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.
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.