Pionk, Fontaine Impress for Rangers in Traverse City

The Traverse City Prospect Tournament is the unofficial start of training camp for the Rangers. It’s important to not over analyze what are effectively competitive scrimmages. Teams are using very basic systems and putting six guys on the ice who barely know each other. Nonetheless, it’s a good opportunity to evaluate the individual abilities of certain players in all sorts of roles and situations.

The Rangers have played two games so far;  a 3-2 win against Chicago on September 8th and ) and a 4-0 loss to Carolina a day later. Though I did not get to watch the second game, I took pretty extensive notes on the first one. Here are some of the players who stood out to me.

Neal Pionk (wearing #44) had a strong first showing in what is going to be a long battle for a spot on the Rangers’ defense. The free-agent signing put up strong offensive numbers in college, but in this game it was his play without the puck that stood out. He made a number of great reads in the neutral and defensive zones. His gap control was on point most of the night and he did a great job of engaging puck carriers at the right times to close off lanes and disrupt the opposing rush.

Pionk did take a penalty later in the game after getting beat down the wing, but overall it was a very good first impression. Pionk put up offensive numbers in the NCAA, and that is always helpful. The Rangers have a ton of firepower on the blueline, however, and the coaching staff will want to round out the roster with a player who possesses strong defensive instincts. Pionk definitely helped his cause against Chicago.

Gabriel Fontaine (#54), a 2016 sixth-round pick, was the forward who stood out the most (in my opinion). It wasn’t a dominant or overwhelming performance, but he displayed a very well-rounded game and subtly contributed almost every shift. In the offensive end, he used his strong core to protect the puck below the goal line and help the team sustain offensive zone possession. One of those efforts led to a Rangers’ goal.

He also set up Malte Stromwall for a quality scoring chance with a nice deke.

Though in all likelihood he will spend the season in Hartford, perhaps Fontaine should be mentioned as a long-shot candidate to fill the Rangers’ opening at center. He plays a matured game for his age and has NHL strength. He is a responsible defensive player and has a great work-rate. He would have to absolutely wow the coaching staff in preseason, but the Rangers would welcome any competition given the circumstances.

Brandon Crawley, taken in the fourth round this past June, was the best of the organization’s new arrivals. As shown in the above clip, he got a fortunate assist when his point shot redirected off of Malte Stromwall’s body. His best play of the game was in man-to-man coverage off of a faceoff, cutting off a prime scoring chance in the slot and sending Ty Ronning the other way. Ryan Gropp scored on the ensuing rush.

He also made a great read after a miscommunication in coverage (as often happens in these games) and made a desperation block on a different scoring chance.

Throughout the game, Crawley was practically flawless in his defensive coverages. He seems to have a sense of where he needs to be in the defensive zone and where to put his stick. The outcome of the Rangers’ training camp battle on defense will create a domino effect down the organization, and there will likely be a similar overcrowding on defense in Hartford. Crawley could start the season in the ECHL or as an overager in the OHL, but defensive efforts like this increase his chances of playing in the AHL.

Two players had what I would consider underwhelming games. I voiced heavy skepticism of Sergey Zborovskiy in my summer prospect rankings. I kept a particular eye on him (wearing 64) in this game because I wanted to see how his footwork and decision making would look. Here is a montage of the times his side of the ice was targeted for a neutral zone rush. You’ll notice that, for the most part, he took bad routes to the puck and often got beat down the wing.

Also disappointing to me was Robin Kovacs. He’s now nearly 21 and spent all of last year in the AHL playing against men. One would expect him to be a top performer in this tournament given that the competition is often fringe prospects and teenagers. Instead, he was pedestrian for most of the game. He did have one good shift in the second period where he made a great pass to set up a scoring chance. However, the only other moment of note was when he (wearing 96) let his man skate into the slot and get off a decent scoring chance.

Again, this is one exhibition game with random line combinations and little coaching. Now major conclusions, good or bad,  should be drawn. But every game is an opportunity to learn a little bit more about some players. The Rangers will finish up the tournament with a game today (7pm against Detroit) and Tuesday (TBD).