STAMFORD, Conn. -- Everything was being packed up on Friday afternoon, all the gear and the sticks, and the Rangers' prospects were saying goodbye to one another, for now. Some were heading out to the airport to catch a flight home, others shoring up plans for offseason workouts together in the coming weeks. Either way it was the end of something on Friday, but for the five days leading up to it this week, a group of 37 Rangers prospects filled a rink in southern Connecticut with the palpable sense that these kids have only just begun.
The Blueshirts' future was out on display this week at the 2019 Rangers Prospects Development Camp, and the future looks bright. There was Kaapo Kakko skating in a Rangers uniform for the first time, and while he was a fan favorite as soon as he was chosen No. 2 overall in last week's NHL Draft, he only endeared himself more to the Blueshirts faithful by his on-ice display of talent, and by taking time afterward to sign every autograph, pose for every picture. Igor Shesterkin was debuting in Rangers colors, too - he saved his best for last in Friday's scrimmage when he got across his goal crease to make a sprawling save against a 2-on-none break. Vitali Kravtsov, 19 years old and the team's top pick in 2018, was impactful on nearly every shift he took in his second go-round at this camp, giving a little window into what his skill mixed with some experience could be like.
And then, in the words of Tanner Glass, the newest member of the Rangers' Player Development group: "If you look down the down the list, we have some guys that have great potential that could be longtime NHLers. So as an organization, we're excited about the level of play here at the camp."
"Players are so good here," Kakko said on Thursday. "Fast. I like it."
Among the 37 prospects who took the ice at the five-day camp, four of them were drafted in the first round in the past 12 months alone: Kakko, Kravtsov, K'Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. Those last three have been through this camp once before, and could feel something akin to veteran status amongst a group of players just hoping to be NHL rookies someday soon.
"I loved it at camp this year," Miller, the 19-year-old rising sophomore defenseman at Wisconsin, said on Friday. "There's a lot of high-end skill, so it made the scrimmages and practices really competitive. This was a really good experience.
"Being one of the youngest guys here last year, now stepping into kind of a role where I can't use my age as an excuse anymore, that was a good experience. I'm happy with how I played this week."
Kravtsov - whose 21 points in 50 games for Traktor Chelyabinsk this past season led all KHL players under 20 years of age - had every reason to be happy with how he played at this camp, too, but when asked for a self-assessment, he politely declined. "It's not questions for me. It's for coach," he said. "But it's pretty fun."
The Head Coach, David Quinn, took the ice to speak to the prospects and run some drills at the end of Thursday's session, but most of the time he kept a close eye on the proceedings from a perch in the bleachers - right along with the Season Ticket Members and fans who made the prospects' scrimmages a standing-room-only affair at the North Rink at Chelsea Piers Connecticut. They all got to witness Kravtsov make a dazzling play during Thursday's session, passing up a shot on a breakaway in order to tee up his trailer on the play, Morgan Barron, with a tap-in goal - to which Barron, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Cornell star, said, "It's pretty easy to see why he's a special player."
Kravtsov, who never seemed to stop smiling this week, said on Friday that he had felt more comfortable at this summer's camp than a year ago, but not for the reason one might guess. "I feel more comfortable because I can speak English with everybody," he said.
Earlier in the camp, General Manager Jeff Gorton had called Kravtsov "an impressive young man on and off the ice," and told reporters: "He obviously came here to show you guys he could speak English, and he wanted to speak to you all in English. I think that says a lot about him, and where he's going. He's come over early, he's been working out with our group over here. I think his eye is on the right thing."
Gorton and the Ranger fans in attendance also got to see Kravtsov's countryman, Shesterkin, make the save of the week on Friday afternoon, using every ounce of push and every inch of wingspan to get his blocker on the 2-on-none try. They watched Adam Fox direct the attack when he had the puck, and last week's second-round pick, Matthew Robertson, look like he and Fox had been D partners before. And they saw Nick Jones, the center from University of North Dakota now on an AHL contract with Hartford, score a goal in every single session, then put an exclamation point on the week with a mesmerizing set of dekes on his penalty-shot goal.
"He's just a goal scorer," Jake Elmer said of his Hartford teammate. "That's what he can do." (Elmer, who scored 39 times in 68 games for WHL Lethbridge last season, had a couple of his own this week, including the opening goal of Friday's session.)
But what the prospects got to do together away from the rink made for some of their best memories of the week - their tour of Yankee Stadium and tickets to Tuesday's Yanks-Blue Jays game was a highlight for many. But that's because they went as a group, and the camaraderie here this week was obvious to anyone.
Kravtsov said that once they all split up after camp he is looking forward to "sometimes text and Instagram with those guys."
"I have new friends," Kravtsov said with, naturally, a smile.
Of course, it is well understood that these prospects were here this week to pursue their professional dreams, and that that pursuit could place them in direct competition with one another. It's why Barron called this "a nice little break in the middle of the offseason, but you're playing some real hockey. … Everybody here wants to put their best foot forward."
"Comparing myself to some of these other guys, I still have a lot to work on to stay at this level," Miller said. He was due to fly back to Wisconsin on Friday night, so he could get right back to work Monday morning: "Just practicing hard in Wisconsin, and just making it to the next level.
"Still room for improvement," Miller said, as the locker room around him emptied out on 2019 Rangers Prospect Development Camp. "Still growing. So we'll see."