The New York Rangers will select either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall pick in the NHL draft next month. Team management can put its feet up, grab some popcorn and wait for one of the two elite prospects available to fall into their lap. So easy, right?
When it comes to their first pick, yes, that might be true. After those first two picks are made, however, the front office had better get to work in what will be another critical draft for general manager Jeff Gorton.
That’s because the margin for error in the crapshoot that is a major league draft remains thin for the Rangers, despite the steadily increasing flow of promising young talent into the organization and glut of picks last year that included three first-rounders.
That’s what happens when you spend four years without picks near the top of the draft – and missing almost completely on the picks you do have.
The Rangers’ dealing away of four consecutive first-rounders – along with two total second-rounders – for veterans from 2013-16 was done to try and put a Stanley Cup contender over the top. That the Blueshirts couldn’t complete the championship quest shouldn’t necessarily call into question the thinking to try and acquire the missing piece to a title.
Sending away four picks in the first round, where much of the elite talent tends to reside, along with two in the second during that time, of course played a big role in the hollowing out of the organization’s young depth. Yet it’s worth remembering that the Rangers had other picks in those drafts.
Rangers Missed Badly in Draft for Four Years
Overlooked due to the absence of first-rounders in those four years was the front office’s almost total misfire on selecting NHL talent with the rest of their chances. With the exception of forward Pavel Buchnevich, a third-rounder in 2013 who appears to be on the rise, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin, a fourth-rounder in 2014 who has built up considerable hype with his dominance in the KHL and should make his Rangers debut next season, but for now remains just a prospect, the club’s presence at those four drafts is looking like a waste of time.
There seems little indication that anyone besides Buchnevich and Shesterkin selected during that period is poised to make an impact at the NHL level. The second-rounders in those years? Goalie Brandon Halverson was the choice in 2014, 59th overall. He’s played one game for the Rangers and hardly appears to be on the level of Shesterkin or Alexandar Georgiev, the heir apparents to Henrik Lundqvist. Halverson went 8-8-3 with a 3.18 goals-against average for the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack last season.
The other was winger Ryan Gropp, who after being taken 41st in 2015 has done nothing to suggest he’s Broadway-bound, recording 11 goals and 15 assists with the Wolf Pack in 2018-19.
The recent draft fails have been on stark display in Hartford with the team finishing last in its division two of the last three years, including at the bottom of the league in 2016-17.
Gorton has received due credit for being proactive in plunging the Rangers into a committed, full-scale rebuild starting in Feb. 2018. Frankly, though, a look at the Blueshirts’ top minor-league team made the looming talent hole pretty difficult to miss.
“We’re going to get it done, we gotta do it the right way,” new team president John Davidson said. “There’s no quick fix to anything with this. And it may happen quicker than what anybody thinks. But you’ve gotta make right decisions along the way.”
Gorton’s trades of veterans for prospects and picks over the past 15 months, and a re-prioritizing of the draft, may eventually prove to have headed off a longer walk in the wilderness for this Original Six franchise. Yet the task of significant rebuilding of the overall organization remains.
Blueshirts Need to Restock Organizational Depth
That’s why management is praying they got it right with their selections in a 10-pick draft in 2018 and why they’re desperate for the same with nine picks next month, including two in the first round and two in the second. Hughes/Kaako, Shesterkin and Vitali Kravtsov (drafted ninth overall last year), along with acquisitions such as Adam Fox and Libor Hajek have the look of high-end players, but even if that turns out to be the case for all of them, the Rangers need more.
More than just a group of young stars at the NHL level, they need depth. A talent base in Connecticut’s capital city that can deliver players capable of filling holes when needed and also developing into key pieces with the Rangers.
That means that the magical combination of strong scouting and good luck – which is what it takes for any team to succeed consistently in the draft – has to improve for the Blueshirts. It means that beyond Kravtsov, drafted ninth with the belief that he’ll develop into a top offensive player, the club is hoping defenseman K’Andre Miller (22nd) and Nils Lundkvist (28th) prove to be late-first-round steals.
It means getting back to hitting big on some late-draft fliers like sixth-rounders Carl Hagelin (2007) and Jesper Fast (2010). And while teams certainly can’t be expected to consistently mine the lower rounds for NHL players, what can’t happen for the Blueshirts are any more years of near-total whiffs in the draft.
The problems in Hartford apparently go well beyond the roster, but ultimately, success at the AHL level and building a feeder system for the big club begins with the talent. If the Rangers turn out to still be in the midst of a stretch of unproductive drafts, the rebuilding process that has fans so excited is going to take a lot longer than expected – and might never yield the consistent championship contender that’s certainly the goal of Davidson, Gorton and the others tasked with this turnaround.