Nonprofessional Rangers: Top Prospects in Juniors & NCAA

Thanks to their recent rebuilding efforts, the New York Rangers finally have a talented young prospect pool again. They have a strong future in Alexander Georgiev and Neal Pionk who are playing for the Rangers, Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil currently playing for the team’s AHL affiliate the Hartford Wolf Pack, and Igor Shesterkin and newly acquired defenseman Yegor Rykov who are teammates at SKA St. Petersberg of the KHL.

However, the team also has a number of high-end prospects playing outside of professional leagues in the WHL, OHL, and NCAA. Acquired by the Rangers through the NHL Entry Draft or through the most recent trade deadline selloff, the following Rangers’ prospects show great potential to help form the core of the team for years to come.

Libor Hájek – Regina Pats (WHL)

Selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning 37th overall in the second round of the 2016 NHL draft, Libor Hájek came to the Rangers as part of the trade that sent former captain Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning. It was reported at the time that the deal went down to the wire because the Rangers were insisting the Czech defender was included.

Libor Hajek of the Saskatoon Blades
Libor Hajek (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

While already a top defensive prospect in what was a deep Lightning’s system, Hájek’s stock jumped considerably by his showing at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship tournament. He produced eight points over the seven games of the tournament, putting him among the scoring leaders among defensemen. Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino raved that, “Just about every scout I talked to over the course of the event went out of their way to make mention [Hájek].”

Hájek has decent offensive abilities and quarterbacked the Czech team’s top-ranked power play in the tournament, but what stands out is his play in his own zone. He has a good combination of size (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) and grit which makes him intimidating to opposing attackers. That is a quality that the Rangers have been seeking, but lacking in recent years. Dylan McIlrath’s inability to compete at the NHL level and unrestricted free agent signing Brendan Smith both failed to fill that role for the Blueshirts.

Brett Howden – Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

Another key component to the Rangers/Lightning trade was Brett Howden, selected by Tampa Bay 27th overall in the same 2016 NHL draft. The 19-year-old center—the captain of his WHL team—has produced 24 goals (G), 49 assists (A) for 73 points (PTS) in 48 games played (GP) this season. He’s a two-way forward who is strong on face-offs.

Howden captured the gold medal with Team Canada at the World Juniors in 2018. He was productive with 4 G, 3 A for 7 P in 7 GP through the tournament including a dominating four-point performance in their semi-finals win over Switzerland. He also scored two goals in Canada’s Group A matchup against Denmark.

Howden was considered a long-shot to make the Lightning out of camp this past season, however, with the Rangers rebuilding, he should get a long look at next season’s training camp. He will have a lot of competition at center with the Rangers considering Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes have two top-six spots locked up for the team and Andersson and Chytil will likely be getting some NHL experience as the season winds down to add to the time they have already spent in the AHL. The numbers game may find Howden starting next season getting top minutes with the Wolf Pack unless other roster changes open up another spot on the big club.

Ryan Lindgren – University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (NCAA)

The college sophomore came to the Rangers in the deal that sent Rick Nash to the Boston Bruins. The 20-year-old Ryan Lindgren was selected 49th overall in the 2016 NHL draft. The defenseman’s numbers are modest, even by NCAA standards, however, his game is as more of a mobile, gritty, stay-at-home defender who primarily takes care of his own end. He was also named the Gopher’s assistant captain this season. Like Hájek, he plays with physicality on defense that is lacking in the Rangers’ organization.

A recurring theme with this list, Lindgren was selected to play for team USA in the 2018 World Juniors tournament, his second selection in a row. While his team captured the gold in 2017, Lindgren missed the championship game against Team Canada due to illness. Still, he was one of the team’s best defenseman. His junior national team followed that win up with the bronze medal in 2018 where Lindgren served as an assistant captain.

According to Dan Bahl, Lindgren is ready to take his game to the professional level. “His track record of leadership shows maturity, which is important for a transition to the pro game. He plays at an elite level in his own zone. He’s adapted to the college game extremely well, and has become one of the best defensive defensemen in the nation as only a sophomore,” Bahl observed.

Sean Day – Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)

The final two prospects on this list came through the Rangers’ draft. With the 81st selection in the 2016 NHL draft, the Rangers chose Sean Day, a mobile two-way defenseman with tremendous size at 6-foot-3, 231 pounds. The defenseman possesses a hard shot and has a crisp pass.

Sean Day Kingston Frontenacs
Sean Day of the Kingston Frontenacs. (Photo by Terry Wilson OHL Images)

Possessing elite skills, Day was granted exceptional status as a 16-year-old allowing him to enter the OHL. The list of other players granted such an exception includes John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid. What separates Day from these top NHL players are questions about his commitment and work ethic, however. This caused his stock to fall significantly in his draft year. It remains to be seen whether the young defender can mature into the type of player his skill-set will allow.

Day has had solid production for a defenseman in his final year in the OHL. Although he’s missed some time with injuries this season. Between the Windsor Spitfires and his current Frontenacs team, Day has produced 5 G, 42A, 47 P in 49 GP. He is currently 10th in OHL scoring among defensemen and sits in sixth in points per game for players with over 40 GP. When his OHL season ends, he will likely join the Wolf Pack for the remainder of their season.

Ty Ronning – Vancouver Giants (WHL)

Ty Ronning lacks the draft pedigree of the rest of this list in that he was taken 201st overall by the New York Rangers in the 2016 NHL draft. You wouldn’t know that from his goal-scoring explosion in his final season for his WHL club. While Ronning scored a respectable 25 G in 68 GP last season for the Giants, he has buried 61 G in 70 GP so far this season, good for second in the league.

Ty Ronning of the Vancouver Giants
Ty Ronning (CJ Relke/Vancouver Giants)

Like Day, Ronning has boom or bust potential, but for a couple of different reasons. At just 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, he would rank among the smallest players in the NHL today. While it is tempting to point to other similarly small but successful skaters in the league, such as Johnny Gaudreau, Artemi Panarin, Alex DeBrincat and Brayden Point, all had significantly more consistent production prior to making it to the NHL. Ronning’s goal-scoring explosion is also a knock, in that he was unable to produce at nearly the same rate until he was a 20-year-old playing in the WHL.

Still, Ronning was recently signed to an entry-level contract and was able to put up five points in 12 games with Hartford last season after his WHL year ended. He will likely need to see more time with the Wolf Pack to determine if this year was a fluke or if Ronning was a late bloomer who can become one of the talented small-men who are productive in the NHL.

Rangers Suddenly Deep Prospect Pool

While the Rangers, for years, have depleted their prospect pool while relying on signing unrestricted free agent prospects from the NCAA or those who slipped through the NHL draft, they have spent the last year restocking through the draft and trade market. Their 10 selections in the upcoming NHL draft will add to their future fortunes.

Now though, they are poised to infuse much-needed cost-controlled youth over the next few seasons as they rebuild their team with the talent currently playing for the Wolf Pack and in the KHL along with prospects yet to make the professional jump, who are still in juniors and the NCAA.