Where’s the Depth?
The New York Rangers are not known as a team with a lot of NHL-caliber prospects. In fact, Hockey’s Future has their prospects ranked 23rd out of 30 teams for the 2014-15 NHL season. While many of their core players are young and in their prime (Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, and Chris Kreider among them), they have few players to call up should an aging veteran get injured. Both forwards J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast have shown sparks of brilliance, but neither have been able to stick in the NHL for any length of time thus far. Defenseman Dylan McIlrath is also a possibility if the Blueshirts need to add some toughness, but he doesn’t appear to be NHL-ready quite yet, either.
The Rangers’ lack of a prospect pool shouldn’t come as a great surprise–after all, they have not had a first round pick in the NHL Entry Draft since 2012 (they traded their 2013 first round pick to Columbus in the Rick Nash deal, and their first rounder in 2014 went to Tampa Bay in the trade for Martin St. Louis). Even worse, unless they trade for one, they will not have a first round pick in 2015 either (also traded to Tampa Bay). But the Rangers prospect depth is not quite the frozen wasteland it would appear. Two rookies have stepped up in a big way at the beginning of this season–rookies who were barely even on the radar during the off-season.
Before this year’s training camp, Rangers fans knew who Anthony Duclair and Kevin Hayes were, but certainly weren’t counting on both of them to make the NHL roster. Of the two, Hayes was deemed to be more NHL-ready. After all, he chose to sign with the Rangers as a free agent instead of re-signing with the Chicago Blackhawks mainly due to his being blocked from NHL action by the Hawks ridiculous depth. Still, he was only playing for a fair shot at the NHL–making the big club was far from certain. Even less certain was the future of Duclair. While his skills were never in doubt (he scored a career-high 50 goals for the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts in 2013-14), the feeling was that he needed more strength and consistency in order to make the Rangers.
Duclair and Hayes Emerge
Then training camp started, and everything changed. Both players impressed Rangers coaches and fans alike, even though they play completely different styles. Duclair used his speed and skill to jump into the offense and tie for the team lead in scoring during the pre-season–all but forcing the Rangers to keep him on the NHL roster. Hayes, on the other hand, used his size, patience, and hands to drive puck possession–which has been the Rangers’ bread and butter under coach Alain Vigneault. In spite of their differences, both rookies made the team–and they have remained in the NHL because they aren’t playing like rookies.
It’s common for new players to become overwhelmed by the sheer speed of the NHL game. They are simply unaccustomed to making decisions that quickly, and panic–sometimes with disastrous results. The ability to think and make decisions at NHL speed is necessary for success, and can be very difficult–if not impossible–to teach. Somehow, both Duclair and Hayes have already made that leap, and the Rangers are better for it. In any given game, they consistently make smart hockey plays while under pressure. Will they make mistakes? Of course. But because they both have NHL-level mental quickness, their mistakes will be much more fixable than those of, say, former Ranger Michael Del Zotto. Del Zotto had (indeed, still has) as much talent, but he still lacks the ability to think, read, and react at NHL speed. He therefore continues to make the same mistakes over and over again. That shouldn’t be a problem with either Duclair or Hayes.
Speaking of mistakes, it should be beneficial for both players to play for the Rangers under coach Alain Vigneault. He understands that young players will make mistakes and will use them as teaching moments. This is a sharp contrast to former coach John Tortorella, who was infamous for his inability to tolerate mistakes of any kind. As long as they continue to play at the same level, Vigneault will continue to make them part of his offense and give them a chance to succeed. They may not get into every game–Vigneault has already held Duclair out of a pair of games against teams that needed a more physical lineup (the San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils)–but they bring so much to the table, expect one or both of them to be on the ice most nights.
“Everyone gets more comfortable with [more] games,” Hayes said. “Every game you play, you learn stuff. You make mistakes and learn from them, or you do something well and someone lets you know you’re doing it well. Every game that you get to play in, it’s just you get more and more comfortable.”
What’s Next For the Two Rangers Rookies?
The natural question at this point is: What can we expect from these two rookies for the rest of the season? While predicting the growth of young players is hardly an exact science, we can certainly make some educated guesses on both.
Beginning with Duclair. As long as the “Duke of New York” continues to show strong decision making skills, there’s no reason to believe he will be anywhere other than Broadway this year. Because of his age and the agreement between the NHL and the Canadian junior leagues, he cannot be demoted to the AHL–he must be returned to his QMJHL team in Quebec. And if that happens after he plays nine or more NHL games, he will be unavailable to the Rangers for the rest of the season. His learning process would be much better served by playing at a professional level, and right now that means the NHL. Expect him to continue to provide an offensive spark somewhere in the top three lines, and continue to be an offensive force. He scored his first goal in a come-from-behind win against the Minnesota Wild, and it was a beauty (video below). It’s doubtful he will score enough to capture a Calder Trophy, but don’t completely rule it out. A more realistic scenario has him in the range of 15 goals and 30 assists–a good rookie showing, but probably not enough to outscore Jonathan Drouin. The bottom line is this: Don’t expect him to be the best in the league–just enjoy the ride.
Of the 79 players drafted before Anthony Duclair, 15 have played an NHL game. Only 11 of those have scored an NHL goal. Vindication.
— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) October 28, 2014
Hayes has also shown the skills and ability to remain in the NHL. However, his future is not as easy to deduce. For starters, once Derek Stepan returns from injury the Rangers may not have room to keep him. He doesn’t have the flashy offensive skills of Duclair and won’t put up the same kind of numbers. He relies on his size and hockey sense to control the puck and keep the other team from gaining possession. He may not be quite ready to be a Top-9 player in the NHL. If the Rangers are forced to make a choice between relegating him to the fourth line or sending him to the AHL, they may choose the latter so he can get more playing time. If he continues to play well enough to remain with the Rangers’ top three lines, his numbers would likely be more in the range of 6 goals, 20 assists.
While we will definitely be seeing both of these rookies in Ranger blue for many years, getting to see them on Broadway now has been a sweet surprise for fans. This year’s top Rangers rookies will continue to provide a little something for everyone. If you want excitement, then watch Duclair. He will continue to show off his skills on one of the biggest stages in the game. If you have an appreciation for the finer points of the game and love the blue-collar work ethic, then you will grow to love Hayes. His vision and head for the game will continue to shine through. For a team ranked 23rd in prospects, the Rangers’ future still looks bright.
Kevin has been covering the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers since the 2013-14 season. Before that, he has written about, played, and coached hockey at all levels. He grew up a Rangers fan in the Southern Tier of New York State, but now lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two sons. You can reach him on Twitter as @kmizTHW , or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).