The New York Rangers’ rebuild was already moving quickly, and the process accelerated Tuesday at the 2019 NHL draft lottery. The Rangers finished 26th overall in the 2018-19 standings and thus carried the sixth-best lottery odds but wound up the night’s second-biggest winner. The New Jersey Devils scored the No. 1 overall draft slot for the second time in three years, while the Blueshirts jumped to No. 2 despite just a 7.8-percent chance of doing so. The pick will be New York’s highest since before expansion. It took Andre Veilleux first overall in 1965 and Brad Park second overall in 1966.
“We’re certainly excited,” said Rangers GM Jeff Gorton over the phone Wednesday. “You see the teams that are having success in his league, and it’s no surprise where most of the players are coming from. They’re elite guys drafted up high. So we’re getting that chance.”
Winning the No. 2 pick understandably has the Rangers’ front office tickled, as it was already extremely busy loading up on picks and prospects across the past few seasons. As Gorton said two months ago in an interview for our Future Watch 2019 magazine, the franchise reshaping began as far back as the 2017 draft-day trade sending Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes. New York didn’t have a first-round pick in 2013, 2014, 2015 or 2016 and regularly finished at or near the bottom in the Future Watch farm-system rankings as a result, but Gorton, then-president Glen Sather and owner James Dolan resolved to blow things up piece by piece. We all remember ‘The Letter,’ published to fans in February 2018, vowing a commitment to youth.
“As the season was evolving, it was becoming clearer and clearer that we were going to fight for eighth, and how good were we, really? How legitimate were we? Do we think our team’s as good as we were in the past?” Gorton said in February about the decision to pen the letter. “We kept coming back to: ‘No.’ ”
(For the full deep-dive Future Watch story on the Rangers build, click this link.)
It’s clear their plan was serious. Dealt away in the past couple seasons: Stepan, Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello, among others. The trades netted prospects Tony DeAngelo, Ryan Lindgren, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek and, more importantly, picks galore. From 2017 to 2018, the Rangers nabbed three additional first-round picks and used their own two first-rounders to draft Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, Vitaly Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist.
Rangers director of player personnel and head scout Gordie Clark sees Andersson as a real leader and two-way forward and Kravtsov as a potential franchise player who has made an Evgeni Malkin-like impact in the KHL relative to age. Lundkvist brings mobility to the blueline, Miller is a powerful physical presence on defense, and Chytil, already an NHL regular, has highlight-reel hands.
The Hayes trade at this year’s deadline scored Gorton another first-round pick, meaning the Rangers have two this June, giving them seven over a three-draft stretch. If Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup, which would hardly be a stretch, a condition of last year’s McDonagh/Miller trade awards New York another first-rounder. If the Dallas Stars reach the Western Conference final and their trade-deadline acquisition, Zuccarello, plays 50 percent of the games or more, the second-round pick they gave to the Rangers becomes a first. So that means New York could have as many as four first-rounders in the 2019 draft, giving the team nine in a three-draft stretch.
So let’s talk about the first podium trip Gorton will make June 21 in Vancouver: the one scoring the Rangers the second-overall pick.
Jack Hughes. Kaapo Kakko. It’s a consensus that we see those two go off the board at No. 1 and 2 overall. Hughes, a dynamic center with a superstar trajectory, remains very much the favorite to go first. Heady playmaking winger Kakko isn’t out of the running but is more likely to go second. Still, Gorton isn’t ready to start stitching Kakko’s Rangers jersey right this second, instead remaining diplomatic.
“It’s the fairest thing to do,” Gorton said. “Obviously, people have their ratings, and you hear the same names over and over in the top two. But we’re lucky that the lottery was moved up. It gives us a chance to go to the u-18s, see some players and go to the World Championship and see some other guys. The timing was good for us. It allows us to go through our process and to talk to the players, their families, everybody around them, and then make our decision.”
Still, barring some shocking developments over the next couple months, the top two in the draft aren’t budging. It’s probable we see Kakko in a Rangers jersey this October.
That’s right: this October. Kakko’s intelligent puckhandling and passing combine with good two-way acumen and his 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame to make him NHL ready.
“It’ll be interesting to see – It depends on the team and what they’re doing, but I think he has the chance to play right away,” said Finnish under-20 national coach Jussi Ahokas, who won the 2019 World Junior Championship with Kakko scoring the winning goal. “He has good size but still has to grow strength-wise. If he has a good summer and works hard, he’ll be ready for the NHL next year for sure.”
Clark has indicated Kravtsov intends to play in North America next year. So that means it’s possible we see Chytil, Andersson, Kakko and Kravstov in the Rangers lineup at the NHL level for 2019-20. Factoring in the strides Mika Zibanejad made during his breakout 2018-19, in which he smashed career highs with 30 goals and 74 points, the Rangers offense should look far deadlier very soon.
“People ask about timeline: is it speeding up or on schedule?” Gorton said. “We’re just trying to get as many good young players as we can and want to make the right decisions with these kids, surround them with the right people and try to get them on a good path and going as quickly as we can.
“It’s really exciting as we look to next year and what could be our opening-night roster. We could have some new, young, exciting faces, could have some free agents, some nice players. The ability to pick second overall in this draft and have a good summer just reinforces that the future looks pretty bright in New York.”