. He’s an NHL-caliber center. He still has three or four years until he starts his prime and the million-dollar question concerns just how good he can become. Will he be merely a quality two-way center for the third line? Or can he push himself into a bonafide top-six role?

I’d bet on his multidimensional talents. In fact, 2020-21 seems ripe for him to finally break out. He’s maturing physically and mentally. He’s likely spent this long offseason getting stronger and quicker. The addition of Lafreniere assures that, one way or another, he’s going to have a phenomenal left-winger. Chytil’s long-term future is as much tied to the Rangers’ salary cap situation and potential trades down the line as anything related to his own development, but I still like his chances of becoming a bonafide top-six NHL center.

3. Kaapo Kakko, Right Wing

Age: 19

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: N/A

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 1

The Rangers’ organization circled the wagons around Kakko last season, with players, coaches, and management alike virtually refusing to offer any criticism of the number-two overall pick.

To be abundantly clear, I am not objecting to the team’s protection of him. David Quinn is not Walter Cronkite and it is not his job to be brutally honest nor say what he’s truly thinking 100-percent of the time. The team’s primary motive was to foster an environment that best helps Kakko become the player he is capable of. Kakko was an 18-year-old who left home to move 4000 miles across an ocean with a different language and no friends of his own. He reportedly holds himself to an extremely high standard. He was vulnerable and nobody would have benefitted from a piling on.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how last season could have gone worse for Kakko; at least, in terms of game performance. The scoring numbers were not great — 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games — but they’d have been tolerable if he wasn’t otherwise a massive liability. The Rangers got absolutely buried when Kakko was on the ice.

There are still many reasons to believe that Kakko will not just become a credible NHL player, but a very good one.

First, the Rangers’ defenses of Kakko are perfectly fair. Everything about him being an 18-year-old making a massive life and cultural adjustment is completely true. It’s also true that he played a lot of hockey heading into the 2019-20 season and was probably fatigued. College football coaches and motivational poster designers love to wax poetic about refusing to make excuses, but sometimes excuses legitimately explain an outcome.

Another point in Kakko’s favor, I think, is that many of his issues from last season are fixable with individual work. First, his skating was an impediment. There was a bit of a Fred Flinstone Effect where his feet are pushing but the car isn’t moving forward. While he was hardly a burner at lower levels, Kakko’s skating, itself, was previously never a problem. It’s not that his stride is an unmitigated disaster but that he needs to make adjustments to improve and catch up to NHL speed.

He also needs to simplify his game, which is the lamest, most overused platitude in hockey but which actually applies to Kakko. Let’s take a nostalgic look at Kakko’s infamous Traverse City Tournament goal.

Suffice to say that kind of individual effort is rarely replicable against NHLers. Against Liiga and junior-level competition, Kakko was used to holding the puck for long stretches and making second and third moves to create separation for himself. He was used to having that extra split second to make decisions. Last season, he often waited too long to do something with the puck and would often get trapped.

Essentially, Kakko needs to make quicker decisions and understand that he doesn’t need to do something special every play. To his credit, Kakko showed signs he was getting it as the season went on. His assist on Zibanejad’s fourth goal against Washington is a perfect example.

Is there a fortunate bounce involved? Yes, but that’s hockey! Not every shot needs to be an attempt to score. It’s a low, hard shot that the goaltender struggles to control and forces the defenseman on Zibanejad to lose sight of him for just enough time. The irony is that, by keeping it simple, Kakko will keep the opposition guessing enough to open up the opportunities for him to make great plays on extended possessions. Generally speaking — and again, an overused hockey platitude genuinely applies in this instance — he needs to shoot the puck much more.

There were also some isolated areas where Kakko did do well. All things considered, 10 goals and 13 assists in 66 games is a pretty good output when you consider how much he struggled everywhere else. It speaks to his ability to create offense when he’s overcome the obstacles required for getting the puck in positions to make plays. His power-play impacts were also very good.

It was only a three-game sample, but Kakko did look much better during the Carolina play-in series. He’s now had more offseason time to catch some rest and work on his skating. He’ll be familiar with his surroundings and see friendly faces. I’m not guaranteeing fireworks immediately next season, but I do believe Kakko is still on his way to developing into a player worthy of the number-two pick.

2. Adam Fox, Right Defense

Age: 22

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: N/A

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: 7

In terms of which team was acquiring better value, the Rangers were the victors of the trade which sent two second-round picks to Carolina for Adam Fox. Virtually nobody disputed it at the time. At the time, Fox was a 21-year-old who comfortably projected as a top-four NHL defenseman. For the cost of a few low probability draft picks? That’s a coup for the Rangers, the debate about potentially waiting for him to become a free agent aside.

Yet, Fox’s play almost immediately reached a level I think most did not anticipate. By Christmas, he was evidently the team’s best defenseman, which said a lot about also but also plenty about his performance. One way to generalize Fox’s impact is that he is low-risk, high-reward. He’s so intelligent on the puck and rarely makes a costly decision, yet that does not come at the expense of trying to make things happen. He’s a remarkable passer from the breakout. From the point, his poise is through the roof. He knows exactly when to pinch and when to activate to get open in the circles. Eight goals and 34 assists would be phenomenal production in any circumstances. That he did so despite Tony DeAngelo and Jacob Trouba preoccupying his potential power-play minutes makes his output all the more incredible.

Fox’s defensive performance is the real game-changer, though. He makes up for mediocre footspeed with tremendous anticipation. So many times last season he extinguished potential transition rushes for the opposition because he got head starts on puck races. His gap control and one-on-one defending were beyond that of a typical rookie defenseman. It’s really a shame that the Rangers didn’t give him much of a chance on the penalty kill; they certainly needed help.

If every player on this list reaches his potential, Fox will of course fall below Kakko. The baseline for Fox is already significantly high, though, and that certainty is why I’m putting him second on the list. Fox made the jump from college to the NHL and instantly became a bonafide top-30 defenseman in the league. There are no indicators that his performance was unsustainable. Assuming a normal aging curve and some improvements to his skating during this long offseason, Fox will be an All-Star and the Rangers’ anchor of defense for years to come.

1. Alexis Lafrenière, Left Wing

Age: 19

2020 NYR Prospect Ranking: 1

2019 T24 U24 Ranking: N/A