The Rangers Should Follow Nashville’s Road To Success
The New York Rangers season ends this week and with it, fans now look to the draft and the offseason as the biggest moments coming up for the franchise. Since the letter was released just a few months ago, fans and analysts have been discussing and debating about which players they want to target in the draft, which players they feel should be signed, if trades should be made and so on. Going forward, the Rangers could follow many paths on their road back to becoming Stanley Cup contenders; but one team in particular sticks out as a model and that’s the Nashville Predators.
Now, why the Predators? Well, it’s simple. They have built the best defense in the NHL, they have some of the best depth in the league at the forward position, without a true number one center or true superstar, and they have a slightly older goalie who still puts up fantastic numbers. This is a formula the Rangers can pull off and one that could ultimately pay off at the end of this retool.
Anthony J Causi
If we start from the net out, its simple: The Rangers still possess one of the most elite players to ever play the position in Henrik Lundqvist. Even though he is getting up there in age for an NHL player, Lundqvist has proven that he can steal games and that if he is in net there is a chance for his team to win night in and night out. At this point in his career, he can be considered an all-time great. From the Predators side of things, they have Pekka Rinne, who is also on the older side but is still a great goalie capable of making a big stop at the right time. Part of the reason the Predators are cup favorites this year is the play of Rinne.
Moving on to the defense and that’s where this year’s draft comes heavily into play. The Nashville Predators did an absolutely excellent job of drafting, as well as making key signings and trades, to create the best defense in the NHL. A blueline consisting of a top-four of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis is nothing but spectacular. Also, a point to remember is that the Predators at one point had Ryan Suter, Seth Jones, and Shea Weber. One they lost to free-agency but for the other two, they got back players that were better fitted for their team. You can never have too many good defensemen; whether to actually have them play for you or to use as trade chips.
Barring some extreme luck or a trade that none of us see coming, the Rangers will most likely not pick in the top-three but will most likely have a mid-first-rounder and two at the end of the first round. With those three picks, there will still be some nice prospects available. Specifically on the defensive end.
With the Rangers first pick falling in the middle of the first round somewhere, possibly top ten, they should look at one of these three defensemen: Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson or Bode Wilde. All three have immense potential to be elite defensemen in the NHL.
Bouchard is 18-years-old, captain of the London Knights, and has 87 points (25G, 62A) in 67 games this season. Those are ridiculous numbers for a defenseman to have. The cherry on top here is that Bouchard began performing better once he was given more responsibility and some of his star teammates were traded away at the deadline. The kid can play. Curtis Joe of eliteprospets.com had nothing but good things to say about the young man from Oakville, Ontario.
“A highly intelligent all-around defenceman that plays with poise and can shift the pace of play in a multitude of ways. Showcases smooth four-way skating ability and loves to get involved in all situations – especially when that situation happens to be an up-ice rush. Has a polished offensive skill-set which includes well-timed passes and a sneaky, erratic shot. Goes with the high percentage play and makes smart decisions. Could work on strength behind his shot. Defensively active, cutting off lanes and always staying in excellent positioning. Reads cues well in all three zones and seems to stay a step ahead. All-in-all, a well-rounded defender with great hockey sense and work ethic.” – EliteProspects
That sure sounds like a solid piece for the Rangers defense going forward and here’s a sweet highlight video of Bouchard tearing it up for the London Knights:
Bode Wilde is, pardon the pun, a wild card. As Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) said when he was on the podcast just a few weeks ago, he could turn into the next P.K. Subban; an intense, electric and elite puck-moving defenseman, or he could turn into a player like John Moore who failed to really put it all together. Wilde played for the U.S National Development Team this past season and is committed to the University of Michigan in the fall. He has a fantastic shot and great on-ice vision and would be a worthy addition to the Rangers blueline.
The 18-year-old is a high risk, high reward pick but it could pay off in spades for the Rangers if they select him. Here’s Steve Kournianos’ report on Wilde:
“A defender with arguably the highest upside of any of his talented NTDP teammates, this [Michigan]-bound blueliner is a phenomenal skater with a blistering shot. Big, thick defensemen that look graceful while carrying the puck simply don’t grow on trees, and you’d probably hear more about him if his draft year wasn’t loaded with cornerstone-type defenders. Wilde is one confident teenager, maybe sometimes to a fault, as doing “too much” with the puck is something he’ll have to limit. Especially considering how talented the NTDP forwards are. Still, he is perfectly capable of playing a variety of roles with aplomb — power play quarterback, crease-clearer on the penalty kill, and even neutralizing top opponents. Wilde loves to hammer the disc thanks to a heavy shot, and he has the ability to either create his own shot from up high or finish in a speed rush to the net. Once he crosses center, he is as close to the complete package as they come, and his size and right-handed shot make him an extremely tantalizing prospect with star potential. Wilde’s risk-taking can put his mates in jeopardy, so you’d like to see him go through stretches when he puts a premium on sound positioning and is willing to refrain from deep attacks every single shift.” – TheDraftAnalyst
Finally, he’s a nice highlight reel of Wilde’s recent play in the NTDP:
Noah Dobson has shot up the rankings this year as he’s proved he can be an all-around defenseman and can be counted on to be one of the leaders on his team. He’s a great two-way defenseman, he eats up minutes and he is extremely reliable in his own end. Playing for Acadie-Bathurst Titan this season, he put up 69 points (17G, 52A) in 67 games. Clearly, he has the offensive instincts to go with his solid defensive play. Curtis Joe of eliteprospects.com had nothing but good things to say about Dobson:
“A talented two-way defenceman that can play in all situations and stay productive. Uses his edges well and is, for the most part, a very smooth skater; however, as he gets stronger and adjusts to a more up-tempo style of hockey, he will need to work on his speed in gap-closing. Offensively, he utilizes his keen sense of awareness to be in the right spot at the right time, every time. Soft hands and a deadly shot accentuate his ability to get creative, on occasion. Rock solid defensively, his strong positioning severely limits time and space for the opposition. All-in-all, a well-rounded, reliable, and consistent defenceman that can log a lot of ice time and provide his team with a stable presence on the back end.” – EliteProspects
Dobson, like Bouchard and Wilde before him, would be an excellent addition to the Rangers blueline and here’s another highlight video for you all to check out on Dobson:
Moving on to the bottom two picks the Rangers have in the first round and one big name keeps sticking out, that name is K’Andre Miller; and if reports are to be believed, he could turn out to be the best skating North American defenseman to come out of this draft. Miller played for the USNTDP this past season and is committed to the University of Wisconsin this coming fall. While he doesn’t have the crazy numbers that Bouchard or Dobson have, he skates extremely well and is extremely smart with the puck. An interesting fact about the guy is that he’s a converted forward. Steve Kournianos, has a nice report on the 6’3”, 200-pound D-man:
“Talented two-way defenseman with top-pairing upside who is committed to the University of Wisconsin. A strong skater with very good speed, Miller generates a lot of power into his stride and is starting to beat both opposing forwards and defenders to the outside. His stick and body positioning in the neutral zone are exceptional, and you can count on Miler to intercept more than a handful of cross-zone passes that he quickly transitions into rushes the other way. His ability to make clean passes on either his forehand or backhand, plus the manner in which he sharply pivots his way into bigger openings might explain how such a big and physical defenseman is only a few years removed from being a forward.
Watching Miller smother in one end and skate effortlessly in the other makes me think his learning curve is not steep at all — he plays a clean, composed game in his own zone and looks fantastic when he’s unbridled. Miller can be physically intimidating, and his strong lower half makes rubbing out forwards of any size look easy. One thing to consider is that this group of NTDP defensemen is deep with offensively-gifted puck movers, so it’s natural for a cerebral kid like Miller to focus on his defensive-zone play and act decisively with the puck only when the opportunity makes sense. This type of approach reduces haphazard tendencies to a bare minimum. Choosing your favorite draft-eligible defensemen from this year’s version of the under-18 NTDP is a lot like being asked to pick your favorite child, but don’t be surprised if a less-heralded kid like Miller has the best NHL career out of any from his defense corps.” – TheDraftAnalyst
Everything about this kid sounds like he’s got the complete package to be a great NHL defenseman and if the Rangers can grab him with either of their two late first-round picks, they absolutely must take him. Draft boards actually have Miller going anywhere from 15-25 so it will be interesting to see if the Rangers could grab him.
And of course here is a highlight video:
So we’re now down to our final pick of the first round for the Rangers. Who is the final target? Well… not a defensemen so it’s time to talk forwards.
At first glance, you might call me crazy to relate the Rangers to the Predators here but they are actually closer than you think. Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris are not number one centers, but rather they form a 1A/1B tandem in Nashville. Neither is the elite of the elite, à la Sidney Crosby or Conor McDavid, but they have good chemistry with their wingers and know how to get the job done.
Now Mika Zibanejad is on the same level that Johansen and Turris are and he might be better than the both of them individually. He also has wingers that he has good chemistry with in Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Now, going off the assumption that one of Filip Chytil or Lias Andersson turns into a second or possible first-line center, the Rangers will have great center depth while they continue this retool. Kevin Hayes can always slot over to the middle and Boo Nieves is the clear fourth line center for this team as soon as next season. He showed nice promise in that role this season.
Beyond Kreider and Buchnevich though, the wings are a bit rough in New York. Yes, Mats Zuccarello is a great playmaker but he may not be here much longer. Ryan Spooner has been a nice surprise but he is not a top-six long-term solution. The Rangers don’t have a Viktor Arvidsson type guy or a Filip Forsberg type guy. The Rangers need to finds a Forsberg/Arvidsson type player in the draft or try to find someone like Eeli Tolvanen at the bottom of the first-round. Will they trade a pick and Zuccarello for a younger more skilled winger? Possibly, but assuming they keep the pick there a few options for skilled forwards to choose from.
Two that immediately come to mind are Dominik Bokk and Akil Thomas. Both are high ceiling guys who, that if they develop properly, can be great players as the Rangers continue this rebuild. Thomas has put up the better number of the two players since he plays in juniors but Bokk is already playing against men in the SHL. Both developmental strategies can work for younger players.
Looking a little deeper at Akil Thomas we see a guy who plays natural center so he doesn’t fit the wing comparison here but he has spent time on the wings during his time in juniors. The 2016-17 was his rookie year in juniors, he plays for the Niagara Ice Dogs in the OHL, and he put up 48 points in 61 games. This year he put up 81 in 68 games so just about a 40 point increase. He’s trending in the right direction.
Thomas is a smaller player at 5’11” and 170 pounds, but he more than makes up for his lack of size with his skill and speed. But don’t just take my words for it, check out some highlights of Thomas below.
As for Bokk, he is the bigger wild card of the two players here. The Hockey News prospect podcast had a featured segment on Bokk last week and spoke about how he will not be a full-time NHL player soon but he has all the tools to become a very effective player in the near future. His stats don’t pop off the page but sometimes that’s not the whole story. Bokk played in the SuperElit league in Sweden prior to joining the SHL (think AHL and NHL, respectively). Playing against men can only help him going forward.
As always, here are some highlights.
Thomas and Bokk would be risks in the first-round, but with three picks in round one, the Rangers can afford to take a chance on one of these guys if they’re available. Best case scenario, one of them is the next Eeli Tolvanen and becomes a steal at the end of round one. Worst case, the Rangers have another depth forward in their system.
All-world defense, a hall of fame worthy goalie and amazing depth at the forward position. Can the Rangers build like the Predators did? It’s possible, and it’s just one way the Rangers can navigate this retool going forward.