New York Rangers fans should be eagerly anticipating the 2018 NHL Draft. With three selections in the first round, two selections in the second, and two in the third, general manager Jeff Gorton will surely be busy on June 22nd in Dallas. There are many tempting options for the Blueshirts front office, but what exactly would be the best approach for a team coming off of a disappointing season?
By selling off major assets at the deadline, there are a couple of directions management can take, presuming the ping-pong balls at the lottery fall in favor of basic chance. Right now, the Rangers are looking at selecting from 6th to 10th with their own pick, and anywhere from 22nd to 31st with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins selections.
Option 1: Stay Put & Prioritize Quantity over Quality
Years of buying assets at the trade deadline have left the Rangers’ prospect pool relatively barren. With the exception of last year, the team had gone four seasons without a first-round draft pick. Though this strategy of splurging on established players helped Gorton/Glen Sather and company contend, the team has never won the Stanley Cup and has struggled to develop its own high-end talent through the draft.
Most teams that have found success in today’s NHL have built productive lineups on draft day. The Pittsburgh Penguins (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin), Chicago Blackhawks (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews), Lightning (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov), are proof that there is a correlation between strong drafting and long-term success. These players are younger and cheaper and it is easier to find affordable depth through free agency than elite play-makers and goal scorers.
Thus, the Rangers may benefit from keeping their bounty of picks and stocking the cupboard with solid prospects. Late 1st and 2nd round picks are not sure things. They are riskier, have lower upside, and often times have substantially lower odds of succeeding in the NHL. However, the more lottery tickets one has, the better the chances of winning. By picking seven times in the first three rounds, the Rangers have multiple chances to take a stud, while simultaneously loading up the pipeline with highly touted players.
Derek Stepan, Pavel Buchnevich, Henrik Lundqvist and countless other solid Rangers in the past were picked after the first round. There is no reason to doubt that Gordie Clarke and other scouts could uncover more hidden gems in this draft class. Within the top ten, there will still be some fantastic options on the board.
Though Rasmus Dahlin is likely out of the picture, Noah Dobson, Evan Bouchard, Adam Boqvist, Ryan Merkeley, and Ty Smith are just a few potential franchise defensemen that could be on the board when the Rangers select. Incoming Harvard freshman Oliver Wahlstrom is a pure goal scorer that many experts project will go 7th or 8th, where the Blueshirts could realistically be picking. There will be plenty of appealing options for the Rangers if they stay put on draft night.
Option 2: Bundle Picks/Players & Trade into the Top 5
There is some extraordinary, game-breaking talent projected to go in the top five of the 2018 NHL draft. Dahlin is the consensus number one pick, rare for a defenseman. Andrei Svechnikov and Filip Zadina are both outstanding offensive catalysts who excelled in the World Junior Championships. Quinn Hughes has been a two-way force in the NCAA. All of these prospects could be franchise players, the type to lead teams to postseason glory.
Though depth is important, elite skill is much harder to find. The Rangers, therefore, barring significant luck in the lottery or a substantial tank, would need to package some of their existing picks or players to have a chance at selecting one of these future stars. No team in their right mind would trade the first overall pick (yes, Dahlin is that special) but a second to fifth overall pick should not be out of the question for GMs if Gorton calls.
The Rangers might be able to package their top ten selection with one of the Bruins or Lightning first-rounders to get a guy that they are really interested in. This is a risky move, but something management should seriously consider. Lias Andersson last year was a safe pick at seventh overall.
The Rangers have not had a superstar on their team since Jaromir Jagr in 2005. Rick Nash was an excellent contributor but was not the guy, like Crosby, Toews, or Connor McDavid. One of these gifted top five picks could be elite and the organization would be remiss if they missed out on finding a true centerpiece.
As much as it pains me to watch the Rangers lose, I would rather they select a player in the top five or six (without having to trade up) than see them play uninspired hockey in the first round of the playoffs again. Lottery luck or a massive tank would be remarkable for the Rangers’ long-term plans. However, assuming both of those do not play out in their favor, the team has plenty of options to consider this offseason. For the first time in a while, Rangers supporters can look forward to April and June, not because of the playoffs but to watch them craft a new dynasty.