Welcome to the 2015 edition of Top Shelf Prospects. As the summer progresses, I will be featuring each NHL team’s top prospects, following the order of the first round of the 2015 NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) —you can find all the articles here.
Because we already published an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in 2015, as my reports on them will not have changed — I will, however, link you to those articles. Instead I will focus on prospects that were acquired in past drafts, examining their progress and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of their respective NHL team. I will also choose one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the fourth round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a darkhorse to make the NHL.
For those wondering, the determining factors for defining who is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not set in stone, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Coming off an Eastern Conference Championship and appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, the New York Rangers came into last season looking for more. They finished the season as the NHL’s president’s trophy winners. After rolling through the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games, and then beating the Washington Capitals in seven, the Rangers found themselves back in the Eastern Final. That would be as far as they would go though, as the Tampa Bay Lightning took them out in seven hardfought games. It was yet another heartbreaking end to the year for a team many saw as a real Cup contender.
The Rangers got themselves caught in a bit of a camp crunch this off-season. As such Martin St. Louis was not offered a new deal, and he chose to retire. Carl Hagelin was traded to Anaheim for a package that included Emerson Etem. The Rangers also moved Cam Talbot to the Oilers for draft picks, and acquired Antti Raanta from the Blackhawks. They also signed Jarret Stoll to help out on the bottom lines, especially in the face off circle.
Top New York Rangers Prospects
Top Prospect: Pavel Buchnevich, Centre
Born Apr 17 1995 — Cherepovets, Russia
Height 6.01 — Weight 176 [185 cm/80 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted by New York Rangers in round 3, 75th overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Pavel Buchnevich had an excellent season for a 19 year old. Playing in the KHL for Severstal Cherepovets, he put up 13 goals and 30 points in 48 games. He also had 20 points in 11 playoff games for their MHL (Russian junior league) team, and six points in seven games at the World Juniors.
Buchnevich is a terrific skater. He has very fast top end speed, excellent acceleration and great first step quickness. This makes him extremely dangerous off the rush, and he is not afraid to go wide on a defenceman and then cut to the net. He also has great agility, and good balance on his skates. Buchnevich could stand to add some weight to his frame but even with that, his balance and strength on the puck is decent now. Some added core strength will be needed on a smaller ice surface with more work along the boards though.
Buchnevich is able to play all three forward positions which is a major plus for any prospect. He’s a pure sniper, with a fantastic wrist shot and snap shot. They are both powerful, accurate, and feature quick releases. He also has a very good one timer. Buchnevich is often able to force defenders to give him space due to his skating and it as at this point he can unleash is shot on the rush. He has good stickhandling skills and protects the puck very well. He’s not afraid to go through traffic and take the puck right to the net in order to get chances. Buchnevich is a skilled playmaker as well, he is very creative and is willing to try things that most players wouldn’t have the skill level to dream about. He also is willing to work hard in the corners and digging for loose pucks.
Buchnevich’s defensive game is improving, but is still a bit of a work in progress. He can often looked lost in the defensive zone as his positioning and fundamentals need a lot of work. He seems willing enough, but will need some major help in coaching going forward.
The Rangers had hoped that Buchnevich would come to North America this summer, but he choose to spend one more year in the KHL. They will try to get him signed to an entry level contract again next year.
Prospect #2 Brady Skjei, Defence
Born Mar 26 1994 — Lakeville, MN
Height 6.03 — Weight 206 — Shoots Left
Drafted by New York Rangers in the 1st round, 28th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Brady Skjei had another solid season at the University of Minnesota helping the team to a Big 10 Championship. He then decided to forego his senior year, and sign an entry level contract with the New York Rangers. Skjei would get in eight games in the regular season, and 15 in the playoffs with the Hartford Wolfpack.
Skjei is a very good skater. He possesses excellent edgework and agility for a big man. He has very good mobility, balance, and makes quick pivots. Skjei has above average speed and can use it to join the rush, though he really picks his spots with this. His backwards skating isn’t quite at the same level as his forwards movement, though it is still above average. He is good defending against the rush as a result.
Offensively Skjei plays a very smart game. He is an good passer, both in starting the rush and from the point, and seems to always make the safe play with the puck. That said, he isn’t a huge point producer as he also isn’t likely to attempt the more difficult and risky dynamic offensive plays, opting for the simple one and allowing his forwards to do the work. As mentioned he will join the rush and will also pinch in from the blue line to make a play, but really picks his spots in these aspects. Skjei’s slaps hot needs work and is below average when compared top offensive prospects on the blue line. There is some offence here, but don’t expect a huge producer, more of a two-way player.
Defensively Skjei uses good positioning, hockey sense and skating to keep attackers to the outside. He also is pretty effective at keeping the crease clear and at picking up loose pucks. He uses his size to limit passes and chances against, and to battle for loose pucks, but he isn’t a big hitter. Instead he plays a more patient game, allowing the play to come to him. Skjei possess the ideal height that NHL teams always seem to look for among defencemen. He is listed at 6’3″ and 206 pound, Skjei has added considerable muscle over the last several years. This has made him much more effective in the corners and in front of the net.
Skjei will likely start the season in Hartford, but could be called up to the Rangers if injuries hit. He still has some developing to do, but could be a top four defenceman for the Rangers down the road.
#3 Prospect: Oscar Lindberg, Centre/Left Wing
Born Oct 29 1991 — Skelleftea, Sweden
Height 6.01 — Weight 190 [185 cm/86 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in round 2, 57th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the New York Rangers in 2011.
Lindberg had a solid season in the AHL, putting up 28 goals and 28 assists for 56 points in 75 games. He was even better in the playoffs, with 16 points in 15 games. More importantly, he was used as the Wolfpac’s shutdown centre, playing big minutes against the other team’s top line, and on the penalty kill.
Lindberg has improved his offensive game. He has improved his shot, with more power and a quicker release. He’s also taken his play making ability to the next level. Lindberg controls the puck well down low, using his body and strong stick handling to protect the puck and wait for a teammate to get open. He has good hockey sense and makes smart plays with the puck.
Lindberg plays a sound two-way game. He reads the play well, and anticipates plays. He is very strong positionally and cuts down passing and shooting lanes. Lindberg is not afraid to put his body on the line to block shots. He is good in the face-off circle, and effective at killing penalties.
Its a huge training camp for Lindberg, who must earn a spot on the Rangers roster, or be forced to go through waivers before returning to the AHL. His two-way play should be a huge asset in earning the trust of the coaching staff. That said, nothing will be handed to him, as the Rangers are a deep lineup to crack. His ability to play both centre and wing will also be an asset.
Super Sleeper: Ryan Graves, D
Born May 21 1995 — Yarmouth, NS
Height 6.04 — Weight 225 — Shoots Left
Drafted by New York Rangers in the 4th round, 110th overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
After going to the Memorial Cup with the Val D’Or Foreurs in 2014, Graves was traded to the Quebec Remparts, and so got a return trip to the tournament. If the 2013-14 season was about Graves improving on the defensive side of the puck, 2014-15 was him showing a bit more offense at the Junior level.
Blessed with tremendous size, Ryan Graves is a strong defensive defenceman. He is very mobile, and uses decent speed, good edgework and strong pivots to get himself into good positions to block shots, and cut down passing lanes in the defensive zone. He’s also been willing to fight when necessary and has done well in this department the past two years. I would like to see a bit more of a mean streak along the boards and a few more big hit from him though given that size.
Offensively, Graves used a good breakout pass and his hard shot to improve his numbers this past season putting up 15 goals and 39 points with the Remparts. Most importantly though, he showed some ability to stick handle and to have some poise with the puck. By taking the time to look for a smart pass, or make a play on the breakout or at the offensive blueline, Graves proved to be much more of a threat, and his numbers went up as a result.
Graves will graduate to the AHL this year, and with the Rangers deep defensive corps, he will be given plenty of time to develop his game at that level. He could be a diamond in the rough for the Rangers down the road..
Over the last three years the Rangers have traded three first-round picks, two second-round picks, and a top prospect in Anthony Duclair. Given those moves its not a huge surprise that the prospect depth has suffered. They are particularly strong in terms of goalie depth with Brandon Halverson, Igor Shestyorkin, and MacKenzie Skapski. The defence has a stud prospect in Skjei, but beyond him things get weak. While players like Dylan McIlrath and Calle Andersson could be NHL contributors, but the overall upside is limited. At forward, Buchnevich looks like a stud. Ryan Gropp and Robin Kovacs add some depth to the pool, but overall there again seems to be a lack of prospects with high upside.
Main Photo: TORONTO, ON – JANUARY 4: Pavel Buchnevich #19 of Team Russia skates against Team Sweden during a semi-final game in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship at the Air Canada Centre on January 4, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Team Russia defeated Team Sweden 4-2 to advance to the gold medal game against Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)