- The Rangers are leaning towards shutting winger Jesper Fast down for the remainder of the season, reports Larry Brooks of the New York Post. He has been playing through a shoulder issue for the past three months before the team gave him a night off earlier this week against Detroit. With New York squarely out of the postseason picture, it wouldn’t make sense for them to keep running him out there when he’s not fully healthy. The 27-year-old is already signed for next season with a $1.85MM cap hit.
The U.S. Men’s National Team will be under new leadership moving forward, as Chris Drury has been named GM. Drury is currently serving as assistant GM with the New York Rangers, a position he will continue in along with this new role. John Vanbiesbrouck, assistant executive director of USA Hockey, explained the hiring:
We’re really happy to have Chris serving as general manager of our team. He knows what it takes to succeed at the international level, and working with our men’s national team advisory group, which brings vast experience, success and passion to the table, we have a tremendous group in place to build our team.
That advisory team is made up of several active NHL front office executives, including Drury’s boss in New York Jeff Gorton. The group will decide who will play in the upcoming World Championship, scheduled for May 10-26 in Slovakia. Drury has plenty of experience on the international stage, winning two Olympic silver medals and taking part in several other tournaments throughout his excellent playing career.
- The Kootenay Ice have moved to Winnipeg for the 2019-20 WHL season, and will get a nice prize to start their run in the new city. The team today won the WHL Bantam Draft lottery, moving up one spot to get the first overall selection in the upcoming draft. The Prince George Cougars will pick second (with Swift Current’s selection) and fourth, while the Saskatoon Blades will be the third team up. Kelowna rounds out the top five of the draft, which will be held on May 2.
- Unfortunately they won’t get a chance to pick Matthew Savoie with the top selection, as the 15-year old was denied exceptional status. In response to that, Savoie committed to the University of Denver for 2021-22, something his brother had already done previously. If he wants to maintain his college eligibility, Savoie will not be able to play anywhere in the WHL and instead will likely go the route of the USHL. That is, unless a favorable situation comes about at the 2020 bantam draft and he rescinds his commitment.
It’s not very often that a team decides to dismantle their team quite as thoroughly and openly as the New York Rangers have over the past year. Starting with a letter to their fans in early February 2018, the Rangers’ front office explained that they did not believe the roster as then constructed was going to bring any realistic success or a chance at a Stanley Cup. Just a few weeks later the team began selling off their biggest assets, dealing Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller in the span of just a few days. After that kind of a deadline, it was obvious that the Rangers wouldn’t stop there.
This season’s deadline brought much of the same, as New York jettisoned Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and Adam McQuaid for almost entirely future assets. One name that was brought up repeatedly but never moved however was power forward Chris Kreider. Kreider represents the last member of the former core with an expiring contract, as his deal is up following the 2019-20 season, and now sits as the biggest decision the team must make this summer. The talented winger will turn 28 in April, and could be an extension candidate if the team believes he can help them get back to the playoffs with their rebuilt lineup. He could also be their biggest trade chip at the draft if they want to take another step backwards to build the prospect cupboard up. In fact, Larry Brooks of the New York Post writes that there is “not even the slightest chance” that Kreider will report to Rangers training camp in the fall without an extension, implying he would be traded without one.
That decision will come after a potentially career-best season from Kreider, even if it has come with some ups and downs. The 6’3″ forward is just two goals and four points from his previous highs, both set in 2016-17 on a team that finished with 102 points and made it to the second round. There would certainly be a lot of teams lining up for his services if available, given his 30-goal potential and all-around effectiveness. Hayes, for instance (who admittedly is a center) has never scored 50 points in a season but landed the Rangers a good young player and first-round pick even as a pure rental. The fact that they potentially could get more than that for Kreider with a bigger market may be too much to pass up.
But at some point, the team will have to decide if they’re ready to compete again. A multi-year extension for Kreider, expensive as it may be, may help the team do just that in the next few years when young players like Brett Howden, Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil are still on their entry-level deals. There’s plenty of talent in the system now for New York, and it may be time to start retaining it instead of cashing it in.
For now, Kreider and the team will focus on finishing out the season strong and without injury—something the forward has battled for much of the season, according to Brooks—while developing their young players at the highest level. But come this summer there will be a point where GM Jeff Gorton and his staff will have to decide when the next phase of the plan is scheduled for, and if Kreider is a part of it.
While many observers are caught up in the college free agent market right now, the prize among undrafted free agents hails from the junior ranks. Justin Brazeau, a 21-year-old winger from the OHL’s North Bay Battalion, is ready to be an impact pro player as soon as his season ends, which could be sooner rather than later.
The OHL regular season has ended and the playoffs are set to get underway, beginning on Thursday. Brazeau suited up in all 68 games for the Battalion this season, recording 61 goals and 113 points. The massive output by the North Bay captain was good enough for the league lead in goals and second in scoring behind only top Dallas Stars prospect Jason Robertson. Yet, it wasn’t enough to place the Battalion among the top teams in the league. North Bay finished seventh in the Eastern Conference and face a daunting match-up with Robertson and the Niagara Ice Dogs in the first round.
If Brazeau and the Battalion do indeed make an early exit – a sweep would end the series by the middle of next week – Brazeau could sign his entry-level contract by the end of the month. Of course, as a junior player he could sign an ELC at any time, but at this point Brazeau seems willing to wait until his final year of juniors is officially over. He has likely had conversations with many teams already, but seems poised to look at all options for the next step in his career.
Brazeau should be able to choose freely any team in the NHL he likes for his first contract. The overage forward is more than just numbers; while many before him have dominated the junior level offensively only to flame out at the pro level, those players tend to be smaller in stature and able to skate around their opposition at the junior level. Brazeau is a different type of player entirely. At 6’6″ and 225 lbs., Brazeau is a bona fide power forward. He has great skill and offensive instincts, but can hold his own defensively with great size and strength. In fact, maybe the only weakness that could prevent him from continuing to be a contributor in the NHL is his skating. If he can improve upon his ability to get back and forth, Brazeau can be dangerous in both ends.
The short answer is that all 31 teams have likely checked in on Brazeau. A junior player of both this size and production are few and far in between and all of the NHL is on alert that Brazeau could be a special player. At the cost of an entry-level contract, it would be silly for any team not to take a chance on the big scoring forward.
However, there are some leaders in the pursuit. Of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs are always a top contender. An Ontario native, Brazeau could have the opportunity to play on a top team close to home, while the Leafs are desperate for affordable help as they face an impending cap crunch and could afford to add some more size up front as well. Similarly, Brazeau could choose to play relatively nearby in Ottawa, as the Senators need all the help they can get and Brazeau could immediately take on a major role.
Brazeau also has some history with a pair of NHL teams. The undrafted product did spend time at development camp with both the San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets over the past few years and may have maintained relationships with those clubs. Both the Sharks and the Blue Jackets are talented teams on which Brazeau could find immediate success.
However, San Jose and Columbus, as well as Toronto, are deep up front. Brazeau wants to play as soon as possible and may not get that chance this season with one of those three teams. The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are two top contenders who do have flexibility in the top-nine and could be willing to give Brazeau a shot right away. The New York Rangers aren’t at the same competitive level as those teams, but are shockingly thin at right wing and Brazeau could hypothetically play
Brazeau is going to sign an entry-level contract, so there is a limit on both base salary and potential bonuses, both of which he will likely max out. It will also be a three-year term, per the CBA. The key to signing the power forward will instead be who is willing or even able to burn the first year of the contract this season. Brazeau has shown that he has the size, skill, and competitive nature to play in the NHL and will want to prove that right away. The potential future star will also want to get another year closer to making real money. If a team can promise Brazeau play time this year, it will go a long way in locking him up. If such a landing spot doesn’t exist, he could opt for a team with which he can play the greatest role next season.
Friday: The Rangers have announced that they have agreed to terms with Elmer on an entry-level contract.
Thursday: The New York Rangers are “closing in” on an interesting junior player, reports TSN’s Bob McKenzie. The Rangers are expected to sign forward Jake Elmer of the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes to an entry-level contract. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks adds that it will be a three-year deal beginning next season. Elmer has 38 goals and 78 points in 66 games this season.
While it has been a breakout season for Elmer, it hasn’t always been so easy for the 20-year-old winger. Elmer struggled to stick in the WHL early on, playing just 20 games over two seasons with the Regina Pats while spending more time in the junior-A AJHL. A trade moved him to the Kootenay Ice ahead of the 2016-17 season where he finally found consistent play time, but still lacking production. A second deal sent him to Lethbridge last year, where he has finally grown into a consistent scorer. However, after recording just 37 points last season, no one could have predicted that he would more than double that total this year. Playing next to presumptive 2019 top-ten pick Dylan Cozens, Elmer’s game has taken on a whole new level, as he leads the Hurricanes in goals and is third in points.
Yet, Elmer is still a player with a chip on his shoulder. He will undoubtedly again face doubts as he enters the pro level, but the hard-working right wing has defied expectations to this point and will look to continue that trend. Elmer is highly likely to spend time in the minors with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, but there is certainly an avenue for him to see action in New York sooner rather than later. Currently, Jesper Fast is the only right-handed winger on the Rangers’ roster and none of the right-shot wings in the pipeline were drafted any higher than the fifth round besides 25-year-old Steven Fogarty. There’s an argument to be made that upon signing his ELC, Elmer will immediately become the Rangers’ top right wing prospect with the only real competition coming from another undrafted free agent, Ville Meskanen. It’s a great fit for Elmer and New York can only hope that the available opportunity only further advances his competitive nature and the upward trajectory of his development.
Tuesday: Igor Eronko of Sport-Express tweets today that Traktor GM Evgeny Gubarev told him the team won’t be terminating Kravtsov’s contract. That would mean the young forward is not able to sign a contract this season, or play in any games for the Rangers.
Sunday: The New York Rangers continue to negotiate with KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk to get their top prospect and 2018 first-round pick, Vitali Kravtsov to come to New York, but there is no guarantee that the Rangers will be able to get a deal done, according to Larry Brooks of the New York Post.
Kravtsov, the ninth-overall pick, stayed in Russia this season and put up solid numbers as a 19-year-old in the KHL, including eight goals and 21 points in 50 games. However, despite Traktor Chelyabinsk eliminated from the KHL playoffs last Monday, Kravtsov’s contract still runs through April 30th, which means the Rangers must work out a deal to release him from his deal even if he has no games let to play. The team would like to bring him to North America, so the 19-year-old can get acclimated to the U.S. as quickly as possible.
To make matters even more complex, there is a question of whether the team wants to sign him right away to an entry-level deal this year. With 14 games remaining in New York’s season, the team would probably like to avoid burning the first-year of his deal, which would force the Rangers to have to protect him in the eventual expansion draft for the Seattle franchise. If he doesn’t begin that entry-level deal until next year, Kravtsov would be exempt from the expansion draft which would allow the Rangers to protect one extra player in 2021.
Unfortunately for New York, Brooks also adds that an Amateur Try Out (ATO), which would allow Kravtsov to play with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, is also highly unlikely. That would suggest that the team may not bring him over until this summer, and because he’s a candidate to play for Russia at the World Championships this summer, he may not arrive until late summer.
Hockey lost one of their greats Sunday when longtime New York Rangers defenseman Harry Howell passed away at the age of 86. The Hall of Famer, despite retiring from the NHL back in 1973, still holds the Rangers’ record for games played after playing 16 seasons in which he only missed 17 total games.
“The National Hockey League mourns the passing of legendary defenseman, consummate professional and Hockey Hall of Famer Harry Howell. He will be remembered not only for his consistency and leadership but with the ultimate class from with which he carried himself,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman from a statement.
Howell played 1,411 games at the NHL level, scoring 94 goals and 418 points throughout his career. He joined the New York Rangers in the 1952-53 season and immediately became an impact defense-first blueliner and while his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame was considered big for that era, Howell did not use his size to be overly physical as he was a defenseman who built his level of play with proper positioning and a high hockey IQ. While he had 418 points throughout his career, he was not a big point producer over the first nine seasons as he never reached the 20-point plateau in all those year. His first big offensive year actually came in 1966-67, his 15th season, when he tallied 12 goals and 40 points. That was the year he won the Norris Trophy, as the NHL’s best defenseman.
After the 1968-69 season, Howell began to have back problems that eventually required surgery. Despite offering him a position with the team, Howell, 37 at the time, wanted to keep playing, so the Rangers traded Howell to the Oakland Seals for cash. He played with the Seals for a season and a half before the then California Golden Seals traded him to the Los Angeles Kings for another two and a half seasons. He later continued his career by playing with the WHA for three more seasons after that before retiring completely in 1976.
He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979 and had his number retired by the Rangers in 2009, and will no doubt be remembered as one of the great New York Rangers players ever.
A concern of New York Rangers fans all season long has ironically been that they aren’t bad enough. The team had little expectation of pushing for a playoff spot in 2018-19, yet continued to hang around with the likes of the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, and Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference standings, rather than down with the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and New Jersey Devils. When the postseason is out of reach, many focus only on an improvement of their draft lottery odds, which has certainly been true with New York fans. While the Rangers’ pipeline is well-stocked and deep with talent at every position, the team is still looking for their next surefire star. Surely after the trade deadline, in which their third- and fourth-highest scorers – Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello – were dealt away, the Rangers’ play would drop off, right? Entering last night, the team was on a six-game win-less streak; however, they had picked up the loser point in four of those six games and then got back in the win column by taking down the Devils. The Rangers continue to stay afloat, currently ranked 13th in the East and 23rd in the NHL, with multiple teams less than two points ahead of them. If they stay on their current trajectory, the Rangers will likely have between a 3% and 6.5% chance at the No. 1 pick and combined odds of no more than about 20% of landing any of the top three lottery spots. They stand a much higher chance of picking outside the top ten than inside the top three. And there’s no reason to believe that their pace won’t continue. According to NHL.com’s strength of schedule calculations for the remainder of the season, the Rangers have the easiest stretch run of any team in the Metropolitan Division and are second only to the Sabres in the conference. Only half of their remaining games are against playoff-bound competition and five of their final 14 games come against teams presently below them in the standings. So as for those hopes of tanking, they may be all for not. With weak competition on the schedule and top young talent taking more responsibility in the lineup, the Rangers could potentially improve or at the very least stay the course for the remainder of the campaign.
- If they can’t land one of the top prospects in the coming draft, will Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and company look to add star power in the free agent market? The Athletic’s Craig Custance writes that the expectation that New York will add heavily in the off-season may be overblown after speaking with Gorton. The GM states that he is only looking for players that will be “part of the rebuild, not someone who is going to restrict it.” This likely means a free agent on the younger side who fits the preferred system and the style of the Rangers’ up-and-coming young players. While Custance knows Gorton would never say it outright, Columbus Blue Jackets star winger Artemi Panarin sounds like the ideal target to fit that mold. The 27-year-old has the immense talent to be a short-term difference-maker and the youth and longevity to be a long-term fit who doesn’t clog up cap space down the road. All three of the New York-area teams have been considered likely landing spots for Panarin, the top free agent forward this summer, but the draw of playing in the heart of the Big Apple in front of a Madison Square Garden crowd could be enough to entice Panarin, who has his sights set on growing his persona in the next stage of his career.
- If the Rangers are going to sign Panarin, it is going to take money and a lot of it. One player who could be shown the door to accommodate the need for extra cap space could be defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The Rangers’ big free agent addition just two years ago has not been the player that the team expected and the New York Post’s Larry Brooks believes that he is fighting for life in these final games of the season. Shattenkirk was a healthy scratch the other night for the second time this season, parking himself and his $6.65MM AAV salary in the press box. He has just 23 points on the year so far, the same amount as last season when he missed close to half of the season due to injury. Compare that to 40+ points in five of his six seasons prior to joining New York and it explains why patience is running out. Brooks feels that if Shattenkirk cannot show substantial improvement in his effort and results down the stretch, he could be a prime candidate for a buyout this summer. Per CapFriendly, such a move would save the Rangers more than $5MM against the cap next season, with minor savings in 2020-21 as well, at a cost of just $1.433MM in each of the two seasons after. Despite it being a buyout that makes sense on paper, Brooks writes that “no one wants this”. He has spoken to both Shattenkirk and head coach David Quinn about what Shattenkirk needs to do to improve on his slow, overly-methodical style and it sounds as if they are on the same page. “I know what I have to do, I know how I have to play,” Shattenkirk says, but the question is whether he can actually do it. Failure to act on his shortcomings could mean his days in New York are numbered.
The New York Rangers sure work quickly. The collegiate season of prospect goalie Adam Huska came to an end last night with an impressive (albeit meaningless) win for the University of Connecticut over the No. 2-ranked University of Massachusetts. Less than 12 hours since the final horn, Huska is now a pro. The Rangers have announced that they have signed the young keeper to a an entry-level contract. CapFriendly reports it is a two-year deal beginning next season, but financial terms are not yet available.
Huska, 21, has forfeited the final year of his NCAA eligibility to go pro, as the junior goaltender leaves UConn after three years and 69 games with the Huskies. The move comes as somewhat of a surprise considering the drop off in Huska’s play this season. After posting a .912 save percentage and 2.59 GAA in 27 games last year, Huska’s save percentage fell to .896 this season while his goals against average ballooned to 3.34, resulting in just 21 games played as he lost starts to impressive freshman and Nashville Predators draft pick Tomas Vomacka. In fact, it was Vomacka in net last night for the big win. Most likely, the Rangers’ brass saw Huska losing the starting job to Vomacka next season and agreed to sign him to his first pro contract and thus control his usage at the ECHL level next season. If instead he does push for AHL time right away next season, he will ironically be right back in the same arena he played at with UConn, also shared by the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Despite some struggles, there is still reason to believe that Huska is an encouraging prospect for New York. A seventh-round draft pick out of Slovakia in 2015, Huska went on to be one of best goalies in the USHL the following season, being named Goaltender of the Year. He has also represented Slovakia several times at the World Junior Championships, gaining that invaluable experience against some of the best young players in the world. At 6’4″, 227 lbs., Huska has great size and athleticism. The fundamentals of his game need improvement and he will almost certainly spend several years in the minors before becoming an option in the NHL, but under the tutelage of the Rangers’ staff, Huska could see immediate improvement. He will have to work hard to earn recognition among a mountain of young goalies in the pipeline, including current backup Alexandar Georgiev, KHL star Igor Shestyorkin, UMass-Lowell standout Tyler Wall, and recent second-round pick Olof Lindbom, but it says a lot that the Rangers were willing to rush Huska out of the NCAA and into the pros.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had a chance to clinch a playoff spot last night on the first Thursday in March. While it didn’t go their way, the Bolts are undoubtedly going to be the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are well on their way to a President’s Trophy with a 15-point lead on the next-best team in the league. That next team up is the Boston Bruins, who are second only to Tampa in both the NHL and within their own Atlantic Division. Riding an 18-game point streak, the Bruins’ playoff position is also in little doubt. The Toronto Maple Leafs, currently holding a top-five record in the league, are on pace to finish third in their own division and without home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Boston and Toronto seem destined to meet in that opening round, with the winner likely getting Tampa Bay as their reward for moving on.
As frustrating as the current playoff format may be for the Leafs – as well as the Bruins and Lightning – at least the three teams know where they stand in the postseason structure with a month to go in the regular season. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders. Just eight points separate the New York Islanders, the current Metropolitan Division leaders, from the Columbus Blue Jackets, presently in ninth in the East and on the outside of the playoff picture, in the standings. Between the two are three more Metropolitan teams, as well as the Atlantic’s Montreal Canadiens. With all six of these competitors struggling to pull away from the rest of the group, it could be that each team’s schedule down the stretch determines where they end up by the end of the regular season. Three divisional spots and two wild card spots are up for grabs; who has the luck of the schedule on their side?
According to the strength of schedule numbers released by the NHL this morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ opposing points percentage of .555 is the most favorable of the group. That’s not to say the Pens face an easy slate, though. Pittsburgh faces eight current playoff teams in their final 15 games, not including tomorrow night’s tilt against Columbus, but end the year with a nice stretch that includes a home-and-home against the lowly Red Wings and a final match-up against the Rangers. The experienced Penguins team is a safe bet to stay in the playoff picture, especially if they can get healthy on the back end.
The Montreal Canadiens have a similarly easy schedule, a .575 opposing points percentage, but with a dramatically different ending. Fighting for just one of two wild card spots, the Habs will face eight current playoff teams themselves, again not including a game against the Blue Jackets, but only three of those contests are within their next nine games. Montreal may get a nice boost over the next couple of weeks, but face a daunting final stretch; Columbus, Winnipeg, Tampa, Washington, and Toronto await them in their final five games. How they fare against those Cup contenders could determine whether they make or miss the postseason.
With just seven current playoff teams on the schedule from here on out, not including two run-ins with Columbus, the New York Islanders are in good shape with a .567 opposing points percentage. The team also avoids any road trips of longer than two games for the rest of the season. While a regular season finale against the Capitals could prove critical, the Islanders look as if they should be able to hold on to their playoff spot. The health of Robin Lehner could be a game-changer, though.
Things have not gone as expected since Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets went all out at the trade deadline. The team sits outside of the playoff picture currently, two points back of the final wild card spot, and there is no guarantee that things will get better. The Jackets have a .581 opposing points percentage, including ten games against current playoff teams, and play just six of their final 15 games at home. Perhaps the one saving grace will be trips to Buffalo, the Rangers, and Ottawa in three of their last four games, but Columbus has their work cut out for them.
The Carolina Hurricanes have a similarly tough schedule, but benefit from having a game or two in hand on their playoff berth competition. In their final 16 games, the ’Canes will face opposition with a .586 points percentage, ten of which are playoff teams. They also have three sets of back-to-back games remaining. However, with the cushion of extra games and dates with the Devils and Flyers to round out the year, the red-hot Hurricanes are on pace to erase their league-worst nine-year playoff drought.
Finally, there are the defending champs. The Washington Capitals not only have the most difficult remaining schedule in the East’s wild card race, but in the entire NHL. At a .599 opposing points percentage, the Caps are about to go through the ringer in their final 15 games. Ten playoff teams are on the docket for Washington, including three games against the powerhouse Lightning and five playoff teams among their final six competitors. Fortunately, the team does play more than half of their remaining match-ups at home, but there’s little else to find comfort in. If any team in this race is at risk of a dramatic fall from their current playoff position, it is the Capitals, especially if the extra work of last year’s Stanley Cup run starts to catch up to them down the stretch.