Over the last few seasons, the New York Rangers have worked hard to stockpile their developmental system with steady defensemen. Fedor Tyutin, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have been the first players to make the jump to the NHL, and another group is ready to follow.
There also is an interesting group of forwards that could add depth to the big club. While youngsters Brandon Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes have earned full-time NHL jobs, more will be needed to fill roster spots left by prospective free agents Martin Straka, Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery.
At the 2008 Entry Draft, the club focused on finding more players who could develop into top-line forwards.
"We felt that we needed to take a real good look at anybody that has a chance to be in the top two lines someday," said Gordie Clark, the club's director of player personnel. "We felt we have a lot of defensemen that are good, stay-back defense, so we needed to get somebody who could play in the top two lines as a forward, and maybe somebody who could be a top-four defenseman, a puck mover. That's the way the game is going these days."
Alexei Cherepanov -- The Russian right wing slipped to the Rangers at the No. 17 spot in the first round of the 2007 Entry Draft due to the uncertain relationship between the NHL and the European hockey powers.
Playing his second season with Avangard Omsk in the Russian Super League, the 6-foot-1, 183-pound forward had 15 goals and 28 points in 46 games. The previous season, he had 18 goals and 29 points in 47 games.
Cherepanov also had three goals and six points in six games for Russia at the World Junior Championships.
"He had a great World Juniors," Clark said. "That's when he's out there playing against the guys from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Finland, that someday you're going to be playing against in the National Hockey League. He stays at the top of that level when he's at those things."
Don't look for Cherepanov on this side of the Atlantic this season. Clark said he has one year remaining on his Russian contract, and will come to North America next season.
"It (the Russian league) is not as physical as our hockey over here, but it's very skilled," Clark said. "It's a fast-moving, very skilled league, and he manages to continue scoring points in it."
NEW YORK RANGERS
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(5TH eAst/9TH NHL)
|Change from 2006-07||-3|
(2ND eAst/6TH NHL)
(9TH eAst/13TH NHL)
After two seasons playing for Yaroslavl, Anisimov jumped to the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, and put up 16 goals and 43 points in 74 games.
"This kid has made big strides," Clark said. "He made the commitment to come over. He told us when we drafted him he'd come over in a year and he was here in a year. ... He's followed through with everything he said."
As strong as Anisimov's offensive numbers were, the Rangers were just as happy with the rookie's plus-16 rating.
"Right from the very beginning, he was by far one of the players who already knew how to play in his own defensive end, which is very uncommon for young boys to know how to do," Clark said. "We usually have to teach them once they become pros. But he already knew all that stuff."
The 6-3, 190-pound center will be given every chance to win an NHL job in training camp.
"He just needs to learn the hitting part of the game, being hit and taking guys out," Clark said. "That's not part of their game over there (Russia)."
Greg Moore -- Originally drafted by the Calgary Flames in the fifth round of the 2003 draft, Moore was acquired from the Calgary Flames as part of the Blair Betts deal in March 2006.
In his second full season with the Wolf Pack, Moore emerged as a near-certain future Ranger. He finished second on the team with 26 goals (more than triple his rookie output of eight) and 66 points, as well as a plus-27 rating.
"He's going to be one of the guys challenging in camp for a position," Clark said. "He's a guy that just continuously, from college (Maine) made strides and he's made strides his first year as a pro to his second year. He had a great year."
The Rangers certainly like him, as they called him up seven times last season; he was scoreless in six appearances.
A 6-1, 209-pound right-shooting center, Moore played on the top line in Hartford, but might have to move to wing to make the NHL full-time.
"In his whole game, the only thing that's lacking is that they're all bigger and stronger at the NHL level," Clark said. "It's more of a game where you really have to take the guy out. He's got the speed and size, he just has to forecheck and take the man out, and cause turnovers.
"He's got a chance, with his skating and his shot, with the way he showed us he could score this year, the second line isn't out of the question."
Lauri Korpikoski -- The Rangers' first-round pick in 2004 (No. 19), Korpikoski is another player who made great strides from his first to his second pro hockey season in 2007-08. Korpikoski more than doubled his goal total, going from 11 to 23, and his 50 points were an increase from 38 as a rookie. He also finished an encouraging plus-20.
"Maybe we thought there was a little more outright offense in his game, but he's settling in as a guy that's good on both sides of the puck," Clark said. "He's got speed and energy, he can break it open with his speed and drive the net. And then he's very solid defensively, he knows how to play that role. You can't play in the NHL unless you know that part of it."
The Rangers also like the 21-year-old's versatility, which also could earn him an NHL spot as a utility forward next season.
"The good thing about Korpikoski is he's played every forward position -- right wing, center, left wing," Clark said. "He's a very important guy to have."
Derek Stepan -- Stepan had an excellent senior season at Minnesota prep powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary's, tallying 36 goals and 91 points in 54 games.
A 6-foot, 168-pound center, Stepan is an offensive force with highly regarded speed and acceleration. He'll take his game to the University of Wisconsin in the fall.
"He is a kid that we think has a lot of natural skill," Jim Hammett, the club's head amateur scout, told the team's web site. "A quick set of hands and nice combination of speed and creativity with the puck. He's a slight kid right now ... but he's got lots of room to put on weight. The bottom line is he is fast and skilled."
Stepan also is a second-generation Rangers draft pick. His father, Brad, was taken in the fifth round of the 1985 draft, but never made it to the NHL.
Evgeny Grachev -- The expiration of the transfer agreement between the NHL and IIHF likely allowed Grachev to slip to the third round (No. 75) of the 2008 draft.
Rated No. 9 by Central Scouting among European skaters, Grachev is a 6-3, 202-pound power forward who is considered good with the puck in close to the net.
"Evgeny is a power forward with a good physical presence and ability to come up with the puck in traffic areas," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. "He displays strong puck skills and the ability to make plays all over the ice, but needs to improve his acceleration and overall speed."
Grachev had five points in six games for Russia at the Under-18 World Championships, and 13 points in 28 games for Yaroslavl in the Russian junior leagues. He got into one game with Yaroslavl's team in the Russian Super League.
"At the World Under-18 tournament, I thought he was really good," Hammett said. "Any time you see a guy that big who does the things that he does in terms of handling the puck, it's an attractive package. We felt we had to take him."
Grachev has the option of staying in Russia or playing for the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League, which drafted his rights in the CHL import draft.
"We feel confident after talking to him that he really wants to come over to North America," Hammett said. "He's a big, big kid with a nice set of hands and very strong over the puck and is a good skater, so he's got an excellent combination of size, skating and skill."
Dale Weise -- In his third trip through the Entry Draft, the Rangers tabbed the right wing from the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos in the fourth round (No. 111).
The Rangers traded their 2008 seventh-round pick and next year's fourth-round pick to St. Louis to move up and grab the 6-2, 206-pounder.
"Every year there's somebody who's somewhat of a late bloomer, and he's one of them," Hammett said. "He just kept developing this year, and I think that every team is looking for size and a guy who's got a bit of a mean streak and some aggression to him and can play. That's what this guy has to offer."
"I liked probably every part of his game," Clark added. "I've watched him a lot, seen him over the years, and I did a lot of research."
At 20-years-old, Weise can play in the AHL next season, but he also has another year of junior eligibility.
"He looks like he can play in the American League right now," said Clarke.
Chris Doyle -- Doyle was a point-per-game performer last season for the Prince Edward Island Rocket in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Rangers made the 6-foot, 193-pound center their fifth-round pick (No. 141) in June's draft.
Doyle made huge strides in his second season in PEI, jumping from 18 goals and 36 points as a rookie to 27 goals and 63 points in 63 games last season.
"Doyle has a very good skill set to him and a nice, soft set of hands," Hammett said. "From the top of the circles down, he sees the net really well and he's pretty dangerous. He's a good skater and a guy that we drafted for his overall skills and skating."
Bobby Sanguinetti -- The Rangers' first choice in the 2006 Entry Draft (No. 21 overall), Sanguinetti is the team's best defense prospect.
Offensively gifted, Sanguinetti led Ontario Hockey League defensemen with 29 goals last season, and he was second with 70 points. It was the third straight season he finished in the top 10 in scoring among the league's blueliners.
A New Jersey native who grew up with Brian Leetch posters in his room, Sanguinetti has a shot to make the Rangers out of training camp, but needs to show more skill in his own end to make that a certainty. To that end, he's bulked up to 192 pounds on his 6-1 frame, and there's room to add more.
"There's still a few things he's got to work on," Clark said. "The defensive part of his game has come a long way." He was a plus-10 last season with the OHL's Brampton Battalion, and a plus-2 in six late-season games with the Wolf Pack last season.
"We're looking for somebody to be a first power-play guy," Clark said. "If it doesn't work out (with the Rangers), he goes down and he's going to be playing a ton down in Hartford. It's a good stepping stone for him from junior. He'll get a little more work on playing defense in the pro game, but not at the expense of his offense. We want him to take his offense to another level."
Michael Sauer -- The Rangers' 2005 second-round pick (No. 40) had 11 points in 71 AHL games as a rookie, and was a plus-1 in two playoff games before suffering a knee injury that likely will sideline him for at least part of the 2008-09 season.
"I would have been able to tell you a lot more but he had that bad knee injury at the end of the year, just when it was critical," Clark said. "Just when it was coming to a level that it was getting interesting, he got injured and missed the very important part of the schedule, when it's the playoffs and it's do or die and you want to see how a guy plays."
At 6-3 and 206 pounds, the 20-year-old prospect will return to Hartford when healthy and resume his role as one of the Wolf Pack's regulars on the penalty kill.
"As soon as he's able to go, he'll get back to playing that strong defensive game," Clark said.
Michael Del Zotto -- Just like in 2007, a highly regarded prospect slipped to them in the first round of the draft.
One year after grabbing Alexei Cherepanov at No. 17, the Rangers had Del Zotto, a point-per-game defenseman rated No. 15 by NHL Central Scouting, fall into their laps at No. 20.
"We had held this guy in really high regard as far as how high he could go," Hammett said. "We think that he belonged in that upper echelon with some of the other defensemen that went higher, so overall we were absolutely thrilled that he was still there."
Playing with the Oshawa Generals, Del Zotto was third among Ontario Hockey League defensemen with 63 points in 64 games.
While his offensive flair is the strong suit of his game, Del Zotto needs to improve his defensive-zone play. With the club's surplus of young defensemen, the Rangers have no need to rush Del Zotto.
"We feel Michael thinks the game very well in his own zone and we think he's a pretty well-rounded kid who has done a lot of good things with the puck this year," Hammett said.
Tomas Kundratek -- Central Scouting's top-rated Czech available for 2008, the Rangers grabbed the 6-1, 180-pound blueliner in the fourth round (No. 90) with a pick they acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for Alex Bourret.
Kundratek had nine points in 14 games in the Czech junior league with Trinec, and had one assist in 14 games after being promoted to Trinec's team in the top Czech league.
He also had a goal in six games for the Czech team at the World Junior Championships.
"Last year, he (Kundratek) played on the Czech World Junior team as a draft-eligible guy, which is a bit of a rarity and a big compliment," Hammett said. "He's a ... guy who is nowhere near done growing. He's going to be at least a 6-foot-3, 200-pound-plus guy. He's a good skater, has very good poise with the puck and really reads the ice well as far as passing the puck out of his own zone."
Kundratek was taken by the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League in the Canadian Hockey League import draft, and could play in North America next season.
Mitch Gaulton -- Had things gone the right way for Gaulton last season, there's little chance he would have been available for the Rangers when they took him with their last pick, No. 171 overall, in the seventh round, but a dislocated left elbow suffered in October limited him to just seven points in 20 games with the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters.
"Unfortunately he's had some elbow problems (and) he basically missed the whole season, but we had already seen him as an under-ager and in just a handful of games this year," Hammett said. "The background on him is that he has an excellent upside and, unfortunately, the injuries just put him back. He's a big, strong kid that skates well and has a good shot and competes. We're hoping he can get healthy and we'll suddenly have a real diamond in the rough."
Chris Holt -- The Rangers' 2003 sixth-round pick (No. 180), Holt is part of a thin list of goaltending prospects.
He split last season between Charlotte of the ECHL and Hartford of the AHL. He looked good in nine games with the Wolf Pack, going 5-3 with a 2.42 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.
He should compete for a full-time AHL spot in the fall.
Miika Wiikman -- A 23-year-old undrafted free agent signed last summer, Wiikman emerged as the starter in Hartford after Al Montoya was traded in February.
Small at 5-11 and 177 pounds, the Swedish product of Finnish club Hameenlinna went 21-8-3 with a 2.30 GAA and .919 save percentage last season.
Antoine Lafleur -- A teammate of Doyle's at PEI, Lafleur was the club's 2007 second-round pick (No. 48).
After a strong rookie campaign in the QMJHL, Lafleur stumbled last season, going 14-18-1 with a 4.18 GAA; he posted 27 wins and a 2.97 GAA in 2006-07.
The Rangers still have high hopes for the 6-4, 186-pound netminder.
"Antoine moves very well for a big guy, especially up and down," Clark said. "He times his butterfly style well, knows his angles and how to play shots that he is screened on."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.