Category Archives: Sports

The Great Cam Talbot Debate

Lundqvist understudy Cam Talbot: who said having too many elite goaltenders was a bad thing?

Lundqvist understudy Cam Talbot: who said having too many elite goaltenders was a bad thing?

Between Rangers and Oilers fans, the gulf in expectations over Cam Talbot’s trade value couldn’t be any wider.

Since rumors were floated that Edmonton was willing to trade the 16th overall pick for Talbot, both fanbases have been losing their collective minds. The consensus among Oilers fans in the comments sections and fan forums that I peruse (including TSN, The Hockey News, MyNHLTradeRumors, and the Hockey’s Future boards) is that trading anything above the 33rd overall pick would be massive overpayment for Talbot, and even trading the second rounder is a point of contention.

Opinions among Rangers fans are much more varied, ranging from “that sounds good to me” to “Hell no! Cam is worth a 1st rounder and prospects!” to “DO NOT TRADE OUR BACKUP GOALTENDER! HE’S TOO IMPORTANT!”

The reality is that one way or another, Talbot will be traded on or before Draft Day, and it’s clear that one team’s fanbase is going to be outraged.

Probably Edmonton’s.

But for those Rangers fans with through-the-roof expectations for Cam’s trade return, you all need to step back from the Playstation, and realize that your video game trade proposals will not work in the real world.

You also need to check your ideas on the importance of backup goaltenders, because you’re wrong.

All this and more will be explained in a little fictional Q&A I drew up to aid anybody who has plunged head first into the Cam Talbot trade debate without a pair of swimmies.

First off, what Is Cam Talbot’s actual trade value?

The short and honest answer to this question is what your college Microeconomics professor would tell you: whatever the market is willing to pay.

Was acquiring Scott Gomez worth trading hot prospect Ryan McDonagh for the Montreal Canadiens? No. But Canadiens’ GM Bob Gainey got it into his head that Gomez was the answer to the Habs’ problems finding a playmaker up the middle, and that combined with a sprinkling of doubt over McDonagh’s development led to one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL history.

With that in mind, multiple sources have confirmed that Talbot is indeed the most sought-after goaltender on the market right now, and is being chased hard by Edmonton, San Jose, Buffalo, Florida and Dallas, all of which possess a combination of multiple first round and high second round draft picks and deep farm systems. It’s not difficult to imagine one or more of those teams’ GMs talking themselves into a lopsided trade, given the circumstances.

Still, based on similar goaltender trades going back a few years, we can get a sense of Talbot’s floor value assuming a bad market.

Let’s start from the highest comparison. In 2013, Cory Schneider was traded at age 27 from the Canucks to the Devils for the 9th over pick in the 2013 draft (Vancouver selected Bo Horvath, their best prospect to date). Schneider had played 98 NHL games to that point, posting an insanely high .927 SP% with 9. In 10 NHL playoff games, he garnered a .922 SP%, though he only started six of those games and went 1-5. For his six starts, it is estimated that four were Quality Starts. Over three seasons in the AHL, his SP% was .921, and .922 in the playoffs. Schneider was also the 26th overall pick in 2004, so in addition to eye-popping stats at every professional level, he had the pedigree to match. There was no doubt about his skill level or ability to be a long-term starter.

At the time of his trade, Schneider had two seasons left on his contract at a cap hit of $4 million.

Talbot, 28, has played 57 NHL games posting a .931 SP%, .934 at even-strength, and 8 shutouts. His playoff experience has been limited to 2 games, with an unimpressive .826 SP%, though he came in to relieve Henrik Lundqvist both times. He essentially has a clean playoff slate.

Undrafted and signed out of College Hockey America’s University of Alabama in Huntsville, Talbot posted fairly mediocre numbers in both the CHA and in the AHL playing for the Wolfpack. His career AHL SP% is .914. It is clear that in comparison to Schneider and others such as Jonathan Bernier, Talbot does not have the type of pedigree that would put talent evaluators at ease when trying to project his long-term output as an NHL starter. Even Henrik Lundqvist, a 2000 7th round draft pick, put up big numbers in Sweden’s Elite league, establishing himself as the premiere European goalie before coming over to the NHL. Talbot’s progress came out of nowhere. Pedigree might not mean much at the end of the day, but it leaves the window of possibility open that Talbot’s success with the Rangers was a short-term phenomenon.

With a year left on his contract at a cap hit of just over half a million dollars, Talbot is a cap-friendly acquisition who can be resigned as early as January. Teams should not be warded off by the term of his contract, as the likelihood of Talbot going to a bad team is good, and the probable decline in statistical output he would experience would hurt his bargaining power as a UFA next summer.

He also risks injury or some other developmental hiccup, and for a 28 year old goaltender who was expected to be a career minor leaguer, the opportunity to sign a lucrative extension as a starter for an NHL team is too good to pass up for a big money UFA gamble. Talbot could easily get a 5-year $20 million contract by January with another solid half-season under his belt.

There is no doubt that Schneider was the more attractive acquisition at the time, but Talbot isn’t that far off.

At age 24, with a career NHL SP% of .912 in 62 games played, Jonathan Bernier was traded in 2013 from the Kings to the Maple Leafs for Ben Scrivens (at the time, a good goalie prospect), Matt Frattin, and a second-round pick. While Bernier was coming off an impressive season as Jonathan Quick’s backup, his NHL numbers were not nearly as good as Talbot’s are now. Bernier’s advantage was in age, pedigree (he was the 11th overall pick in 2006), and prior level performance (his numbers at every other level of competition were notably higher than Talbot’s). NHL experience is still what counts, so I am comfortable labeling Talbot the hotter commodity in comparison to Bernier in 2013, and the Kings received quite a package.

Ben Bishop, a third round draft pick with poor AHL stats and bad to mediocre numbers in 36 NHL games between two teams, was considered a promising young goaltender when he was dealt in 2013 at age 26 from Ottawa to Tampa Bay for Cory Conacher.and a 4th round draft pick. Though Conacher would go on to fizzle out, at the time he was in the midst of an impressive rookie season, scoring 24 points in 35 games for the Lightning and finishing 6th in the Calder Trophy vote. At the time, it was considered a fair deal.

Ben Scrivens and Devan Dubnyk, two young goaltenders with upside who had yet to put up consistently good NHL numbers, played on multiple teams and recently went for third round picks to the Oilers and Wild respectively. Though Dubnyk became a world-beater for the Wild and Scrivens struggled in Edmonton, neither goalie was a hot commodity at the time of their trade.

The next closest comparison to Talbot I could find was Jaroslav Halak, who was traded in 2010 at age 25 from Montreal to St. Louis for Lars Eller, a top NHL prospect who was drafted 13th overall in 2007, along with a non-roster played named Ian Schultz. At the time, Halak was coming off a monster playoff run where he lead the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals while recording a .923 SP% over 18 games. In 101 NHL games to that point, Halak had a .919 SP% and impressive minor-pro stats.

So it is clear that Schneider and Halak, both of whom went for a top pick or high-end prospect, had past performances that were in a tier just above Talbot’s, at slightly younger ages.

Talbot should also be evaluated far above Scrivens and Dubnyk at the time of their trades. Realistically, his floor value is more in line with what the Kings received for Jonathan Bernier, and Talbot comes in with much more impressive NHL numbers than Bernier had.

Considering the high demand for Talbot (as many or more teams that were competing to acquire Bernier, if I remember correctly), it is fair to estimate his minimum return at two second rounders and a low prospect or roster player. He is also the undisputed top goalie trade option, as Robin Lehner had a down season with Ottawa, and Martin Jones and Eddie Lack were not quite as impressive with their respective teams (Los Angeles and Vancouver) as Talbot was with the Rangers.

YOU KIDDING ME BRO?? We might as well keep him!

Why would the Rangers do that? It’s a guarantee that the team would lose him in free agency, as we have Henrik Lundqvist for the long term (please don’t propose a Lundqvist trade, it’s ridiculous and hurts my head). Talbot is not a young man, and has played well enough to earn a starting job now. His trade value will never be higher than it is now. It would surely lower at the trade deadline, when playoff bound teams mostly look to acquire forwards, and would pay less for half a season of Talbot than a young up-and-coming team like Buffalo or Edmonton would pay for a guaranteed full season. The Rangers also risk Talbot getting injured or not performing well, which would decimate his value.

Some have proposed keeping him as insurance in the event that Hank goes down, especially in light of Mackenzie Skapski’s injury. My question is: do you really believe there is such a thing as Lundqvist insurance? 20-30 regular season games is one thing, but if Hank is seriously injured, the chances that Talbot steps in and performs equal to the task during his first playoff run are low. You don’t just replace the type of playoff performances Hank has given us over the past four seasons. If we miss Hank for the playoffs, kiss the season goodbye.

But let’s not be dramatic. Until last year’s freak injury, Hank had never missed considerable time over his 10 year career. As a Rangers fan, I am not willing to sacrifice a very good return in assets on Talbot on the off-chance that Hank misses half the season or more. Besides that, backup goaltenders are not so important that you pass up the chance to cash in on a good one via trade.

Ask yourselves this: when was the last time the Rangers were missing a quality backup? From Kevin Weekes, to Steven Valiquette, to Martin Biron, Talbot and even Skapski, the Rangers have never failed to find an adequate backup. Having a backup capable of posting a .930 SP% is a vanity, not a necessity. It’s the difference between winning a President’s Trophy and getting the 6th seed, aka not worth losing Talbot for nothing.

The suggestion that somehow Skapski’s injury means that the Rangers can’t trade Talbot is also ludicrous. Are we talking about the same Mackenzie Skapski who played a total of two NHL games against the Buffalo Sabres? Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice pair of performances and led me to believe that he might be a good backup option, but he’s the most easily replaceable asset on the team. Hartford’s Yann Danis is just as good, and cheap UFA options like Karri Ramo and Michael Neuvirth are out there.

The Rangers also have stud goalie prospects Brandon Halverson and Igor Shestyorkin, in case any of you were worried about the future. Forget the players, though. We have the best goaltending asset in the league and he’s not even in net: Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire, the man who helped Lundqvist develop into what he is, along with Cam Talbot, Sean Burke, and a number of other goalies. Allaire works with our minor league goalies as well, including Danis and Skapski. He ensures that we get the most out of our guys in net.

Regardless, backup goalie is the least important position on the team, our starter is a horse who also happens to Henrik Lundqvist, and Talbot has no chance to be NYR’s regular starter. Therefore, given his impending UFA status and awesome trade value, he must be dealt. It’s not even a matter of opinion: he will be dealt this week at some point.

OK fine. We trade him to Edmonton, but I want a first-rounder, a prospect, AND Nail Yakupov! And if it’s Buffalo, I want their low first rounder, Mikhail Grigorenko, and that Zadurov guy!

While you’re at it, why don’t just ask for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel?

Look, some of you out there are acting like we’re holding on to Patrick Roy in the Summer of ’86, coming off his playoff run when he single-handedly won the Habs the Cup as a rookie. Talbot’s trade value is high, but I assure you, when he goes, it will not be announced by Glen Sather at a press conference as Peter Pocklington stands in the background with empty pockets hanging out of his pants.

Try and see this from the other team’s perspective. Would you give up the 16th overall pick in the deepest draft in over a decade, PLUS a player as supremely talented as Nail Yakupov, for Cam Talbot? Come on.

Alright, so what would you do?

Personally, as long as the Rangers land a high second rounder (like the 33rd overall owned by the Oilers) plus another two picks outside of the second round, and/or a good prospect, I’m happy. We will have turned a nobody playing in Huntsville, Alabama into a seriously good collection of draft assets at a time when we need to recoup them. That is outstanding by any measure.

Given the demand, however, I think we can do better.

What is the Rangers’ biggest need that cannot be readily filled by the farm system? That would be a sniping winger who can replace Martin St. Louis’ goal totals at half the age and a fraction of the cap hit, with more speed and perhaps a touch more physicality. Not an easy asset to locate without giving up key roster players in return.

Along with Cam Talbot, who is the Rangers’ most tradeable contract, that could be most easily replaced from within? That’s Kevin Klein. Yes, he did a great job for us last season, but from a speed and possession perspective, Matt Hunwick is better and probably cheaper if we re-sign him as a UFA. Klein is a stay-at-home defenseman who shot way above his career shooting percentage to record 8 goals on the season, and had a poor playoff performance after returning from injury. Hunwick can slide into his role with either Brady Skjei or Dylan McIlrath assuming the 7th D spot. We all love Klein, but Hunwick played extremely well down the stretch as an injury replacement, and there are too many good young defensemen knocking on the door in our system.

Paired together in a trade, Talbot and Klein would warrant a first round pick in a deep draft, and possibly be enough to get us Yakupov straight up. Why Yakupov? Because he is a sniper with blazing speed, creativity, and play making skills who turned up the heat at the end of last season. He was the first overall pick a number of years ago, and despite some sophomore year struggles, was impressive as a rookie and seemed to right his ship as of late. On a team like the Rangers, full of experienced, battle-tested players, and coaches who have guided many promising young players to reach at or above their potential, Yakupov could be dangerous and possibly a game-breaking as a 1B threat behind Rick Nash.

If the Rangers could spin Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman, and Brian Boyle into gold, they can certainly do it for a player as infinitely talented as Yakupov.

Then again, the Oilers might not be interested in trading him anymore. There is always Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, but both players come with high salaries and would require more pieces to be added to the package. Yakupov comes cheap at under $3 million.

Along the same line of logic, a trade with Buffalo involving Mikhail Grigorenko would make sense, but it would likely have to include Klein. Talbot and Klein might only get us Grigorenko and second rounder, at best. You might shake your head and say, “Grigorenko! He’s a bust and they say he’s going to the KHL!” But again, these are examples of other teams’ most valued talent. It’s going to cost the Rangers if they wish to acquire young talent with incredibly high ceilings, even if that talent has had bumps in their development road. Is anybody surprised that the Oilers and Sabres aren’t the best organizations in which to develop talent?

San Jose GM Doug Wilson has gone on record as saying he open to trading the 9th overall pick, but it might take more than Talbot and Klein to get it in my estimation. There are some seriously good players available at 9, guys who could alter the course of a franchise. San Jose also owns the 39th pick. It is possible that the Rangers wind up trading them for that and their fourth rounder, or a prospect. Same with the Sabres’ 31st, the Oilers’ 33rd, or the Stars’ 49th overall picks combined with lower round picks and/or players.

To the casual fan, it might not seem like much, but this truly is one of the better drafts in recent history. The first round is littered with potential stars, and there is high-end talent expected to be available throughout the second round. If the Rangers wound up trading for the 33rd overall, for example, we might be able to pick up a player like Russia’s Denis Guryanov, who would be a top 10 pick in any other draft if not for 2015’s depth (and the fact that he plays int he KHL – he is the #7 ranked European skater, but is expected to fall to or near the second round).

Whoever the Rangers acquire, it may not be a player that can help us this year. But if trading our 27 year old backup goaltender can allow us to draft a future top-six winger or better, then mark me down as ‘Yay’.

Thoughts On Best Rangers Prospects From The Writers Who Cover Them

Coming soon to Hartford: Calgary sniper Adam Tambellini

Coming soon to Hartford: Calgary sniper Adam Tambellini

Graduating prospects to the NHL is the most important function that an organization can serve in a cap league. The ability to replace high-salaried veterans with young players who can equal or exceed their production, is a luxury.

From that standpoint, the 2014-15 Rangers were a rich team. Rookies Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast, and J.T. Miller provided play that softened the blow of losing Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, and Brian Boyle in the off-season.

(We won’t mention the vet-for-vet tradeoff of Anton Stralman and Derek Dorsett for Dan Boyle and Tanner Glass. Perhaps another time, when I feel like throwing up in my mouth)

It wasn’t just one year of grand fortune, either. Whether it was Marc Staal and Dan Girardi playing quality minutes against top lines in their rookie seasons, Ryan Callahan getting the call-up for a 14-game regular season stretch that led into a 10-game playoff run where he contributed, Chris Kreider’s similarly amazing call-up for the 2012 playoffs, or Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, and Ryan McDonagh debuting strongly in consecutive seasons, the Rangers have had a knack for graduating their best prospects onto the big team for nearly a decade.

And those are just some of the names. I could easily throw out more examples like Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Fedor Tyutin, Michael Sauer (whose promising career ended much too early), “The Goalbuster” Cam Talbot, or even take you back to the sensational rookie debuts of Petr Prucha and Henrik Lundqvist.

Whether you want to credit Glen Sather, or his incredible team that includes Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark and top notch scouts like former Ranger Anders Hedberg, it’s obvious that somebody is doing something right.

Point is, we’re not the Maple Leafs. Each year, we’ve had a new player or two or three inserted into the lineup from college or the AHL, and next season won’t be any different.

Now I’ve talked on this blog before about our hottest prospects, but suffice it to say, I’m not Gordie freaking Clark. And I don’t have Gordie freaking Clark’s cell number. If you do, and would like to give it to me, I’d be happy to take it and send out a group text, from us, to Gordie, promptly harassing him for insider info.

The best I could do was harass a bunch of reporters. And you know what? That’s pretty good, because outside of Ranger scouts, these are the guys who know our young players best.

Perhaps no non-Ranger personnel is closer to our prospects than Hartford Courant writer Paul Doyle.

Paul has been a sports writer for the Courant since 1989, covering every major sporting event imaginable, and spent seven years on the beat for the Boston Red Sox. Currently, he is following our beloved Hartford Wolfpack. I shot Paul some questions concerning the players who we fans anticipate will have the best shot at making the team next year (for an idea on who we have, Hockey’s Future has a simple breakdown of our farm system), and he was gracious enough to respond.

Fans are intrigued at the prospect of Dylan McIlrath appearing in the Rangers lineup next season. What is the sense that you’ve gotten in terms of his development from last year to this year? How is he handling the minutes/defensive assignments he’s receiving in the AHL?

DOYLE: “McIlrath really elevated his game in the second half of the season. He was healthy this season — he had a knee injury that slowed his development — and he seemed to find himself after Jan. 1. Assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom told me during the playoffs that McIlrath seemed to be playing free and easy, as if he was finally beyond the injury mentally. Last year, he was more inconsistent and tentative. He also dealt with some discomfort in his knee, I was told. That’s behind him.

In the playoffs, he was a beast. Physical, aggressive, assertive. He really stood out throughout the playoffs. Coach Ken Gernander really loved his play, calling him a “heart and soul” guy. He seems ready to take the next step, based on his development over the past few months.”

Another name that we are hearing about is Brady Skjei. Since arriving just before the Wolf Pack’s playoff run, what has he shown the fans in Hartford on the ice?

DOYLE: “Skjei was impressive, given that he jumped into the lineup right out of college. He played a regular shift — paired with veteran Michael Kostka — throughout the playoffs and showed great poise. He’s smart, a good skater and has the ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone. He wasn’t perfect during the playoffs, turning the puck over on occasion. But he showed why he’s so highly touted and distinguished himself in some pressure situations.

Given his college experience, he’s probably not far from the NHL. I expect he’ll be in Hartford next season, certainly to start.”

Who are some players that have flown under the radar, but who in your estimation have a really good shot at surprising fans and contributing to the big club next year, the way that Jesper Fast was able to do?

DOYLE: “Oscar Lindberg is a player to watch. He had a breakout offensive season with 28 goals and he did a good job in his own end, something the coaching staff has preached. In the playoffs, he — at times — was the best player on the ice.

There was one play in Game 6 of the Hershey series — Lindberg blocked a shot during a penalty kill, pushed the puck along the board and into the Hershey zone before feeding Joey Crabb for a shorthanded goal. Chris Bourque marveled, called it an “NHL play.” After two AHL seasons, Lindberg seems ready to challenge for an NHL job.”

Based on Paul’s takeaway, it seems conceivable that McIlrath could start the season as our 6th or 7th defenseman, while Brady Skjei continues to play in Hartford through the year. Like Fast and Miller last season, Skjei could find himself making a late debut. The D-corps will be crowded, but there is no guarantee that Kevin Klein won’t be used as trade bait at the draft, or that Keith Yandle won’t be dealt to recoup assets if he struggles through January. If all goes right, 2015-16 could see the greatest injection of youth into the defense pairings since Girardi and Staal came aboard.

Lindberg, on the other hand, is a natural choice to replace Miller in the bottom six, while Miller most likely moves up to replace a (hopefully?) departing Martin St. Louis.

Faceoffs, forechecking, penalty killing and offense. Lindberg can just about do it all.

Faceoffs, forechecking, penalty killing and offense. Lindberg can just about do it all.

Speaking of forwards, it’s no secret that the Rangers could use a sniper on the wing to give the team a serious 1B scoring threat. Dare I say, a Phil Kessel type, sans the salty personality and alleged coach-killing qualities.

But unsalted Phil Kessels don’t grow on trees. Since the trade of Anthony Duclair, Ranger fans have heard about the upside of Pavel Buchnevich, generally regarded as our top prospect. Originally expected to compete for a roster spot next season, Buchnevich won’t be available until at least the following year, as he signed an extension with his KHL club.

In addition to Buchnevich, there is another potential scoring forward on the horizon, and his name is Adam Tambellini.

Taken in the third round of the 2013 draft (65th overall), Tambellini is a 6’3 180lb LW/C pivot who was considered a project when he was taken. The son of former NHLer Steve Tambellini, Adam initially spent time at the University of North Dakota where he struggled, before signing with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.

Two seasons later, Tambellini has been described as a “true superstar” of the WHL, posting 47 goals and 86 points in 71 games, and leading all playoff scorers in goals with 13, while finishing with 26 points in 16 games (two points behind the league lead). For comparison, Oilers top prospect Leon Draisatl, who is expected to be a star in the NHL, posted 28 points in 19 WHL playoff games, and scored 58 points in 64 regular season games. Top WHL scorer and premiere Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand, actually had less goals and points than Tambellini in the playoffs. Nothing is guaranteed, but it is great news that Tambellini has played his way into the conversation with these future stars. Barring an otherworldly performance at camp, Tambellini will be in Hartford next season.

Scott Fisher, sports reporter for the Calgary Sun, covers the WHL full-time, and has seen more of Adam Tambellini than most scouts. When I asked him about Tambellini’s future as an NHL player, and the level of improvement he’s made over the past two seasons, Fisher had this to say:

FISHER: “Tambellini was certainly the engine of the Hitmen offence all season, and even more so in the post-season. It is probably his 200-foot game that will get him to the NHL quicker as he’s strong in every zone. But it’s his puck skills (and a big one-timer off the right side) and vision that should put him on an NHL roster. He’ll need to be a top-six forward because he’s not suited (physically, or style of play) for any kind of checking role, and he could use a few extra pounds on his lean frame.”

Fisher also noted that Tambellini is genuinely one of the nicest guys he’s ever met. I take that to mean he’s not a salty coach-killer.

(Note to Kessel fans: I’d take Phil on this team in a heartbeat if his cap-hit wasn’t massive, AV’s life be damned!)

The only question mark on Tambellini, then, is how well he’ll match up playing against men in the AHL. It’s a fair question, considering his thin stature and his rough time in the NCAA (which could have been due to a multitude of factors). Time will tell, but in Tambellini’s defense, the WHL is no joke in terms of physicality. Long considered the roughest of the three Canadian Major Junior leagues, the WHL is loaded with brutish farm boys plucked out of Western Canada.

You know, guys from Manitoba with names like DYLAN MCILRATH.

Playing against the rough house backends of the Moose Jaw Warriors and Edmonton Oil Kings for 80+games is no joke. Is it any less grueling than facing college-age men in the NCAA on a schedule that is cut in half?

With a talent like Tambellini on the roster, now might be a good time to check out that Hartford Wolfpack game you’ve been promising to make.

I’ll post more updates from the field as I get them. For now, I leave you with these dazzling highlight videos featuring Adam Tambellini (can’t you see him on our PP with that one-timer?) and the KHL’s Pavel Buchnevich (looks like Evgeny Kuznetsov out there). Enjoy.

 

Dylan McIlrath May Not Be Rangers’ “Biggest” Commodity

Dylan McIlrath still has time to develop, but there are other prospects on the horizon.

Dylan McIlrath still has time to develop, but there are other prospects on the horizon.

 

Since the untimely end of Jeff Beukeboom’s career in 1999, the New York Rangers and fans have been searching for his heir apparent on the blueline. Unfortunately, 6’5 230lb crease-clearing, stay-at-home defensemen who can play responsibly at the NHL level do not grow on trees.

Enter the Rangers’ latest and greatest hope for an answer to the Beukeboom void: Dylan McIlrath.

Selected 10th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft ahead of current NHL stalwarts Cam Fowler, Jaden Schwartz, Nick Bjugstad, our Kevin Hayes and, most notably (and regrettably) six spots ahead of Vladimir Tarasenko, the 6’5 225lb McIlrath has yet to play more than five games in the NHL.

McIlrath’s development may not be entirely his fault, considering the major knee-injury he suffered in 2012 and the fact that it typically takes a while to bring big men up to the NHL level (major example: Zdeno Chara). But what is frustrating for fans is that the Rangers reached hard for McIlrath at #10, when they could have had impact players like Tarasenko and Fowler who were projected ahead of him.

Essentially, the Rangers drafted according to need, instead of taking the best player available. They weren’t the only team who drafted a big defenseman ahead of Tarasenko: the Arizona Coyotes took 6’2 Brandon Gormley at #13, while the L.A. Kings took 6’5 Derek Forbort at #15, one spot ahead of Tarasenko. The Montreal Canadiens also took 6’6 Jarred Tinordi at #22, two spots ahead of Kevin Hayes and four above Evgeny Kuznetsov.

To give you a sense of the amount of time it takes to develop quality big men, between Gormley, Forbort, and Tinordi, only Gormley has played in the NHL, logging a mere 23 games last season. On the flip side, all three are their organization’s top rated defensive prospect, with Gormley and Tinordi being consistently ranked among the top prospects league-wide.

McIlrath has been eclipsed on the Rangers’ defensive prospect depth chart, where he now ranks #4 according to Hockey’s Future, while the more skilled, less Beukeboom-ish D-man Brady Skjei has rocketed in development and promise.

The Rangers’ search for Beukebooms has been plagued with Beukebusts, and just plain bad luck as injuries cut short the emerging careers of Tomas Kloucek and Michael Sauer. What if McIlrath never pans out? Will Henrik Lundqvist be doomed to a career twilight filled with unchecked goaltender interference? Will Ryan McDonagh never be paired with that hulking defenseman who can open up the ice for him, the way Beukeboom did for Leetch and how a player Jake Muzzin does for Drew Doughty?

Not so fast. I’m rooting for McIlrath harder than anybody, and he still has time to fulfill his promise. But if he doesn’t, Rangers fans can take heart that the organization has two other big defensemen in the system, one of which has already jumped McIlrath in prospect rating, and the other who might be out best D prospect in two years.

Meet Ryan Graves and Ryan Mantha.

Be honest, what tried and true Rangers fan DOESN'T want to see another Graves on Garden ice?

Be honest, what tried and true Rangers fan DOESN’T want to see another Graves on Garden ice?

Selected in the 4th round (110th overall) of the 2013 draft, Graves is a 6’5 215lb powerhouse with a nasty slapshot, similar to the report on McIlrath. Like many big bodied players, his skating and transition game were areas where he needed to improve, but all reports have noted his positive development in both areas.

Graves plays on the top pairing of the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts (Anthony Duclair’s team), which means his defensive assignments include Central Scouting ‘Q’ standouts like Timo Meier and Evgeny Svechnikov, who will be selected in the top half of the 2015 NHL draft.

Graves turned 20 in May, so he’s still young and has time to grow, but his year-to-year improvement in Juniors has been outstanding. Coming into this season, Graves had never scored more than 5 goals or 22 points in a single campaign. This year, he scored 15 goals and 39 points with a +17 rating, placing him third in goals among all QMJHL D-men and first in terms of goals-per-game (Graves played 10-15 games less than many of his top counterparts).

When the playoffs came around, Graves continued his scoring pace adding 5 goals and 11 points in 21 games. For a player who was not drafted for his offensive talents, this is an outstanding improvement. At the Junior A level, Graves has filled a Shea Weber type role: a big, physical force who plays top pairing minutes and scores with a devastating slapshot.

For proof, here’s a slowed down highlight of a Graves rocket that he scored while carrying the puck in at the blueline.

It’s not just his slapshot either. Check out this moment of the 2014 QMJHL Finals, when Graves scored in a big moment of Game 6 with a well-time wrist shot right off the faceoff.

Like McIlrath, Graves is also a fan of mixing it up, as evidenced by his mountain of fights available on YouTube. Here’s one from this year, where he responds with venom against a Jeremy Gregoire high stick.

That’s a wicked uppercut after a flurry of shots that landed flush on the visor.

Many players, of course, look good in Major Juniors, but Graves’ level of improvement, his age relative to the number of years he has left to develop, and his large assignment responsibility playing for one of the top teams across all three Major Junior leagues, is a promising sign of things to come. Expect to see Graves in a Wolfpack uniform next season.

 

There are probably a lot of really good nicknames for a guy named Mantha that I can't think of.

There are probably a lot of really good nicknames for a guy named Mantha that I can’t think of.

 

Rangers fans who peruse the internet for obscure hockey information have probably heard of Ryan Graves by now, but not much his known about this guy, Ryan Mantha.

That’s because the Rangers are fresh off selecting Mantha in the fourth round (104th overall) of the 2014 NHL draft, just days after his 18th birthday. This kid is extremely young, and with room to grow at 6’5 225lb, he is certifiably mountainous.

Mantha fulfills the prototypical Sather “big man” D prospect, in that he’s got a large frame and a rifle slapshot. The conventional analysis of Mantha says that he’s a bit better at playing structured defense than McIlrath and Graves were at his age, and has elite stickwork that utilizes his long reach, but unlike those two, Mantha is regarded as a gentle giant.

We all know that the Garden faithful LOVE a big guy who doesn’t use his size to hurt and intimidate. Just ask Brian Boyle! (Can you taste the sarcasm?)

At the time of his drafting, Mantha was putting up anemic offensive numbers in under 30 games per season for teams in the UHL, but this season saw him make rapid improvements on both sides of the ice when he made the jump to the OHL, considered the deepest league in Major Juniors (think Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome).

Playing in 52 games for the Niagara IceDogs, Mantha racked up 10 goals and 25 points, while adding one goal and 6 points in 11 playoff games.

There isn’t much video on him, but take a look at this package of game highlights from March of this year, when Mantha’s IceDogs took on Dylan Strome and the Erie Otters.

The video starts from a play where Mantha displays good instincts joining the rush and crashing the net en route to a nice goal. He added two assists to the game, and the way he moves and works out there reminds me faintly of Marc Staal, another gentle big man with elite stickwork who can contribute offensively when he makes a point of it (in Staal’s case, rarely).

To be fair, Mantha makes a bunch of defensive errors throughout the rest of the video. To be fair-er, he’s regarded as being solid otherwise, and the IceDogs were playing an offensive powerhouse in a wide-open scoring game. In other words, nobody looked good on D in this game. There aren’t many Junior players who can stop Dylan Strome, and according to scouts, there probably aren’t many in the NHL either.

How about Mantha’s impressive slapshot? It’s difficult to find skills-related videos on any not-famous prospects, but luckily the IceDogs posted an internal Skills Competition video, where Mantha posted a 97 mph slapshot.

Check it out.

He had a second attempt that registered at 95 mph. You’ll also find some footage of his skating and stickhandling in there. But jeez – 97 mph? At 18 years of age? Would anybody be shocked if he could hit 100 mph on the regular in a few years, if not already? If it’s a choice between a crapload of YouTube fight videos, and proof-positive of an elite stick and a 97 mph slapshot, I’ll take the latter, thanks.

Mantha is a baby, a kid who was, er, “barely legal” at the time of his drafting (can’t draft ’em at 17 anymore!). Not many 18 year olds can play the minutes and assignments he does in the OHL, and man…that slapshot.

This kid has years to grow, and with a hockey pedigree in his bloodlines (he is the nephew of Moe Mantha Jr., who played over 650 NHL games), there is little doubt that his potential is high.

Comparing The Three

McIlrath, Graves, and Mantha all have many similarities. As noted above, all three possess big time size at 6’5 apiece, with varying frames. They also share similar injury histories, though McIlrath’s was the most serious and occurred later in his development (Graves and Mantha both sustained shoulder injuries in recent years).

In terms of toughness, there is no doubt that McIlrath plays with the hardest edge, and is the nastier, in-your-face, drop the gloves with anybody, menacing type player. Graves also has that edge, though not to McIlrath’s degree, followed by Mantha, to whom bullying doesn’t come natural.

Defensive prowess is a many-sided coin. Mantha seems to be ahead of where Graves and McIlrath were at 18, with the stickwork and instincts he posses. McIlrath and Graves seems to fall more in line with the crease-clearing aggressiveness of a Beukeboom, Orpik, or Phaneuf.

From an offense and skills perspective, it’s clear that they all have the same challenge: improve skating, improve hands, improve instincts.

We’ve seen some cool highlights from both Graves and Mantha, but honestly, it’s hard to find anything on McIlrath because his YouTube search results bring back a gargantuan library of epic fights, including NHL battles like this one against Ryan Reaves and here against Brian McGrattan, two of the league’s fiercest enforcers.

But here’s a nice wrist shot goal from the point that McIlrath scored for Hartford this year.

This leads into a major question about McIlrath: why can’t his YouTube highlights be more like, 75% fights, 25% goals instead of 99.9999% fights?

Put more seriously: can he play a style that fits today’s NHL?

Anybody who’s paying attention knows that the league has moved into an era where teams no longer carry one-dimensional enforcers on the roster. It’s why Paul Bissonnette is an AHL fan favorite who has played over 200 NHL games, and only 4 games in the playoffs. And while it is still plausible for a goonish forward such as Ryan Reaves to get playing time on a good team like the St. Louis Blues, it’s a whole other story for defensemen.

The Rangers played Keith Yandle on the third pair, for Christ’s sake. That’s an All-Star, elite offensive NHL d-man with unbelievable speed and skating ability, playing third pairing defensive minutes at the NHL level.

Suffice it to say, throwing the fists with nothing else to show is more likely to make McIlrath the next incarnation of the AHL’s Bissonnette than the second coming of Beukeboom.

Thankfully, Beukeboom is an assistant coach with the Wolfpack, and has taken McIlrath on as his protege. To McIlrath’s credit, all indications are that he is progressing well, punctuated by a stellar second half this season playing against men in the AHL. Beukeboom and Hartford head coach Ken Gernander have heaped glowing praise upon McIlrath for his play down the stretch and throughout Hartford’s run to the AHL Eastern Conference Finals.

On most teams, McIlrath is probably ready to play a good 30-50 games in limited third pairing minutes. However, the Rangers are the defending President’s Trophy winners with a glut of guys competing for the 7th, not 6th, but SEVENTH D spot. Whether it’s McIlrath, Brady Skjei, or somebody else who makes the team in that role next year, they may not see 20 games. So time is a factor working against McIlrath.

The same questions must be asked of Graves and Mantha, though. Can they contribute in a speed and possession-driven NHL, while still providing toughness and assignment responsibility in front of Lundqvist?

On an elite team like the Rangers who are known for their speed and d-men who can join the rush, can Graves and Mantha play smart but also drive shot attempts in the offensive zone? It’s a question that is no longer reserved for only top pairing D.

All this, and the intimidation factor needed to protect teammates, is the tall task ahead of these young men. The NHL is not so simple anymore.

Offensively, both Graves and Mantha seem to be ahead of where McIlrath was at their respective ages.

Here is a look at their amateur stats, courtesy of Hockeydb.com:

Dylan McIlrath

Courtesy Hockeydb.com

Courtesy Hockeydb.com

Ryan Graves

Courtesy Hockeydb.com

Courtesy Hockeydb.com

Ryan Mantha

Courtesy Hockeydb.com

Courtesy Hockeydb.com

 

At age 20, Graves’ last 2014-15 season is best comparable to McIlrath’s 2011-12 age 20 season with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. For McIlrath, it was nearly identical in offensive output to his two prior seasons, with points in the 23-24 range and a +/- that started at +20 the year he was drafted, but leveling off at a 0 and +7 subsequently. He had zero goals and 7 assists in 27 playoff games from age 18-20.

Graves on the other hand, showed marked improvement in the two years since being drafted, improving from 3 goals to 5 goals, then a stunning 15 goals and 39 points, with 6 goals and 19 points in 51 playoff games (all 19 points came in the last two playoff campaigns, where Graves played 45 games). Graves’ +/- over the last two seasons was +20 and +17 respectively.

Age 18 Ryan Mantha was in-line with, but slightly ahead of age 18 McIlrath, besting him with 7 goals and 25 points with a +/- of +21 in 52 games, compared with McIlrath’s 7 gals, 24 points, and +20 in 65 games. Mantha added 6 points in 11 playoff games.

It makes you wonder where 4th rounders Graves and Mantha would have been drafted, had they put up these numbers entering their draft year instead of after?

A note about Canadian Major Junior leagues: the three major leagues are the QMJHL, OHL, and WHL. Most drafted talent comes from one of the three, though more and more are being taken from NCAA D-1 college hockey.

Each of these prospects played in a different league. McIlrath came from the WHL, which is regarded as being a rugged, defense-oriented league based out of Western Canada. Graves is cutting his teeth in the QMJHL, noted for its fast pace and high octane offensive style. Noted legends Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby came out of the QMJHL, and so did the Rangers’ Derrick Brassard. Mantha, meanwhile, plays in the OHL, which features the deepest talent pool and a good combination of defensive and offensive hockey. The OHL typically has the highest number of players drafted into the NHL.

In McIlrath’s defense, he has gone on to provide solid minutes and output in the AHL, while Graves and Mantha still have time to disappoint, as it were. At age 23, we still can’t definitively call McIlrath a success or bust until he gets regular NHL minutes (or doesn’t), but we do know that he has played well and put up consistent numbers across all other levels of hockey.

Until this year, McIlrath had yet to make that big jump in improvement, probably due to his major injury, while Graves and Mantha took big jumps after being drafted.

Unlike McIlrath, though, they have yet to play against men, and the only way to get that experience right now is in the AHL or KHL.

It is clear that due to his age, draft position, and current makeup of the Rangers roster, McIlrath has the most pressure and smallest window. If he contributes at the NHL level some day, it might have to be for a team that has the luxury to live and die with his learning curve. For Graves and Mantha, they might be two, three, even four years away from being NHL regulars, and the situation on NYR’s blueline could be radically different by then.

Rangers fans should feel really good about Dylan McIlrath. The rise of Graves and Mantha is not an indictment on him, but a sign of organizational strength. They don’t make McIlrath expendable.

Individually, it is anyone’s guess which of these three prospects has the best chance to make an impact with the Rangers. But collectively, there is a far greater chance that one of them pans out.

Time will tell if the Rangers farm system can hatch another Beukeboom, but clearly the eggs are no longer in one basket.

 

BREAKING UNSOURCED SPECULATIVE NEWS: No, Nash Isn’t Being Traded

It's bad enough when unnamed sources cause players to stress over trades, but Rick Nash is the victim of rumor via fantasy proposal.

It’s bad enough when unnamed sources cause players to stress over trades, but Rick Nash is the victim of rumor via fantasy proposal.

One speculative column on what the Rangers might receive for Rick Nash if they traded him, has led to a windfall of baseless rumors, culminating in this gem from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

Words like “might” and “considering” and “looking into” are being thrown around in regards to a potential Nash trade. Hell, it’s certified trade buzz at this point.

All this, because two hockey writers created headlines with what was essentially a fantasy trade proposal involving a major star winger from America’s biggest market team. There were no sources listed, not even anonymous ones. We can’t even find somebody claiming to be a New York Rangers stick boy, to say that he overheard a friend of a third cousin of an ex-girlfriend of a Rangers Assistant GM’s secretary talk about a Nash trade being discussed at a meeting.

I traded Anze Kopitar and Milan Lucic for Tyler Seguin in my fantasy hockey league this year (Which worked out beautifully btw. Thanks Chris!). Does Kopitar to Dallas get to be a real life rumor, too? How about the trades that this guy made the other day in EA Sports’ NHL ‘15?

Yes, Larry Brooks is well-connected, so is Bob McKenzie. But neither of these men are too shy to outright tell you when anonymous sources within an organization are discussing trade possibilities. Even if that were the case, Brooks’ so-called sources tell him lots of things. Like at last season’s trade deadline, when Mats Zuccarello was being traded and Keith Yandle’s name did not appear in print until after the Rangers acquired him. Sources aside, Brooks is shameless enough to argue against his own logic in regards to Nash. Give the man credit, he knows how to pull eyes.

Even real e-mail conversations with Rangers GM Glen Sather can be spun into misleading headlines about him stepping down.

The headline from the NY Post today: “Glen Sather Considers Stepping Down As Rangers GM”.

Now, this is something that could legitimately happen and soon. Sather has cryptically referred to his retirement as a hockey GM in the past (while also denying it), and due to his age and refusal to let other teams speak to heir apparent assistant GM Jeff Gorton during the playoffs, it is not a stretch to believe that Sather will not be the team GM at this year’s draft.

But common sense doesn’t make for splash headlines. According to Brooks, e-mail exchanges like this do:

Asked whether he would be returning for his 16th year as GM, or whether he had yet to make that decision, Sather replied: “Sorry, I don’t have anything to tell you.”

To the follow-up email in which The Post asked whether it would then be accurate to write that he is, in fact, undecided about his future, Sather responded: “OK.”

To truly grasp how lame this is, pretend that Larry is a desperate teenage boy trying to rekindle his relationship with sweetheart Gwen Sather. And the following is their text exchange:

LARRY: hey its me. so you make a decision yet on if we r gettin back togther????

GWEN: sorry, I don’t have ne thing to tell you.

LARRY: so like, would it b accurate l if i tell my friends that u r undecided about our future??

GWEN: OK.

Larry then sends out a group text to his friends: “GWEN SATHER CONSIDERS GETTING BACK TOGETHER WITH ME!”

But hey, that’s the type of hard hitting journalism that we’ve come to expect from the NY Post. Thankfully, a rival journalist took it upon himself to confirm the veracity of the headline from an actual source.

Back to Nash.

Is it correct to say that he is the best trade chip the Rangers have? If we were not in playoff contention year to year, the answer would be yes. But having been a final four finisher in three of the past four seasons, it’s more likely that the Rangers are one or two small pieces away, if any, from winning. Trading Nash will almost certainly not bring back a player of equal value in the short term. It is more likely that we receive a package similar to what we sent the Blue Jackets in 2012, i.e. an impact second line player, a third liner, a prospect and a few draft picks.

Are we better off with Dubinsky and Anisimov back in the lineup, replacing a scoring power forward who is coming off an MVP-caliber regular season?

Just remember that we had a team of grinding, home-grown talent on a contending team in 2011-2012, when we took the best record in the East into the playoffs, and made it as far as Game 6 of the Conference Finals when…we lost due to our inability to score goals. This had been a theme with the Rangers long before Nash was acquired. Marian Gaborik had the same problem…until he went to L.A. and didn’t.

The only logical explanation is that the Rangers, from a strategic standpoint, tend to play a more conservative, suffocating style in the playoffs that winds up stifling their own offense. Also, it’s damn hard to score in the playoffs, with this year’s postseason serving as the ultimate proof. Goalies were hot, defenses were stingy. Nash’s 14 points in 19 games weren’t great, not what we expected, but far from disastrous.

In terms of getting back equal or better value, the Rangers would be better off trading Keith Yandle, Dan Girardi (NTC), or Carl Hagelin, though I wouldn’t place money on it happening.

The truth is that the Rangers have always been a wild card when it comes to trades, and the organization is notoriously tight-lipped. The public won’t know what the plan is until it is revealed, which makes for some fun but ultimately flawed guesswork.

We have to keep ourselves entertained in the offseason somehow.