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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.

 

2015 Rangers Autopsy and 2016 Needs

The best goalie of his generation won't stay young forever.

The best goalie of his generation won’t stay young forever.

For fans of the 14 NHL teams that missed the playoffs, there are endless scenarios for improvement headed into the 2015-16 season. Teams that were eliminated in the first or second round have also stirred debate amongst fans as to what can be done to advance further next spring.

But what can be said about a depth-based team of mostly under contract players still in the prime of their careers, that has finished in the top four in three of the last four seasons? What more can be added or subtracted to the New York Rangers, who won the President’s Trophy and made it as far as Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals? Teams that come within five wins of the Stanley Cup always have more to lose than gain in the off-season, because the drop is further than the ascent.

Unlike the prior off-season, when the Rangers had key players head into unrestricted free agency including Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman, and Brian Boyle (and the complications arising from Ryan Callahan’s pending UFA status and the necessary buyout of Brad Richards), this summer’s UFAs do not present any hard choices, and the cap room will be there to re-sign RFAs unless circumstances become abnormal. For more on that, see my previous post on the Rangers’ 2015 cap situation.

Operating under the not-so-crazy assumption that Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin can be re-signed within the $9-9.5m range, Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller will be retained on reasonable two-year bridge deals, and that re-signing Martin St. Louis would likely mean the departure of Carl Hagelin or the trade of Keith Yandle, we’re going to look at the Rangers’ decisions for next season.

But first, what went wrong for the 2014-15 Rangers?

The Autopsy

The Rangers put a literal and figurative chokehold on the bully Caps in the semi-finals.

The Rangers put a literal and figurative chokehold on the bully Caps in the semi-finals.

It goes without saying that the regular season was a rousing success. While being a weak possession team, the Rangers were able to secure the league’s best record and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs by having the highest combined 5-on-5 shooting and save percentage in the NHL at 1019 (commonly referred to as SPSv% or PDO).

While many proponents of possession (even-strength shot attempts and unblocked shot attempts percentage for/against, where the Rangers hovered between 49-50%) will point out that high PDO teams typically fall short in the playoffs because these high shot/save percentages tend to be unsustainable in the long run while facing teams in a series, it should be noted that 5v5 SP% is always a stable stat for teams with stable goaltending, such as the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is what he is, and it’s been that way for 10 seasons now.

As for shot percentage, outside of a few individuals (such as Kevin Klein), there weren’t many Rangers who shot WAY above their career percentages. In fact, some (notably Rick Nash) returned to their typically high S%. Looking at simple Corsi% (5v5 shot attempts for versus against) and Fenwick% (5v5 unblocked shot attempts for versus against) does not always tell the full story: these stats do not take shot range into account, or a team’s ability to make opposing goaltender’s more active by shooting one-timers, generating rebounds and broken plays by screening and crashing the net, all of which make for better scoring chances. Teams get their shots in different ways, and there is something to be said for teams who dominate center ice using size, strength, and skill (Ducks, Penguins, Kings) versus teams that dominate along the boards and cycle the puck well using speedy wingers and relentless forecheckers (Rangers, Red Wings).

The other thing that the “possession uber alles!” crowd doesn’t tell you is when looking solely at possession stats for the playoffs versus shooting and save percentages (PDO), it is usually the high PDO playoff teams that succeed (Ducks, Blackhawks, Rangers, Lightning finish one, two, three and four in playoff PDO while only the Ducks finished top five in playoff possession). Interestingly enough, these high-PDO playoff teams tend to be strong regular season possession teams. Shooting percentages tend to go down in the playoffs, while save percentages go up, and not surprisingly, as in the regular season, it’s always the teams who find a way to get strong goaltending and timely, accurate shots who win in the playoffs. Shock of the century, right?

So what happened in the playoffs?

Well, the Rangers’ team 5v5 save percentage went up from .931 to .939, good for third highest in the playoffs and highest among the final four teams. Hank did his job, and as we saw, he was even better in elimination games.

Even-strength shot attempt and unblocked shot attempt percentages remained in the 49-50% range as they did in the regular season, while shooting percentage plummeted from 8.8% to 6.7% in the playoffs. For the second straight postseason, Rick Nash was the embodiment of this trend. To this point, Nash has led the playoffs in shots on goal with an outstanding 69, but his regular season S% went from 13.8% to 7.2%.

More on Nash and other individuals later, but let’s stick with the team analysis. Larry Brooks put out a column today calling for the Rangers to increase their toughness, subtly placing the blame on Coach Alain Vigneault by comparing his “turn the other cheek” comment directed at Chris Kreider to AV’s similar message to the 2010-11 Canucks who narrowly lost the Finals to the big, bad Bruins.

This simplistic analysis might be popular with fans who constantly scream “HIT SOMEBODY!” throughout the game, but in both cases, Brooks is dead wrong. First off, anybody who watched the Canucks take a 3-2 series lead in that Finals knew that they blew it for one reason, and only one: Roberto Luongo fell apart. Even in spite of Tim Thomas’ otherworldly play in net for the Bruins, the Canucks win that series with ease if Luongo even played adequate in net after Game 4. It had nothing to do with hits, toughness, or intimidation.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present. In Brooks’ example where during Game 6, Chris Kreider took a penalty by retaliating against Steven Stamkos for a dirty hit on Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers were ahead 1-0 in a game where the team was being badly outshot. Was there a single fan who didn’t hold their breath once that penalty was called? Sure enough, at the tail end of the ensuing power play, Ryan Callahan scored on a breakaway to tie the game.

I get the need to stand up for teammates and show toughness, but considering that the Lightning’s power play conversion percentage was nearly 40% for the series, can you really blame AV for wanting to keep guys out of the box at all costs?

Lack of toughness is not what eliminated the Rangers in seven games in the ECF, nor was it ever a problem during the course of the playoffs. Below is a breakdown of hits per game in each game of all three series, with a W or L noted for the game’s result:

Round 1
Game 1 – NYR 32, PIT 32 W
Game 2 – NYR 25, PIT 21 L
Game 3 – NYR 37, PIT 43 W
Game 4 – NYR 42, PIT 28 W
Game 5 – NYR 36, PIT 28 W

NYR 172, PIT 152 W

Round 2
Game 1 – NYR 34, WSH 32 L
Game 2 – NYR 30, WSH 30 W
Game 3 – NYR 31, WSH 39 L
Game 4 – NYR 31, WSH 37 L
Game 5 – NYR 32, WSH 24 W
Game 6 – NYR 30, WSH 36 W
Game 7 – NYR 32, WSH 26 W

NYR 220, WSH 224 W

Round 3

Game 1 – NYR 30, TBL 18 W
Game 2 – NYR 28, TBL 26 L
Game 3 – NYR 33, TBL 41 L
Game 4 – NYR 30, TBL 32 W
Game 5 – NYR 29, TBL 29 L
Game 6 – NYR 27, TBL 22 W
Game 7 – NYR 29, TBL 25 L

NYR 206, TBL 193 L

The Rangers were 8-5 when they outhit or were even in hits with the opposing team, and 3-4 when they got outhit or were even in hits. The trend seems to be on the winning side, and barely. Of course, when you break it down by series, we beat the only team that outhit us for the series.

Speaking of the Capitals, aka the biggest team in the NHL in terms of average height and weight, and by far the biggest hitting, dirtiest team through the first two rounds, the hits were basically even for that series with the Caps having a negligible four hit advantage. All series long, we heard from announcers and fans, “This is a different Caps team! They play just like the LA Kings! This team is built for the playoffs!” And yet the “turn the other cheek” Rangers went hit-for-hit with them en route to a series win. We also outhit the Penguins, not a particularly tough team but one that made a point of coming after us and making every game a tight-checking, shot-blocking affair. And of course, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a cakewalk in terms of brute physicality, as they are one of the smallest teams in hockey.

I say “brute physicality” because Tampa did manage to wear the Rangers down in another aspect of the game: endurance. It was clear for most of the series, even in our big Games 4 and 6 wins, that Tampa was the fresher, faster, and harder playing team. This was the first time in years that the Rangers met a team in the playoffs that was as fast or faster on skates than we are. In a foot-race competition, it’s anybody’s guess who possesses the faster team. Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Keith Yandle and Ryan McDonagh can absolutely fly, and even resident old guys Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle were among the league’s fastest in their primes. But it’s how a team uses its speed that counts, and Tampa’s speedy forwards were able to wear the Rangers down by outworking us along the boards, keeping up in the neutral zone, and converging at center-ice in unpredictable breakout formations.

This is why we struggled against Tampa in the regular season, and it’s why we had trouble with the Islanders in the first three games of the season series. But unlike Tampa, the Islanders (and every other NHL team) do not possess a top six that can match the Triplets and Stamkos lines, and the Hedman-Stralman pairing is a nightmare and probably the third best in the NHL behind Doughty-Muzzin and Keith-Seabrook.

Too many times, the Rangers pin themselves against the boards during the breakout, immediately setting up the cycle and looking for shots from the point or at center when lanes are fully clogged up. Given that the clogging/shotblocking intensity increases during the playoffs, it’s no wonder that the Rangers have trouble scoring in the postseason. This problem is often alleviated when our defensemen pinch and join the play, but this can be high risk/reward when facing speedy teams. McDonagh pinches, leaving our slowest D-man Girardi to face a possible odd-man rush, and that that risk is intensified with the Yandle-Boyle pairing. When fans wonder why we don’t shoot enough from the points, well…do you really want Johnson and Palat barreling full-steam ahead at Dan Girardi after a blocked shot creates a fortuitous breakout for Tampa?

It’s not all negative for the Blueshirts. After all, this was a seven game series that saw us fall short by a mere two goals in the deciding game. As tough a matchup as the Lightning present, the Rangers are deadly in their own right. No team in the NHL has the defensive depth that we have, or three defensemen who can join the rush like McDonagh, Yandle, Boyle, and at times, Klein can. Our breakout is a thing of beauty when Stepan, Brassard, and Hayes feed Kreider, Nash, and Hagelin speeding up the boards. Those three forwards routinely embarrass opposing D, but the breakout has to work in a way that specifically utilizes our forwards’ strength.

Nash and Kreider are almost always ahead of defenders coming up the boards, but it’s absolutely crucial that both men cut towards the net instead of pinning to the boards, using their size and strength to protect the puck en route to a direct challenge on the goaltender. Hagelin doesn’t quite have the power to always crash, but he does have a center iceman in Hayes who, unlike Stepan and Brassard, does possess the size and hands to dominate the middle of the ice. Stepan is the type of center you want working off the cycle because he has the IQ to bring together all elements of the play, while Brassard has the shot and creativity to be dangerous off the rush with Zuccarello, a player with the same skill-set.

On the scoresheet, there wasn’t much separating the Rangers and Lightning, and to borrow the football cliche, playoff hockey is a game of inches. Zuccarello was scratched, and McDonagh was hurt down the stretch. A goal here and a save there can make all the difference in the world, and in that context it’s difficult to extrapolate any useful lessons from a tight seven game series.

I think, though, beyond the numbers and game-planning, there was one disappointing trend that reared its head early in the Washington series, and was our ultimate undoing against the Lightning. Simply put, the Rangers lacked battle level and often looked tired late in games, relying on Lundqvist and lucky bounces to bail them out of games they had no business winning. Games 3 and 4 against Washington saw us come out fast and strong, only to fizzle in the final two periods. Stellar play in goal and inspired third period and overtime performances helped us defeat the Capitals. After struggling against the Lightning in Games 2 and 3, Hank was phenomenal in Games 4-7, stealing two games in Tampa where the Rangers were badly outplayed until getting quick offensive explosions in the third period.

In both of their road wins, the Rangers were outshot by wide margins, and out-attempted in the shutout losses at home that saw Ben Bishop, to his ultimate credit, earn two shutouts behind a Tampa defense that didn’t allow a single high quality chance against him. Hank made some of the best stops of his career in Game 7, keeping the score 0-0 for two periods while the players in front of him were repeatedly beat to pucks by the opposition. Aside from Carl Hagelin and the injured Ryan McDonagh, there wasn’t a single forward or defenseman on the Rangers who seemed to have his legs that night. Short of Lundqvist perfection and a lucky overtime bounce, the Rangers were not going to win that game with such an effort.

Seeing Hank bent over in exhaustion and frustration before the start of the handshake line was the image of a franchise player who had given everything and more. Ryan McDonagh had a broken foot stiffened and numbed by freezing agents, according to AV, so he could play the last couple of games. The team’s two prime leaders left everything on the ice. Where was that commitment down the stretch from the rest of the team? This wasn’t a question in the losses against the Kings last year, but it is now. Why? I think the answer lies in the fact that the Rangers ran into a younger, faster team that refused to buckle under pressure like the Capitals and Penguins did. Like so many fallen teams have experienced against us, the Rangers got tired of chasing these guys around.

Who Stepped Up/Who Didn’t

Despite the view among fans, Keith Yandle delivered a playoff performance worthy of the assets it cost to acquire him.

Despite the view among fans, Keith Yandle delivered a playoff performance worthy of the assets it cost to acquire him.

I don’t think that more than a few sentences needs to be written about the regular season. Pretty much everybody stepped up, notably Cam Talbot, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Marc Staal, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast, Kevin Klein, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan. Martin St. Louis considerably slowed down after a hot start, Zuccarello played well but struggled to convert on offense, and Ryan McDonagh returned to form down the stretch after injuries impeded his first half. Dan Boyle was a disappointment, while Keith Yandle basically continued his points-per-game pace from Arizona with slightly improved defensive play. Everybody else played to expectations.

But it’s all about the playoffs, and I’m going to single out a few guys here for good and bad.

Nothing more needs to be said about Henrik Lundqvist, who arguably had his best postseason performance this year. The highlight reel saves from 2015 alone are enough to make for an epic YouTube video, and his elimination game dominance continued, even in the ECF Game 7 loss.

Derick Brassard also continued his string of clutch playoff performances, ending with 16 pts in 19 games, along with 9 goals and a +9 rating.

90% of Ranger fans will disagree with my next choice, but Rick Nash had a very good playoffs. Did it match his MVP caliber regular season output? No. Was it a great performance, worthy of the superstar moniker? No. But he was absolutely dominant in two of our three wins in the ECF, and was almost as good the whole first round. The semi-finals is where he struggled the most, and if he managed to score just a few more points there, Nash would have been among the leading playoff scorers this year.

To put this into greater perspective, compare Nash’s 2015 playoff numbers to 2014:

Rick Nash – 2014 Playoffs
GP  G  A  P  +/-  PIM  PPP  SHP  GW  Shots  S%  Time-On-Ice
25  3  7  10   -1     8       2       0       1       83   3.6%      17:25

Rick Nash – 2015 Playoffs
GP  G  A  P  +/-  PIM  PPP  SHP  GW  Shots  S%  Time-On-Ice
19  5  9  14    +8    4      3       0       0       69   7.2%      18:30

The performance improvement is clear. Nash was second in team points behind Brassard, led the league in shots through three rounds, doubled his shooting percentage, and took less penalties while playing a minute more per game than last year. Was it a performance worthy of $7.5 million salary? Perhaps not. But Nash’s numbers put in range of other star players like Alex Ovechkin and Ryan Kesler. It wasn’t an “ultimate vindication” type postseason for Nash, but his play didn’t warrant him being the team whipping boy. More often than not, he was part of the solution.

You know who was even better? Keith Yandle. I know, I know, he’s a turnover machine who doesn’t come up with the points when we need them. Except none of that was true during the postseason. Yandle was our most effective offensive defenseman, scoring and assisting on some of the biggest goals of the playoffs. In terms of defense, outside of some bad turnovers against the Capitals, Yandle was mostly solid.

Below is a snapshot of the leading defensemen in 2015 playoff scoring: (click to enlarge)

Leading D Scorers

The number speak loudly in Yandle’s favor. He was third in scoring among defensemen while playing 1:36 less minutes per game than the next lowest minutes-getter on the list, Dan Boyle, who himself is nearly a minute and a half below Sami Vatanen, who is over two minutes below the next player. That’s elite level offensive efficiency from both Yandle and Boyle. But unlike Boyle, who far and away was the Rangers’ worst defensive liability, there was hardly any risk in Yandle’s play away from the puck. At +7, Yandle remained in the top three among all defensemen, while finishing seventh in shots.

That stat doesn’t tell the whole story, since Yandle had a low number of defensive zone starts and was normally paired against the opposition’s weakest lines, but the point is that he was not a liability. When playing without the puck, Yandle was better than adequate, and even found himself paired against better opposition in the first round when Klein was injured. For the start of Game 7, while McDonagh was being treated in the locker room, Yandle was on the first pairing with Dan Girardi. That’s a measure of earned trust. It makes you wonder why Yandle didn’t receive more ice time than Dan Boyle. It’s fair to say that any criticism of Yandle is a result of confirmation bias: fans chose to notice him only when he made turnovers.

On the other hand, Dan Boyle was the embodiment of high risk/high reward during the playoffs. Offensively, he was very good after some crucial shanked shots in the first round. Having him and Yandle contributing the way they did was a luxury, and you could say that the combination of those two, plus McDonagh, gave the Rangers a distinct advantage in offense from the blue-line over just about everyone else in the East. But being -3 against the weakest assignments and hardly any defensive zone starts is atrocious.

His penchant for coughing up turnovers at the blue-line was brutal, and his inability to move the puck up the boards against the forecheck kept the Rangers pinned in their own zone for egregious amounts of time. Boyle’s offensive contributions during a Rangers playoff goal famine was the only thing keeping Matt Hunwick out of the lineup. Coming up on his 39th birthday and a year left on a move-protected contract, one wonders whether the Rangers are better off buying out Boyle’s contract and paying him to play for someone else.

Rounding out the key playoff performers are Dan Girardi, who was miles better than last year, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, and the young guys Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller, the latter of whom showed major promise as a potential top six forward next season.

That should mean the end of Marty St. Louis, who was the undisputed worst performer of the playoffs. Not of the Rangers, of the playoffs.

One goal and seven points with a -1 rating in 19 games, with a porous defensive effort to boot represented the low point of Marty’s hall of fame career. Last year, Marty was our second leading playoff scorer behind Ryan McDonagh, and scored in overtime to put us ahead of the Canadiens  3-1 in the ECF. To anyone who questioned the Ryan Callahan trade last year, I would defend Marty to the hilt. This year, not so much (though it’s interesting to note that Cally has also been terrible for his team this year, continuing a career trend of disappointing playoff performances).

On paper, Marc Staal was another disappointment, but it should be noted that for his bad play in the ECF, Staal was great in the first two rounds. Kevin Klein wasn’t the same since returning from injury, Tanner Glass was a non-factor, and Kevin Hayes struggled despite a couple of clutch moments of his own. Hayes can be forgiven on the basis of age and position – for a player who is not a natural centerman, it will take time for him to become a good playoff performer. This year provided him with experience that will give him an edge over his peers next season.

Needs For 2015-16

Will $6m be enough to re-sign Derek Stepan, or will the Rangers Center take Sather to the bank?

Will $6m be enough to re-sign Derek Stepan, or will the Rangers Center take Sather to the bank?

It all starts with cap management and in-house business. Glen Sather’s first priority should be signing RFAs Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin to value deals that will allow for moderate cap flexibility. That means farewell, Marty. Second, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast must be re-signed on inexpensive two-year bridge deals.

Third, Sather must sit down with Dan Boyle and convince him to waive his no-trade clause. Buying out the remainder of his contract (one more year at $4.5m) is also an option, but that would reduce his cap hit to $2.5m for an extra year. While helpful for 2015-16, that extra $2.5m will come back to bite us when Kreider and Hayes become RFA eligible the following season. If Boyle does accept a trade (and a team actually trades for him), part of the cleared space should be spent on bringing back Matt Hunwick in case one of our D prospects aren’t ready to step up.

James Shepherd can walk in favor of Oscar Lindberg, who has been described by Wolfpack watchers as a faceoff winning, defensive menace who can contribute on offense and is NHL ready yesterday. Lindberg was the Wolfpack’s second leading playoff scorer during their own run to the conference finals in the AHL.

Another young player who is ready to step up is Carl Klingberg, ho can provide big size and nasty physical play in a bottom six role. He could be the first call-up in case of trade or injury.

In the aforementioned Larry Brooks article, he mentions the need to bring Dylan McIlrath into the fold on defense to provide toughness. There isn’t a Rangers fan on earth who doesn’t want to see McIlrath, the 10th overall pick in 2010, make the team and succeed long-term. The issue, as always, is whether or not he’s ready. There hasn’t been a lot of feedback on McIlrath, positive or negative, except that he’s coming along slowly and needs to work on his skating and defensive positioning. On the other hand, Brady Skjei, our top defensive prospect, is a speed demon with a hard shot who is earning rave reviews for his defensive play in the AHL. This article from Hockey’s Future provides insight into the current development status of both McIlrath and Skjei.

Next season, barring a buyout or trade of Dan Boyle, or a significant injury, the only opening on defense will be at the number seven spot. In this role, a player will see anywhere from 20 to 30 games at most. If it’s true that McIlrath is incapable of playing left defense, that means he’ll have to wait until Dan Boyle is gone to compete for a regular spot. As for Skjei, his speed and defensive attributes are much better suited to an evolved NHL that values speed, awareness, possession and playmaking over hitting and crease-clearing. McIlrath can absolutely be valued as a hitter, but he can’t play at the pro-level without some of the finer skills in his repertoire. After all, based on the above descriptions of McIlrath and Skjei, who do you think would have benefitted the Rangers more against the Lightning?

Mat Bodie, Conor Allen, and the hulking Ryan Graves will also be competing for defensive spots this year and next. Graves possesses all the gritty aspects of McIlrath, along with the size, which could ultimately lead to McIlrath’s trade.

The best scenario is that Skjei and McIlrath, or the two best defensive showings in camp, spend time alternating as the 7th D, playing in the range of 15 games each, with the better of the two replacing Dan Boyle when he departs in summer 2016 (and possibly both making the team if Keith Yandle also leaves).

As for the rest of the team, it will be up to the young core to turn the dial up while Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal are still in their primes. There could be anywhere from a three to five year window until these players begin to rapidly decline, but until that happens, expect the Rangers to remain at the top of the league in terms of Cup competitiveness.

Is Kevin Hayes the next big, dominant Center in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf?

Is Kevin Hayes the next big, dominant Center in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf?

Unlike years past, there is no trade or free agency option that will make this team better. All needs are currently filled, it’s just a matter of the young players getting better. Fortunately, team leaders Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello still have room to grow and improve, while Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast are in the infancy of their careers and could potentially be twice what they are now. McDonagh must take the next step and bring his offense up to the level of players like Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty. Hayes and Stepan will have to become reliable faceoff winners. Kreider can be a premiere power forward with unmatchable athleticism if he can bring a consistent effort over 82 games.

The key for the Rangers, the difference between winning or not winning a Cup in these next three years, will be the continued upward trajectory of these players. Best of all, the Rangers’ cap situation should not prevent us from retaining every single one of them, as only Stepan, Kreider, and Hayes remain to be signed long term with key veteran contract expirations on the horizon.

As prospects continue to graduate to the big club, and with Brady Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich as the only consensus Top 50 prospects in our system, the Rangers must explore trades to replenish lost draft choices. Cam Talbot can be used to gain a high second or low first round draft choice this June, and if a reasonable deal can’t get done with Keith Yandle, he would net a very good return at next year’s trade deadline. If Yandle continues to play well and if Kevin Klein regresses, Klein’s salary is very cap friendly and could probably get us a first round pick in return. This all depends on the rapid development of Brady Skjei or Dylan McIlrath, but trading Klein opens up enough salary to keep Yandle along with our 2017 RFAs.

Brady Skjei might be the next homegrown Rangers defenseman, following in the footsteps of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.

Brady Skjei might be the next homegrown Rangers defenseman, following in the footsteps of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.

Projected 2015-16 Rangers Depth Chart:

LW                                C                               RW
Nash                       Brassard                  Zuccarello
Kreider                     Stepan                       Miller
Hagelin                     Hayes                         Fast
Glass                        Moore                      Lindberg

LD                                RD
McDonagh               Girardi
Staal                          Klein
Yandle                       Boyle

Goalie
Lundqvist
Skapski

13th Forward: Klingberg
7th Defenseman: Skjei