With draft scout Steve Konowalchuk, the New York Rangers venture West again
Back in the summer of 2018 there was one report that may have slipped under the radar to most fans, but caught my eye. It was the hiring of former Seattle Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk. To others he may be known as a former Capitals player or former Colorado Avalanche assistant coach. However, as a Seattle Thunderbirds fan, Konowalchuk was a familiar name from his time in the rainy city. After not making the WHL playoffs 2 years in a row, Konowalchuk came in and changed everything, leading to an eventual WHL championship and Memorial Cup appearance in his final season in Seattle.
I noticed for a time that the Rangers seemed to shy away from the WHL in the draft, after some rather unfortunate selections. Ryan Gropp is easily the most momorable one, playing for the T-birds under Konowalchuk but there were so many more. Since Dale Weise in 2008, the Rangers had drafted a total of 11 players from the Western Hockey League who have combined for 68 games. Dylan McIlrath with 66 and MacKenzie Skapski with 2. The others never made it to the NHL, and most were never offered an entry level contract.
Randy McNaught, Shane McColgan, Michael St. Croix, Richard Nejezchleb, Keegan Iverson, Brad Morrison, Sergey Zborovsky and Ty Ronning are part of this unfortunate legacy. It led to 2 years where we didn’t draft a single player from the WHL and it’s hard to think this was not related to the unlucky string of selections from the league by the Rangers. The most notable for me being Shane McColgan who was touted as a top-5 pick in the years leading up to his draft but injuries prevented that. He finished his career in the Netherlands a few years ago, my home country.
When Jeff Gorton took over on July 1st 2015, and hired Nickolai Bobrov a year later, a clear shift in focus was noticed. The team would draft more players from Europe, an area where they seemingly felt more comfortable in their scouts. When the Rangers walked away with 6 players drafted from Europe in 2018, including first round selections Vitali Kravtsov and Nils Lundkvist, it was clear that they heavily relied on that part of the world in terms of drafting prospects. 3 months later Steve Konowalchuk was hired as the amateur scout and was from the start primarily responsible for the WHL scouting. In itself it may not seem like a big deal but now, almost 2 years later it could very well result in some fruitful results.
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A new gold rush?
Last year, the Rangers went back to the Western Hockey League on day 2 of the draft when they picked up Matthew Robertson 49th overall. Robertson, a left-handed strong defenseman plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings. I am confident they wouldn’t have gone that route had they not beefed up their WHL scouting 2 years prior with the hiring of Konowalchuk. Their trust in the new scout seems to work. Robertson had a great D+1 season with the Oil Kings and was already offered his entry level contact. The now 19-year old Robertson is one of the best players on the blue-line in his league and was named Most Valuable Player on his team.
The progression of Robertson is a great sign for the Rangers organization and its fans. It may not be immediately apparent to the casual fan who isn’t that well-versed on the ins an outs on the prospect pool, but Matthew Robertson, who was ranked by some to be a 1st round pick, is leading the way in a group of prospects the Blueshirts added to the list. And it is definitely a pick that Konowalchuk deserves all the praise for. With the upcoming 2020 draft, where the Rangers have two picks in the 1st, and two picks in the 3rd round, the success story surrounding Robertson could pave the way for more WHL prospects to be picked by Gorton and co, whereas a year or two ago, I would have been hesitant to make that claim. The 2020 draft has a lot of really good prospects and kids like Connor Zary, Jake Neighbours, Seth Jarvis, Kaden Ghule, Braden Schneider and Ozzy Wiesblatt all fall in that range where the Rangers may pick in this year’s draft.
It gives Rangers management more options and I would not be surprised if we walk away with 1 or even 2 WHL prospects this year, considering the major impact Steve Konowalchuk has had on the Rangers scouting department. With that, we may finally be able to leave behind the ghosts of the past and look at the WHL as a league we can find talent. Which would be a lot of fun for me as a Seattle Thunderbirds fan, because it would mean I get to see some familiar faces on draft day in a Rangers jersey. Those 4 AM games may finally have been been worth it again.