The 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago was a little more than four months ago, but since then, the entire tenor of the Rangers’ organization changed. Back then, general manager Jeff Gorton joked about having not been on the first-night draft stage in a long time — because the organization had been without a first-round pick since 2012.
The rebuilding that has happened in the interim has vaulted the Rangers’ prospect pool from one of the worst in the league to one of the best. They made five first-round picks in the past two drafts combined, added four highly touted prospects in trades just this past season and now have the kind of organizational depth that actually has other teams calling and asking about Rangers prospects.
More than front office members standing on any stage, that is proof of how far the franchise has come in the eyes of those around the league.
“Internally, I know we’re excited at where we’re at,” assistant general manager Chris Drury recently told The Post. “You can have all the picks and make the trades, but you have to pick the right guys. In hindsight, getting some feedback around the league, I think organizationally we’re excited about who we got.”
It started the afternoon before that first-round draft night in Chicago, when Gorton sent Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Coyotes in exchange for defenseman Tony DeAngelo — himself a former first-rounder — and the No. 7-overall pick in that draft. Gorton then used that pick to take Lias Andersson, the ultra-competitive Swedish center. With the Rangers’ own pick, at No. 21, Gorton took Czech pivot Filip Chytil.
Both players got a taste of the NHL this past season — with Chytil, then 18, making the team out of training camp. Both will have ample opportunity not just to make the team at this training camp, but also to pencil themselves in for big minutes under new coach David Quinn.
This past season, Gorton and team president Glen Sather made a bold statement about the rebuilding process and sold off the bulk of their most-coveted assets before the trade deadline. By getting rid of Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Nick Holden, the return brought two more first-round picks to add to the one they already had in this year’s draft, along with some young players who were very hard to pull away from their teams. That includes defensemen Yegor Rykov, Ryan Lindgren and Libor Hajek, as well as center Brett Howden.
Gorton then used the first-round picks this June in Dallas to take Vitali Kravtsov (No. 9), K’Andre Miller (No. 22) and Nils Lundkvist (No. 28). Add in highly developed defenseman and third-round pick Jakob Ragnarsson, and the restocking of the system has been staggering.
“If you look back to the draft in Chicago, getting Lias and Filip in that first round, and then the three picks this year, then you addd in Howden, Hajek and Lindgren, a lot of good pieces have been added since Chicago,” Drury said. “And in our opinion, some very exciting pieces.”
For now, Kravtsov is going to stay in the KHL, and Miller is going to play his freshman year at Wisconsin. But along with Andersson and Chytil, there will be opportunity in training camp for showcasing Rykov, Lindgren, Hajek and Howden. They might start in AHL Hartford, but it might not be too long of a wait to see them on Broadway.
It’s in contrast to the way the Rangers were for most of the past decade, a team that was doing everything it could to win the Stanley Cup each season. The Rangers wanted to take advantage of the prime of goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s career, and that is why they traded away so many picks to get veteran players. It almost worked. They made one run to the Stanley Cup final and two others to the conference final. But they never could get over the hump.
That is why Gorton felt the stage in Chicago so unfamiliar, and why prospect camps used to be seemingly irrelevant. Now, in just over a year, the organization as a whole has changed drastically.
“My first year, there wasn’t a lot of draft picks at the camps. There were free agents just to fill out the camp,” said Drury, who took over as director of player development in 2015 and was promoted to assistant GM the following year. “I’ve said it another a times, it was a heck of a run by a lot of players. We were close to top of mountain. But now, it’s just time to refresh and we’re all real excited.”