Training camp is just around the corner, and we will finally (hopefully) get a real season of hockey under out belts after the last two seasons of uncertainty. The Rangers roster is basically set, with the plan to give the reins to the kids and let them run with it. Most of the kids that will make the roster are known. There are still a few kids on the cusp that could surprise at camp. These Rangers dark horse rookies could snatch a roster spot from someone if everything goes their way.
Morgan Barron is the first rookie that comes to mind. He’s having a great development camp, and is viewed as a center by the organization. There were many different takes on Barron this offseason, from Eichel trade chip to potential middle-six center following a trade. With the lack of a trade, Barron is slated to come to camp as potential competition for Kevin Rooney as the 4C. Barron has all the makings of a solid NHL center, but the question would be where he is best suited for development. Has he done everything he can do at the AHL level? Will playing fourth line minutes at even strength, along with killing penalties, be enough to continue his development? In the AHL, Barron will get top line minutes in all three situations.
A good question can be brought up about resource management. Why would the Rangers protect Kevin Rooney over Colin Blackwell in expansion, only to have him play second fiddle to Barron? The answer is relatively simple, as there are no issues with a kid supplanting a veteran. Plus Rooney represents depth in a position where the Rangers are relatively weak. Injuries happen, trades (likely) happen. Rooney will either be the 4C or the 5C, depending how camp goes. Barron will either be on the roster or in the AHL.
Braden Schneider isn’t spoken about much because Nils Lundkvist is penciled into the lineup as the 3RD. The expectation is that Schneider starts the season in the AHL and gets at least a season to adjust to professional hockey. But we’ve seen it before where kids expected to be in the AHL force their way onto the roster. In this case, Schneider would need to have a stellar preseason and would need an injury or a bad preseason from Lundkvist. The organization is very high on Schneider, or at least the old regime was.
This is less about roster construction and more about who is more ready. The expectation is that Lundkvist, who is a solid puck mover and great in all three zones, will make the team. It checks out, having played in the SHL for a few seasons now. Schneider, more of a physical presence but still a solid three zone player in his own right, finished his WHL career last season. It is more likely he needs at least a season in the AHL to adjust to pro hockey. In terms of Rangers dark horse rookies that could make the club, he’s the clear #2.
Lauri Pajuniemi exploded onto the prospect scene last season with back to back strong years in Liiga. He likely isn’t going to be a top six player at the NHL level, but he could be a dark horse to supplant someone like Julien Gauthier as a bottom six RW. Pajuniemi is more of a finesse skill player with a great shot. TPS actually structured their powerplay to give him opportunities from the Ovechkin spot. But Pajuniemi is not Ovechkin. There are still concerns about the rest of his game and whether it translates to the NHL level.
With a pair of pro seasons in Finland under his belt, Pajuniemi could show he took the requisite next steps to make his case for the NHL roster. Unlikely as it may be, especially considering the forward depth, Pajuniemi is still someone to keep an eye on in camp. As it stands today, the Rangers currently have Gauthier and Ryan Reaves vying for that 4RW spot. Pajuniemi offers a different skill set from both of them, and could provide more balance and options for Gerard Gallant. Of course he, like Barron, could also be a trade chip in a larger move. That value would only grow with a strong camp.
A surprise addition to training camp this year, Karl Henriksson isn’t like to stay in North America this season. Henriksson must make the NHL roster or he will go back to Sweden for another year with Frolunda due to contractual reasons. That isn’t a bad thing, as the 20 year old center is a key piece for Frolunda this season and will be given every opportunity to succeed. Henriksson makes this list because the Rangers would not have entertained bringing him over if they didn’t see something in him for this year.
More of a middle-six center at his ceiling, Henriksson could be viewed as a potential 3C in the event of a larger trade involving Ryan Strome or Filip Chytil. That said, it is very unlikely he is on the NHL roster on opening night. Another year in the SHL will be good for his growth.