One of the import players skating in the CHL this year who is also making an appearance at the Top Prospects Game is forward A.J. Jenks of the Plymouth Whalers. Jenks, who hails from Michigan, ranks fourth on his team in scoring with 37 points in 45 games but the two eye-catching stats for the 17-year-old are his shiny 21 goals and the ugly minus-9 rating.
Jenks was a seventh-round selection by the Whalers in 2006 and is now in his second OHL season. Playing close to home has helped with the transition to major junior hockey where he has captured the league title and played in the Memorial Cup in his rookie year. Last summer Jenks also added a gold medal to his trophy case as a member of the 2007 Team USA entry in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
NHL Central Scouting has Jenks ranked 20th among North American skaters heading into Wednesday’s game in Edmonton, and it was there that Hockey’s Future caught up with him.
HF: The success of winning the OHL title was obviously a thrill last year, but then you get to the Memorial Cup where things went a bit south.
AJJ: Last year was a great experience, especially being part of a winning team at such a young age. Even the Memorial Cup last year was a great experience regardless of how we did, I had a great time with it and learned a lot from it.
HF: With the way it ended, that must have given you extra motivation over the summer to come back this year with renewed focus to get back there again.
AJJ: Certainly. You always want to do the best you can but we just came up a little bit short after winning our league but hopefully in a couple of years we’ll be back up at the top again.
HF: Plymouth lost a lot of key players from last year’s winning team. Who has stepped it up this year to fill those voids?
AJJ: It’s been up and down. We started off a bit slow and then we got things going. Then our coach, or our former coach, had some issues and had to step down and we hired Greg Stefan as our new head coach and since he’s come in we’re getting used to things, it’s been a bit of an adjustment but it’s all been positive and we’re working hard so things will be going well soon.
HF: Does the second half of the season look like it might be shaping up to be a better one than the first half?
AJJ: Oh certainly, all the guys on the team we have some good leaders, the coaches are good at taking advice from the players and everybody works well together so I think we’re going to put a pretty good run together. All of our overagers play a pretty big role; Andrew Fournier, Wes Cunningham and Joe McCann as well as another guy who is a Carolina draft pick, Chris Terry, and we have good goaltending in Jeremy Smith who is a Nashville pick from last year.
HF: Do you look at NHL players like David Legwand or Stephen Weiss, former Plymouth players, and take something out of the fact that they’re guys who were once in the same position you’re in right now on your road to the NHL?
AJJ: Yeah it’s a good feeling, especially knowing some of the guys that I played with last year are already moving on and doing big things like Jarred Boll in Columbus. It’s cool and it just makes you want to work that much harder to achieve your goals.
HF: What does getting invited to the Top Prospects Game mean to you?
AJJ: You know it’s a huge honor that’s really hard to explain. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I came to the CHL after I had originally planned on going to college. Since I’ve come here it’s been one of my major goals so it really means a lot to me and it’s a great opportunity.
HF: You’re a Michigan guy so I should ask you why you chose the CHL route instead of NCAA.
AJJ: It’s just where I wanted to be, you know? Plymouth is pretty close to my home town (Wolverine Lake, MI) and I felt at home here, my grandparents live there and I billet with them, and it’s more of a professional atmosphere I think than playing college hockey.
HF: Which college or colleges were pursuing you? As a Michigan guy I imagine you had options.
AJJ: I had committed to the University of Michigan after my freshman year of high school so that was where I was planning on going. They’re definitely having a good year this year, they’re No. 1 in the country so far. I’m still a Wolverine fan so they can keep going!
HF: That said, any regrets with your decision?
AJJ: None at all.
Jenks was named Plymouth’s Academic Player of the Year in 2007 so clearly it wasn’t an education or a lack of grades that steered him away from the NCAA. Prior to his OHL career, Jenks put together an impressive 55-point season playing for the Detroit Honeybaked Midgets. Listed as 6’2 and 210 lbs, Jenks is one of the biggest forwards invited to the Top Prospects Game this year.