Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Whale Watching: The Kids Are Alright...Are Zuccarello Or Any Of Them Ready For NHL?

The New York Rangers minor league affiliate in Hartford struggled mightily through a 1-9-2-1 stretch over the course of a month which if not bad enough in and of itself the worry for Rangers fans was how badly many of the highly though of prospects were struggling with their individual games.  The former Wolf Pack and current Whale have turned things around over the last three weeks going 6-1-0-2 including an impressive 4-0-0-1 mark since the name change.  The key to this transformation has been a combination of trades and the improvement of some of the Rangers younger talent in adjusting the either the North American or the pro game. 
Leading the charge among the prospects has been Mats Zuccarello who has eight goals and eight assists in the teams last 14 games that has led for many to push for and question when exactly Zuke will be called up to help the Rangers and their inconsistent offense.  I wish I could get on board with the push but the fact remains as impressive as the overall stretch has been Zuccarello has been held scoreless in half of those games and still needs to improve his consistency.  There is no denying the skill that he possesses as he has flashed moments of pure brilliance both in his goal scoring as well as his playmaking for the club.  Give him another month or two to continue in his adjustment to the North American game and he will be better equipped to translate his skills to the NHL level and have an impact. 
The other issue with bringing up Zuke right now is there is no real place for him on the top three lines in the lineup and you cannot bring a player with his skill level up to play a fourth line role.  Sure you could drop a Avery, Fedotenko or Prust down to make room for him on the top three lines but especially in Prust’s case I feel pushing him down when he has earned his spot to make room for Zuccarello in the hopes of catching magic is a bad move.  There is also the impending returns of Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal which while not imminent are said to be within the next few weeks and will only further cloud the lineup situation.  There is no reason to rush Zuke up, just let him keep playing and gaining confidence , there is no doubt his time in the NHL will come soon enough.
Also aiding in the charge for the Whale has been newcomer Chad Kolarik who is looking to move himself into consideration for a call-up if the Rangers have the need.  Since he was acquired for Dane Byers Kolarik has produced give goals and four assists in his 11 games.  At 24, Kolarik is not necessarily young for a prospect but he does bring speed and creativity that could make him a more viable short term test than Zuccarello as a third line forward now if people are truly urging for someone to get a call.
The biggest reason for the turnaround in Hartford/Connecticut other than increased team unity and increased scoring has been the growth of three of the Rangers top defensive prospects.  Ryan McDonagh, Pavel Valentenko and Tomas Kundratek all went through a bit of an adjustment phase, which was to be expected, but the level of struggle for McDonagh especially had many concerned.  For McDonagh after being scoreless and a wretched -8 through his first 14 games this season he has turned it around to have 3 assists and a +7 rating in his last 13 games.  McDonagh is never going to wow the fans with highlight plays but he is getting back to the solid positional game that he must play to be successful and he will bring a little bit of nasty as well.  Valentenko has a solid start, slid a little bit in his play in early November but has gotten back on track including a nice contribution offensive with 4 points in his last 7 games.  Kundratek has been the steadiest of the three playing solid hockey all season and showing that he might actually be the most NHL ready of the trio right now. 
The most controversial of all the prospects in Hartford at the moment is Evgeny Grachev who has had a spotlight on him the last two seasons with Rangers fans holding out huge hopes for his development.  Overall the production has not been there again for Grachev who only has three goals and five points in 27 games combined between the AHL and NHL this season.  On the bright side though Grachev does have two goals in his last four games, so maybe he is starting to get his game going; we can hope at least.
If Hartford is going to continue its recent results it will take the improved play off all of these prospects and if both of those things happen Rangers fans will be very happy as it means their future players are improving their games and getting ready for NHL roles.  None of the guys are probably ready to have a legit impact at this moment but for the Rangers needs Weise and Kolarik might be the most ready if the need arises followed by Zuke.