New York Rangers: Power Ranking the Franchise's 7 Best Prospects

Andrew Capitelli@@acapitelliContributor ISeptember 24, 2012

New York Rangers: Power Ranking the Franchise's 7 Best Prospects

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    Yes, it's true. The lockout will come to an end eventually, and when it does, there will be plenty of time to make playoff predictions, analyze player performances and pace furiously back and forth in your living room.

    So what better time than now to take a look at some of the bright youngsters who may or may not be donning Ranger Blue in the near or not-so-near future.

    Post 2004-05 lockout, the New York Rangers have been stockpiling quality prospects almost annually. Many have paid dividends for the club by becoming regulars on the starting roster, with some even assuming crucial leadership roles. This is all well and good, but is the continual graduating of players on a yearly basis depleting the team's prospect pool? 

    Whether or not that is true or not will be determined in the years to come, but in the meantime, here are seven prospects Rangers fans should keep their eyes on.

    But before that, there must be some ground rules. For the purpose of this article, a prospect must be a player who is under the age of 25 and has played less than 65 games in the NHL as a skater or less than 45 games as a goalie. Similar to how the good people at Hockey's Future do it, but simplified. 

7. Christian Thomas

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    Christian Thomas, the son of former NHL star Steve Thomas, turned heads following his impressive 2010-11 OHL campaign with the Oshawa Generals— one in which he racked up 54 goals and added 45 assists in what was his third season in juniors. 

    There was much speculation as to whether or not Thomas, who was a second-round selection in 2010, should have made the jump to pro hockey following that season, but he instead remained with Oshawa for what would be his last season of junior hockey. It turned out to be a disappointing one for him as he saw his goals and assists totals drop to 34 and 33 respectively, although it should be noted that he played in 11 less games, due in part by a 10-game suspension he was handed for a nasty high-sticking incident.

    His disappointing season has left some uncertainty about his development. But what can be said about Thomas with certainty is that he is an exciting player with an exceptionally high skill level and outstanding speed. Both of these attributes are a must for a player of Thomas' physical stature (5'9" and 170 lbs.) His size, without a doubt, will be his biggest obstacle. But if he can improve his physical strength, it wouldn't be too much of stretch to see him settle in as a second-line winger as a pro.

    Thomas finished up last season with the Rangers' farm team, the Connecticut Whale, where he appeared in the last five games of the regular season as well as six additional contests in the playoffs. In those 11 games he had one goal and one assist. He will suit up for the Whale again this season in his first full campaign as a pro. 

6. Michael St. Croix

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    A 105-point performance in his final season for Edmonton of the WHL earned St. Croix notable prospect exposure, as well as an entry-level contract from the Rangers this offseason. 

    St. Croix doesn't have great size—he's only 5'11"—and was only a fourth-round pick in 2011, so his performance last season has come as a pleasant surprise for the organization. It's even more welcomed with the team's apparent lack of top prospects at the center position.

    Being more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, St. Croix possesses great speed and vision. He can play both sides of the puck and, if all goes according to plan, could be a very useful secondary scoring option playing on the second or third lines as a pro.

    To accomplish that, St. Croix, much like Thomas, will have to build upon his 179 lb. frame and be more willing to do battle in the corners. As a pro now, St. Croix will have to transition into a much faster and more physical league. This will make or break him, as it has many other smaller, yet skilled players.

    Ranger fans should keep their fingers crossed with this one, though. If St. Croix can impress and slide into that third line center position for the 2013-14 season, then Brian Boyle can move back down to the fourth where he belongs, which would round out a very capable group of centers that also includes Brad Richards and Derek Stepan. 

    The Rangers' brass will no doubt have a better look at St. Croix this season, as he is also expected to lace up for the Whale.

5. J.T. Miller

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    The Rangers selected this two-way forward with the 15th selection of the 2011 draft.

    After consecutive campaigns for the U.S. NTDP, which included gold at both the World U-17 Hockey Challenge and the U-18 World Junior Championship in 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively, Miller had originally committed to the University of North Dakota, but instead signed an entry-level contract with the Rangers and spent the 2011-12 season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.

    Miller is a gritty, grind-it-out type forward with solid offensive upside. In 61 games for Plymouth, he notched 62 points and added 61 PIM's. Versatility is also a selling point for Miller, as he can play both on the wing and at center.

    At 6'0" and 195 lbs, Miller isn't overly big, but what he lacks in size he makes up for with a solid two-way game. Encompassing a willingness to grind in the corners and a tendency to mix it up, Miller, sometime in the near future, may be able to bring to New York a similar game as the recently departed Brandon Dubinsky. For the team's sake, they'll hope his offensive production is more consistent than that of Dubinsky's.

    Miller is entering the second year of his ELC and will play for the Whale during the 2012-13 campaign. 

4. Brady Skjei

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    Considered by many to be one of the most pure skaters in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Brady Skjei was selected 28th overall by the Rangers.

    The club continued its trend of drafting good sized, strong-skating defensemen in the first round by taking Skjei. The 6'2", 203 lb. Minnesota native is committed to playing for the Golden Gophers of the University of Minnesota next season. What he brings to that club is a solid two-way game which the Rangers hope he will eventually carry over to the top level once he leaves school.

    Skjei has been a member of the US National Team Development Program for the past two years. In his first season, he was co-captain and scored 19 points in 55 appearances. In his second consecutive season, Skjei put up 23 points in 60 games and also won gold with the U18 World Junior Championship squad. 

    Skjei's biggest issue is his lack of desire to use his well-built frame. If there's one thing Rangers fans don't want to see, it's a player who has size and is reluctant to use it. There's been way too many of those kinds of players through the years.

    What Rangers fans can hope for is a player in a similar mold to Ryan McDonagh—a strong two-way defenseman with elite skating ability and relentless work ethic. But then again, Ryan McDonoughs don't grow on trees, do they? 

3. Carl Hagelin

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    The NHL's fastest skater broke onto the scene last year as a rookie call-up and never looked back. He finished the regular season with 14 goals and 24 assists before, unfortunately, going scoreless in 17 playoff games. 

    Hagelin, taken in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, possesses a gritty, speedy style of play. He can be used in all situations, which Coach Tortorella used to his advantage last season, and also has a nose for the net. This he proved by leading his University of Michigan squad in scoring in his junior year with 50 points in 45 games.

    Hags has second-line potential, but the biggest thing for him is offensive consistency at the top level. He has the skill and the work ethic to be a scoring winger, but consistency is what separates the men from the boys in the NHL. The good news for the Rangers is if he can't score on a regular basis, he can easily slide back into a checking forward position and excel there.

    The 24-year-old Swede is expected to play for Södertälje of the Swedish second division during the lockout.

2. Dylan McIlrath

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    The Rangers went off the board in the first round of the 2010 draft. They could have taken the highly rated draft-day slider, Cam Fowler, but the club was looking to fill a need. A need for a big dude who will crush skulls. That was McIlrath.

    At 6'4", 212 lbs, McIlrath was regarded as the the nastiest player in that 2010 draft. A perennial 100-plus PIM player in juniors, McIlrath is a crease-clearing defender who likes to play physical. Rangers fans know, there hasn't been that kind of player in New York since Jeff Beukeboom retired in 1999, and it most certainly still is a dire need. 

    Conveniently, the Rangers' brass hired Jeff Beukeboom this summer to serve as an assistant coach for the Connecticut Whale in hopes that he will help the youngster settle into his future role as Broadway Bruiser. 

    Though, unfortunately, McIlrath's development was put on hold this summer. After being involved in a collision at the Rangers' Prospect Development Camp, McIlrath dislocated his knee and underwent surgery in early July. There currently is no timetable for his return.

    Whenever he does get back into things, McIlrath will have to work on his skating and defensive positioning if he is to become a top NHL shutdown defenseman. Having never put up more than 24 points in a regular season in juniors, offense is also a potential point of improvement.

    Luckily the Rangers are deep at the back, and McIlrath will never be rushed through development. But when he is ready, he will no doubt be welcomed as a part of the Rangers' defense corps. 

1. Chris Kreider

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    Does this young man really need an introduction? 

    After helping his Boston College side take the 2012 NCAA national championship—the second of his three year tenure—Kreider decided to take his talents to the Big Apple, where he would join the Eastern Conference's top team in their bid for Stanley Cup Glory.

    His legend had preceded him.

    An impressive track record at BC, which includes three Beanpot tournament victories and 2010 Big East Rookie team honors to go along with his two national championships, paired with his impressive USA Hockey appearances—gold and silver in two World Junior Championships and two consecutive invites to play for the senior team in the World Championships—had Rangers fans hoping this was the one. 

    Signing Kreider was a risk for the Rangers. Joining the team at the end of the regular season meant that he would burn the first year of his entry-level contract, and with Torts behind the bench, there was no guarantee he would even see any action. But the Rangers' scoring woes carried over into the playoffs, and by Game 3 of the first round, Coach Tortorella decided to give the young sniper a shot at the big time.

    What the 21-year-old did once he arrived shocked the hockey world. He went on to score five goals in 17 games—an NHL record for a player making his debut in the playoffs. 

    His combination of size, speed and skill left Rangers fans drooling. This is what the club had failed to develop for as long as anyone could remember—top end offensive talent. 

    What exactly Kreider will be able to do with the grind of a full NHL schedule, nobody knows, and it appears fans are going to have to wait a bit longer before they get a glimpse. But Kreider has the tools, and most of all, he's a winner. All he has to do now is fill out a bit physically and stay focused. If he can do that, then one day he will complete the transformation from top prospect to top player.