Welcome to Today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2013 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2013 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 2013-14 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 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 (especially due to the fact that the latest NHL season was only 48 games).
After finishing first in the East in 2011-12, and going all the way to the Eastern Conference final, the Rangers expectations for 2012-13 were very high. When they pulled off a blockbuster summer trade for Rick Nash, those expectations went through the roof. Many analysts and fans were predicting that the New York Rangers would be 2013 Stanley Cup Champions. It was not to be. Rick Nash had an immediate impact in New York, and Henrik Lundqvist was once again a Vezina nominee, Derek Stepan put up a nice year as well, but there were a number of pieces that disappointed. Marian Gaborik struggled to find his game, and after finding himself in coach John Tortorella’s doghouse, soon found a plane ticket to Columbus in his locker on trade deadline day. Brad Richards, the number 1 centre who gave the Rangers faithful such hope in 2011-12, gave the same Rangers faithful nothing but agony in 2012-13. He would also find his way into Tort’s doghouse. Overall, the team that was in danger of missing the playoffs did make it to the dance, and once there they upset the Washington Capitals in 7 games in round one. The Stanley Cup hopes were eventually dashed though when they fell in 5 games to the Boston Bruins. Following the loss, Tortorella was fired, and former Vancouver Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault takes over behind the bench.
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
With 49 career games played (including playoffs), Kreider is right on the cusp of being considered graduated. However since he has only played 23 of those games in the Regular Season and would still be Calder eligible this year, I have chosen to put him as a prospect.
After an impressive 2012 playoffs that saw Kreider score 5 goals, and with the Rangers absolutely refusing any suggestion that Kreider be included in the Rick Nash trade, Kreider entered the year with a ton of hype and seemed a sure bet to start the season as a Ranger. Then the lockout happened, and Kreider started the year in Connecticut. He started slowly and really wasn’t putting up the points you’d expect given the hype that he was given. When the lockout ended he found himself in the Rangers lineup however struggled at times to get icetime under Torts, and was on the “yo-yo plan” getting sent back to the AHL and called back to the NHL on a few occassions. However this didn’t surprise me as I stated in last summer’s report, “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.”
Kreider is a goal scoring power forward. He is blessed with great skating. Kreider generates great top end speed for someone his size 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 hasn’t really show it yet at the pro level, but in college Kreider showed a playmaking size with decent vision poise with the puck during his time at BC.
That said there are a few areas Kreider needs to work on. Firstly he seems to be rushing things out there right now, he needs to slow it down with the puck on his stick and show that patience and poise instead of moving things so quickly. He hasn’t yet learned that he has more time than he thinks he does at this level. Another area that he can really improve in and take his game to the next level is by 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 Kreider 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 Kreider wasn’t always on the same page with the rest of the team, and caused some issues between Kreider and Torts.
With Vigneault now in charge, Kreider will look to get off on a better foot with the new coach. I expect that he will make the Rangers out of camp, but again, caution that he’s a work in progress, and expect another up and down year from him. He’ll likely improve on 2012-13, and while I think he’s got great potential, he’s still extremely raw and patience should be exercised on this power forward.
Top Prospect #2: J.T. Miller, Centre/Left Wing,
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
Despite being Junior Eligible, Miller spent 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. Despite being 19 years old, Miller was not subject to the NHL/CHL Transfer rules and was able to play in the AHL in 2012-13 because he was not drafted out of the CHL, and only joined the league after being drafted to the NHL. He would have a solid season playing for Connecticut putting up 23 points in 42 games. He’d also see NHL time with 26 games with the Rangers, though he didn’t see a lot of ice time nor put up any real numbers to speak of with just 4 points. The highlight of his year though occured in the December/January World Junior Championship Tournament where Miller was the 1st line centre and led Team USA to the gold medal in Sochi Russia.
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 out of 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 a winger instead of a pivot man. We’ve already seen him play some at Left Wing in the AHL and NHL.
Miller also plays a strong defensive game. He kills penalties and in the OHL and the World Juniors has been used to match up against other teams’ top lines. Miller is a rugged, physical player who applies good back pressure off the rush, supporting his defence. He also does a good job in the defensive zone of pressuring 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 will compete for an NHL spot in training camp. A good camp could see him crack the Rangers lineup, but I think that its more likely he gets a little more AHL seasoning and is used as a call-up for the Rangers in 2013-14. It won’t be long though before the 20-year-old is an NHL regular.
Top Prospect #3, Danny Kristo, Right Wing
Born Jun 18 1990 — Eden Prairie, MN
Height 5.11 — Weight 185 — Shoots Right
Selected by Montreal Canadiens round 2 #56 overall 2008 NHL Entry Draft
Acquired by the New York Rangers in a Trade, July 2013
The 2008 second round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens has had a stellar career for the former Fighting Sioux, with 68 goals and 161 points in 157 games over four years. He was part of the North Dakota teams that won a school record, three straight WCHA titles from 2010 to 2012. This season was Kristo’s best with 26 goals and 52 points in 40 games. After such a marvelous season, Kristo was named the College Hockey Player of the Year, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Trophy.
Kristo has shown tremendous versatility during his time with North Dakota. In his junior season, playing with sniper Brock Nelson, Kristo was the set up man for the Islanders prospect, using his vision and passing skills to make plays and put Nelson in a position where he was able to be UND’s best goal scorer. Last summer, Nelson signed his ELC with the Isles, and this season Kristo has worked with Corban Knight and become the go to goal scorer on UND’s top line, tallying 26 goals. He drives the net hard, and uses his great hands to finish plays in close. He also utilizes a deadly accurate wrist shot, and tremendous release to terrorize NCAA goalies and find the back of the net with regularity this season.
Kristo is an excellent skater. He has great top end speed, excellent acceleration, and great agility, allowing him to weave through opposing defenders and create plays off both the cycle and the rush. He has great puck protection skills, and effectively uses his edges, and low centre of gravity, to be strong on the puck, difficult to knock off a play, and able win battles on the boards. He plays a gritty two-way game, willing to get involved along the boards in both the offensive and defensive zones.
It is Kristo’s advanced defensive game that gives many hope that he can make an impact in the NHL next season. He will look to make the Rangers in camp, but may end up in the AHL waiting for a callup. Kristo has excelled in all situations throughout his college career, been matched up against opposing team’s top lines, and tasked with killing penalties for UND. His on ice awareness has grown through his experience, and this will help him to be an effective pro.
It hasn’t all been good news for Kristo though, as there are some questions about his maturity. Kristo, an alternate captain for North Dakota, was suspended early this year for organizing a team party (with the other captains) and serving alcohol to underage members of the club. For Kristo, who had been disciplined for his own underage drinking as a freshman and lost games that year as a result, many stated that he should have known better. There was also a strange frostbite incident in Kristo’s sophomore season that cost him games, and what exactly happened that night has never been fully explained. It is these off-ice questions of maturity, that seem to be the biggest question marks surrounding Kristo at this point in time.
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
Since being taken in the 4th round of the 2011 NHL Draft, Michael St. Croix has been lighting up the WHL. The talented forward has put up 197 points in the last two seasons. He’s also produced for the Oil Kings in the playoffs leading the team to their first ever WHL Championship and a birth in the Memorial Cup in 2012, and to another WHL Championship appearance, and unfortunately a loss in 2013.
St. Croix is a talented 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 excelling at 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 in the AHL this season.
The Rangers prospect pool is quite shallow right now. We’ve seen them graduate numerous prospects to the NHL in recent years such as Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh, and others. We’ve also seen them move picks and young players, such as in the Rick Nash trade. As a result, they have really put a strain on their system and will need to build it back up in the coming years. Other prospects currently in the system include Dylan McIlrath, and Brady Skjei on defence as well as Bo Nieves and Jesper Fasth up front, but overall the depth is lacking. This isn’t unusual though, as it is often the case for a team with a win now mentality like the Rangers have.
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