Rangers Prospects Q&A: What to Watch for at Traverse City

Labor Day has come and gone and the NHL season is now closer than ever.

And with the Traverse City Prospect Tournament under way, we had a chance to chat about the young Rangers with Steve Kournianos, the NHL Draft Analyst for thedraftanalyst.com and previous guest on MSG Networks’ People Talking Hockey.”

MSGNetworks.com: We’ll get into the Rangers’ Traverse City Roster, but first, a word about the team’s first-round draft picks in the 2018 NHL Draft. The team selected Vitali Kravtsov, Nils Lundkvist and K’Andre Miller with their picks, with the biggest discussion point being the Blueshirts’ choice of taking Kravtsov 9th overall over Oliver Wahlstrom, who went to the Islanders at No. 10.

What can you tell us about the trio?

Vitali Kravtsov - New York Rangers
New York Rangers Right Wing Vitali Kravtsov (74) skates during the New York Rangers Prospect Development Camp on June 29, 2018, at the MSG Training Center in New York, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Steve Kournianos: Well, the Rangers clearly did their homework on Kravtsov, who many believed was a Top-10 pick, but may have been scared off by his commitment to Chelyabinsk in the KHL. His outstanding postseason as a teenager in an elite league like the KHL showed that he’s capable of producing quality shifts against older competition. Plus, his dominant performance at last month’s under-20 Four Nations Tournament in Sweden cemented his standing as one of the NHL’s top forward prospects. Kravtsov has the potential to be a game-breaker for many years to come.

Like Kravtsov, Miller has both the size and the ability to change the momentum of a game, albeit from the blue line and with controlled, poised play. The defenseman is an excellent skater for his size, and there were stretches last season where he was the NTDP’s most reliable puck mover. Nonetheless, he’s a converted forward, so Miller will have to iron out his overall defensive game when he suits up for head coach (and former Ranger) Tony Granato at the University of Wisconsin. Miller has top-pairing upside and his impact on the Badgers’ back end should be immediate.

Lundkvist also is a defenseman, but one with a different skillset than Miller. He’s quick and aggressive with the puck, and his ability to identify plays before they unfold made him stand out as a 17-year-old rearguard playing in Sweden’s top league against experienced competition. You can classify Lundkvist as a playmaker and puck-mover, but his step-ups and reads in the neutral zone without the puck usually stopped opposing rushes before they turned into anything significant.

[Kournianos Q&A: How Blueshirts Restocked the System]

MSGNetworks.com: Looking at the Traverse City roster, the star names that stick out have got to be the two 2017 first-round picks, Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil. Both players made their NHL debuts last season and could be in the lineup on Opening Night. What were your thoughts on their progression last year?

Steve Kournianos: The Rangers at the 2017 draft addressed a critical organizational need by taking centers Andersson and Chytil with their two first-round picks, and the duo rewarded them with excellent debut seasons in North America. Chytil spent most of the season with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford after nearly making the parent club out of camp, and his production as a first-year teenager (31 points in 46 games) earned him a late-season promotion. His size, puck skills, 200-foot play and acute hockey sense earmark him as a potential top-line center, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he spends most of the year with the Rangers.

Andersson also is a three-zone center who did well as an AHL rookie, producing 14 points in 25 games after joining the Wolf Pack following a productive half-season with Sweden’s Frolunda Indians. He’s been billed as a winner and a battler, and Andersson’s maturity and competitive fire should one day make life easy for head coach David Quinn, who can summon Andersson to tackle any situation regardless of the score or time on the clock.

MSGNetworks.com: Are there any names that Ranger fans might not be familiar with on the Traverse City roster that they should keep an eye on during the tournament?

Steve Kournianos: WHL-trained forwards Jakob Stukel and Reese Johnson, respectively, have dealt with significant injuries that slowed down their junior careers — Stukel had knee issues and Johnson had surgery to repair both his shoulders. Yet still, both players play with a lot of energy, physicality and provide intangibles. Although Stukel’s junior career is over because of his age, Johnson recently was named the captain of the Regina Pats for the upcoming season and should see more ice time following the graduation of several notable prospects.

Neither player needs extra motivation to play hard and leave it all out on the ice, but the lure of an NHL contract certainly should make their play at Traverse City stand out.

Jakob Stukel #10 of the Calgary Hitmen in action against the Lethbridge Hurricanes during a WHL game at the Scotiabank Saddledome on October 15, 2017, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

MSGNetworks.com: Finally, looking at the Rangers farm system as a whole, are there any unheralded players you think could surprise and become breakout stars in the future?

Steve Kournianos: I think both Joey Keane and Nico Gross have legitimate potential to be impact players at the highest level – Keane for his skating and playmaking, and Gross for his controlled, reliable play. Gross was expected to be one of the better defense prospects for the 2018 draft, but a season-long struggle dealing with the ill effects of mononucleosis had a profound impact on his play during his draft season. I expect him to have a bounce-back season with the Oshawa General of the OHL.

[Follow Steve Kournianos on Twitter @TheDraftAnalyst]