The New York Rangers haven’t selected a player in the first round since 2012, and that is because the franchise has made a habit of dealing picks and prospects for player who will help the team in the interim.
Historically the Rangers have done well outside of the first round with current roster players such as Derek Stepan, Jesper Fast and Henrik Lundqvist being byproducts of rounds 2 through 6. Elsewhere around the league notables would include Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Carl Hagelin.
The Rangers’ recent trend of going all-in for a Stanley Cup has forced Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark and his scouting staff to be resourceful, and over the last three years New York has added some talented players.
The two biggest names include Anthony Duclair—No. 80 overall, traded to Arizona Coyotes for Keith Yandle— and Pavel Buchnevich—No. 75 overall, currently playing for SKA St. Petersburg in KHL—both of which were selected in 2013. Last June the Rangers selected three talented players in the third round of the 2015 draft and although it may be early, it appears the team has found another gem in Aleksi Saarela.
Saarela entered the draft as a 5’10”, 187 pound forward with six goals and six assists in 51 games with Ässät of the Finnish Liiga. Early impressions of Saarela described him as a player who could go late in the draft, but was worth picking because of his upside.
Here’s one scouting report that came from Elite Prospects—
A dangerous offensive winger that creates energy through scoring chances. Possesses good hockey sense as well as good hands and stickhandling ability. A smooth and speedy skater who has a lot of jump in his step. Not very large in stature; however, his diminutive size doesn’t deter his scoring prowess, and that is what he will have to rely upon to be successful.
Saarela has added an inch and gained 12 pounds since June, as he is listed on Finland’s WJC roster at 5’11” and 198 pounds. The Ranger prospect certainly looks bigger than when he took the stage in Sunrise, Florida, and his game has also come a ways in a scant few months. In 27 games Saarela has scored 10 goals and added five assists for 15 points, which is already better than what he achieved in 51 games last season. His 10 goals places him third overall on his team and his 15 points places him fifth overall, but each player ahead of him in both categories is older than he is.
While it is surely promising that Saarela is playing well in a league that is saturated with older players, he is going to be primarily judged by how he performs against his peers. The ongoing WJC tournament underway in Helsinki is providing an opportunity to see what Saarela can do, and so far he’s been a treat to watch.
Saarela currently sits in a tie for sixth place in scoring with two goals and an assist for three points, and he was easily Finland’s best player during Monday’s loss vs. Russia.
#NYR Prospect Aleksi Saarela (@AleksiAllu25) scored 2 goals and was named Player Of The Game for Finland at the #WorldJuniors
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) December 28, 2015
Here is one of the goals Saarela scored, and it came after putting himself in a high traffic area in front of the net.
SAARELA!!!! 1-3 #U20fi #WJC2016 pic.twitter.com/fnzfoRN4nS
— Toni (@Leinonen24) December 28, 2015
When drafted he appeared to be a third-line forward with limited upside, but thus far he’s proved that he is capable of more. Saarela will turn 19 on January 7, and he is still in the early stages of his development. While the Rangers likely won’t see him in North America for at least a few years, the scouting department has to be happy with how their prospect has played in his post draft year. Right now the Rangers can just hope that Saarela continues to turn heads at the WJC in Finland and continue his hot streak with Ässät.
Stats via Elite Prospects unless otherwise noted.