Last week, I went through the bottom half of the third annual Top 25 Under 25 for the New York Rangers. The bottom half of the list is fairly interesting, because it had some players fall off the list completely, and players like Ryan Bourque, Cristival “Boo” Nieves, and Steven Fogarty fall significantly. This has a lot to do with the recent influx of talented prospects from the 2015 draft.
Remember though, there are a good number of players under 25 years of age that are on the NHL roster, and naturally that puts them ahead of a lot of players that still qualify as prospects. So let’s round out the top-12 players in the Top 25 Under 25 for the Rangers.
12. Adam Tambellini – Forward, 2013 3rd round (LY: 16)
Tambellini is an interesting case. Part of that pretty solid third round class of 2013 that included Anthony Duclair and Pavel Buchnevich, Tambo has flown under the radar until this year. He’s big, he’s toolsy, he’s smart, and he’s got great skill. He dominated his overage year in the WHL last season, and while the numbers are flashy, remember that Michael St. Croix put up absurd numbers in the WHL as well. More importantly, Tambo’s improved skating and strength has helped him move to the next level. He’s still a prospect, and the AHL will help determine his long-term future. He will need a few (probably two) years in the AHL.
11. Igor Shesterkin – Goalie, 2014 4th round (LY: 19)
Shesterkin jumped eight spots, earning the top goalie in the system ranking. Shesterkin (English spelling, in Russia it’s Shestyorkin) dominated in the World Juniors, VHL, and MHL, before getting a few games at the KHL level. As a 19 year old, he posted a .917 SV% in six games with SKA St. Petersburg, going 3-0-3 in the process. His performance on these difficult platforms are the reason why he’s shot up the rankings. He’s a bit disorderly with his movements, something that would make Justin cringe, but it’s a purposeful chaos. He has two more years in the KHL before he comes to North America, hopefully.
10. Dylan McIlrath – Defense, 2010 1st round (LY: 9)
I initially had McIlrath ahead of Graves, but the more I wrote on Graves, the more I realized I needed to switch them. McIlrath is in his “show me” year. He’s hovering around BUST territory, but he’s improved significantly over the past half season. Jeff Beukeboom specifically singled him out as most improved. He’s huge, but he’s not a great puck mover or skater. He’s been much better in his own zone and positionally, but his foot speed would hold him back at the next level. It’s do or die for McIlrath.
9. Ryan Graves – Defense, 2013 4th round (LY: NR)
Graves is by far the biggest mover this year, jumping to a top-ten spot after not being ranked last year. That shows how much this kid has improved. He earned top-pairing minutes in the QMJHL last year, playing on the top PP and PK units as well. He quadrupled his point total and sept-tupled his goal total as a result. Graves is the next wave of big, shutdown defensemen. He can skate, he can move the puck, he can overpower skaters, and he’s solid in his own zone, both positionally and pushing the play up the ice. Everyone talks about Skjei as the big time defense prospect, so Graves flies under the radar. He will need two years in the AHL, most likely, but he should have an NHL impact at some point.
8. Emerson Etem – Forward, trade with Anaheim (LY: NR)
Etem is incredibly difficult to rank. He’s so skilled, but he hasn’t put it all together yet. He’s fast, great hands, a great shot, and has the potential to be a top-six forward. He’s not all that great in his own zone, but proper deployment should help with that. Deploy him properly –in the offensive zone with some good teammates, something he didn’t get in Anaheim– and he should flourish. I think his 2013-2014 (7-4-11 in 29 games) season is a better indicator of his talent than his 2014-2015 season (5-5-10 in 45 games).
7. Jesper Fast – Forward, 2010 6th round (LY: 6)
Fast dropped one spot, but that’s entirely because Skjei moved up to a top-five spot, bouncing Fast down a notch. Fast has solidified himself as a solid defensive forward who can be a temporary fill-in on a scoring line. He’s one of the best defensive forwards on the roster, is rarely out of position, and has the skating ability to make teams pay for turnovers or sloppy play. His offensive tools aren’t that great, but he makes up for it with a tremendous hockey IQ. It was his play on the faceoff that led to the Derek Stepan series winner against Washington, and his forced turnover that led to Ryan McDonagh’s Game Five winner in the same series. For Alain Vigneault, Fast is the perfect transition player.
6. Oscar Lindberg – Forward, trade with Phoenix (LY: 7)
Lindberg is basically a shoe-in to make the Rangers this year. The Wolf Pack’s top center last year, Lindberg is the best two-way player in the system. He’s superb on faceoffs, and comparable to Jesper Fast when it comes to his defensive zone work. He’s seriously great in his own end. Lindberg has a bit more offensive potential than Fast, with softer hands and better instincts in the offensive zone. It’s tough to project his NHL point totals, as usage will play a huge factor. He can play up and down the lineup though.
5. Brady Skjei – Defense, 2012 first round (LY: 8)
Skjei is very clearly the top defense prospect in the system. He will compete for a spot in the top-six this year, but will likely need a bit of time in the AHL at first. Even McDonagh needed 40-ish games in the AHL when coming over from the NCAA. Skjei moves the puck well, is a great skater, solid positionally, and has a great hockey IQ. He wasn’t a big scorer with Minnesota (for comparison’s sake, neither was McDonagh with Wisconsin), but that doesn’t mean he’s a slouch offensively. He just wasn’t the focal point of the Minnesota offense or powerplay, Mike Reilly was. Skjei will be an NHLer.
4. Pavel Buchnevich – Forward, 2013 3rd round (LY: 5)
There’s not much to say about Buchnevich that hasn’t already been said. This kid is so gifted that he’s turning heads all over the place. As a 19-year-old in the KHL, he put up 13-17-30 on a mediocre Severstal team. The kid has it all: skating, hands, hockey IQ, shooting, size, speed. Literally everything. The only reason why he is #4 on this list and not higher is because he’s not at the NHL level, while the three ahead of him are all top-six players.
3. J.T. Miller – Forward, 2011 1st round (LY: 3)
People seem to forget that Miller is just 22 years old. He made his NHL debut at 19, and finally stuck on the roster, solidifying his spot as a top-six forward this past season. Miller put up 10-13-23 this past season, but it wasn’t until the second half of the year when he really started clicking with Stepan and Kreider. If Miller gets more powerplay time, he could potentially double that output. He’s not great in his own zone, but his responsibilities have lessened since the move to wing, making him more effective. At 22, he’s got room to grow as well.
2. Chris Kreider – Forward, 2009 1st round (LY: 2)
Expected Kreider to be #1? Sorry to disappoint. Kreider is a superb player and one of the fastest players in the league. He plays a hard-nosed game, gets to the net, and does things few others on this team are willing to do. His hands aren’t perfect, and he’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but it works for him. He’s constantly improving, and might sniff 30 goals this season with increased PP time. Aside from Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers haven’t had a 30-goal scorer since Jaromir Jagr, back in 2006-2007. At 24, Kreider is right in his peak (peak for NHL skaters is roughly 23-26), so this is the time we will see his best hockey.
1. Kevin Hayes – Forward, signed as free agent (LY: NR)
Boy did Hayes impress last season. He started the season “slow,” or at least slow from an offensive perspective. He was always solid in his own end, showing he could easily adjust to the rigors of playing center in AV’s hybrid system. The points started coming in bunches in the second half of the season, giving the Rangers a true two-way 3C. He’s not great on faceoffs, which is why people think he’s destined to play wing, which may eventually happen, but there’s more to the center position than faceoffs. His hockey IQ could be tops on the team. He just knows where to be. He gets the #1 ranking because he’s the better all around player than Kreider.