Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” – a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. Today, as I continue my alphabetical journey through the NHL I bring you a look at the New York Rangers. As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Notes: Carl Hagelin is considered graduated.
Top Prospect: Chris Kreider, Left Wing
Born Apr 30 1991 — Boxford, MA
Height 6.03 — Weight 225 — Shoots Left
Selected by the New York Rangers in round 1, #19 overall at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
It was a whirlwind year for the Rangers 2009 first round draft pick. In his junior season at Boston College, Kreider had a real offensive breakout scoring more than double the goals of his sophomore year, and nearly double the points. In February he was heavily involved in Rick Nash trade rumors and highly coveted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Glen Sather refused to give him up. In April he led his Boston College Eagles to the Hockey East title (his third straight) and NCAA Frozen Four and National Championship win (his second in 3 years). He would follow that up by signing his ELC, joining the New York Rangers for the Stanley Cup playoffs and potting 5 goals in helping the team reach the Eastern Conference Finals. After that kind of year, its easy to see why the hype on Kreider is off the charts right now.
Kreider is a goal scoring power forward. He is blessed with great skating ability. He generates great speed for a big man and is able to take defencemen wide on the rush, or be the first guy in on the forecheck to lay a big hit. He has excellent balance and is very strong on his skates making him difficult to knock off the puck. He also has an NHL ready shot, a hard accurate wrister with a deceptive release. Kreider projects as a natural sniper. He didn’t really show it in the NHL playoffs, but Kreider also has decent vision and can be a bit of a playmaker as well. A big difference in his final year at BC, and earlier seasons was that he was much more calm and poised with the puck on his stick. He didn’t show that in the NHL, however this is something that should come with NHL experience. While others have criticized him for rushing plays, I don’t feel that its a huge concern right now. The one area that he can really impove in and take his game to the next level offensively is winning more board battles for loose pucks. He’s decent at it, but a player with his size and quick hands should be able to dominate. Adding some more muscle mass may help him to do that.
Kreider’s defensive game is a work in progress. He is certainly a willing backchecker, and he works hard, but he needs better fundamentals. He chases the puck too much, and gets himself out of position defensively, and loses his man. While the Rangers played a very disciplined defensive system, it seemed that in the playoffs Kreider wasn’t quite on the same page with the rest of the team. This is understandable as he didn’t have the full year of drills and coaching from John Tortorella, so we should see it improve this year.
Kreider is a lock to make the Rangers roster and many are hyping him as a Calder Candidate based on his playoffs. I personally think people need to take a step back with him. While Kreider is a great prospect he is by no means a finished product. I expect he will have a season of ups and downs in the big apple as he continues to develop his defensive game and adjust to the speed of the NHL. He’s an excellent prospect, but we should temper our expectations on him a little bit. Its is not reasonable to expect that everything will go as well as things did in 2011-12, and while he will be a very good player in time, expect the typical ups and downs most young NHLers face.
Top Prospect #2: J.T. Miller, Centre
Born Mar 14 1993 — East Palestine, OH
Height 6.02 — Weight 195 — Shoots Left
Selected by the New York Rangers in round 1 #15 overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
With 12 points in 6 games at the 2011 IIHF World Under 18 Championships, J.T. Miller was a key player in leading the United States to the gold medal. Miller was originally scheduled to attend the University of North Dakota after graduating from the US NTDP, but after being drafted by the Rangers, he signed and ELC with the Rangers, foregoing his NCAA eligibility and joining the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. Miller had a good season in Plymouth scoring at over a Point Per Game Pace.
Miller is a rugged forward who plays a very straightforward but effective game. He is a good skater, and uses his speed to be an effective forechecker, wearing down defenders with hits, and forcing them into making mistakes. He is also effective at winning board battles, and uses his size and strength to compete in the dirty areas of the ice. Miller loves to go to the front of the net where he scores a lot of rebounds and tip ins. He also has a very good shot and quick release which he can use to score goals off the slot or from the faceoff circles. As a centre Miller’s game is hurt by his average vision and playmaking ability and his future in the NHL may be as more of a winger than a pivot man.
Miller also plays a strong defensive game. He kills penalties and is used to match up against other teams’ top lines. Miller is a physical rugged centre who pressures the puck carrier and strives to keep his man to the outside in the offensive zone. He has good positioning and defensive hockey sense. He could use a little big better pivots and edgework to help him deal with the fastest opponents, but this is a minor complaint on an overall above average defensive game.
Miller is not yet NHL ready. He will require more development time. Normally a CHL player Miller’s age would be returned to the CHL after training camp, however since Miller only joined the Whalers after being drafted by an NHL club, he is not subject to the same restrictions. The Rangers will have to choose if he is to go back to the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, or join the AHL’s Connecticut Whale next season.
Prospect #3 Christian Thomas, Right Wing
Born May 26 1992 — Toronto, ONT
Height 5.09 — Weight 170 — Shoots Right
Selected by the New York Rangers in round 2 #40 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
The son of long time NHLer Steve “Stumpy” Thomas, Christian Thomas is a natural goal scorers. This is seen through the 129 goals he scored over the last 3 years in the OHL. Thomas has an NHL level wrist shot and release, he is just a deadly sniper at the OHL level. He also has very soft hands and good puck control ability.
Thomas’ skating stride is short and choppy, however it works very well for him as he has good top end speed and very good acceleration. His agility and edgework is top notch, and he uses quick precise cuts and changes in speed to beat defenders one on one. He has good balance and a solid low centre of gravity.
The knock on Thomas has always been, and always will be his lack of size. However despite being only 5’9″ he does not shy away from working the boards or the front of the net. A hard worker, Thomas tries to overcome this limitation. The one area that it really hurts him is in the defensive end of the ice where bigger stronger forwards can quite simply overpower him.
Thomas needs time to add muscle and strength to his frame. Expect to see him in the AHL with the Connecticut Whale this season.
The Anti-Sleeper Prospect Dylan McIlrath, Defence
Born Apr 20 1992 — Winnipeg, MAN
Height 6.05 — Weight 215 — Shoots Right
Selected by New York Rangers in round 1 #10 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
I didn’t really want to profile McIlrath as I am just not a fan of his game. I really think that his potential upside is limited to be at best a #4 defenceman in the NHL, and even then I find it more likely he is a third pairing guy. However I knew that if I didn’t profile a recent 10th overall selection, that I wouldn’t be doing justice to you, the reader, so in a surprise twist, I’m giving you an Anti-Sleeper today. A player who I feel was drafted too high, and is overhyped and overrated.
McIlrath was a surprise selection at 10th overall in the 2010 draft. While most analysts had him as a first round pick, he was more often ranked in the late first round. I think there were few, if any, draft watchers who had McIlrath being taken ahead of fellow defencemen Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley. While McIlrath is still young, and there is plenty of time left for him to develop, I don’t think you’ll find too many scouts who would put McIlrath ahead of those players today.
Lets get to the positives on McIlrath. He has outstanding size and a mean streak to match. He is a physical presence on the ice, and opposing forwards must always keep their heads up if skating down his end of the ice. He is always looking to dish out a huge hit. He is also extremely strong and powerful. He keeps the crease clear, and wins the majority of his one on one battles on the boards. He is also a willing fighter, who has won the majority of his fights at the WHL level. McIlrath makes a solid first pass and starts the transition game well.
On the negative side, McIlrath is just not a very good skater. His top end speed and acceleration is below average. He pivots as well as a mack truck, and his agility is a weak point. He is victimized by forwards with speed and offensive creativity on a regular basis. He also gets himself out of position looking for the big hit far too often, and if he misses, he’s toast. He can be undisciplined and takes too many penalties. While his point shot is decent, his lack of mobility and inability to open up passing and shooting lanes likely means that this aspect of his game will be non-existent at the NHL level.
McIlrath is a long term project and will need time and excellent coaching at the AHL level if he is ever to live up to his lofty draft status.
Sleeper Pick: Michael St. Croix, Centre
Born Apr 10 1993 — Winnipeg, MAN
Height 5.11 — Weight 179 — Shoots Right
Selected by the New York Rangers in round 4 #106 overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
To end things on a more positive note, a true sleeper and a player who I think was one of the best picks of the 2011 draft. Michael St. Croix is a talented forward who finished 8th in WHL scoring this season with 105 points in 72 games. The Oil Kings centre was tied for the team lead in playoff scoring as he led the club to their first ever WHL Championship and a birth in the Memorial Cup.
St. Croix is a good skater with very good top end speed and acceleration. He has great agility and edgework, and his shifty and elusive moves make him a nightmare for defenders one on one. Blessed with great vision, and the ability to feather a pass through the tiniest of openings, St. Croix is a natural playmaker. He also has a tremendous wrist shot and a great release, and it was his willingness to be a little more selfish and use that wrist shot a little more instead of always looking to pass that led to his breakout season this year.
Undersized, St. Croix will need to bulk up before going to the next level. He can play a little bit soft at times, and does not work the boards or front of the net as well as he should at all times. If he can add a little size, and play with just a little more grit, St. Croix has the talent to be a draft steal. He needs time and we should expect to see him back in Edmonton playing for the Oil Kings this season.
In early round picks like Kreider, Miller, McIlrath, Skjei, Nieves, Fogarty, and others, it has become obvious that the Rangers philosphy is to continue to build a team based on size and physicality. The current lineup features much of the same. The Rangers future appears to be based around wearing down opponents and playing the physically punishing game that took them so far this season. In terms of high picks the lone exception to this philosophy is Christian Thomas. As an organization, the Rangers have a ton of prospect depth, featuring a good number of players with solid NHL potential. They do however lack a dynamic blue chip forward prospect, or a future number 1 goaltender. There are some very good players, but I don’t see a future superstar. However, the big team is deep enough, and young enough that they should be a contender for the next several years. With stars like Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and especially Henrik Lundqvist on the club, The Rangers window to win the Cup starts now, and the good prospect depth will provide compliments to that core going forward.
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