The New York Rangers will be cheering for Tampa Bay next season...well, kind of. If the Lightning win the Stanley Cup, the second-rounder owed to New York from the Ryan McDonagh trade becomes a first. That would be mean the Rangers would have picked multiple times in the first round for three straight drafts. Given that the franchise often didn’t pick at all in the top-30 for a stretch and this is a big development.
Reality is a part of the strategy: GM Jeff Gorton is overseeing an overhaul of the roster and New York is now building from within. This is how you do it in the cap era and so far, the Rangers are doing it right. The 2018 draft was especially lucrative for Gorton and crew, with three selections in the first round.
Up first was Vitali Kravtsov, the Russian power forward at No. 9. “He’s such a high-end player,” said director, player personnel Gordie Clark. “We had him as the second-best forward in the draft. Everybody was on board, everybody went to see him.”
Kravtsov didn’t get many minutes during the regular season, but exploded for Traktor in the KHL playoffs. The Rangers drafted him as a winger and Clark likes the way Kravtsov thinks the game. “He’s a little bit like J.T. Miller in that he plays like a center,” he said. “He scores goals, but he makes more plays.”
Next, New York grabbed athletic defenseman K’Andre Miller at No. 22, moving up a few spots by making a deal with Ottawa. “I wanted to take a defenseman and K’Andre was sitting there, so Jeff pulled the trigger,” Clark said. “We didn’t want to take any chances. He reminds me of Brady Skjei with the mobility. He’s an elite athlete. He was a wide receiver, he played baseball - his mobility is outstanding.”
A product of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Miller is headed to the University of Wisconsin this fall.
New York went back to the well for a blueliner with their final first-rounder, tabbing Swedish kid Nils Lundkvist 28th overall. Clark remembers being in Gothenburg on the final day of an exhausting 16-day road trip when he saw the mobile Lundkvist the first time. “They dropped the puck and he just took off,” Clark said. “He went through the whole team and I was awakened, I was suddenly excited about where I was.”
Lundkvist split this past season between Lulea’s SHL team and its junior franchise, so naturally the next step is to play with the men full-time. Between Lundkvist, Miller and Libor Hajek (also acquired in the McDonagh deal), the Rangers’ blueline future is looking pretty decent, especially when you consider the fact Brady Skjei is just entering the prime of his NHL career.
Up front, Kravtsov joins a burgeoning future that also includes the two first-rounders from 2017, centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil. Both have already made their NHL debuts and though there is no rush to make them full-timers, Andersson and Chytil have nice potential. Andersson’s speed and two-way game are coming along nicely, while Chytil has size and great instincts. Toss in Brett Howden’s 200-foot game and again, there’s a base to build off.
In net, Henrik Lundqvist will play until he doesn’t want to, but KHL star Igor Shesterkin will be along soon. Transition-wise, things should line up nicely for a hand-off and if Shesterkin can play with Lundqvist for a year or two, the experience would be fantastic.
How will the Rangers fare in 2018-19? It’s probably going to be a down year, but that’s OK. Gorton knows the reality of the situation and new coach David Quinn will need a season to get acclimated (look at Jared Bednar in Colorado). But the Rangers are building the right way now and the cupboard is coming along. With a few more pieces - and maybe some luck in the draft lottery - Gorton could really have something here.