The Rangers’ Neal Pionk won the Broadway Hat last night following the team’s 5-1 victory over Buffalo. Whether or not he was the best player on the ice last night, Pionk has been playing extremely well over the last month, and after he potted his first NHL goal, the hat was his. Last night was not the first time over the last month that we saw an excellent effort from a team that is not supposed to be winning. When the Rangers’ brass told fans last month that there would be rebuild, everyone (except the players, that is) expected that the team would be angling for one of the bottom five spots in the league standings. Although Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, JT Miller, and Ryan McDonagh have left the City and gone on to teams that likely will be competing in the playoffs this spring, the Rangers have not fallen flat on their faces. Yes, at times, the team has struggled. But, at others, New York has put together solid wins, with several of the younger players showing their value—Pionk among them.
In fact, this team is not the bottom of the league’s barrel, and, we believe that that it could be a winning team sooner, rather than, later. Let’s look at why.
Several young excellent prospects have come into the system as the result of the above trades. This includes defensemen Ryan Lindgren, Igor Rykov, and Libor Hajek, as well as center Brett Howden. In addition to these three solid prospects, New York is now rich with draft picks for this summer—the team controls 10 overall selections, including three in the first round, two in each of the second and third rounds, and one each in rounds four through six.
Almost all (if not all) the prospects that are selected this summer by New York will need at least one year of junior hockey before being NHL-ready. Only if the Rangers could wind up with the top three or four picks could the team wind up with an NHL-ready player. While it is not impossible to do so, the strength of the team’s play over the last four weeks have placed the Rangers somewhere in the 8-10 spot in the draft. Those positions have extremely low chances in the lottery.
As for the prospects named above obtained in the trades, Lindren is just out of his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota and is expected to play in Hartford next season. A mostly defensive blueliner, he will need some adjustment to the professional game next season. Rykov has another year on his contract in Russia, and Hajek, who has a much more offensive touch than the other two, is only 20 years old and almost certainly will be spending his rookie pro season in the AHL.
The player that will get a long look next fall will be newcomer Brett Howden, who came over from Tampa Bay. The 20-year-old center, captain of the WHL Moose Jaw Warriors, has been tearing it up since his excellent performance in the World Juniors. Projected to be a top six center, he will be looked at along with Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil for that role next season. Should he be ready, it would for the first time in a very long time present a plethora of choices up the middle for the Rangers.
Several of the seven players 25 years old and younger who have made first appearances in a Rangers uniform this season will also remain with the team. In addition to Chytil, Alexandar Georgiev and Pionk will return. As respects the other defensemen, John Gilmour and Rob O’Gara will be RFAs; as they have not been as good as Pionk on the back end, they could be replaced on the NHL roster. There is another defenseman lurking in the background, who may be ready for NHL play next season. Brandon Crawley has spent his rookie pro season in Hartford, for most of which he has been on the first pairing. Crawley is the kind of blueliner that when you do not hear about him, that’s good. He is not going to score points, but he is an average sized D-man who has toughness and can clear the net. Crawley has been invaluable in Hartford and could turn out to be another player that the Rangers have been hoping to find for years—a tough defensive defenseman who can clear the crease.
Finally, there are the players already in the system who have played extremely well elsewhere this season, but you probably won’t see until at least the fall of 2019. Among them are Igor Shestyorkin (who is a top goalie in the KHL), Morgan Barron (who played lights out in his freshman year at Cornell), Ty Ronning (who is the goals leader this year in the WHL), and forward Patrik Virta (a seventh-round pick last summer who is playing extremely well in the Liiga).
Whether or not the addition of some of these prospects will be enough to get to the playoffs next season remains to be seen. But, the future is so much brighter now for this team than it was just two months ago. Yes, a tweak or two may still be necessary and will likely come just before the draft. But, the team does not need to be blown up. Believe it or not, the Rangers are already well on their way to being a playoff team with just the few big moves they made at the deadline.