Rangers Draft Strategy: Keep it Simple, Stupid

With the ninth overall selection in hand—a mildly disappointing consolation prize for their poor season if there ever was one—barring a backsliding trade, the New York Rangers will be selecting in the top 10 for the second time in as many years. Who to select with that choice is something of a moving target with no clear consensus. The strategy the team employs in making that call, however, ought to be.

While there’s been plenty of talk—including direct quotes from general manager Jeff Gorton—regarding the Rangers possibly trading up to land the kind of game-breaking talent they clearly covet, their draft approach this June needs to be simple: ninth overall or otherwise, take the best player available (BPA). No exceptions.

Rangers Have Tried Outsmarting Scouts Before

Collectively speaking, NHL scouts aren’t clairvoyant in that they can’t predict the future. But the sheer volume of effort they put into studying and ranking each crop of prospects every year more often validates, rather than vilifies, their judgment. Anyone can point to a miss or two, but on the whole, particularly in the first round, they get it right the lion’s share of the time.

Jeff Gorton
BUFFALO, NY – JUNE 25: Jeff Gorton during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016, in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Yet in recent seasons, on at least two occasions, the Rangers’ front office has been guiltier than O.J. in trying to outsmart the scouts with off-the-board and reaching selections—decisions that saw them lose out on measurably more talented players for needlessly bad reasons.

The McIlrath Misfire

Back in 2010, coming off a season in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs by a single point, the Rangers would earn the 10th overall pick that June. As their group approached the draft podium, TSN’s draft coverage team primed the viewing audience with talk of New York’s fearless attitude in taking Russian players. That bravado, during a time in which teams were shying from selecting Russian players out of fear they wouldn’t leave the Motherland for the NHL’s pastures, was as dangerous a risk as teams could take at the time.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were to jump on a Russian here – if that’s Evgeny Kuznetsov or Vladimir Tarasenko,” said TSN’s Bob McKenzie, hockey’s preeminent insider, and draft rankings expert. “But my goodness, I can’t believe that Cam Fowler is available here, and I know Gordie Clark loves [him] too,” he went on to say as Clark, the Rangers’ Director of Player Personnel, leaned in to make the pick.

With it, the club swung wildly, going entirely off the board in selecting a player both McKenzie and TSN had ranked as the 15th-best of the class, and who the International Scouting Services (ISS) had ranked 31st – Dylan McIlrath.

Dylan McIlrath (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

If you listen closely, you can hear the collective groan of Rangers’ fans still disgruntled with that fateful decision.

By splitting the difference between McKenzie’s and the ISS’s rankings, McIlrath should have been taken somewhere in the vicinity of the 20th overall pick. Yet the Rangers reached far in picking him well ahead of where conventional logic suggested he should have gone.

Despite high accolades for his leadership and physical qualities, that selection would prove to be one of the worst in franchise history. In valuing the bruising youngster and his fists more than the pure talent and hands of those ranked ahead of him, the Rangers would leave superstars like Kuznetsov, Tarasenko, and Fowler on the board. McIlrath, meanwhile, would go on to play a grand total of 43 NHL games—38 with New York split over four seasons—registering three goals and two assists while collecting 94 penalty minutes. But, hey – he did win the Calder Cup in 2017 with the Grand Rapids Griffins, so that’s something, I guess.

You don’t need the production totals of the aforementioned group of players the Rangers passed on to understand why the organization is still trying to wipe that egg off their face.

Over the next two seasons, the Blueshirts would go on to make solid choices in J.T. Miller (taken 15th overall in 2011) and Brady Skjei (28th overall in 2012) before sacrificing their next four years’ worth of first-round picks between 2013 and 2016 in trades designed to bolster their Cup-contending rosters.

Fast-forward to last year’s draft, in the wake of the club dealing long-time center Derek Stepan and backup goaltender Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh overall selection, and the Rangers would be making their first top-10 pick since the McIlrath miscue. With it, they’d select Lias Andersson, misfiring again.

Astounding Andersson

Andersson—who was ranked 13th by McKenzie—is highly unlikely to disappoint in the same dramatic fashion that McIlrath did. Yet, like McIlrath, he was inarguably taken far too early for specious reasons. Among them, again like McIlrath (are you sensing a pattern here?), were his leadership qualities and intangibles.

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By taking the Swedish forward, the Rangers would leave the highly talented Casey Mittelstadt, ranked sixth overall by McKenzie, and Owen Tippett, one of the best pure goal scorers in the class, ranked 10th, on the board.

Despite an unimpressive early showing in limited action with the Rangers this season, unlike McIlrath, Andersson should develop into a dependable NHL forward, potentially in the range of a 50-ish-point second- or third-line player. In and of itself, there’s little harm in taking a player of that caliber in the first round. But not with the seventh overall pick when more promising options were readily available. In rejecting BPA, again the Rangers erred by attempting to draft for immediate need/desire.

Andersson, who was expected to play in Sweden this past season, was seen as having a quicker path to the NHL than others. That strategy, however, could prove especially painful when Mittelstadt is flirting with 80-point seasons and Tippett is scoring 30 goals (after Florida convinces Seattle to take him in the next expansion draft so they can protect Nick Bjugstad, or something stupid like that). Moreover, should Andersson end up a bottom-six player, the sting of having reached as far as the Rangers did to take him is unlikely to subside any time soon, just as it hasn’t with McIlrath.

Lias Andersson
Lias Andersson, 2017 draft (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Drafting players based on an organization’s positional depth is rarely a great idea, and even rarer when based on a particular coaching philosophy or style. The McIlrath debacle illustrates the former perfectly, having been taken by the Rangers specifically to the fit mold of then-head coach John Tortorella’s “Black and Blueshirts”. While attempting to be strategic about which positional depth you mean to improve with targeted drafting can have some benefits, it’s never a wise approach to adopt if it means leaving more talented options on the table as the Rangers have done repeatedly. Character is great, but skill—which can’t be taught—is greater.

The fact of the matter is, even for a rebuilding Blueshirts squad that could stand to improve just about everywhere but in net, the franchise is better served to embrace BPA this June. If the result of that game plan produces a surplus at any given position, trading from that excess in the future to address immediate positional needs is a much more sound policy than drafting for the needs of today. Given the time it takes for an average prospect to develop, too often the landscape changes before that prospect can vindicate his team’s choice to draft him. Few know this as well as McIlrath.

While the Andersson pick is mitigated in direct comparison to the McIlrath selection, both share the wrong kind of connective tissue regarding the Rangers’ decision-making that high in the draft order. Come June, the only choice the Blueshirts should be making with another shot at a top-10 pick is to announce their decisions—possibly to the tune of 10 picks in total—with a BPA policy in mind. Anything else, as the results of their own recent history substantiate, is the wrong call to make.