Since the NHL returned following the 2004-05 lockout, the New York Rangers have made a point to improve their overall drafting—something they seemingly turned their backs on in the previous five years or so.
The key to their success has been their ability to draft well despite having just one top-10 selection. And it’s paid great dividends. The Rangers' current roster features several first- and second-round selections who have successfully navigated their ways through the lower pre-professional and professional leagues.
The organization believes it will continue to graduate impactful players in the coming years, because it feels it's maintained a deep and plentiful crop of prospects.
Now that we’re in full hockey swing, we can take a deeper look at how some of these promising lads are faring early in the 2013-14 season.
Note: J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Cam Talbot will be excluded from this discussion, seeing as they’re playing with the Rangers.
For as long as Chris Kreider is with the Rangers’ organization, he will more than likely remain the team’s top offensive prospect.
2012-13 was rough for Kreider, though, who spent the lockout months with the organization's AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale. Before joining the Rangers in late January, Kreider registered just 11 points in 33 matches for the Whale; a disappointment, considering the youngsters impressive playoff performance just a few months prior.
Kreider couldn’t make Alain Vigneault’s opening-night roster and has since been skating in the AHL once again. Four games into the season, Kreider has registered two goals and three points in four games and is said to be playing well.
Recent acquisition Danny Kristo finds himself in a similar situation. The 23-year-old came by way of Montreal in a deal that sent former Rangers prospect Christian Thomas the other way. Kristo skated for the University of North Dakota last season and put up a staggering 26 goals and 52 points in 40 games, which was good for second in the nation.
But after completing his senior season with ND, Kristo joined the Hamilton Bulldogs—Montreal’s AHL affiliate—and failed to impress the Habs’ management. In just nine games, Kristo picked up zero goals and three assists.
After arriving in New York, Rangers management felt Kristo could have a real shot at making the opening-night roster, but AV had other plans. Kristo, too, was sent to Hartford. Through five games Kristo is the Pack’s leading scorer with two goals and five points.
Also plying their trades in Hartford are promising prospects Marek Hrivik and Oscar Lindberg. The two were in contention for spots on the big club but are currently best served playing in the AHL.
Hrivik, a Slovakian native, turn organizational heads last season, scoring seven goals and 26 points in 40 games. His dynamic blend of skill and physicality made him a viable candidate for the Rangers, but after three games in Hartford, with only one assist to show for it, it’s clear Hrivik is better suited for the AHL game right now.
Lindberg has done a whole lot of impressing over the course of the past 12 months, beginning with his stellar SEL campaign last season. Lindberg racked up 42 points in 55 games in Sweden’s premier hockey league during the regular season. The 21-year-old was also named the playoff MVP.
Upon arriving in New York, Lindberg continued to impress with a strong showing in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament prior to training camp. Although he also looked good in the Rangers’ initial preseason games, Lindberg tailed off in the latter stages, and it was clear he needed to adjust to the North American game. Lindberg has three assists through four contests with Hartford.
And finally, in terms of other top forward prospects, there’s Cristoval Nieves, the Rangers’ second-round choice in the 2012 NHL entry draft. The 19-year-old skates for the University of Michigan, and in his first season (last season), the forward registered an impressive 29 points in 40 games. Nieves was even invited to team USA’s World Junior Camp this past summer.
Nieves and Michigan have only played two games so far this season, and the sophomore has already registered a goal and an assist.
Through the years, the Rangers have made a habit out of discovering, developing and graduating excellent defensive prospects. Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto and—although he wasn’t drafted by the Rangers—Ryan McDonagh are prime examples.
And it looks as if the Rangers don’t plan on stopping there.
The organization has three defensemen in particular in its ranks that could force their way into an already strong top-six sooner rather than later.
First up is Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers' first selection in the 2010 draft. There was controversy surrounding the pick, as the organization decided to choose McIlrath over the highly touted, yet dropping Cam Fowler. Rangers brass cited the organization’s need for a big, nasty defenseman with impressive upside. They felt McIlrath was their man.
2012-13 was the 21-year-old’s first pro season, although he missed half of it due to injury. In the 45 games he did play for Connecticut, he only registered five assists. Though unimpressive, offense isn’t a feature of McIlrath’s game. His 6’5”, 215-pound frame allows him to play a defensively sound game and provide punishing bodychecks. In those 45 games, McIlrath did manage to collect a remarkable 125 penalty minutes.
There’s also Brady Skjei, another defensive defenseman with remarkable skating ability. The organization feels he has a McDonagh type of build, in terms of his size and skating. The American was drafted out of the U.S. National Development Team but played for the University of Minnesota last season. In 36 games, he scored just one goal and added two helpers for three points. Like McIlrath, Skjei isn’t known for offense, but it’s believed that there’s some untapped talent there.
In two games so far this season, Skjei has gone pointless.
Rounding out the trio is Chicago native Conor Allen. The 23-year-old was undrafted but signed with the Rangers after he finished up last season with UMass-Amherst of Hockey East.
He was very impressive in training camp and challenged for a roster spot with Justin Falk and Stu Bickel, but in the end, AV was not comfortable with Allen spending a majority of his time in the pressbox with the Rangers and opted for the promising youngster to start the season in Hartford.
The highlights of Allen’s game are his skating and passing abilities. He was totally comfortable retrieving the puck in the corners and making a great first pass out of the zone during the preseason, and his poise under pressure was very impressive. In his first four games in Hartford, Allen has registered just one assist, but I suspect he could be back with the Rangers at some point this season.
There’s a pretty significant drop-off in terms of goaltending in an organizational sense for the Rangers. Obviously there’s Henrik Lundqvist, the world’s best, but after that, there’s Cam Talbot—who would be considered the team’s top goaltending prospect had he not just been graduated to New York—and then another serious drop-off.
Right now in Hartford there’s 2009 fifth-round selection Scott Stajcer, who spent nearly all of last season in the ECHL with the Greenville Road Warriors. In 23 games, Stajcer posted a 10-7-6 record, 2.66 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Stajcer has just been promoted to Hartford with Talbot’s promotion and increased speculation that Marty Biron will retire.
Also in Hartford is the supposed starter, Jason Missiaen, a former Montreal draft pick who spent the previous two seasons splitting time between Greenville and Connecticut. In the 25 games he appeared in for Hartford last season, Missiaen posted a 10-8-2 record and an unimpressive 3.07 GAA and a .906 save percentage.
Missiaen has played just one game with the Pack so far this year, and he allowed three goals in the victory.
Finally there’s Mackenzie Skapski, the Rangers’ sixth-round choice in this past summer’s draft. Skapski is the starting goaltender for the Kootenay Ice of the WHL and last season went 34-25-1 with a 2.78 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
A goaltender with good size—6’3”, 185 pounds—Skapski may be the most promising of the three goaltending prospects in New York's system. He’s proved at age 18 that he could handle a 65-game work load, and if he continues to improve, he could be a real find for the Rangers.
In eight games this season, Skapski is 4-3-1 with a 2.84 GAA and .908 save percentage.