Before the weekend–before John Tavares shook all of New York with his decision to go back to Toronto. And while we all held our breath to see who Jeff Gorton would sign to change the Blueshirts’ roster on the first day of free agency (not a man yet), there was the Rangers’ annual prospect development camp.
The camp is run each year for four to five days, beginning shortly after the NHL Draft. Although usually held early in July, this year the draft was held almost a week early, so development camp was over long before the July 4th holiday. The players were on the ice for each day of the prospect camp, which ran from Monday through Friday. Although officially, prospect camp is to familiarize the prospects with good nutrition and training, as well as introduce the players to the Rangers’ system and each other, evaluation is a big part of the process. Three scrimmages (from Wednesday through Friday) took place last week (in addition to the prospects taking in a baseball game, a tour of MSG, and a boat ride around Manhattan).
A total of 36 players attended the camp, including 28 Rangers’ prospects and 8 invitees. All of the players, except Olof Lindbom, took the ice for the scrimmages.
Filip Chytil, C (2017, 1st rd, # 21 overall, NYR)
Thought of as the prospect with the best chance to make the NHL roster next fall, Chytil was the most impressive player on the ice over the course of the week. Although the center was only 17 and lanky when drafted last season, only one year later he appears to be stronger and bigger. Always willing to go into the corners to fight for the puck, now Chytil is much more likely to win the battle than wind up battered himself. Very noticeable on the ice, the puck seems to find him, which is often the sign of a top NHL player. Although he may not be projected to be an NHL all-star (at this point, anyway), he should be able to step into a top six role this season.
Alexandar Georgiev, G (Free agent, signed July 11, 2017)
Georgiev stepped into a backup role for the Rangers for a short time last season and showed that, as a 21-year-old, he was almost ready for NHL play. This past week, Georgiev made some outstanding plays, showing lateral movement, an excellent glove hand, and good rebound work. The dilemma for the fall is, do you have the now 22-year-old backup Henrik Lundqvist in New York (and sit on the bench for most of the season) or continue to develop playing regularly in Hartford. This situation is complicated by the resigning of Marek Mazanec, who could also be a backup in New York (or a number one in Hartford). Assuming that the Rangers do not sign a veteran NHL netminder, there could be an interesting battle for the backup spot in New York this fall.
Gabriel Fontaine, C (2016, 6th rd, #171 overall, NYR)
I have to admit that Fontaine was somewhat off my radar before this last week–his numbers were only okay this past season in Hartford and, given where he was drafted (and the fact that he was passed over in his first year of eligibility), Fontaine was considered a long-shot to make the NHL. After this camp, I am not so sure. Fontaine had a kind of slow Wednesday, but on Thursday and Friday, his play was off-the-charts good. His effort, work with the puck, release, and hockey smarts opened everyone’s eyes to Fontaine’s possibility as an excellent two-way bottom-six forward in the NHL. Still only 21, Fontaine will almost certainly go back to Hartford this season, but he is definitely a player to watch.
Vitali Kravtsov, RW (2018, 1st rd, #9 overall, NYR)
A surprise to most when selected, Kravtsov is a very skilled player, who needs some adjustment to the size of the North American ice. With less time to make plays here, he will need to get his passes off faster and find the open ice quicker. There was a moment on Friday, however, when Kravtsov gave us a peek of what is to come; he snuck into the slot with no one else around and buried the puck past the opposing netminder—he received the puck and it was gone in one beautiful motion. Kravtsov’s family attended development camp (his sister goes to college in Toronto), and there was lots of speculation that because of that he would play in North America this coming season, but it’s really his decision. He does not look ready to play in the NHL, and readiness may take more than a couple of months in the AHL. I know that it is not a popular viewpoint, but perhaps Kravtsov should finish out his KHL contract in Russia this year (get thicker and stronger), and then come over and maybe play on the Rangers’ roster.
Lias Andersson, C (2017, 1st rd, # 7 overall, NYR)
Andersson was most notable this past week for the hits he laid on people. And not all of them were legal hits, either. Although under six feet tall, Andersson is a tough customer. When that toughness is combined with his offensive talent (a very good release and hockey smarts), Andersson is expected to be a top six forward. He will get a chance to make the roster out of camp this fall, but if not, he will start in Hartford and be a call up during the season.
Ville Meskanen, LW (Free agent, signed May 3, 2018)
Meskanan had an outstanding development camp. From his hat trick on Wednesday, to penalty shots and SO goals toward the end of the week, the 22-year-old Finn made an excellent impression on the Rangers’ front office. A goal scorer, who will get a long look in training camp this fall, Meskanen will get a chance to show that he can play top six minutes in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Libor Hajek, LD (2016, 2nd rd., # 37 overall, TBL)
This is the first time we saw Hajek in a Rangers’ camp, since he came over from Tampa Bay this spring. After a tremendous season in the WHL (and at the U20 WJCs), it was not clear what to expect. Hajek did not disappoint though. Of all the defenseman in the development, he was the best performer. And not only on the defensive side of the puck–he sees the ice extremely well, is an excellent skater, and gets rid of the puck quickly. Expected to be a two-way blueliner in the pros, Hajek is being talked about as possibly joining the NHL roster. In the meantime, he likely has surpassed Sean Day on the team’s prospect depth chart.
Brett Howden, C (2016, 1st rd., # 27 overall, TBL)
Howden looks kind of wiry and placid when you are talking to him, but on the ice, he is far from quiet. He has a presence, which when added to his skating excellence, makes Howden a top prospect. He does not yet look NHL-ready, as he still could use some strengthening, but he has the potential to be an excellent two-way center and should battle with Andersson for that role in the coming years. However, if he should not find a place up the middle, Howden has experience playing on the wing.
Lauri Pajuniemi, RW (2018, 5th rd., # 132 overall, NYR)
Bet that you weren’t expecting a report on Pajuniemi! But his work throughout this development was stellar—an excellent playmaking winger, who is not afraid to go to the net and take the punishment for doing so (despite his size). Pajuniemi was a perfect linemate for Kravtsov in this camp. The two had excellent chemistry together on a line with Chytil—this was a line that was hard to stop this past week. Pajuniemi has another year on his contract in Finland but, if I was the Rangers, I would get him over here as soon as Kravtsov plays in North America. Clearly, they have fun playing together, and it would ease both of their transitions to North America.
Ty Ronning, RW (2016, 7th rd., #201 overall, NYR)
I have to include Ronning here, as he is the little engine that could. He never stops—his work ethic and leadership abilities are top notch. Sometimes, he gets knocked off the puck and his defensive play leaves something to be desired, but he gives 110% on every shift, is an offensive threat, and you have to root for him. He is the perfect example of the phrase like father, like son.
K’Andre Miller, LD (2018, 1st rd., #22 overall, NYR)
It was easy to see Miller on the ice this week—he was pretty much bigger than everyone who was skating, except Tim Gettinger. Miller looked a bit overwhelmed at the start of the week, and was just starting to hit his groove on Friday. He began to use his body well, blocking out players, positioning himself well along the boards, used his stick well, and skated well for his size. Miller is a total athlete, with size and good strength. When he grows further into his frame, he will be the strong, punishing, two-way blueliner with size that the Rangers have coveted for years. Miller actually could have top pairing potential, but he needs several seasons of college hockey before he is ready to go pro.
Dawson Leedahl, LW (Free agent, signed May 9, 2017)
Although Leedahl did not have a particularly good rookie pro season (he split his time between the AHL and ECHL), he did put on a god performance in this camp. From his scoring to his effort to his defensive work, Leedahl looks like he has some potential to be a bottom six NHL player. A lot will be riding on his play this season—if he can perform as he did last week, he will definitely get a chance to show his stuff at the NHL level.
Jacob Ragnarsson, LD (2018, 3rd rd., # 70 overall, NYR)
He does not look like he will be putting up lots of points, but Ragnarsson was quite impressive defensively over this past week. He can skate and read plays very well. His positioning was excellent and he frequently came out of nowhere to be the one to make the defensive play. He is not and will not be flashy, but Ragnarsson projects to be a mid-pairing defenseman that quietly does his job.