Treff: Rangers Draft Hastens Team Rebuild

The Rangers took a giant leap in their rebuild this weekend by making eight selections at the NHL entry draft in Vancouver, BC. As expected, on Friday evening, the Blueshirts chose Kaapo Kakko with the second overall selection. It was the first time that the Rangers drafted that high in the modern era; and it was very fortunate that this season the number one and number two selections were so close in their desirability. Because, although Jack Hughes has been the projected number one in this draft for years, by the time everyone sat down at their team tables on Friday, the decision was not as clear (it was more like a Taylor/Tyler debacle than a Tavares/Duchene choice). In the end, the New Jersey Devils went with the safe choice—Hughes–and Kakko fell to New York.

I would argue that Kakko would have been the better choice for the Rangers even if they had selected first overall. One of the takeaways from the very recent Boston Bruins/St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup Final series, was that players, even those who are on the ice for their high-end skill, need some size to play a sandpaper game. Neither of St. Louis’s smaller forwards, Robby Fabbri and Jaden Schwartz, were very offensively productive in the final series; Boston’s diminutive sandpapery Brad Marchant had only five points in that series; defenseman Torey Krug was held pointless in four of the seven games.

Although there are other reasons for these low point productions, it is hard to ignore the fact that the Stanley Cup winner put a defensive corps on the ice that all measured over six feet, and that most of the best players in the league still top that size. Yes, smaller players are populating the league more than ever before, but it is still skill, toughness, and size that win Stanley Cups.

All of which is why I would have preferred the 6’2”/ 194 Kakko over the 5’10”/170 Hughes at number one. Over the last ten years most of the players chosen second overall have done extremely well—think Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel, Kakko’s fellow countryman Alexandre Barkov, Gabriel Landeskog, and the aforementioned Tyler Seguin, so there is no reason to believe that, absent injury, Kakko will do so too. However, it may take him a few years to get to a close to point a game range. Adjustment to the smaller rink and to the speed of the NHL game may take some time, as may the state of the rebuild itself. It likely will speed up his development to put the winger on a line with NHL vets; hopefully, trades and free agency pickups will still allow that to happen. In any case, let’s be careful not to judge the success of this player (either good or bad) too early—it may take until his third season to see what Kakko really can do at this level. 

New York had two selections in the second round—numbers 49 and 58. With number 49, the Rangers picked the 6’4” left defenseman, Matthew Robertson. Some scouts had him going before the middle of the second round, but there were a few questions on his decisionmaking with the puck that dropped him to the Rangers in this spot. However, in the Ivan Hlinka tournament last summer, he looked very good, scoring two goals and two assists in the tourney. Robertson also looked very good in the 2018 U18s WJC.

Excellent on D and a very good skater, Robertson showed his offensive prowess in the last seven games of his WHL season, when he posted 1 goal and 9 assists during that time. Additionally, Robertson is a very fit strong guy–at the Combine, he finished fourth overall in the bench press; was tied for 13th in the longest wingspan; tied for 14th in agility and balance; and ties for 23rd in consecutive pull ups. There is no question that Robertson will need time to develop, but he projects to be a second pairing mostly defensive defenseman.

With their other second round pick, New York selected center, Karl Henriksson. A left shot, Henriksson played with Frolunda J20 of the SuperElit last season. A high-skill playmaking center, he was tied for the highest scorer in the league and had the best plus/minus rating there too. Additionally, Henriksson is an outstanding skater. In essence, the number 58th overall selections is a speedster playmaker, who has the potential to be excellent on the power play. Likely to return to Europe for at least one more season, Henriksson will need to work on his strength to play at the NHL level.

Only eight spots lower, in the third round, the Rangers selected their second defenseman of the draft—Zach Jones. But unlike Robertson, Jones is an offensive blueliner, who likes to take advantage of opportunities. The former USHLer, who posted nearly a point per game this past season for the Tri-City Storm, is a high-risk, high-reward prospect, who is small in stature but high on creativity. The left shot blueliner sees the ice well but is not the best skater. Noticed at the Junior A Challenge this past winter, Jones has continued working on his skating, and thus rose in scouts’ eyes as the season went along. Expected to go to UMASS (Amherst) this fall, Jones is a very raw prospect, who could wind up being a steal in the third round.

With their fourth-round selection (# 112), the Blueshirts selected their third defenseman of the day–Hunter Skinner. In some ways, Skinner is the opposite of Jones, in that he is very big, is tough, and a right shot. Skinner is known more for his defensive stick work than his offense, although he has a good shot. His skating is good for his size (6’3”), but Skinner will have to work on his skating if he continues in the USHL next season (he is committed to Western Michigan for the fall of 2020). Also, it is noted that Skinner was picked #97 overall by the London Knights in the 2017 OHL priority selection draft ).

Forward Leevi Aaltonen was selected with the Rangers fifth round pick (# 130).  A natural winger, Aaltonen is another small forward with speed and skill. He has played internationally for his native Finland for the past three years—very successfully. More of a playmaker than a goal scorer, Aaltonen recorded 5 points in 5 games in the most recent U18 WJCs (tied for first among Finland’s forwards) and really stood out. There is no question that he is fast and can score within his own age group; the question is can he be successful at that size on a professional level? Aaltonen will return to Finland this fall to skate in the Liiga—it will be his first real test playing against men.

The tallest player chosen by New York in this draft was Adam Edstrom. The 6’6” Swedish center is more of a goal scorer than a playmaker. He played both junior hockey and in the SHL for Mora and, at the junior level posted close to a point per game. Not afraid to use his size to intimidate opponents and strip the puck away form them, Edstrom will play for Rogle in the SHL this coming season.

The final player selected by the Rangers this draft season was winger, Eric Ciccolini. Ciccolini has been playing junior A hockey in Toronto and had a breakout season in 2018-19. A speedster with excellent skills, he will need to step up his thinking of the game and consistency to get to the NHL (this scouting report from Committed to the University of Michigan for the fall of 2020, Ciccolini has one more year of junior hockey ahead of him before even entering college. This should provide the Rangers and Ciccolini enough time to see whether he will develop into a legitimate NHL prospect.

Summary: With the selection of Kakko, the Rangers took a major step forward in their rebuilding process. Kakko could be the Rangers’ future franchise player—he has the size, skill, and temperament to be so. But, it is not only Kakko–there will now be four of the team’s 1st round selections from 2017-2019 on the NHL roster this fall.  This does not include goaltending prospect Igor Shestyorkin, nor the young players that they received as part of recent deadline trades. The Rangers are now well situated to become contenders, if not this coming year, then next.

With the rest of the draft, the Blueshirts took a mix of forwards and defensemen. The organization realized that, although they have a large number of blueliners in the system, there is no sure fire top pairing guy coming up. Whether any of the defenseman drafted this weekend could fill one of those two spots is unclear, but the Rangers are correct in trying to find those two players through the draft. In addition, the team needs talented forwards who could be either the next small highly talented player or the larger gritty, high effort third liner.

This draft had a lot of good players from which to choose. By the luck of the lottery, the Rangers received a potential franchise player. The rest of the team’s selections were very well thought out.

NY Sportsday’s 2019 Draft Grade: A  

About the Author

Leslie Treff

Leslie Treff is a contributor for NY Sports Day, covering NY NHL teams. She has been covering the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils for more than 15 seasons. Leslie is a recognized expert in hockey prospects and has served as a scout for several independent agencies. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, in her former life, Leslie was an attorney in the judiciary in New York City.

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