Despite coming in at 17th and 19th respectively on various prospect website rankings, the Rangers need not worry when it comes to the talent pipeline just now. Everyone assumes cap mathematics will be the driver behind letting Brad Richards go in twelve months time, and this is indeed true, but the Rangers are especially blessed with promising centers making their way up the system.
With Cristobal ‘Boo’ Nieves, the Rangers have a highly thought of prospect that had an exceptional first year in college in Michigan. They have the Swedish playoff MVP on his way in Oscar Lindberg, and they have a player in Michael St Croix that has been a dominant scorer in the WHL.
Without considering the obvious merits of a JT Miller, the promise (albeit perhaps a little further down the line) of Steven Fogarty, or a talented yet underachieving prospect such as Andrew Yogan, the Rangers don’t need to panic about letting Richards go, nor should they worry about filling his eventual departure through free agency.
Derek Stepan emerged this past season as the number one center. He played an All Star calibre season, and at such a young age Stepan is likely the Rangers number one center for the long term. He has become a difference maker, with yet more room for growth. It is therefore down to Derick Brassard to solidify the position for the Rangers, offensively speaking.
Hopefully Brassard can slot in behind (or in front) of Richards and play a full season healthy and contribute regularly. If he can, Brassard will give the Rangers’ decision makers confidence that he can cement the no. 2 center spot as his own long term. His performance so far as a Ranger promises much for the future. Key to all of this is the fact that he doesn’t need to go out next year and hit 60+ points (although it would be nice). He needs to play consistently effective minutes, score regularly, and give the Rangers depth – and options – at center. He needs to make Richards a luxury.
If Brassard and Stepan continue their development everything should click naturally. With Nieves likely another season wiser at Michigan, with Lindberg by then acclimatised to North American hockey, and with Miller and St Croix also realistic options at center (as well as wing), the natural progression to the third line and regular NHL ice time is made a lot easier. This is especially true with two centermen already established. There would thereby appear to be no hole too gaping, leaving cap space to (hopefully) be spent elsewhere.
It is this reason why Brassard’s development makes his first full season as a Ranger next year so crucial. A good year from Brassard allows the Rangers to bring along the prospects at appropriate paces and allows the team to spend cap space on wingers; or on finally finding a powerplay quarterback, not on chasing another top six center.
Richards is going; on that we’re all almost certain of. How his position in the franchise is filled depends, perhaps exclusively, on Derick Brassard. Brassard’s future is his own to shape but how he does so, will have ramifications for countless others within the New York Rangers organisation.