It’s hard to remember the last first-round pick the New York Rangers drafted who grew into his full potential while in New York. They’ve always had a willingness to wheel and deal first-round draft picks in the past too. Recently, however, the Rangers have had more of an interest in keeping their picks, as well as trading for additional early-round draft selections.
This willingness to accrue young talent via the entry draft didn’t just come out of nowhere. The Rangers, after years of “close but no cigar” when it came to winning a Stanley Cup, finally decided that it was time for a full-on rebuild. Youth and rebuilding go hand in hand, and the easiest way for any NHL team to get younger is through the NHL Entry Draft.
From Staal to Skjei
The 2005 NHL Entry Draft saw the Rangers select Marc Staal 12th overall from the Sudbury Wolves. If you asked Ranger fans how they felt about Staal in 2018 in comparison to their feelings for him in 2010, it would sound like they were talking about two different players. Like most NHL vets, he has regressed as he has aged. But the 2010-11 NHL season saw Staal chosen to participate in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game.
While it may have taken some time, the Rangers were able to develop Staal into an elite defensive defenceman. He logged 892 games played in Ranger blue, solidifying himself as a worthy 12th overall draft pick.
The Rangers selected Bobby Sanguinetti with the 21st overall pick in 2006, an Owen Sound defenseman who would only go on to play 45 games in the NHL.
Alexei Cherepanov was taken 17th overall by the Rangers in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. The circumstances surrounding Cherepanov’s lack of NHL career were unfortunately out of his and the Rangers control. The sudden passing of the Siberian Express was tragic and undeserved.
Michael Del Zotto and Derek Stepan were Rangers’ first and second-round picks, respectively, during the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. While both players continue to sustain successful NHL careers, neither player possessed game-breaking ability.
The Rangers would win big in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, selecting Chris Kreider 19th overall out of Andover, MA. Kreider has posted quality numbers throughout his Ranger tenure, as he’s recorded 317 points in 527 games. January 2020 saw Kreider named a member of the Metro Division All-Star team, and February 2020 saw the versatile power forward sign a long-term extension with the Rangers. Although it took him a few years to find his footing, he’s established himself as a strong top-six forward.
J.T. Miller was taken by the Rangers in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and remains a solid two-way player in the league. He tallied 56 points for the Rangers during the 2016-17 campaign. And while the Rangers traded Miller the following year in a trade deadline deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he should still be considered quality use of a first-rounder for the Rangers.
And that brings us to Brady Skjei and the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Skjei had an explosive season, recording 39 points in 80 games during the 2016-17 campaign. Unfortunately for him and the Rangers, this would remain his season-high in points high with the club during the remainder of his tenure. Like Miller, the Rangers would move Skjei for assets in a trade deadline deal.
Who Will Step Up?
The Rangers would go four straight seasons after drafting Skjei without a first-round pick. Some may forgive this, as they were Stanley Cup contenders during this stretch. But mortgaging the future in hopes of a Cup puts immense pressure on management, and failure to win said Cup can lead to an angry fanbase.
New York managed to grab Pavel Buchnevich and Igor Shesterkin in the midst of this four-year-long stretch, and both are currently important pieces of the team. Buchnevich has found himself glued to Mika Zibanejad ever since he arrived in New York, and Shesterkin has earned the starting goaltender spot after Henrik Lundqvist’s 15-year reign.
Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil were both taken in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Chytil is yet to have that breakout season but is still young and full of potential. Andersson was immediately put in a bad situation, constantly skating on the fourth line and asked to play a role that he was not built to play.
Andersson occasionally skated in the top-six with Zibanejad, but not nearly enough to grow his confidence and chemistry with New York’s skilled players. The relationship between Andersson and Rangers’ management soured, and Lias is no longer with the organization. Ranger fans hope that Chytil doesn’t meet the same fate as his fellow 2017 first-rounder.
With K’Andre Miller playing in his rookie season and showing flashes of brilliance, the Rangers could be on the verge of seeing breakout seasons from multiple first-round picks from the past few years. The only thing that I can see preventing this from happening is player mismanagement and lack of confidence.
Kaapo Kakko was drafted in 2019 with the belief that he was more NHL ready than Jack Hughes, the New Jersey Devils’ first overall pick from the same year. Drafted second overall, the Rangers immediately plugged Kakko into their lineup; however, he rarely saw top-six minutes. And even worse than that, he rarely played with top-six talent. I believe that all young players should earn their spot in the lineup. But not giving prospects who have elite potential any ice time with high-end talent such as Artemi Panarin or Zibanejad can stunt growth.
For most high-end prospects, the talent is already there. It is the mental aspect of the game that can cause growth issues. Kakko seems very frustrated as of late. He seems to be very uncertain on the puck, almost as if he doesn’t fully understand his role on the team. Is he expected to chip, chase, and grind? Or is he given the freedom to create and experiment on the puck?
Alexis Lafreniere is a slightly different story. The 2020 first overall pick is considered one of the top prospects in hockey, if not the top one. He started the year skating on New York’s third line and did not make the immediate impact Ranger fans were hoping. He has since been moved to Panarin’s line and has shown flashes of greatness. While his slow start may be concerning for some, he still has plenty of time to grow into the superstar he should be. Rangers’ management and fans alike hope that Nils Lundkvist, Matthew Robertson, Vitali Kravtsov, and Braden Schneider offer solid support to Kakko and Lafreniere.
The Rangers’ rebuild has moved along much quicker than anyone could have expected. When rebuilding, teams try to find the perfect balance of youth and veteran leadership. While I believe New York has a decent balance, David Quinn needs to give his young talent opportunities to gains confidence and ultimately succeed. All it takes is a few consecutive hits in the draft to turn a franchise into a dynasty.
Junior writer covering the New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers.