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After what has seemed like an eternity the New York Rangers actually have a first-round draft pick this summer! With about a month to go until the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, there are some important decisions to be made. Among them, who do the Rangers eye as their selection with the 21st pick? There are plenty of options to choose from and while this may not be the strongest draft in years it still has its benefits. The great uncertainty surrounding this draft has led to various risers and fallers and that should continue up until draft day. That should allow for some talented players to fall within range of the Rangers’ pick if not directly to them.
With a barren prospect pool, the Blueshirts should be applying a best player available approach in order to restock the currently empty cupboards. Recent acquisitions such as the signings of Neal Pionk and other UDFAs (Undrafted Free Agents) have helped in that regard, but nothing compares to first-round talent. Among some of the talented players that can fall within reach for the Rangers are Timothy Liljegren, Eeli Tolvanen, Kailer Yamamoto, and Erik Brännström.
Timothy Liljegren, RD, Rögle (SHL)
The likelihood of Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren falling to the 21st pick isn’t very high, but he’s without a doubt a player the Rangers should have on their radar. The former contender for the first overall selection has seen his stock plummet throughout the 2016-17 season as a result of missing time to mononucleosis and failing to make Sweden’s U20 WJC team. In addition, his overall play hasn’t seemed to develop incredibly from a very strong 15-16 campaign. Nonetheless, Liljegren is probably one of the best, if not the best defenseman in this draft.
He’s a talented offensive defenseman boasting both creative intelligent puck moving ability that doesn’t make him a liability. He may not be as strong of a skater as fellow 2017 draft eligible defenseman Cale Makar, but he possesses an ability to carry the puck as needed and can use his skating ability as his main weapon defensively. What sets Liljegren apart from the glut of offensive defensemen available in the 2017 draft is his shooting ability. He has both an accurate slapshot and wrist shot that he can use as weapons from the point. Whether it’s slipping his slapshot through legs or sniping one top shelf, Liljegren’s accuracy is deadly and something that can make him a valuable asset.
Defense is not Liljegren’s strong suit. He won’t provide much of a physical game and instead uses smart reads and good stick work to break up plays. He needs to work on handling pressure more effectively, but that is likely to happen as he matures.
Much like Jakob Chychrun, taken 16th overall by the Coyotes in last year’s draft, Liljegren’s fall is a result of a great deal of external factors. He’s still a top-five talent, much like Chychrun, but is unlikely to be drafted that way. If he comes within range of the Rangers pick he might even be worth a move up in the draft to select.
Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Sioux City Musketeers (USHL)
Another player in a similar situation as Timothy Liljegren is Finnish sniper Eeli Tolvanen. The left wing for the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers was also seen as a potential top pick in the draft, but an overall average season didn’t allow him to maintain a steady position in rankings. Standing at 5’10”, size is one of Tolvanen’s “issues,” though a changing NHL landscape is making it far easier for the smaller, faster, and talented to thrive. Organizations and scouts haven’t quite gotten along with that mentality yet as seen by the drop of a similarly sized Clayton Keller, taken 7th overall in 2016, who also came from the USHL through the USNTDP. Tolvanen’s production was however not nearly as dominant as Keller’s and will see him fall to a position where the Rangers might be able to snag him.
Tolvanen is the closest you can get to a pure sniper in this draft. He’s a player whose game should be based on his ability to shoot. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t been set up that way as often as he should have. He possesses a very quick release and a considerably hard shot to go along with it. He can be made dangerous by teeing up on the powerplay at the circle quite like how Nikita Kucherov had frequently done this season. His passing skills aren’t lacking as he’s actually quite talented all around offensively, but his game misses out if he’s not being used effectively. He should be shooting the puck because that’s simply what he does best.
Tolvanen isn’t a defensive star, but he can defend competently. His defense comes mostly in his ability to strip the opposition of the puck. While he doesn’t shy away from physicality, it’s not a staple of the type of game that he brings.
The drafting of Tolvanen would provide the Rangers with a pure goal scorer they’ve lacked since the departure of Marian Gaborík. Like Liljegren, the odds of him falling all the way to 21 aren’t very high. He’s a player that would likely have to be moved up a few picks for, but he’d be well worth the cost.
Kailer Yamamoto, RW, Spokane Chiefs (WHL)
It might be wrong to consider Eeli Tolvanen “small” when there are also players like the 5’9” 160 lb. Kailer Yamamoto available in the draft. It would seem crazy that a 99-point campaign in the WHL at 18 doesn’t get you top-ten consideration, but when you’re as small as Kailer Yamamoto it’s not difficult to figure out why that would be the case.
You need to be very good at Yamamoto’s size to succeed and thus far he’s been just that. He’s incredibly talented in the offensive zone as a playmaker. He seemingly always knows how to make a smart or creative play and has the tools to get it done. His hockey IQ and passing ability are easily his strongest assets. He uses them to his advantage to control play both at even-strength and on the powerplay His 42 goals this past season might lead you to believe that he’s also a goal scorer, but that’s not the part of his game most likely to transition to professional play. He can shoot, but his goals will come from his intelligence and his willingness to go to the dirty areas. Much like the Rangers Mats Zuccarello and Boston’s Brad Marchand, Yamamoto is willing to dig in and be annoying on the forecheck despite his small stature.
He’s surprisingly very good defensively and has spent considerable time on penalty-killing units. In fact, his speed and intelligence allow for him to break up plays and even be a threat shorthanded.
Yamamoto’s effectiveness on either side of the puck at his age and size make him a valuable pick. He’s expected to go in the late teens to early twenties which can put him right in the Rangers lap.
Erik Brännström, LD, HV71 (SHL)
Keeping to the trend of small players, Erik Brännström is a talented player out of HV71 of the SHL that unlike the three previously mentioned players, has seen his stock rise. The young defender from Eksjö found his way onto HV71’s big club after proving that he was very much capable of dominating the J20 SuperElit league in Sweden. A strong performance at the recent WJC U18 might see his stock rise some more, but he should still be available for when the Blueshirts make their selection.
An offensive defenseman, Brännström uses his skating ability as his weapon against the opposition. He has a fluid stride that allows him to deftly carry the puck into the offensive zone and distribute the puck as needed. He comes off as a player that would succeed largely as a powerplay specialist given that he’s quick at getting the puck moving and making sure it spends as much time in the offensive zone as possible. He has a strong slapshot though he favors distributing the puck more, though he does suffer from trying to be too creative and fancy, which can result in turnovers.
Brännström is more ideally a player you’d protect with offensive zone starts simply because his defensive game isn’t up to par. He can be worn down by the opposition and his at times questionable decision making can sometimes make him a defensive liability. He’s capable of playing with a bit of an edge, but that ultimately takes him away from his game and makes him less effective.
If the Rangers are looking to add a player that can potentially lead their offense from the backend in a few years, Erik Brännström could be their man. The recent success of undersized defensemen could pave the way towards a successful career for him if utilized properly.
Who Do They Pick?
I think it might be too early to say who they definitely pick given that we haven’t had the combine and pre-draft interviews yet, but if I were part of the Rangers scouting staff I’d think Tolvanen or Yamamoto would make strong selections. The current defense might be in need of work, but the addition of Liljegren or Brännstöm doesn’t readily fix that and you already have a pipeline of defensemen being developed with players such as Sean Day, Vince Pedrie and Neal Pionk. The team actually isn’t as in desperate need of puck movers as it is talented forwards. With the graduation of Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey to the big club, the Rangers are without any talent up front. Ryan Gropp might have what it takes given his resurgent performance this season for the Seattle Thunderbirds, but that was all done as an overage player in the WHL. Adding Tolvanen or Yamamoto just makes sense because they’d instantly fill a hole as the top player in the Rangers system in a position of need. Both also have potential to be key contributors on offense and the Rangers could use some purer offensive players at forward.