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Prospect rankings reveal bright future

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Rangers 2008 draft pick Derek Stepan, rated No. 16 among the Future Watch top 50 NHL prospects, has impressed scouts with his outstanding hockey sense and remarkable ability to stay calm under pressure.
Prospects' 2009-10 Statistics

Stepan Game-by-Game Breakdown
Wolf Pack Game-by-Game Review
Kreider Game-by-Game Breakdown

By Dan David,

Since it was first published 16 years ago, the annual Hockey News Future Watch Top 50 Prospects list has grown into one of the best predictors of which drafted players are going to star at the NHL level.

The list has a simple goal -- to identify the very best prospects yet to enter the NHL. Each year, a wide range of scouts and NHL front-office executives are extensively polled in helping The Hockey News editors arrive at their final Top 50.

The Future Watch list has always been widely respected in the hockey world, but its value has surged since the 2003-04 season, when selection methods were adjusted to include representation from all 30 NHL teams, rather than just a dozen or so.

Prior to 2004, no Future Watch 50 list had ever produced more than 36 players who actually became NHL regulars. The numbers were even more impressive for 2005, because a remarkable 45 of the 50 players listed just five years ago are now NHL regulars, including superstar Alex Ovechkin, who was ranked No. 1.

Each Top 50 list produced since the 2005 masterpiece is already on track to meet or exceed the standard set that year. That's good news for the Rangers, who are extremely well-represented on the 2010 list. Blueshirts hopefuls in this year's Future Watch Top 50 are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Rangers prospects that played outside the NHL in 2009-10, and all three are poised to be playing key roles at Madison Square Garden in the years to come.

Take a look at top 50, and the Rangers draft picks jump right out at you. The Blueshirts have three players in the top half of the list, tying them with the Phoenix Coyotes for the most prospects in the Top 25.

Leading the Future Watch parade is 19-year-old Derek Stepan, the captain of Team USA's 2010 World Junior Championship gold-medal squad and the leading scorer for 2010 NCAA finalist Wisconsin. The Badgers sophomore is No. 16 on Future Watch, making him the highest-ranked Rangers prospect since Marc Staal landed at No. 6 three years ago.

Stepan, a center, was picked in the second round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, right after the Blueshirts chose defenseman Michael Del Zotto. The son of former Rangers draft pick and prospect Brad Stepan, Derek didn’t receive much pre-draft fanfare, but he has been making a lot of noise in the college ranks, where he went from 33 points as a freshman at Wisconsin to 54 points this past season.

It’s impossible to mention Stepan these days without stirring memories of his performance at the 2010 World Junior Championship tournament in Saskatchewan. In a true coming-out party, Stepan led the entire field in scoring with four goals and 10 assists, making him the first Rangers draft pick to win a World Junior scoring race since Doug Weight in 1991.

Stepan was not included in the 2009 Future Watch, and his remarkable rise to No. 16 this year is largely due to all the heads he turned at the World Juniors. Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ Director, Player Personnel, was particularly happy to see Stepan use the big stage to establish himself as one of the top prospects.

"When you're talking about the World Junior, you're talking about a high-intensity atmosphere that has the best players in the world in terms of the next group of guys that are coming into the NHL," said Clark. "I would say that (World Junior performance) really bumped him up on there on the Future Watch ranking. Everybody knows this tournament is the hardest thing to play in. He’s 19 years old, and he was able to go in there and take on the role of captain, which surprised us. We didn’t know he was sort of in that category yet. We knew he was a character kid, but that was a real plus."

Stepan's No. 16 spot in Future Watch is a very good place to be on the list, considering that past No. 16-ranked prospects have included Claude Giroux, Steve Downie, Ryan Kesler, Martin Havlat and Saku Koivu.

Clark said Stepan has great potential to succeed at the NHL level because of his style of play. Prior to his scouting career, Clark was a Boston Bruins assistant coach, and watching Stepan stirs some vivid memories.

"He just consistently comes up with big plays," Clark said of Stepan. "He’s like Craig Janney or Adam Oates. These guys were considered play-makers first and shooters second. I’ve said this before, and I don’t want to put that tab on him of comparing him to anyone specific, but the reason I say he’s like them is because at any time in a game, players like that can make a play for a goal. They are that good. And when everybody else is wired up and intense and running around, these are the coolest, calmest guys.

"I remember yelling and screaming at Janney and Oates at different times to shoot the puck, and then all of a sudden they’d make this pass to Cam Neely or somebody else, and it would be in the net. And I’d think to myself, 'Oh, yeah, I guess I didn’t see that.' ... Stepan is just so calm. He just never gets in that panic mode. When you’re calm like that, you can usually find somebody that’s open."

After starring in the Ontario Hockey League as a major-junior rookie, Rangers prospect Evgeny Grachev made the jump to spend the season as a 19-year-old in the American Hockey League, and gained valuable North American pro experience.
Five spots behind Stepan, at No. 21, is another up-and-coming center in Evgeny Grachev, the 2008-09 OHL Rookie of the Year who spent this past season with the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack. He has impressive historical company in his No. 21 ranking, since past Future Watch No. 21 players have included T.J. Oshie, Travis Zajac, Andrei Kostitsyn and Brooks Orpik.

Grachev was one of only two Rangers prospects to play all 80 games in Hartford this season, and he finished with 12 goals and 16 assists.

"He was a 19-year-old boy playing in the American Hockey League," said Clark. "Some people don’t understand how hard it is to play there. If he had been back in junior, he would have been on every power play and he’d have been a 50-goal scorer this season. He hardly played on the power play in Hartford, because there were older players who were better and more experienced. I’m sure that was frustrating for him, but his youth was the story this season. This No. 21 ranking is telling you something more about his future."

Grachev was the first of two Rangers third-round draft picks in 2008. He would have gone much higher in the draft, but teams were concerned that he might remain in his native Russia rather than pursue and NHL career. Rangers scouts, however, knew better and gained what might have been the very best value selection in the entire 2008 draft. Clark refers to Grachev today as “one of the best third-round picks ever made”.

Due to rules that prevent most major-junior players from entering the AHL before they turn 20, few players Grachev's age get the opportunity to spend a full season at the pro level. Like Artem Anisimov before him, however, Grachev was not drafted by a major-junior team until after the NHL draft and was therefore exempt from these restrictions. Thus, the 20-year-old Grachev will enter the Rangers' main training camp this fall with a big experience advantage over most players his age.

At No. 22 on Future Watch is forward Chris Kreider, the Rangers' 2009 first-round draft pick who just completed his freshman season at Boston College and helped the Eagles to the NCAA crown. He was further honored after the season when USA Hockey selected him to represent his country at the 2010 IIHF World Championship tournament, which begins Friday in Germany. Kreider is the only college player on Team USA.

Although Kreider was a key player in BC's run to the title, picking up most of his 15 goals and 26 points in the second half of the season, he enjoyed his finest moments at the World Junior Championship, where he tied for the U.S. team lead with six goals and led the squad with three power-play tallies.

Kreider was fortunate to earn his spot on the U.S. World Junior team, since he had suffered an injury in early November and was younger than most of the other college players on the squad. A pair of weekend home games against Vermont in mid-November helped to turn his season around and all but guaranteed his spot on the World Junior team. Blueshirts legend Mark Messier, special assistant to Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather, happened to see Kreider in the first of those two games on Nov. 14.

"I told Mark Messier I wasn’t sure what he would see in Kreider since it was his first game coming off a concussion," Clark recalled. "Kreider was sort of playing on the fourth line because he had just come back. They went on to beat Vermont pretty easily that night. There was a play in the neutral zone where Krieder was sort of behind everybody, and the puck just shot ahead over to the left wing and by the time everybody just looked in that direction he was gone. He was right on top of it, and he beat everybody. He went in and made a beautiful, power move on the goaltender. Mess clearly saw the raw ability there."

The day after Messier saw Kreider, USA Hockey officials visited Boston for the Eagles' Nov. 15 game against the Catamounts.

Rangers 2009 first-round draft pick Chris Kreider celebrated the 2010 NCAA title as part of his dream season. Ranked No. 22 on the Future Watch Top 50 list, Kreider earned perhaps his greatest honor when he was named to Team USA for the upcoming World Championship tournament in Germany.
"Vermont was up 3-1 and it wasn’t looking very good for BC, but they moved Kreider up to another line," said Clark. "There was a loose puck in their zone that went from one side of the ice to the other. Kreider was on top of it so fast, and passed it to a guy in the slot for the goal that cut the lead to 3-2. Once he did that, they started playing him more and more and more in that game even though he was just starting to come back."

Kreider, who turns 19 on Friday, is a remarkably gifted teen who can take over a game with his natural talent. He scored a highlight-reel goal coming out of the penalty-box during the 2010 Beanpot Tournament, which Boston College also won.

"He’s definitely got the individual flair about him," Clark said of Kreider, who was drafted after an impressive prep-school career at Phillips Andover. "Before this season, he never really had to play a team game. He was so dominant. He just went and got the puck anytime he felt like it. Now he’s learning more about the team game. He’s learning there are positions you’ve got to play."

By the end of the 2009-10 championship season, Kreider was one of the top offensive producers for BC, even though he saw little or no time on the Eagles power play. Despite being one of the youngest players on the ice in every game he played, Kreider scored six goals in a seven-game stretch in February, and he picked up a goal and two assists in the last two games of the Hockey East championships.

"He got a major-league goal in the first Hockey East (semifinal) game. The next day he got two assists, driving the net. He took everybody with him, and the other guys got the goals," said Clark. "I think he will probably always have more goals than assists, but he’s very capable of making the plays. He hasn’t really played above the third or fourth line yet in college. In the World Junior, he was in front of the net on the power play. He’s very capable of making plays. You watch him go around the ice, and he moves it. He’s very underrated as far as how he moves the puck to the right guy at the right time."

His high Future Watch ranking puts Kreider in the company of some other big-time players who landed at No. 22 on the list. Past No. 22 players include Niklas Kronwall, Mike Komisarek and Ryan Miller.

Having three Rangers prospects among the top 22 Future Watch players is a first. Prior to this spring, the Blueshirts’ highest-ranked trio came in 1995, when Corey Hirsch was No. 9, Niklas Sundstrom was No. 15, and Mattias Norstrom was No. 24. This also marks the first time since 1995 that the Rangers have had back-to-back years of three or more players on the list, following a threesome of Grachev (19), Del Zotto (32) and Anisimov (48) in 2008.

The future Rangers’ rankings on the Future Watch List are particularly considering where New York has selected in the entry draft. The No. 10 overall pick at this year's draft will be the team's highest in six years.

In addition to its annual list of the Top 50 prospects, The Hockey News has ranked all NHL teams' overall crop of young players in every year since 1993. This season, the Blueshirts placed fifth overall among the 30 NHL teams -- their best finish in 15 years since a No. 2 ranking in both 1994 and 1995.

Clark attributes the Rangers' impressive rise in the Future Watch ranking to an overall maturity of the scouting staff. Over the past few years, the scouts have raised their game not only as individuals but as a cohesive group.

"This is sort of my team, and my team is no different than Glen’s team in the sense that you need to find out and get a read on the strengths of each scout," said Clark. "Some are very good at pinpointing skating. Some are very good at pinpointing toughness or skill. Not everybody is the same, and it’s a matter of getting to really know them. And then it’s especially learning how to identify where the talent is. … In Kreider’s draft year, I think I had five different guys go in to look at him at different times so they could see what he was going to give them on that particular night.”

The fifth-place ranking is even more impressive considering that the Rangers jumped all the way from No. 16 in 2009 and had not had a top 10 ranking in nine years.

"We all experience some downers when someone we thought was going to be a player doesn’t make it, but it’s also exciting when something like this (Future Watch) comes along and recognizes us as a staff," said Clark. "I am pretty proud of our scouting staff to have moved up in the ranking into the five spot, but we want to keep going and we want to do better.”
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