THE VERDICT ON THE RANGERS FIRST ROUND DRAFT PICK

If the New York Rangers 1st round choice were mine to make, it would be C/RW Mark McNeill. At 6-2/201, he brings some size and grit to the Rangers corps of forwards – as well as someone who is not afraid to drop the gloves to defend his teammates. Once THN pointed out that he had played RW, my decision was made. It also didn’t hurt that they mentioned McNeill has played some point on the power play.

“He’s one of those kids that has the ability to do so many different things, he’s got so much upside to him. … He’s a powerful skater and has great hockey sense,” Prince Albert GM/Coach Bruno Campese said of McNeill.”

“He’s got very good basic skills and he’s got the ability to be a real tough person to play against. He’s got the mental capabilities to understand the game as well . . . I really believe he has all the attributes. He’s got certain gifts that other players just don’t have. That really bodes well for playing in the NHL.”

One of the most important factors in selecting McNeill is the progress he showed from his rookie season in Prince Albert to last year. After going scoreless in four games as a 16-year-old, McNeill had some success in his first year in 2009/2010 with 9 goals and 15 assists in 68 games.

Last season’s breakthrough year of 32 goals and 49 assists is the kind of step forward teams want to see out of prospective draft picks.

It is very interesting that NHL’s CS used scout Blair MacDonald’s quote on McNeill because of the connection MacDonald has to Rangers President/GM Glen Sather. Slats coached MacDonald for seven seasons (WHA and NHL combined) when both were in Edmonton.

If McNeill were not available, my second choice would be LW Matthew Puempel. His offensive ability is most intriguing and could eventually be a perfect complement for Marian Gaborik on the first line. However, I do have two concerns from last season dealing with his inconsistency and his hip injury.

The inconsistency part can be chalked up to youthful mistakes, but the hip injury does cause me to pause. While he had one of the most renowned hip specialists perform his surgery, it is still enough to bump him down to the second spot.

Since it is not out of the realm of possibility that both McNeill and Puempel could be gone by the time the Blueshirts pick at # 15, I am going to rank the remaining forwards.

Despite having the body to be an NHL power forward, Nicklas Jensen needs to be more consistent in his physical game and is a player whose consistency ebbs and flows. While he might give Coach John Tortorella fits with his defensive play, Jensen’s ability to play both wings and his willingness to come to North America to further his career are intriguing. When he is on his game he has the potential to be the impact scoring forward the Rangers need.

As a result, Jensen is fourth on my list of potential Ranger draft picks.

Tyler Biggs and Brandon Saad may both turn out to be “steals” of the 2011 Draft, but I just can’t help shake the memories of Hugh Jessiman – especially in the case of Biggs.

After spending three seasons in the USHL, you would have expected that he would have put up impressive numbers but that was not the case. Much like Jessiman‘s situation, was Biggs hurt by not stepping up his level of play – both personally and league-wise?

As a result, Biggs would be sixth on my list of potential Ranger draft picks.

Saad struggled some last year, but that can be explained by his stepping up in class from the USHL to the OHL. However, did how did that much did that step up in class play into his poor play in the second half of last season? ISS wrote, “The big question is his grit and willingness to pay the price at times [and] does seem to shy away from the rough stuff.” He only scored 7 of his 27 goals in the second half of the season. The one thing in his favor is that he might be the closest of all six of my potential draft picks because of his physical attributes.

As a result, Saad is fifth on my list of potential Ranger draft picks.

As you have already figured out, Rocco Grimaldi is third on my list of potential Ranger draft picks – I think. Part of me is comfortable with him being my third choice, but part of me wonders if the Rangers shouldn’t take the gamble and go for the high-risk/even-higher-reward Grimaldi.

I have to admit that Grimaldi has had me changing my mind more than once during the weeks leading up to writing my Rangers Draft Preview. At first I thought it would make a nice angle with Biggs and Saad and looking back to 2003 and how the Rangers passed over the likes of Zach Parise to select Jessiman.

However, the more I read about Grimaldi, the more intrigued I became. While the “new NHL” has opened up the game for smaller players, Grimaldi’s lack of size is startling. People point to Martin St. Louis as a comparison for Grimaldi. However, if Rocco were 5-8 (and not 5-6) he would probably be a top-10 pick at the very least.

Some Ranger fans would shy away from Grimaldi based on Zuccarello’s struggles, but that comparison is not completely valid. While they are the same size, Grimaldi is more Theo Fleury than Mats Zuccarello.

Grimaldi, like Fleury, is a feisty player who does not shy away from physical play and was described as an “agitator” by RLR. Both Fleury and Grimaldi, unlike Zuccarello, are superior skaters who can handle the puck at top speed.

Some fans are against the Grimaldi selection because they are looking for someone step into the lineup as early as next year and they believe that Grimaldi is three-four years away because of his commitment to the University of North Dakota.

While Chris Kreider is spurning the Rangers for a third season at Boston College, Derek Stepan did leave after his sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin.

While speaking to Andrew Gross of The Record, Rangers Director of Player personnel Gordie Clark admitted that the team had “no real plan like that” – referring to the Blueshirts planned selection of Dylan McIlrath with the 10th overall selection.

While he did say that, all things being equal, the team would target a forward – it appears that the Rangers are being flexible with their 1st round pick this year. As a result, it might be worth the organization’s while to try and read the tone of the Draft. It is possible the Rangers might be able to move down a few spots and pick up a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick to replace the selections lost in trades.

That strategy might be the one to use if they target Grimaldi – and is a strategy that I might be willing to contemplate if the decision were mine.

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