After yesterday afternoon’s game in Boston, five more players were reassigned, including two defensemen Ilkka Heikkinen and Corey Potter, who were originally thought to be top candidates to make the squad. The other cuts were Paul Crowder, who did an excellent job staying so long but is not really ready yet (and with the signing of Brandon Dubinsky is an extra center), and the two young goalies, Matt Zaba and Chad Johnson. Zaba got lit up on Friday night, but he had an excellent game earlier in the week. Johnson was steady in both of his appearances. None of that will have much to do with who starts in Hartford during the season. It is still expected that Zaba will be the number one, but Johnson will get a good look over the next week.
The Wolf Pack are already in training camp and will begin playing exhibition games on Wednesday. There are three pre-season games next weekend, which I will be covering, so watch here for post-game notes and quotes.
Now, let’s get back to looking at the organization.
As I discussed on Friday, the Rangers’ are solid between the pipes, with Henrik Lundqvist in net for the foreseeable future, and three potential backups within the organization. It is too soon to say where Chad Johnson and Scott Stajcer will fit in, but both of them have performed well in their first look in a Rangers’ uniform.
If the organization is solid in net, it is very rich on the blueline. Since last fall, the Rangers have added Matt Gilroy, Ilkka Heikkinen, Ryan McDonagh, Pavel Valentenko, Nigel Williams, and Sam Klassen by either trade or free agent signing, as well as Daniel Maggio and Mikhail Pashnin in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
This position was a big weakness at the NHL level last season, with Marc Staal being the exception. There were several disappointments, and it had been years since there had been a quarterback for the Blueshirts’ power play.
This year’s additions can change all that. Certainly, with the excellent stable of prospects, if this year is still shaky, the future looks extremely promising on the blueline.
The newly signed Gilroy has incredible offensive capabilities, and is expected to begin the season in New York. As I said earlier in the week, he has the wheels, hands, and vision to be one of the best offensive blueliners in the league. The question still remains, however, how long a learning curve will there be on the other side of the puck? As Torts said last evening after the game against Boston, Gilroy still needs to learn to pick his spots. With the cut-down to 25 players, more time will be spent with him, teaching. Given his abilities, Gilroy should be able to make adjustments, but expect it to take some time.
Recent draftees Michael Del Zotto and Bobby Sanguinetti also survived the cuts and remain with the NHL team. Sanguinetti got off to a very slow start at camp, and did not play until Friday evening. He was on the ice Friday and Saturday and demonstrated some previously unseen excellent positioning and stickwork in both games, particularly yesterday.
Del Zotto has been excellent from the first game. He has exhibited composure on the ice, as well as accurate passes and offensive instincts, that reminds one of players with many more years of experience. He had been expected to fight for a spot on the NHL roster, but even at the time of Traverse City, it was thought that there were more NHL-ready players that would be in camp, so he was likely to spend another year in junior.
But Del Zotto has been so good that it will be hard to send him back, which may leave Sanguinetti with another year in Hartford. I still think that Sanguinetti will be the one to stay, but Del Zotto will get a very long look.
Now two of those that were more likely to stay in New York have been reassigned to Hartford. For Heikkinen, who was the front runner to get a spot at the time training camp started just a little over a week ago, its a disappointment, but not a big deal, to get his feet wet with the Wolf Pack. He has a booming shot, and good offensive instincts, but at times, he was very hesitant and passive defensively, so if he works on that, he may be a member of the NHL club sometime during the season.
For Potter, its another story. It is a real setback for the fourth-year pro to be returned to the AHL. He has learned all he can at that level, and performed admirably when called up last season to the NHL. But this is a new Rangers’ defense, and Michael Sauer played better than Potter over the last week, and so did Alexei Semenov, who was brought into camp last weekend. Sauer, who was very impressive with his quiet, solid defensive style, has already been sent back to Hartford. Should there be an injury and/or Semenov does not work out, Potter may get a shot, but its possible that his time has passed with this organization.
It’s Sauer that I would have liked to see more of at this level in the pre-season. Sure to be a defensive leader this year in Hartford, I would not be surprised if he got an early call-up, but it was disappointing to see him reassigned so early.
Added to these young players are McDonagh, Nigel Williams, and Tomas Kundratek coming up behind. McDonagh was a steal in the Gomez to Montreal deal, that was only available because of his slow start at the University of Wisconsin in his freshman and early sophomore years. But he came on as expected, and is a leader on and off the ice. With more ice time expected this season and his added leadership responsibilities (he is a tri-captain), expect McDonagh to really break out. If he does, he will turn pro after his junior season and the Rangers may have another stud who can play both sides of the puck well on its blueline next Fall.
Williams is more of an enigma to me. A big, strong tough blueliner, he also has some offensive upside. But at crucial times, he can disappear on the ice. That’s why the Rangers were able to obtain Williams for Brian Fahey, who is basically a career minor leaguer. There is the hope that Williams will be a more consistent force on the ice as he matures. New York took a (small) chance in obtaining him and will be watching very closely this season. Williams did look good on the ice this pre-season, and he will get lots of ice time in Hartford. If he does well, he could possibly make it to the Rangers in a year or two, but showing consistency and 60 minutes of high effort every game will be critical to his success in this organization.
Tomas Kundratek has a booming shot. First reassigned to be an overager in Medicine Hat on Friday, it was changed to an assignment to Hartford shortly thereafter. Quite a bit has already been said about this already, but Kundratek is an excellent prospect with borderline professional readiness. There is some concern about him remaining in North America if he was sent back to junior hockey, but he is not that far from AHL-readiness. If he performs well over the next week in the Wolf Pack’s pre-season games, nothing lost, but if he does not, the Rangers will have to revisit this decision.
There are several other young blueliners in the Rangers’s system. Two, Valentenko and Pashnin are playing in Europe and not likely to come over any time soon. The others–Tysen Dowzak, Mitch Gaulton, Klassen, and Maggio–are all longshots to become NHL players.
More on the forwards in the system tomorrow.