Winnipeg Jets prospects mixing promise with adversity in early stages of 2013-14 season

By Charlie Beattie

Zach Redmond - Winnipeg Jets

Photos: Zach Redmond made his 2013-14 debut for the Jets on November 17, his first NHL game since suffering a serious skate laceration in February (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

The Jets opened the season with all eyes on their top two prospects, Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele, as they made the permanent leap from the amateur/junior ranks to the NHL.

While Trouba and Scheifele have endured injury and growing pains, respectively, while integrating into the Jets’ lineup, the “next wave” of Jets’ prospects has been making headlines in leagues throughout the network of minor, junior, and collegiate hockey.

In a tour around the hockey universe, we will look at several players of intrigue within the Winnipeg Jets system. Included on the list are a centerman on pace to put up historic offensive numbers at the junior level, a collegiate goaltender trying to follow-up a historic season of his own, and a fast-rising first round pick who may be playing his way into a World Junior Championships spot for Team Canada.

In addition, the Jets’ system includes a former high-school quarterback making great strides as he transitions full time to hockey, a defenseman who has made a heroic recovery from a life-threatening injury and a member of one of hockey’s most famous families teaming up with his uncle in an attempt to get his career back on track.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets (NHL)

While Jacob Trouba would have topped this list prior to the season (with Scheifele dropping to 1a), the defenseman’s long term absence due to a neck injury has moved Scheifele back up the list.

Though Scheifele’s long awaited permanent appointment to the NHL has come with much fanfare, his production has not yet lived up to the billing. Handed the second line center position out of camp, Scheifele got immediate buzz for scoring at Edmonton on opening night, but he has not found the net in 22 subsequent games, managing four assists and winning just 40.8-percent on his faceoffs. His ice time has fluctuated anywhere between seven and 22 minutes this season and the idea of an assignment to St. John’s in the AHL to regain confidence was briefly a hot media topic in Manitoba.

While statistically disappointing, Scheifele has been praised from all sides for his attitude in the face of adversity and for his consistent effort each game. While his disappointing output has taken some of the shine off of a player that Winnipeg fans have waited on for several seasons, he remains a key portion of the club’s future, and “Scheifele watch” has officially switched from awaiting the forward's arrival to wondering when he will break out at the NHL level. With the talk of a demotion to the minors cooled for the moment, all indications are that the young centerman will be given further opportunities to try and adjust to his key role at the highest level.

First Year Pro to Watch
Adam Lowry, C, LW, St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)

Lowry got a taste of life in the American Hockey League at the end of last season, playing nine games for St. John’s prior to signing an entry-level deal. He attended camp with the Jets, but missed significant time with an undisclosed lower-body injury and, as expected, began the year with the IceCaps again. A separate injury (this time an upper-body) knocked him out on October 12 and Lowry only returned to the St. John’s lineup on November 8.

Prior to his injury, Lowry had one goal and two assists in the season’s first four games, with his lone professional goal coming in the season opener against Providence. After nearly a month out, Lowry has had to battle for ice time amongst a crowded group of IceCaps forwards, and has not registered on the score sheet in November.

One of the younger players in the AHL at age 20, Lowry will need some adjusting to the professional ranks and is going through somewhat of a mentorship program, rooming on the road with 32-year-old team captain Jason Jaffray. The Jets are still trying to figure out what they have in the 6’5, 200-pound winger who put up big numbers at Swift Current in his final junior season a year ago.

He will likely stay in the AHL for the entire season, with the idea of developing him at center for a future checking role in the NHL. His size and two-way ability make him a good bet to get a look at the NHL level down the road.

Bounceback Prospect
Zach Redmond, D, Winnipeg Jets (NHL)

Redmond looked to be making a breakthrough on the Jets’ blue line last season after being called up in late January from St. John’s. In eight games he amassed a goal and 3 assists, topping out at 24:04 in ice time against Toronto (and scoring his only career goal) on February 7. Two weeks later, as the team was going through a morning practice in Carolina, Redmond’s thigh was cut by a teammate’s skate in an injury that was deemed not only career but life-threatening.

While his recovery was expected to take months, Redmond returned to the ice six weeks later, but did not play again the rest of the 2012-13 season. His recovery remained slow and Redmond did not make his season debut in the AHL until November 1, scoring and adding an assist in the first period of a 4-2 win over Portland. He played for St. John’s again the following night and was called up to Winnipeg on November 3 as injuries took their toll on the Jets’ blue line. He was a healthy scratch in six games before making his 2013-14 NHL debut on November 17.

Space in the Jets’ defensive corps is at a premium, with five players (Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian, Jacob Trouba, and Mark Stuart) seemingly entrenched in spots when healthy, leaving Redmond to battle veteran journeymen Adam Pardy and Grant Clitsome, as well as former Florida first round pick Keaton Ellerby, for the last spot. That, combined with the uphill climb of fighting back from such a horrific injury makes Redmond an interesting case. That being said, his puck-moving skills and offensive game make him an intriguing player, albeit one who still has to wait for his shot.

Junior

Top Junior Prospects
Josh Morrissey, D, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
Nicolas Petan, C, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Morrissey was considered an off-board pick by the Jets with the 13th selection in June’s draft, ranking 27th (six spots below Jimmy Lodge, whom the Jets selected 71 picks later in the third round) among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final ranking. Early returns suggest prescience on the Jets’ part, as Morrissey’s stock has done nothing but rise since then.

Already with an entry-level deal under his belt, Morrissey has returned to Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League and proceeded to take his already impressive offensive game to the next level. After a 15-goal, 47-point haul in 2012-13, Morrissey has set a torrid early pace this season already racking up nine goals and 14 assists through 21 games of the 2013-14 campaign.

His early statistical output has placed him on the CHL roster for the Subway Super Series (joining fellow Jets prospects Eric Comrie and Nicolas Petan) and he is amongst the conversation for the incredibly deep defensive corps for team Canada’s World Junior roster. Ultimately, his fate for that tournament may oddly be in the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota Wild, and whether or not they allow their under-20 defensemen Morgan Rielly and Matt Dumba, respectively, out for the tournament.

While Morrissey is still only 18 and is still growing into his 6’0, 185-pound body, the general consensus is that he will never be more than a medium-sized NHL defenseman, if even that. Therefore, Morrissey must develop his positional play to go along with what is already considered strong-to-elite level skating ability. The Jets will continue to monitor their latest top pick in hopes that he gets the chance to test himself against the world’s elite at the youth level.

Like Morrissey, Petan has followed up a brilliant 2012-13 WHL season, in which he co-led the league in scoring with 120 points (46 goals, 74 assists) with perhaps an even better one. On a Portland team that was expected to take a step back after losing Ty Rattie (STL) offensively and both Troy Rutkowski (OTT) and, of course, Seth Jones (NAS) defensively, Petan has helped guide the Winterhawks to an early lead in the WHL’s Western Conference standings with 13 goals and 35 assists through 24 games. Extrapolating that pace over a full season, Petan would become only the fourth WHL player since 1995-96 to crack the 140 point mark.

While Petan’s numbers are beyond impressive, his size has always been a question mark. Listed at 5’9 and 166 pounds, Petan has always overcome his size disadvantage through sheer competitiveness, a trait that will surely be tested as he graduates to higher levels. Furthermore, scouts surmise that he is unlikely to grow significantly taller, and therefore must focus on adding strength to his frame.

It is unlikely that the Jets will learn much about Petan this year as he continues to torch the Western league, but players with his elite puck-handling and distribution skills are rare and, in the eyes of Winnipeg management, Petan was worth the gamble in the second round of the June draft. 

Bounce Back Prospect
Lukas Sutter, LW, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

Sutter’s game has been on a distinct downward path ever since being drafted in the second round (39th overall) of the 2012 draft. His point total dropped from 59 in the season prior to being drafted to just 24 in 2012-13, and by the end of the season he found himself stuck on the fourth line for Saskatoon.

An off-season trade to Red Deer, to play for his uncle, Brent (Lukas’ father is Rich Sutter), was carried out in the hopes of re-igniting the latest member of one of hockey’s most famous families. Through 16 games, Sutter has four goals and four assists, and is a minus-four for a struggling Rebels team. He also missed nearly three weeks in October with a shoulder injury.

Sutter’s upside is as a tenacious forechecker who can capitalize on the mistakes he creates. He has also shown the grit and nastiness that have become synonymous with his family name and legacy, having racked up 540 career penalty minutes in 236 WHL games to date. While his mean streak will be a necessary component to his potential future as a grinding NHL forward, Sutter has shown a propensity for putting his team in bad spots with the wrong kind of penalties, something he must work on tempering this season, his last at the junior level. 

Breakout Prospect
Jan Kostalek, D, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)

Kostalek missed nearly a third of the 2012-13 season with Rimouski of the QMJHL with a broken collarbone, causing his draft stock to suffer. He fell into the fourth round of the 2013 draft despite being ranked 40th in the final CSS rankings for North American skaters. Like Morrissey, Kostalek has returned to the junior ranks and put up excellent numbers in the early portion of the season with his 17 assists ranking fourth among QMJHL defensemen through 23 games.

The Czech-born Kostalek was the first player drafted by the Jets’ regime to come from Europe. Even though he technically qualified as a North American skater due to his time with the Oceanic, he has considerable experience in his native league, going so far as to suit up for 10 games with Sparta Prague’s senior team in 2011-12 at the age of 16. He has also represented the Czech Republic at various international tournaments at the youth level, and is considered a lock to head to the World Junior tournament this December.

A smooth, no-frills defenseman, Kostalek’s game is predicated on strong skating, positional play and minimizing mistakes. When dissecting his game for the 2013 draft, most scouts had difficulty picking out a skill that Kostalek does not have, his only knock being that he does not possess one skill that is particularly high end.

Amateur

Best Amateur prospect
Connor Hellebuyck, G, UMass-Lowell River Hawks (Hockey East)

Hellebuyck’s 2012-13 season began on the bench at UMass-Lowell, and ended as the starter in the Frozen Four with a final stat line so impressive that it must be questioned for typos.

Arriving at Lowell with no expectations fresh from a decent season with the Odessa Jackalopes of the NAHL, Hellebuyck was expected to be the backup to Doug Carr, who had guided the Riverhawks to a 24-13-1 record the season before. When Carr struggled, in stepped Hellebuyck, who proceeded to put up a 1.37 goals against average and a .952 save percentage to go with a 20-3 record.

In addition to national attention, Hellebuyck's magical season propelled him to the top of the Jets’ prospect list, ahead of Eric Comrie, and as the 2013-14 season debuted, questions arose as to how close the Commerce, Michigan native could get to his statistics from the previous season. Through seven starts this year, Hellebuyck is 4-3 with a 1.89 goals against average and a .938 save percentage, well on his way to proving himself no one-year wonder.

While Hellebuyck is only a sophomore and should be allowed a few more seasons to develop at the amateur ranks, he will need to shore up certain aspects of his game to translate his collegiate success into the professional game. A big goaltender at 6’4 and 200 pounds, Hellebuyck takes up a good chunk of the net but can struggle at times to control rebounds and move laterally. With time squarely on the side of a player who has just 30 collegiate games to his name, Hellebuyck’s future potential looks very bright.

Breakout Prospect
Andrew Copp, C, University of Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)

A valid argument could be made that Copp actually broke out last season, when he put up solid numbers (11 goals, 10 assists) as a freshman for the Wolverines; with 20 of those points coming in the final 23 games after he earned his way up the team’s depth chart. However, Copp’s performance came on the most disappointing Michigan team in a generation, and despite losing a handful of talented players (most notably Jacob Trouba), Michigan is poised to bounce back this season in a big way, with Copp one of the players leading the mini-renaissance.

Anointed not only the team’s top line center but also, as a sophomore, one of the alternate captains, Copp has impressed early in the season. Not only has Copp posted a team leading 10 points (five goals, five assists) through 10 games, but he has helped guide the Wolverines to a top-five national ranking. He is also on the way to becoming a trivia answer, as he was the first player ever named as the first star of the week in the newly formed hockey version of the Big Ten Conference, earning the award on October 15.

Already blessed with good size (6’0 and 203 pounds), perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Copp is that he has only recently begun to solely focus on hockey, having split time between quarterbacking an Ann Arbor high school in football while suiting up for the U.S. National Development Program. Passed over in his first draft year, Copp became the rare player to be drafted after playing a full collegiate season. A fourth round pick, Copp is a natural athlete whose game and stock have risen tremendously in 2013.

Unsigned Prospect
Jordan Samuels-Thomas, LW, Quinnipiac University Bobcats (ECAC)

Samuels-Thomas’ path to a potential NHL roster has been long and incredibly winding. When Samuels-Thomas was drafted, the Jets were still the Atlanta Thrashers, and their GM was still Don Waddell, who would be fired a year later. Furthermore, he was a late round flier (seventh round, 203rd overall) who was a second-year eligible draft player. All of these facts paint a picture of a player who could have easily drifted slowly away from the organization as the team moved cities and changed GM’s twice, from Waddell to Rick Dudley and finally Kevin Cheveldayoff. For his part, Samuels-Thomas was drafted while still playing for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL, spent two seasons as the best player on a bad Bowling Green team before transferring to Quinnipiac (and in the process sitting out the mandatory season), where he ended up as certainly the right player at the right time and on the right team as well.

Starting the season as a third line player for Quinnipiac, Samuels-Thomas ended as their third leading scorer and shone on the national stage against St. Cloud State in the national semi-finals, scoring and adding an assist. His play has not dropped off in this, his long-awaited senior season, with seven goals and six assists in his first 13 games.

A prospect with prototypical power-forward size, Samuels-Thomas plays around the net and has good enough hands to make plays in tight spaces. He will be one to watch, as he will likely be offered a deal as soon as the Bobcats’ season ends, If the Jets are out of contention, Samuels-Thomas is the type of player who could be getting a show-me tryout in the NHL come next April.  

Europe

Top European Prospect
Marcus Karlstrom, D, AIK J20 (Swedish SuperElit)

With the Jets possessing a bare cupboard in the way of European prospects, Karlstrom tops this list almost by default. Indeed, Karlstrom’s claim to fame at this point is that he is the only European-based player the club has drafted since moving from Atlanta.

Just 18, Karlstrom is currently under contract with Stockholm-based AIK, though he has never appeared for their senior team. His latest stint was with their Under-20 group in the SuperElit (Sweden’s top league for underage players) in which he posted seven goals and nine assists in 18 games.

A defenseman who boasts good size at 6’2 and 181 pounds, and serviceable skating ability, Karlstrom is very much a long-term project and it will be a while before he is truly relevant to the Winnipeg prospect pool, if ever.