If you’re a hockey fan, there’s only one game left in the town.
The Stanley Cup Final between the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning is ongoing, but all of the other professional leagues and various junior levels around the globe have entered their summer vacation.
For prospects with dreams of one day making it to the NHL, this is the time to evaluate their development and map out ways to improve. And while the New York Rangers have graduated several of their top young talents in recent years, there are still plenty vying for future roles.
Two who have forced their way into the conversation for next season were prominently featured on the Ontario Hockey League all-star team that was announced Tuesday.
Brennan Othmann is right at the top of that list. The 2021 first-round pick was named as the first-team left winger after finishing second in the league with 50 goals and accumulating 97 points across 66 games. He added 24 points (nine goals and 15 assists) in 19 playoff games while captaining the Flint Firebirds to the Western Conference Final. Five of his postseason goals registered as game-winners.
His left-handed shot, which Rangers director of player development Jed Ortmeyer called “elite,” is a signature trait. He used it frequently, averaging 4.39 shots on goal per game, but scouts also rave about his offensive IQ and competitiveness. The Rangers believe they have a middle-six winger who will bring scoring punch and some snarl.
Othmann has seemingly proven all there is to prove in the OHL, but is he ready for the jump to the NHL? That’s the question that team president Chris Drury, head coach Gerard Gallant and the rest of the staff will be debating this fall.
A logical next step would be the American Hockey League, but Othmann won’t be eligible to play for the Rangers’ Hartford affiliate next season. Because he’s only 19 (and won’t turn 20 until Jan. 5), they’d be required to send him back to the OHL if he doesn’t make the NHL roster.
Is Will Cuylle ready for the NHL?
That won’t be the case for Will Cuylle, a 2020 second-round pick who came in behind Othmann as the OHL’s second-team left winger.
He turned 20 on Feb. 5 and would be eligible to play for AHL Hartford next season if the Rangers choose to go that route. But he impressed them during last year’s development camp and could push for an NHL spot out right out of the gate.
Cuylle tied for sixth in the OHL with 43 goals this season to go along with 37 assists in 59 games played. He also tied for the league lead with nine game-winning goals and carried that clutch gene into the playoffs, where the captain would propel the Windsor Spitfires to the OHL Championship Series, coming within one win of the title. He finished with 31 points (15 goals and 16 assists) in 25 postseason games.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder can’t match the skill level of Othmann, but his left-handed shot is considered more powerful and almost as effective. Plus, there are no concerns about whether he’s physically ready to handle the NHL. Cuylle’s size, strength and mean streak fuel belief that he’s built to be an effective bottom-sixer who can use his muscle to get to the greasy areas on the ice.
Skating will be his biggest question mark, with Gallant wanting his third and fourth lines to play an in-your-face forechecking style. But Cuylle took on more defensive responsibility this season and became a go-to penalty killer, as evidenced by his three shorthanded goals during Windsor’s playoff run.
Whether it’s right out of training camp or sometime in the near future, the Rangers are going to need prospects such as Othmann and Cuylle to contribute while on their entry-level contracts to help navigate the coming salary cap crunch.
Sorting through a crowded blue line
The same can be said on the blue line, where K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider have already broken through to seize full-time roles.
With Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba already entrenched on the D corps, that means five of the six regular defensemen spots are accounted for. But a competition for the final position is expected this fall.
The leading candidate may be Zac Jones, a 2019 third-round pick who spent almost the full 2021-22 season with Hartford. It took a little while for him settle in, but he ended up leading all Wolf Pack defensemen with 35 points (nine goals and 26 assists) over 52 games played.
Of course, skill and offensive production aren’t the concerns with the 21-year-old. It’s whether or not he’s capable of handling the defensive responsibilities at the highest level, particularly given his slight 5-foot-10, 172-pound frame.
Some of the same questions have been raised about Nils Lundkvist. He was ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the organization entering the 2021-22 season and won the training camp battle to play on the Rangers’ bottom pair. But after 25 NHL games in which he posted just four points (one goal and three assists), they decided to send him to the AHL and never brought him back.
It never fully clicked there, either, with the 2018 first-round pick posting a modest total of 15 points (three goals and 12 assists) in 34 games.
Clearly, Schneider has surpassed the 21-year-old Swede on the organizational depth chart. And given the fact that Jones was more productive with Hartford and shoots from the left side, which is where the Rangers have an opening, it’s fair to wonder if Lundkvist now falls behind him, too.
Matthew Robertson is another left-handed option. He registered only 11 points (one goal and 10 assists) in 65 games with the Wolf Pack, but he’s not expected to be a major point-producer. The 2019 second-round pick is 6-foot-4, fairly mobile for his size and considered more defensively polished, which could make him a sleeper candidate if he has a strong camp.
Don’t be surprised if the competition is dwindled down before we even get to September. Drury knows he can’t fit all of these defensemen prospects into the lineup – including 2019 fourth-round pick Hunter Skinner – and would be wise to use one or two of them in a trade for an impact forward before their value deteriorates.
Dylan Garand emerging
The presence of Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin makes goalie the Rangers’ least-pressing need. But with Alexandar Georgiev expected to change teams this summer, uncovering a reliable backup will be a point of interest.
For next season, expect a cheap, short-term veteran to fill that role. But as far as the prospect pool is concerned, it’s clear that Dylan Garand has emerged as the most viable option in the long term.
The 2020 fourth-round pick was recently awarded the 2021-22 Del Wilson Memorial Trophy, which is given annually to the Western Hockey League’s top goalie. This came after tying for the league lead with 34 wins and finishing second with a .925 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average while helping the Kamloops Blazers win a B.C. Division title. He also had earned a spot over more highly touted prospects to start for Team Canada at the World Juniors before the tournament was postponed due to COVID-19.
Garand just turned 20 and is likely a year or two away from being considered NHL ready, but he did sign his entry-level contract in December and is eligible to play for AHL Hartford next season, if that’s the direction the Rangers decide to go.
Interestingly, while Garand finished as a first-team all-star in the WHL’s B.C. Division, the second-team goalie is also a member of the Rangers’ pipeline. Talyn Boyko earned that distinction after going 29-18-2-3 with a .908 SV% and 3.03 GAA.
The 2021 fourth-round pick was traded midseason from the Tri-City Americans to the Kelowna Rockets, where he got an opportunity to start and made noticeable progress. He still has a long way to go in his development, but at 6-foot-7, the Rangers are intrigued by his potential.
Strong sophomore season for Brett Berard
If we’re grouping Garand, Othmann and Cuylle among the fastest risers in the Rangers’ prospect pool, it’s important acknowledge that Brett Berard also belongs in that category.
As a sophomore at Providence College, the 2020 fifth-round pick ranked 26th in the country with 38 points across 36 games. He tied for 16th in goals with 18, making the jump from energetic forechecker to dynamic scorer.
That combination of speed, hustle and skill makes him another enticing possibility for a role as a bottom-six winger, but it won’t be for the 2022-23 season. All indications are that the 19-year-old will return to Providence for his junior season.
A pair of Swedish centers
Another forward from Berard’s draft class also made considerable progress this season.
Oliver Tärnström is flying under the radar while playing overseas, but there have been encouraging signs. The 2020 third-round pick netted 34 points (17 goals and 17 assists) in 31 games with Rögle’s under-20 team, earning a promotion to play at the Swedish Hockey League’s highest level for the playoffs.
The 19-year-old appeared in 11 postseason games for Rögle’s men’s team and contributed three goals, setting himself up for a possible full-time assignment next season.
But while Tärnström’s stock is trending up, another Swedish center prospect has reached a crossroads. The Rangers had high hopes for Karl Henriksson when they selected him in the second round of the 2019 draft, with this season bringing an opportunity to play regularly for Frölunda’s top-level team. But the 21-year-old managed only nine points (three goals and six assists) in 40 regular-season games, with that lack of production likely ruling him out as an NHL option for the time being.
Henriksson did register three points (two goals and one assists) in nine playoff games, but he’ll need a strong bounce-back performance with Frölunda next season to convince the Rangers he should be included in their future plans.
Who’s the top center prospect?
That stagnation opened the door for Ryder Korczak to emerge as the player many would argue is now the Rangers’ best center prospect.
The 2021 third-round pick racked up 79 points (25 goals and 54 assists) while playing in 68 games for the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. He added 13 points (three goals and 10 assists) in 10 playoff games.
The 19-year-old will need to add strength, as he’s currently listed at 5-foot-11 and just 173 pounds, and prove that he can be a capable two-way player. But he’s considered a dynamic playmaker in the middle and won 56.4% of his faceoffs this season.
Despite Korczak’s development, though, center remains the thinnest position in the organizational prospect pool. There aren’t any sure-fire NHLers in the group, leaving it as the only perceived weakness following a five-year period of loading up on draft picks.