Despite missing the playoffs for the 4th season in a row, the New York Rangers depth chart is noticeably full. Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev are back in the net for the Rangers next season and unless the Rangers decide to make a blockbuster trade for a Center, the majority of the forward depth chart is set as well. At the moment, we can reasonably assume the following players will be on the depth chart on October 1st.
As you can see, 12 of the 13 forward roster spots are easy to predict. Most of New York’s biggest prospects are already in the NHL while other recent draft picks are not near NHL-ready. This really only leaves two players, Morgan Barron and Lauri Pajuniemi, fighting for that last forward spot. A few lower-level prospects are ready to step in case of a trade or injury next season, such as Justin Richards or Timothy Gettinger, but at the moment it’s unlikely they’ll start the season in the NHL.
Prior to his stint in the NHL this season, Morgan Barron led Hartford with 21 points in 21 games. Unfortunately, his 5 games with the Rangers were pretty uneventful, but that can be attributed to the front-office and suspension/injury issues that took the focus away from hockey in the waning weeks of the season. Despite this, it appears Barron has the best chance of any rookie to make the lineup come to Opening Night. He’s got the energy, intensity, and physicality that makes a great bottom-six forward while also having the skill to provide secondary scoring, a key component of Stanley Cup contenders.
Perhaps no Rangers prospect from the past few years climbed as steadily as Lauri Pajuniemi. A 5th round picks in 2018, the Finnish winger thrived in the Liiga. After being promoted to the Finnish Elite league at 17 years old, he’s found another level the past two years. In his age 20 and 21 seasons, he compiled 48 goals and 30 assists in 97 games for TPS, leading the league.
Having recently signed his Entry-Level Contract, Pajuniemi most likely plays in the NHL/AHL or the KHL, a stronger league. With his playmaking abilities, he may not fit on the 4th line as well as a player like Barron, so there’s a better chance he ends up in the KHL and eventually AHL to continue developing into a potential middle-six player. However, if the Rangers do lose a top-nine player via trade, Pajuniemi has a real shot to make the roster next year.
While I don’t expect any surprises at forward, the battle at defense is more enticing. With four roster spots set and numerous prospects approaching NHL readiness, who will fill out the roster? Libor Hajek or Anthony Bitetto will likely be starting as the 7th defenseman to provide experience, leaving two openings. The organization has enough depth to insert two prospects into those vacancies, but they will likely add a veteran presence especially with a new coach. In the end, there may only be room for one prospect to start the season in the NHL. The rest will be given time to develop playing key minutes for the Hartford Wolfpack or elsewhere.
The latest player to sign their Entry Level Contract is coveted Swedish prospect Nils Lundkvist. Before Adam Fox broke out this year, Lundkvist was the shiniest offensive-defenseman in the system. If he is that good, the Rangers could have a situation similar to Colorado with Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, with one at the point on the Power Play and the other dominating even strength.
In the SHL this season, Lundkvist led all defensemen in goals with 14 and received the Salming Trophy as the best Swedish-born defenseman in the league, chosen by NHL Hall of Famer and legend Bjore Salming. His 78 career points are the most in SHL history under the age of 21 and he represented Sweden twice in the World Junior Championships, collecting 10 points in 12 games.
Unfortunately, Lundkvist did suffer a lower-body injury in the World Championships a few weeks ago, though the severity is unknown. Assuming it is not a long recovery, I expect Lundkvist to make the Rangers with ease. The staff could instead choose to start in the AHL, but I expect he starts on the 3rd pair in New York alongside a veteran partner on the blueline.
One of the pleasant surprises this season was Tarmo Reunanen performing admirably in the AHL and making his NHL debut. The Finnish defenseman transitioned beautifully from the Liiga to the AHL, notching 17 points in 21 games. For someone touted for their defensive game, the offensive production is a pleasant surprise. His 4 games in New York were unmemorable, but that is often a good trait for a young defenseman. Often the only gameplay you remember is the bad part.
Reunanen is a high floor, low ceiling prospect that will likely find a spot on the 3rd line pairing eventually. Those are the types of players you need to succeed for 82 games and the playoffs. While the next player I’ll get to has more upside, I think there’s a better chance Reunanen plays his way onto the roster with five years of professional experience and a more steady defensive game at this point in time.
The talent coming through the NCAA is growing exponentially, but prospects are still a mixed bag. For every Adam Fox or Johnny Gaudreau, you see a Shayne Gostisbehere or Jimmy Vesey. Zac Jones looked dominant this year for UMass as they captured the National Championship. He looks confident on the puck, a smooth skater, and has great playmaking ability. That being said, the NHL is a whole other animal. In the long run, it’s better to give a player like Jones given a year in the AHL to play 20 minutes a game and improve defensively. Rushing him into the NHL could kill his confidence while dominating and improving in the minors could make him a more well-rounded player before coming up for good.
The Rangers 2019 2nd round pick continues to check all of the boxes you look for in a prospect. He improved his point total every season in the WHL and was named WHL Central Division Defenseman of the Year. He’s showing promise, but he’s still yet to play in a true professional league. Making the jump from the WHL to the NHL is a daunting task, especially for defensemen. It’s improbable he makes the Rangers this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he impressed everyone in training camp.