Last week, I went through the bottom half of the New York Rangers 2016 Top 25 Under 25. The bottom half had a lot of turnover, as the 2016 draft was an early success for the Rangers that warranted some shifting in the rankings. Couple that with four players who were ranked last year that are no longer with the organization, and you have a refreshed system that is something to get excited about.
Let’s remember that there are a good number of players on the NHL roster that are under 25 years old, so the top half of this list is mostly populated with them. There was a shift in the rankings for some of these kids though, as we’ve learned what each one is capable of in the lineup.
12. Adam Tambellini – Forward, 2013 3rd round pick (LY: 12)
12. Ryan Gropp – Forward, 2015 2nd round pick (LY: 13)
Ok I can’t count. I didn’t realize that I had two players on the list at 12 until I had already published the first part of the post. Honestly, why do you guys read my stats stuff when I can’t even count to 25?
Gropp is a rare combination of size, speed, IQ, and skill. He will likely wind up in the AHL this season, as he doesn’t have much more to show in the WHL. The next step in his development is crucial, as he has shown to have all the tools to be a top-six forward in the NHL. But the major question will be whether or not he can put it all together against pros. The Rangers reached for him in the second round, and there was a reason for it. Gropp is easily the most intriguing prospect. Imagine him and Chris Kreider on the same line?
As for Tambellini, he has an NHL shot. That’s the one thing that we saw consistently in his first pro season in the AHL. Tambo put up 17-15-32 with a pretty terrible Wolf Pack team last season, which was actually fifth on the team in scoring. This is the major transition year for Tambo, as he will have a much better support system with numerous talented kids coming to Hartford. He has the shot and the talent, he just needs to show he can improve his defensive and all around game.
11. Dylan McIlrath – Defense, 2010 1st round pick (LY: 10)
McIlrath slides one spot again this year, which seems harsh, but is really of no fault of his own. McIlrath was all around solid in his first full NHL season. He’s a very smart defenseman, knowing that he needs to compensate for his skating with great positioning and stick work. He did just that in limited time with Alain Vigneault last year. McIlrath also impressed with a skill that we didn’t know he had: Making a simple, smart first pass out of the zone to transition the rush. That is what really caught my eye last year. He’s calm and collected with the puck. He doesn’t panic, and he knows where his teammates will be.
That said, he is still limited by his skating. He is likely going to peak as a solid bottom pairing defenseman, one that can play second pairing in short stints. He doesn’t take himself out of position to make big hits anymore, and has shown vast improvements in his game. The big question will be if his future is in New York or elsewhere. Personally, I think he’s the second-best right handed defenseman on the roster at the moment.
10. Robin Kovacs – Forward, 2015 3rd round pick (LY: 16)
Kovacs makes the biggest jump of the year. Kovacs had a phenomenal year in the SHL, putting up 21-13-34 in 44 games, clicking with teammate and newly signed prospect Malte Stromwall. Kovacs improved on his line of 17-11-28 the year prior in eight fewer games. At just 19 years old (20 in November), he will be making the jump to the AHL this season. Last year, Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) noted that Kovacs plays a quick, skilled, and scrappy game.
Kovacs’ unexpected leap in the rankings is why McIlrath, who is already in the NHL, dropped a spot. Kovacs appears to be on the fast track to a spot on the big club in the top-nine. Kovacs’ potential appears to be growing by the minute.
9. Igor Shesterkin (Shestyorkin) – Goalie, 2014 4th round pick (LY: 11)
Shesterkin makes another jump this year, up two spots as he continues to show why I believe he is the goalie of the future once the Henrik Lundqvist era comes to a close. The kid has all the tools to be a solid NHL goaltender, but needs consistent playing time in the KHL to show he can be a full time starter. He may get that chance this Fall, with the World Cup taking away his team’s starting goalie Mikko Koskinen.
Of all the goalies in the Rangers system, I think Shesterkin has the highest ceiling. That says a lot, considering the talent in the group. He’s also just 20 years old, so there’s plenty of time for him to develop in the KHL before coming over to North America. The goalie position is a tremendous strength for this club.
8. Ryan Graves – Defense, 2013 4th round pick (LY: 9)
Graves is easily the best defense prospect outside of Brady Skjei at the moment. The 21-year-old continues to impress at all levels, putting up 9-12-21 in Hartford last year in his first pro season after earning a surprising extended preseason look last season. It took time, but Graves eventually earned big minutes in Hartford, playing in all situations including legit powerplay time. At 6’4 and 220 lbs, Graves uses his strength to continue to be a solid defender. The offense is just a bonus at this point, and a much welcomed bonus at that.
Graves has an absolute rocket of a shot, which partially explains the powerplay time in Hartford. He may not be the best puck distributor with the man advantage, but teams need to respect that cannon. There doesn’t appear to be a spot for him this season in the NHL, but boy is he close. But with McDonagh, Staal, and Skjei down the left side, something needs to give before he can get that real shot. Makes me wonder if the Rangers are waiting to see what he does in camp before making a huge move on the blue line. Personally I think he needs another year, but that’s just my two cents.
7. Oscar Lindberg – Forward, acquired via trade in 2011 for Ethan Werek (LY: 6)
6. Jesper Fast – Forward, 2010 6th round pick (LY: 7)
It was very difficult to determine who ranks ahead of who among the young Swedes, so I grouped them together. Both are skilled, quick, smart, and calm with the puck. Both are tremendous in all three zones. Both figure to have prominent roles in the bottom-six when the team is fully healthy. AV clearly loves Fast, putting him in the top-six sometimes, a role in which I believe doesn’t fit Fast that well.
One of these two will be exposed for the expansion draft next summer. This season is huge for them. Whoever has the better season will be protected, the other will be exposed. There’s a good chance one of them is not with the club as soon as the trade deadline. But for what it’s worth, both are solid NHLers who can play in all three zones and chip in offensively.
5. Brady Skjei – Defense, 2012 1st round pick (LY: 5)
Skjei remains the top ranked defenseman in the system, and will be in the NHL next season. Skjei is a smooth skater who is smart with the puck. He’s calm in his own zone, electing to make smart passes to transition to offense. He’s not Keith Yandle, he will not put up points like Yandle, and he will not be a force on the PP like Yandle. Skjei is more than likely someone who will chip in about 20-30 points on offense as a top-four defenseman. He’s just overall solid and smooth. Nothing flashy. That’s a good thing, as the Rangers need overall solid and smooth on a blue line that needs help.
4. J.T. Miller – Forward, 2011 1st round pick (LY: 3)
3. Kevin Hayes – Forward, signed as free agent (LY: 1)
Miller broke out last year, putting together his first 20-goal season (22-21-43) while solidifying a role in the top-six. So why did he drop a spot? The concern I have is that Miller shot 16% last season, which is an unsustainable number. Don’t get me wrong, Miller is another solid winger who belongs in the top-six, but he will need to put more pucks on net if he’s going to score 20 goals again. Perhaps more steady time on the powerplay and in the top-six at even strength is just what the doctor ordered. Miller is more than skilled enough to handle it.
Hayes is the single most under appreciated kid the Rangers have ever had. The cries to trade Hayes are much louder than the cries to trade Kreider all those years ago. The major reason is that Hayes sounds doofy on the microphone, and when you couple that with his long stride, people think he’s lazy. It’s a bad narrative spewed by bad reporting. Hayes produces points at a 1C pace, as does Miller.
This speaks for itself, and why I had a hard time deciding who should be ahead of the other. For all intents and purposes, let’s call this a tie for third, with the slight edge to Hayes because he has better offensive vision and distribution abilities. Both should be getting huge offensive minutes this season.
Regarding Hayes: Let’s remember that everyone seemed to want to trade Kreider, Miller, Lindberg, etc. Let’s pump the brakes on that, ok?
2. Pavel Buchnevich – Forward, 2013 3rd round pick (LY: 4)
The hype around Buchnevich is astounding. The kid is the real deal. He’s set to be a mainstay in the top-nine for the Rangers this year, after putting up age-20 stats in the KHL comparable to Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko, albeit less productive than those two stars. Buch won’t be Kuznetsov or Tarasenko, but he still projects out to be a top-six forward with the potential to be a top line stud wing.
That said, even Tarasenko and Kuznetsov needed a year to adjust. Buch isn’t going to light everything on fire right away. Let the kid adjust, he’s the real deal.
1. Mika Zibanejad – Forward, acquired via trade for Derick Brassard (LY: NR)
Zibanejad joins the team and instantly takes the top spot in this year’s ranking. The right-handed center is already an established name, with a pair of 20-goal seasons under his belt at just 23 years old. Zibanejad is a tremendous offensive talent, and seems to thrive with the man advantage, something the Rangers sorely need. As the off-wing trigger man on the left side, expect him to park it and fire away.
At the best case scenario, Zibanejad becomes a consistent 20-goal, 60-point player. He has a ton of talent around him in New York, so there is a real possibility he hits those numbers. Realistically, he’s a 20-goal, 50-point player for several years to come. He’s already at that level at 23 years old. There’s a reason why I loved this trade.
Quick note: If the Rangers land Jimmy Vesey, I’d likely have him as #5 on this list. He doesn’t have the ceiling of Buchnevich, and isn’t already established like Zibanejad, Miller, and Hayes.