Hey Jeff Gorton, Don't Malhotra Lias Andersson

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Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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“With the seventh overall selection in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, the New York Rangers are proud to select…”

Over the past 20 years, the Rangers have picked in the top ten of the NHL Entry Draft only six times. Their highest selection was fourth overall, followed by a sixth, two chances at seventh and two at tenth. Five of those players are a who’s who of “who?” if you aren’t a Rangers’ fan and a source of frustration if you are.

1998 – Manny Malhotra (C) – 7th Overall
1999 – Pavel Brendl (LW) – 4th Overall
2002 – Dan Blackburn (G) – 10th Overall
2004 – Al Montoya (G) – 6th Overall
2010 – Dylan McIlrath (D) – 10th Overall

The sixth pick is Swedish center Lias Andersson who was the Rangers’ choice at the seventh spot in the 2017 draft, a selection they secured as part of the compensation received from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for center Derek Stepan.

Many articles have been written about why each of the previous five top ten first round drafted options has failed to deliver the value expected from where they were selected. From injury to overreach, even to pure statistical probability, there are very clear reasons that the Rangers have failed to find top level talent in what is the juiciest portion of the draft.

One of these players is not like the others, though. Manny Malhotra played in 991 regular season games in the NHL. If it was guaranteed to you that Lias Anderson would match that number, you would be a fool not to jump at the deal. Yet Malhotra is largely seen as a bust, and there is a very clear reason why that is the case.

Malhotra was never projected to be a dynamic scorer but did have 50 point expectations along with strong two-way play and as an ace in the defensive zone. That sounds an awful lot like what we have been hearing about Lias Andersson.

Over the last 20 years, only 56 other forwards have skated in as many games as Malhotra. Yet he is second to last in total regular season points (295) and P/GP (0.30) ahead of only noted tough guy Chris Neil in both categories. Malhotra is also in a three-way tie along with Shane Doan and Jason Arnott for the 14th best draft position in that group. His 295 career regular season points are less than half of the next lowest total of those taken above him, that of David Legwand (618), who is also considered a bust. Of the next 15 players selected with equal or later picks, Radek Dvorak, taken 10th overall with 563 points is next closest to Malhotra’s totals.

Hockey’s Future at the time called the selection of Malhotra a steal for the Rangers.

http://www.hockeysfuture.com/articles/351/manny_malhotra_rangers_catch_a_steal

As the draft grew closer the Rangers had their sights set on a center, a big center with allot [SIC] of upside. Unfortunately, their top choices David Legwand and Manny Malhotra were ranked second and sixth respectively. Most experts actually expected them to go second and third. The Rangers chance to draft a big time center was slim. But something happened on that hot June day, somehow to the Rangers surprise Malhotra fell into their laps.

This was not a case where management hubris had the Rangers’ reaching for a pick who the scouts and pundits had much lower in their rankings. They got the player they wanted at or ahead of the position he was supposed to go in. Malhotra was not hampered by injuries over the majority of his career, even as he did suffer an eye injury prior to his final few NHL seasons that reduced his role on his team even further. That role was already limited over the course of his career, where he never managed to be much more than a third or fourth line center.

That was certainly not the hope of the New York Rangers when calling his name in the seventh spot. They clearly were banking on him becoming one of their top centers of the future. Unfortunately, that future came much too early. In the 1998/99 season, the team was facing a stark reality that they had an enormous void at center. To start the year, an aging Wayne Gretzky was in his final NHL season and the Rangers had yet to re-acquire Petr Nedved from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That left Malhotra in his draft year along with second-year pivot Marc Savard, who had played in 28 games and put up six points the previous season, competing for the second line center position. Both young players would fail and the Rangers team would find themselves last in the league, forcing then general manager Neil Smith to trade for Nedved in late November. That pushed Malhotra to a bottom six spot, a role he never managed to escape over his NHL career. He was in and out of the lineup the following season, one in which he would have been much better served to get regular minutes at the AHL level.

The 2017/18 Rangers do not have nearly the same void at center. While they do not possess a true number one, they have some hopes to fill that spot between Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes. If Andersson makes the team in the same year as his draft, he will not face the lofty expectations that Malhotra did. However, he will find himself in a different role than what he’s been used to. Barring injury to Zibanejad or Hayes, rather than being depended on as a top center, he will be filling out either the third or the fourth line. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault is known for taking his time with young players until he can trust them. That may mean a couple of seasons where Andersson is placed in a position where he is not counted on for offense, something that could stifle the Swedish forward’s production. One saving grace there is the Rangers’ depth on the wing. Unless he is pushed back to the fourth line, he’ll likely pivot two talented wingers.

Still, there is a risk here. Rushing an 18-year-old player to the NHL, not because they are necessarily ready, but because you have a hole to fill can backfire. Whether a coach expects too much or protects too often, the player is not brought along through the normal development path. For all but the top young players, that path is to prove themselves at the AHL level or in a top European league, take a spot through camp and then hold onto it as others nip at their heels. The Rangers lack the center depth to provide that kind of competition, though. The players likely pushing Andersson would be UFA reclamation project David Desharnais and 23-year-old former second round selection Cristoval “Boo” Nieves. Neither is a lock for the team at this point, although Desharnais’ experience likely gives him an inside track. There is also the option of switching J.T. Miller back over to center, however, Miller has finally started to produce more consistently so that change may be ill advised.

Perhaps it all works out in the end and Andersson becomes what Malhotra should have been, a quality two-way second line center with some offensive upside. Maybe that happens because Rangers’ management heeds the cautionary tale Malhotra provides and ease Andersson along as he likely should be. Or he does seize the opening, the Rangers’ top two centers of the moment remain healthy and Andersson shows he belongs. What can not happen is for the Rangers’ to repeat the same history we have seen for the last 20 years among their top ten draft picks, another young player never fulfilling his potential, for whatever reason.

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