Centers highlight Phoenix Coyotes crop of CHL prospects

By Pat Paeplow

Henrik Samuelsson - Edmonton Oil Kings

Photo: Henrik Samuelsson is the leading scorer of one of the WHL’s most potent lines, combining with Curtis Lazar and Mitchell Moroz to the lead the attack for the Edmonton Oil Kings (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

Teams define themselves by U.S. Thanksgiving, according to conventional wisdom. This rule of thumb could apply to players, as well. By late November, there are no more predictions or expectations. Prospects are what their performance says they are.

The Phoenix Coyotes have several young centers playing throughout the CHL. The development of these players is crucial to the future of the organization. Further up the pipeline, the only valuable prospects are defenseman. GM Don Maloney needs to hit on at least a couple of these young forwards. If none of these players develop into worthy top-six forwards, Maloney will have no choice but to trade or spend big money on the open market for his future scoring punch. Dealing from a position of weakness is typically how general managers get fleeced in the NHL.

For hockey players across the CHL, being selected to play in the Subway Super Series is always a feather in the cap at this time of year. The Super Series is an annual six game exhibition tournament in mid-November, pitting a select group of Russian junior players against All-Star teams from the WHL, OHL and QMJHL. Presumably, the CHL rosters are a survey of the best performing players in those leagues each year.

Unfortunately, the Super Series selection process has been mired in politics and business realities over the past few seasons. This year, out of the three CHL all-star teams, not a single player hails from outside Canada. In an effort to jumpstart their lagging business model, CHL executives are marketing the series as a Canada vs. Russia showdown. They are banking that nationalism and latent nostalgia for all the classic match-ups between the two countries will drive higher gate receipts and television ratings than a straight All-Star game. This leaves the CHL’s high-performing American and European prospects on the outside looking in.

WHL

Henrik Samuelsson, C, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: 1st round (27th overall) in 2012

Henrik Samuelsson has been one of the most prolific scorers in the WHL in 2013-14. Samuelsson is not a Canadian however; he is an American. Some people would not even give him that. They would categorize him as a Swede or maybe even just label him Ulf Samuelsson’s son. The bottom line is that he is the most glaring omission from the Super Series rosters.

There is no question that Samuelsson has taken some undisciplined penalties that have cost his team. However, most of these have been missteps from learning how to play with controlled aggression. So far in 2013-14, Samuelsson is the WHL’s 12th leading scorer, ahead of linemates Curtis Lazar (OTT) and Mitchell Moroz (COL), both of whom were named to the Super Series WHL roster. What is enticing about Samuelsson is that his prolific scoring is almost a supplemental component to his game. In the CHL, he physically dominates his opponents all over the ice. As an over-ager he has owned the corners and won loose pucks almost on reputation alone.

Samuelsson may be growing a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed for the Super Series as well as being one of the earliest cuts in Coyotes training camp in the fall. This may benefit a power forward with his size and pedigree. He is a virtual lock for the United States roster in the 2014 World Junior Championships, where he will face his toughest competition all season. The skill level at this tournament, especially under international rules, should offer an accurate appraisal of how his skating and agility have developed since his draft year.

Brendan Burke, G, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 6th round (163rd overall) in 2013

Being from Scottsdale, Brendan Burke is another player who never had a chance to play in the Super Series. He would not have been a lock like Samuelsson but his play so far should certainly have warranted consideration.

Burke has been a workhorse, starting all but three games this season. He has earned a 3.11 goals against average and .906 save percentage through 23 appearances. These numbers are solid although not stellar enough to pace his league. The only statistical category he leads is arguably the only one that matters: wins. After going to the Memorial Cup Championship game, Portland graduated key pieces like all-everything defenseman Seth Jones (NSH) and starting goalie Mac Carruth (CHI). They were expected to take a step back in 2013-14 but so far they lead the Western Conference. The timeliness of Burke’s goaltending is a key factor.

Like his father, Sean Burke, Brendan is a big, rangy goaltender. His progression this year seems to be due to an evolving sense of risk and reward. He knows when he can be aggressive, when he can come out and challenge a shooter. He also knows when it is better to stay back on his goal line, letting the play develop and letting the true shooter reveal himself.

Marek Langhamer, G, Medicine Hat Tigers
Acquired: 7th round (184th overall) in 2012

Marek Langhamer should be one of the goaltenders for Czech Republic at the upcoming WJC. The CHL is the best amateur hockey league in the world and, in his second season, Marek Langhamer has shown he can more than hold his own in this league.

Langhamer’s rookie 2012-13 season was a rough start. He actually had some good outings but there were too many games when he let in multiple soft goals. It all came to an ugly head in his first career playoff appearance when the Edmonton Oil Kings ran him out of the building. In a high-pressure environment, in front of a national audience, he gave up five goals, two to Henrik Samuelsson, before getting the hook. This season, Langhamer has been splitting time with Daniel Wapple. In this role his numbers have been sensational, with a 2.48 goals against average and .916 save percentage.

At 6’2, Langhamer has good size. He has shown improvement this season mainly because he is playing with more composure in North America but also because his athletic ability has coalesced with his length.

OHL

Max Domi, C, London Knights
Acquired: 1st round (12th overall) in 2013

Max Domi’s 2013-14 OHL season started poorly. After the Coyotes cut him from training camp, he had several outbursts that cost his team on the score sheet, in the win column, and even earned him a lengthy suspension. He could have been acting out, frustrated after being one of the final cuts from Coyotes training camp. He could have bought too much into his draft year hype as a skill player who competes with an edge, and stumbled over the line between controlled aggression and selfish play. The reasoning behind his behavior is fairly irrelevant. The bottom line is that mental maturity has presented itself as Domi’s most significant weakness.

Luckily, he will have several opportunities to redeem himself in 2013-14. In November, Domi will represent the OHL in the Super Series followed by the World Junior Championships in late December and his season will culminate in a Memorial Cup appearance in May. Getting under Canadian skin is basically standard operating procedure for Russian National teams so they will surely test Domi’s composure and temperament in the Super Series. The World Junior Championships will probably be the most pressure those young players have ever been immersed in as Canada tries to reclaim gold after being knocked off by the United States in 2013. It will be important for players with cache, like Domi, to be leaders in the room, not just on the ice. Finally, with an automatic bid and a roster full of players looking ahead to NHL careers, focus is almost sure to be an issue for the London Knights in the Memorial Cup. That team’s ability to block out distraction and play as well as they look on paper will be directly impacted by veteran leadership.

Domi’s scoring and overall performance has rebounded in November, which should not be a surprise to anybody, pushing his season total to 25 points in 18 games. He is easily one of the most highly skilled players in the world that is not playing in the NHL right now. The question with Domi is if he can be the type of player that contributes to championships.

Tyler Gaudet, C, Sault St. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: Free agent signing, November 2013

Gaudet is Maloney’s newest addition to the prospect pool. He was signed to a three-year entry-level deal on November 4. The definition of a late bloomer, Gaudet went undrafted in not only the NHL, but the OHL as well. He actually never even played Major Junior hockey until 2012-13, when he was a 19-year-old. When Sheldon Keefe came on as Head Coach of the Soo Greyhounds, he brought in Gaudet, who was on his Junior ‘A’ team in Pembroke in 2011-12.

In 2013-14, Gaudet has been a revelation. Through 24 games, he is the Greyhounds fourth leading scorer with 26 points. At 6’3 and 200 pounds, Gaudet generates a lot of his scoring opportunities from below the goal line, off the forecheck. His disciplined, physical play would seem to mesh very well with the Coyotes current system.

Gaudet was a very opportunistic signing by Maloney. Aside from his 24 games in 2013-14, he has done almost nothing to warrant professional consideration. However, if Gaudet is what these 24 games say he is, he is a diamond in the rough. Maloney has a solid track record of signing undrafted free agents who generate upward pressure for NHL roster spots.

QMJHL

Laurent Dauphin, C, Chicoutimi Saguneens
Acquired: 2nd round (39th overall) in 2013

Dauphin has been scoring methodically in 2013-14, contributing about a point per game without any gaudy streaks or dry patches. A point per game is a low scoring rate in the CHL for a player who supposedly projects as a top-six NHL center. However, he and linemate Charles Hudon (MTL) are almost Chicoutimi’s only hope for offense. He is also deployed in defensive zone situations, dedicating a lot of his energy toward neutralizing the opponent’s top scoring threat.

Dauphin is one of the most effective forecheckers in the CHL. He routinely stalls opposition breakouts, forcing their top lines to waste entire shifts in their own zone. Creating turnovers and transition in these situations is the source of many of Dauphin’s points. In 2012-13, Dauphin’s main drawbacks were his size and his effectiveness on the dot. He put on muscle in the offseason and his faceoff percentage has been above 51% in 2013-14.

Dauphin represented the QMJHL in the Subway Super Series, but his appearance was marred by a hit from behind delivered on Russia’s Igor Baldaev. The QMJHL suspended Dauphin indefinitely for the hit. His versatility and work ethic should still warrant consideration for Canada’s World Junior Championship roster.

Yan-Pavel Laplante, C, Charlottetown Islanders
Acquired: 3rd round (62nd overall) in 2013

Laplante is similar to Dauphin in that they are both effective on the forecheck. However, where Dauphin utilizes angles, anticipation and persistence, Laplante simply steamrolls whatever is between him and the puck. The reasoning seems to be that if he does not win the puck straightaway in that battle, the physical abuse will slowly chip away at his opponent’s resilience in future confrontations.

Oddly enough, despite all his aggression and running around, Laplante’s game actually relies on a steady undercurrent of discipline. As reckless as he comes off, Laplante actually only averages a minor penalty about every third game. He is also one of the best penalty killers in the CHL. He shows a keen awareness when opponents misplay the puck on the power play, understanding when to stay in his box and when he can gamble for a loose puck.

Players like Laplante are infectious because they go a hundred miles an hour and run over everything in sight, instilling enthusiasm not only in spectators, but in teammates as well. He could be a valuable third of fourth-liner if he can play like this at the professional level without winding up on the injury report every other game.

Justin Hache, D, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
Acquired: 7th round (208th overall) in 2012

In 2011-12, Hache was a benchwarmer for a Memorial Cup champion in Shawinigan. In 2012-13, after a trade, he was a core piece for a last place club in Cape Breton. So far in 2013-14, Hache has found a balance. He has been leaned on in all situations, producing nearly a point per game on defense while Cape Breton remains squarely in the playoff hunt.

A lot of offensive defensemen in the CHL get so caught up in their ability to move with speed through the neutral zone and create low percentage opportunities that the actual defense they provide is an afterthought. Hache is rare in this regard. He has already honed the ability to compartmentalize his focus depending on what zone he is in. Learning this mindset is often what takes NHL defensemen so long to develop. In his own third, Hache exhibits a willingness to grind and absorb punishment in order to move the puck out of the zone.

Through 25 games this season, the blueliner has 20 points and leads the Screaming Eagles with a plus-11 rating. Hache’s conscientiousness in all phases of the game should aid in his development when he advances to the AHL in 2014-15. It is probable his offensive output will not translate to the next level but those puck moving skills could make him a steady defensive defenseman who executes efficient passes to break out of his own zone.

Other Notes

Jordan Szwarz made an unexpected jump to the Coyotes, and he appears to be sticking. In September, Szwarz was named captain of the Portland Pirates. This is normally an indication that a player will stay put. Since getting called up, Szwarz’s gritty determination has made him a fixture on Head Coach Dave Tippett’s fourth line. With Phoenix winning a good clip, there may not be any reason to audition anybody else.

Although David Rundblad remains on the Coyotes NHL roster, he has spent the bulk of the season in the pressbox. This is a sticky situation. He was the main piece coming back in the infamous Kyle Turris fiasco. With new ownership especially, Don Maloney must feel compelled to show something for relinquishing that asset. Yet, Rundblad’s value shrinks a little every game he is a healthy scratch. With Tippett clearly uncomfortable playing Rundblad, it may be time for Phoenix to do the right thing and put Rundblad on waivers or trade him for pennies on the dollar. He is a young prospect with his career on the line and he has done everything the organization has asked of him.

On Saturday November 16, defenseman Connor Murphy was called up against the Tampa Bay Lightning and scored his first NHL goal. Murphy was the Coyotes first round choice in 2011. With many high-caliber prospects at defense, Murphy’s turn with the Coyotes may be the first in a cycle of auditions throughout mid-season. It is possible that Brandon Gormley and James Melindy both get called up for stretches over the next couple months.

Follow Pat Paeplow on Twitter: @Ppaeplow

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