Yesterday was a busy day in Rangerstown. First, the morning skate at MSG Training Camp in Westchester. Then, the Rangers announced their training camp roster by 13 players. And finally, the first preseason game at MSG last night.
Nothing really to report out of the morning skate, and it was not certain at that point when on later on Tuesday or on Wednesday the cuts would come.
Then a little more than an hour before puck drop last night, the cuts came. No surprises here, except for one omission. Three players (Matt Carey, Spiro Goulakos, and Garrett Noonan) were released from their PTOs; three (Nick Betz, Reid Duke, and Joseph Raaymakers) from their ATOs. In addition, Adam Chapie, Troy Donnay, Michael Joly, and Ahti Oksanen were reassigned to Hartford; and Tim Gettinger, Ty Ronning, and Sergey Zborovskiey were sent back to their junior teams.
None of these guys were/are household names. But Ronning and Zborovskiey may very well be in Rangers’ uniforms in years to come; they just have a lot of learning left to do before making the leap to the pros. (As does Brad Morrison, the Rangers prospect who never even made it to training camp–he was sent back to juniors at the conclusion of the Traverse City tournament and has been playing lights out for the WHL Prince George Cougars ever since).
So, what was the surprise omission? It is that Ryan Gropp was not on the list and is still in camp. Gropp, the Rangers’ 2nd round pick in the 2015 entry draft, did not impress in Traverse City. Then he played with Team C (the extras) in training camp this past weekend.
So why is he still in camp?
The team may not be sure where to put him. He may not really be ready for the pros. But because Gropp is in his 20th year, he can only play as an overager in junior hockey. Overage spots in junior hockey, however, are usually reserved for players who have not been signed by NHL teams (eg, Ryan Callahan). Gropp was already signed by the Rangers last December. So, it’s a dilemma.
My guess is that Gropp will play in the AHL. And that he will be among more cuts that are coming before Saturday, which is when the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack start their training camp. The longer hope is, however, that he does not get relegated to the ECHL for seasoning. He would be better off with an arranged overage spot somewhere in the CHL than toiling in the ECHL for a year.
As for last night’s game, the Rangers won by the score of 5-2 in a battle with a split-squad Islanders team (the other part of the Islander roster lost to the Flyers 4-0). While for the Islanders, last night’s games might have been about player evaluations, for the Rangers, it was as much about trying out line combinations.
One line was particularly successful. The top line of Mika Zibanejad centering Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich was stellar last night. Zibanejad and Kreider were the point getters (five points between the two of them), but Buchnevich was excellent too. Butcher (the nickname his teammates have given him) set up plays, sped all over the ice, and went to the net to provide screens when it was needed. With each game he plays on American soil, Buchnevich just gets better and better.
It is beginning to look like the hype that surrounded his arrival was not wrong at all. And the way Buchnevich complements Krieder and Zibanejad (who, on the power play, likes to set up exactly where Alex Ovechkin and bomb it toward the net) makes this a very potent line that should be kept together at least throughout the preseason.
Also impressive last night was the play of Mackenzie Skapski, the rookie goalie who came in for the second half of the game. Stopping 17 of 18 shots, including 14 in the last period, Skapski looked like a legitimate number one netminding prospect.
For the 2013 Rangers sixth-round pick, this was not the first time that he appeared in a Rangers uniform. You may remember him as briefly serving as the 20-year old NHL backup to Cam Talbot during the 2014-15 season. Skapski even started two games that spring for the Rangers– against Buffalo–and won them both.
At the time, he was talked about as the top Rangers goaltending prospect after Cam Talbot. Well, after his short stellar stint in the NHL, Skapski injured his hip and put up terrible numbers in the 2015 AHL playoffs.
He had reparative surgery during the summer of 2015 and then proceeded to struggle between the pipes all last season. Skapski admits that “last year was a year that I kind of don’t want to remember. … I wasn’t there physically and did not know it until someone pointed it out to me…. Then mentally it snowballed. Physically and mentally it was a very tough year.”
The issue for Skapski has been that, at the same time that he began to develop and then struggle, New York picked up three other netminders who had a very high upside. Skapski suddenly found himself lower and lower on the team’s depth charts.
That may have begun to change last night, as Skapski showed much of the same play that made him a top prospect in 2014-15. After last night’s exhibition game, he was “definitely happy with the first game…. happy with my physical capabilities.” He happily told NY Sportsday that “felt patient, felt calm, felt like things were coming to me.”
Skapski will have to be patient and calm, as he battles for the number one spot in Hartford with last year’s number one, the more experienced Magnus Hellberg. But Skapski himself downplays the battle, “I take it day by day. I am just trying to earn a good spot in Hartford and see what happens from there.”
If he keeps playing like he did last night, he will give Hellberg a run for his money. And you never know, Skapski may not just wind up being the number one in Hartford. With all that happens to players throughout a season, he may just earn a good spot in New York.