Hartnett: Rangers Prospects ‘Opening Eyes’ At World Juniors

K'Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist Making A Splash

Sean Hartnett
December 31, 2019 - 12:31 pm

Prior to the 2020 World Juniors, Rangers fans knew plenty about high-potential defensemen Nils Lundkvist and K’Andre Miller. The pair of first-round picks created excitement and buzz with every stride of their development – and that’s continuing on the international stage in the Czech Republic.

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Lundkvist recently recorded two assists in Sweden’s 6-2 victory over Kazakhstan on Monday. Prior to Tuesday’s game against Slovakia, the 19-year-old blue liner began the tournament with three assists in three games.

Miller has proven to be vital to the United States’ progress. He’s averaged a team-leading 19:24 average ice time. The 19-year-old recorded the tying assist in USA’s 4-3 overtime win over the Czech Republic on Monday.

In addition to Miller and Lundkvist, the Rangers boast several additional prospects making a splash at the tournament.

Zac Jones elevated his stock with some fine performances for Team USA. Through three games, the 19-year-old defenseman tallied a goal and an assist while logging 16:30 average ice time.

Karl Henriksson earned Sweden’s Player of the Game honors in the victory over Kazakhstan. The 18-year-old center recorded an assist, while winning seven of 11 face-offs across 14:50 ice time.

As of the filing of this column, Henriksson has added an assist as Sweden opened Tuesday’s contest against Slovakia with a 3-0 lead.

Nico Gross, a 19-year-old defenseman for Switzerland scored in a 5-2 loss to Sweden on Dec. 28.

Looking forward to the Rangers’ future, there’s a deep pool of prospects opening eyes at the World Juniors. It will be interesting how these youngsters fit into the long-term plan given the sheer number of promising youth talents spread across the organization – from the NHL, to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL, to the ECHL’s Maine Mariners, to the NCAA and throughout Europe.

The arrivals of Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, Filip Chytil, Ryan Lindgren, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek and others making the jump to the NHL provided the rebuilding Rangers with a strong wave of youth.

A worst-to-first turnaround in Hartford engineered by head coach Kris Knoblauch will eventually pay off at the NHL level when these prospects that’ve won in the minors reach the NHL.

In his first season behind the Wolf Pack bench, Knoblauch has Hartford leading the Atlantic Division at 18-8-2-5 and 43 points. Vitali Kravtsov, Igor Shesterkin, Yegor Rykov, Joey Keane and others will be better prepared for the NHL than previous generations of Rangers’ youngsters because of the winning culture established in Hartford.

It’s never a problem to have too many high-ceiling prospects, though years of selecting defensemen early at past drafts have created a crowded competition that will play out in the coming years. Looking into the future, a well-stocked situation could allow general manager Jeff Gorton to trade excess youth defensemen for prime-aged forwards who can help the big club.

The intrigue centers around just how the Rangers can fit Miller, Lundkvist, Rykov and other young defensemen into their lineup when they’re ready. Tony DeAngelo is enjoying the season of his life with 28 points through 38 games. Fox has been the Rangers’ best-performing defenseman in his rookie season. Jacob Trouba is on the books through 2025-26 at an average cap hit of $8 million per season – and those players making up the right side.

When you try to put the whole puzzle together, it’s complicated. But again, it’s better to be in a position of surplus youth than not.

Follow Sean on Twitter: @HartnettHockey