The New York Rangers have always been recognized as a team unafraid to toss money around in an attempt to improve the roster. In the pre-salary cap era, New York’s draft record was pretty shoddy: From Jeff Brown and Stefan Cherneski to Pavel Brendl and Hugh Jessiman, they struggled to draft successfully in the first round in the late-’90s and early into the 21st century.
But everything seemed to change overnight in 2005 when the Rangers’ draft record took a sudden turn for the better. Marc Staal, Bob Sanguinetti and Michael Del Zotto became promising first-rounders, while Derek Stepan, Evgeny Grachev and Artem Anisimov were later-round picks who have spent some time with the big club this season. The post-lockout NHL environment changed the way the Rangers constructed their teams.
“When I sat down with Glen (Sather) and Don Maloney at that time they clearly made it evident that with the way everything was going with the cap and the future, everybody is going to be somewhat equal now,” said Rangers director, player personnel Gordie Clark, who runs draft day for the team. “(Sather) made a real decision to say the way you can try and outdo the opposition is hopefully draft properly and then raise them.”
The Rangers have a total of 10 homegrown players on their NHL roster with 2004 picks Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan leading the team in scoring, while stars Chris Drury, Vaclav Prospal and Marian Gaborik recover from injuries. While the team’s management takes a lot of heat for how they handle (or mishandle) the salary cap, GM Glen Sather’s squad deserves credit for how it has patiently brought along its youth and allowed them to rise to prominent roles, a theme that will become more apparent as the post-lockout group of prospects develop.
The Rangers have six players they selected from 2005 to 2008 playing in the NHL this season. And if it wasn’t for the untimely and tragic passing of Alexei Cherepanov, there’s a good chance that number would be seven.
And while the fact four of their past six first-rounders have been defensemen might be deciphered as a cognizant attempt at building a strong blueline, Clark admits it has a lot to do with the slot the Rangers have found themselves selecting out of.
“For four or five years we were picking somewhere between 17 and 21 and the best players are all gone,” he said. “If you can get yourself a high-impact forward – and I did think in ’07 Cherepanov was one of those – you do. The forwards get worked over first. In those particular drafts we felt all the guys who we had rated who could be a star or a top-two line forward were gone.”
Nonetheless, the Rangers have a keen eye on their future. It was a bit surprising when they traded away Sanguinetti to Carolina for a second round pick because he was such a prolific blueline scorer in junior. However, Clark pointed out that with a log jam on defense, the quick emergence of Del Zotto and the signing of Matt Gilroy, they decided to let Sanguinetti get on with his NHL career elsewhere.
“He just hadn’t been able to crack the lineup,” Clark said. “Last season was his season to really do it…It looked like Bobby was lining up to go in there, but all three of them went into camp and unfortunately those two outplayed him.”
But then the Rangers went out and selected Dylan McIlrath 10th overall in 2010. An imposing defender, McIlrath is a player Clark describes as an “old-time Canadian defenseman.” At the time it was a head-scratcher as high-profile prospects Brandon Gormley and Cam Fowler, once thought to be top-five picks, were still available. The reason Clark and the Rangers decided to go with McIlrath again has to do with how the staff is planning the team’s future – they felt the meanness of the Moose Jaw Warrior would better complement the rest of the team’s parts down the road, with Clark strongly emphasizing McIlrath also has the skills necessary to compete in the “new NHL.”
“It wasn’t that we didn’t like those players – we liked both of those players,” Clark said. “It was what we thought we really wanted to have. When an opposition comes in and they have to look across and say ‘Oh my god I have to play against that guy again tonight’ we’ve never really had that.”
The Rangers don’t just boast defensemen, though. With 2009 pick Chris Kreider returning to Boston College and playing on a line with NHL prospects Jimmy and Kevin Hayes, Clark is confident they have another impact forward in their midst. And you can’t forget about Grachev, who was just returned to the American League after a brief NHL call-up. Clark admits in hindsight they should have kept Grachev in junior for one more season – especially after the AHL team lacked a sufficient center for him to play his first pro year with – but the big man is learning his craft playing important minutes in Hartford.
“His game of being a big man getting a shot off the rush or in the slot, you gotta play in the top two lines and he’s just not ready for that in the NHL right now,” Clark said. “I don’t want to see him out on the fourth line or checking line, just let him play all the power play and keep developing the scoring touch he has.”
After such a long cold streak, it must have been refreshing to Rangers fans to see their team ranked fifth in last season’s THN Future Watch, especially since Del Zotto and Anisimov were considered graduates. It’s indicative of the patient team-building approach they have adopted.
While the 2010-11 Rangers will be hit-or-miss to return to the post-season, the future of this team is a comforting aspect.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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