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Rangers add six on draft's final day

Team loads up on high-scoring forwards to join Del Zotto

Saturday, 06.21.2008 / 3:26 PM / Prospects Central
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Rangers add six on draft\'s final day
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After picking up highly-rated OHL defenseman Michael Del Zotto with their first-round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft on Friday night, the Rangers returned to the draft table on Saturday to add six more faces to the organization's long-term picture.

Defenseman Tomas Kundratek, NHL Central Scouting's highest-rated skater from the Czech Republic, dons a Rangers sweater for the first time on Saturday.
Coming into the day with picks to make in five of the six remaining rounds, the Rangers managed to add a third-round pick by dealing prospect Alex Bourret to Phoenix. They also reclaimed their own fourth-round pick in a deal that saw a seventh-rounder and next year's fourth-round choice go to the Nashville Predators. The Blueshirts' draft ended with a sixth-round selection, and the team left the draft table with a total of seven new prospects in the fold.

Joining Del Zotto as members of the Rangers' 2008 NHL Entry Draft Class are four forwards and two defensemen. Second-round pick Derek Stepan, a center headed for the University of Wisconsin, led the way on Saturday, as the Blueshirts took him 51st overall.

Following Stepan were the Rangers' two European selections -- Russian center Evgeny Grachev and Czech defenseman Tomas Kundratek. Both were taken in the third round with Grachev going at No. 75 and Kundratev at No. 90. The pick used to draft Kundratev was originally held by Pittsburgh, butit  had been traded to Phoenix before the Coyotes eventually transferred it to the Rangers for Bourret on Saturday.

Rounds 4 through 7 brought players from each of the three Canadian major-junior leagues – right wing Dale Weise of the WHL's Swift Current Broncos at No. 111, center Chris Doyle of the QMJHL's Prince Edward Island Rocket, and defenseman Mitch Gaulton of the OHL's  Erie Otters.

Saturday's final day of the NHL draft took just over four hours to complete, as the 30 NHL teams moved at a much quicker pace than in Friday night's first round.

The Blueshirts finished the draft with three new defensemen and four forwards. The first forward they chose was their second-round pick, Stepan.

Stepan, a 6-foot, 168 pound center from Minnesota, starred for Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in his home state last season by putting up 36 goals and 91 points in 54 games. The school's well-respected hockey program has also produced several NHL players, including Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

Coincidentally, Stepan is the second generation of his family to be drafted by the Blueshirts. His father, Brad, was the Rangers' fifth-round pick in 1985 and remained in the organization through the 1988-89 season, when he was a teammate of Blueshirts legend Mike Richter on the club's IHL affiliate in Denver.

Rangers Head Amateur Scout Jim Hammett said he and his colleagues were well aware of Stepan's family connection to the Rangers but said they would have drafted him regardless of that fact.

"He (Stepan) is a kid that we think has a lot of natural skill – a quick set of hands and nice combination of speed and creativity with the puck," said Hammett. "He's a slight kid right now even though he's tall at 6-1, but he's got lots of room to put on weight. The bottom line is he is fast and skilled.

The younger Stepan was rated lower than his draft spot by some scouting services, but Red Line Report had the foresight to project him as a potential second-rounder. An offensive dynamo, Stepan is described by the scouting services as a strong skater with quick acceleration and outstanding ability as a play-maker. He is also known for his hockey sense and ability to create offense on the fly.

Grachev, the Rangers' first of two third-round picks at No. 75 overall on Saturday, provides even more depth at center and comes from the same Yaroslavl club program that produced current Rangers prospect Artem Anisimov. At 6-foot-3 and 202 pounds, the 18-year-old is often mentioned by scouts for his great size as well as his offensive abilities. He spent much of the year with Yaroslavl's second-division squad, but turned in a remarkable five points in six games at the 2008 World Under-18 Championships.

"I've seen him at a couple of different tournaments. At the World Under-18 tournament I thought he was really good," said Hammett. "Any time you see a guy that big who does the things that he does in terms of handling the puck, it's an attractive package. We felt we had to take him."

The International Scouting Service ranked Grachev the 24th best prospect in the entire draft, noting that he "has all the makings of the ultimate power forward" and "combines all that size and strength with great agility and very strong foot speed." ISS also called Grachev's shot "one of the hardest in the draft" and projects him as a second line center at the NHL level.

Red Line Report was equally high on Grachev, nothing that he has the potential to be a dominating player based on his size and skill. Red Line also projects Grachev as an NHL second-liner.

One major reason why a talent like Grachev slipped down to the 75th pick is concern about the NHL's lack of a transfer agreement with the IIHF and Russian Hockey Federation, as well as the sense that more of today's young Russian players will opt to pursue their pro careers at home. Hammett said that wasn't an issue in the Rangers' view.

"We feel confident after talking to him that he really wants to come over to North America," Hammett said. "He's a big, big kid with a nice set of hands and very strong over the puck and is a good skater, so he's got an excellent combination of size, skating and skill."

Joining the Rangers after Grachev was Kundratek, who was ranked No. 42 by Red Line Report despite lower rankings from other services. Red Line praised Kundratek for his ability to make the first pass out of the zone and play physical hockey along the boards. He is a power-play specialist whom Red Line compares to former Rangers defenseman Karel Rachunek. Kundrated was the highest-rated Czech player in this year's draft, according to NHL Central Scouting.

"Last year he (Kundratek) played on the Czech World Junior team as a draft-eligible guy, which is a bit of a rarity and a big compliment," said Hammett. "He's a 6-foot-2 guy who is nowhere near done growing. He's going to be at least a 6-foot-3, 200-pound-plus guy. He's a good skater, has very good poise with the puck and really reads the ice well as far as passing the puck out of his own zone."

Fourth-rounder Weise, who will turn 20 before the start of this year's training camp, had slipped through two previous drafts before he put up big numbers for Swift Current in 2007-08, including 29 goals in his 53 games. He was particularly impressive in the WHL playoffs, finishing second on the Broncos with seven goals and 13 points in 12 games.

"Every year there's somebody who's somewhat of a late bloomer, and he's one of them," Hammett said of Weise. "He just kept developing this year, and I think that every team is looking for size and a guy who's got a bit of a mean streak and some aggression to him and can play. That's what this guy has to offer."

To draft Weise, the Rangers traded their seventh-round pick and next year's fourth-round selection to Nashville in a deal that brought the No. 111 pick in the fourth round back to its original owners. The Rangers had originally dealt the pick to St. Louis for Christian Backman last February, and the Blues had then traded it to the Predators.

Doyle, the Rangers' fifth-round pick on Saturday, is a junior teammate of Antoine Lafleur, the goaltender drafted by the Rangers in last year's second round, in Prince Edward Island. He also showed a knack for offense, averaging a point per game for the Rocket over 63 games last season before going on to rack up six points in only four playoff games.

Rated No. 50 overall by Red Line Report, Doyle is projected by that publication as a prototypical scoring winger at the NHL. He is noted for his shot off the wing and has a strong desire to get to the net. His game is all about scoring, and Red Line projects he could be a second-line NHL player.

"Doyle has a very good skill set to him and a nice, soft set of hands," said Hammett. "From the top of the circles down, he sees the net really well and he's pretty dangerous. He's a good skater and a guy that we drafted for his overall skills and skating."

Rounding out the picks on Saturday was Gaulton, a skilled defenseman, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury early in 2007-08. After having surgery to repair the elbow, Gaulton attempted a brief comeback in January, but he was unable to play more than three additional games, finishing the year with a total of only 20 games played.

The editors of The Hockey News' annual draft preview issue were particularly high on Gaulton, ranking him as the No. 54 prospect in the drat. The Hockey News praised him for his "physical presence" and "smart defensive play". Projected as a pure, two-way defenseman at the NHL level, Gaulton played on a very weak Erie Otters team in 2007-08 that finished one point out of last place in the OHL.

Those who are high on Gaulton remember that he is just a few years removed from being one of the top midget players in Canada.

"In the OHL's draft, with the group born in 1990, there was (Steven) Stamkos, Del Zotto, (Alex) Pietrangelo and then Mitch Gaulton," Hammett recalled. "Unfortunately, he's had some elbow problems. He broke his elbow. He basically missed the whole season, but we had already seen him as an underager and in just a handful of games this year. The background on him is that he has an excellent upside and, unfortunately, the injuries just put him back. He's a big, strong kid that skates well and has a good shot and competes. We're hoping he can get healthy, and we'll suddenly have a real 'diamond in the rough.'"




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