As we promised in August, there will be three top prospects rankings throughout this season. This second one includes player performances in Traverse City, training camp, and the first six weeks of the NHL season. As happens each year, by November, our August list is now outdated. This is especially true this season, where in the Jeff Gorton era, players have been released and others signed. Things have changed within the organization in just three months since our last list and is expected to change again before the next ranking in early March, as players and staff are shuffled.
What follows first is NY Sportsday’s current Top 20, and an explanation of why there have been changes since last summer. Although the usual criteria is under 26 and under 25 regular season NHL games, an exception has been made for Brady Skjei, who we feel should still be on the list. Although Skjei is an NHL regular thus far this season, he still plays like a rookie and could be sent back to Hartford without going through waivers and be considered an NHL rookie next season.
1. Pavel Buchnevich, LW
2. Igor Shestyrokin, G
3. Jimmy Vesey, LW
4. Brady Skjei, D
5. Ryan Graves, D
6. Boo Nieves, C
7. Marek Hrivik, LW
8. Robin Kovacs, RW
9. Sergey Zborovskiy, D
10. John Gilmour, D
11. Adam Huska, G
12. Ryan Gropp, LW
13. Sean Day, D
14. Brandon Halverson, G
15. Tarmo Reunanen, D
16. Nicklas Jensen, LW
17. Michael Paliotta, D
18. Gabriel Fontaine, C
19. Ty Ronning, RW
20. Brad Morrison, C
Despite excellent performances thus far this season by other Rangers’ prospects, Buchnevich remains atop the Rangers’ prospect list. Despite his injuries (Buchnevich is currently on IR), he has had a very promising start to his NHL career. Before he came over, the Rangers staff was touting the young Russian as a potential offensive star, and although he got off to a slow start in Traverse City and in training camp, Buchnevich has started the regular season extremely well. He still has some adjusting to do, but he can play on any line and be successful. In addition, we have already seen that he is willing to take a hit to make a play, works well with linemates, and can shoot. As far his injuries go, Buchnevich has has been struggling with back problems since the beginning of the season. A recent MRI revealed that there are no structural problems with his back, and he is expected to return in mid December. Assuming no residual effects and no further injuries, Buchnevich has the potential to be a big difference-maker for the Blueshirts this season.
The big move on this ranking has been made by Shestyorkin, the young Russian goaltender who is tearing it up in the KHL. The 20-year old is the perfect heir apparent to Henrik Lundqvist–exactly the right age, with an excellent pedigree. Currently third overall among goaltenders for SKA St. Petersburg, Shestyorkin (1.45 GAA, 94.5% saves) has posted eight shutouts thus far this season. He has a contract with SKA St. Petersburg through 2020, which may be the perfect time for him to come over and serve as Henrik’s backup for one year before taking over the reins. Goaltending prospects are very hard to predict, but this one looks like a star in the making. We even considered making him the top prospect in the franchise.
Vesey made a seamless transition to the NHL, at first. His level of play has dropped off somewhat since his first month, and there are questions whether a college player, who did not top 40 games in each of the last four years, will get tired after the midway point of the professional 2016-17 season, but there is no question that getting Vesey was a steal for the Blueshirts. He has size and skill, and he fits very well into team philosophy. Finding the right linemates is still a challenge for the coaching staff, but there is no doubt that he will be a top six forward in this league for many years.
Skjei remains on the list because more than any player with 30 NHL games I have seen recently, he still looks like a prospect to me. He is slowly finding his way, mostly pairing with Kevin Klein on Klein’s left side. Skjei is naturally more of a defensive blueliner, but in New York, he is playing more of a two-way role. He is learning when to jump into the play and use his booming shot to best advantage. He definitely makes mistakes, but currently has 11 assists, a rookie leader in this category. Expect Skjei to take at least one more season to reach his potential.
Graves is another young defenseman considered to be a Rangers’ top prospect. Now in his second professional season, Graves has size and a very heavy shot. The 21-year old is getting experience at the AHL level again this season, and is still probably a year away from competing for a roster spot at the NHL level, but he could have even more potential than Skjei (its pretty close). He was projected to be more of a defensive blueliner, but like Skjei is turning into more of a two-way defenseman than the Rangers’ scouts predicted.
Let’s stop here for a minute, as the dropoff in talent after this top five is significant. But two forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender is pretty good, especially since the Rangers have not had a first round pick since Skjei. Signing Vesey was probably the equivalent of getting one first rounder back, but one has to admit, that the drafting has not been bad at all. And add to this, the fact that the Rangers (at this point) have all their first round selections going forward. The future does look much brighter than it did just two years ago.
And there are potential gems in the bottom 15 too. Maybe not as much as other teams have had recently, and maybe most of the bottom 15 wind up just borderline NHL players or AHL regulars, but five players that either have made the top six or are nearly sure things when you have not had a first rounder since 2012 is very good.
So, lets move on. At number six, Nieves is an interesting player. A playmaking center, who showed in Traverse City that he can win faceoffs, the 22-year old is in his first professional season. He has played well in Hartford, but did not look like much when he had a brief call-up to the NHL earlier this month. Nieves is not ready for the NHL now, but that does not mean he won’t be next season. His weakness thus far is his ability to finish, which has looked terrible both in Traverse City and in the AHL. He certainly is a player to watch, but is a longshot to make the top six at the NHL level.
Hrivik is one of the best forwards in Hartford and he played reasonably well in a four-game call-up last season. It is almost certain that he could play on one of the third or fourth line in New York right now, but has not been recalled. One of the last players to be sent down before the start of the season, Hrivik is on a one-year contract and will still be an RFA once its expires.
Kovacs was a dynamic player in the Allsvenskan last season. When on a line with fellow rookie Malte Stromwall in Traverse City and in training camp, Kovacs showed a very high skill level. But he has not done much at all in Hartford this season. Maybe its an adjustment to the North American rink size, maybe it’s the Wolf Pack system, but either way, Kovacs’s road to the NHL looks longer than it did last summer.
The 6’4″ Zborovskiy is going in the opposite direction of Kovacs. Still playing defense in the WHL, Zborovskiy is producing at almost a point per game, while improving his positioning and stickwork by the day. Expected to be most effective in his own zone in the pros, Zborovskiy could move up a few spots in the rankings over the next few months if his development continues on the same trajectory.
This is Gilmour’s first appearance on the Top 20, and it is due to an excellent Traverse City tournament and his confidence with the puck in training camp. He has been less impressive in Hartford than he was in the pre-season, but the 23-year old still has the potential to be a fifth or sixth NHL defenseman.
Huska, Jensen, Paliotta and Morrison are all additions to the Top 20 this ranking. Huska, who recently shut out powerhouse Boston University, was the USHL Goaltender of the Year last season. And last week he was named Hockey East Rookie of the Week. Both of the 23-year old Hartford pros Jensen and Paliotta have played well, but neither has a high upside in the NHL. Morrison has been posting a point per game in the WHL this season.
Netminders Halverson and Mackenzie Skapski (who has fallen off the list) have both had difficult early seasons with Hartford and Greenville. Halverson is in his first year of professional hockey, so it may just be an adjustment to playing at this level, but Skapski is really struggling to start the 2016-17 campaign.
Others falling off the rankings are Adam Tambellini, Steven Fogarty and Calle Andersson. Tambellini, a second-year pro, is not producing in Hartford and, at this point, looks to become only an NHL fourth liner at best. At age 23, Fogarty is in his first pro season. Although it is early, he does not look like more than a career AHLer at this point. And defenseman Andersson is no longer a Rangers’ property. He was unconditionally released from his ELC and recently signed in Europe with Bern of the NLA.