Entering training camp last fall, there was an intense battle for the final forward spots between youngsters Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg and Danny Kristo. Fast actually won the job out of camp, but an early injury combined with Kreider’s emergence put an end to the competition.
Miller, Fast, Lindberg and Kristo are all clearly on the fringe, and with a strong second-half, Ryan Bourque joined the fray. Free agent signings Kevin Hayes and Ryan Haggerty are also in the mix for NHL jobs in the near future.
Miller looks all but assured of a spot out of camp this year, but that means there are still as many as five more near-NHL ready forwards knocking on the door.
All six prospects figure to be considered for in-season call-ups at the very least – with the promise of a better opportunity for a full-time gig next fall, as the Rangers created for Miller this September. But the play of two 2013 third-round picks has complicated matters.
There once appeared to be a gap between the aforementioned batch of prospects and the next wave, but Anthony Duclair and Pavel Buchnevich have closed it quickly.
Duclair lit up the Quebec League last season and plays a speed game that will fit in wonderfully with the Blueshirts, so he’s even getting a look this fall. Duclair has nothing left to prove in juniors, but being ineligible for the American League, he’ll likely spend one more season with Quebec. Next year though, Duclair might jump to the head of the line.
Buchnevich, the reigning KHL Forward of the Week, also looks like he is nearly ready for the NHL. He’s already dominating against grown men in Russia, so he too could be ready to make the jump as soon as next season.
There’s little doubt that both Duclair and Buchnevich have significantly more offensive potential than any of the other forward prospects. So where do they fit in?
Top-six forwards Kreider, Rick Nash and Derick Brassard are all signed to multi-year deals, while upcoming free agents Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Carl Hagelin will almost surely be re-signed. St. Louis is obviously nearing the end of his career, but the top-six is set regardless.
There’s much more flexibility in the bottom-six, where the team has mostly expiring contracts and the talents of Fast, Lindberg, Kristo, Bourque, Hayes and Haggerty are probably better suited. But clearly this is about to become a numbers game. Obviously there’s a 0% chance that all of those players end up in blue, but Duclair and Buchnevich may well have forced guys like Fast, Kristo and Bourque from the team’s future plans, while Hayes may have done the same to Lindberg.
That’s not to say all or any of this has been decided yet, or that any of the prospects that don’t make the team out of camp will be traded next week (although that is a possibility in the case of Bourque, who must clear waivers to return for Hartford and could be quickly snapped up if re-assigned by New York). But the stunning progress of Duclair and Buchnevich will inevitably have a direct impact on the prospect pipeline pecking order. Don’t be surprised when one or two of those guys are packaged in a trade prior to the deadline in the spring.