As the top two prospects, Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, move ever closer to graduation status, the Winnipeg Jets organization looks to a younger crop of players for the next wave of draftees to step up. At the junior level, the returns this season have been more than promising.
Josh Morrissey and Nicolas Petan are shining bright in the Western Hockey League, while fellow WHL prospect Eric Comrie has returned from a season ending injury in 2012-13 to be one of the league’s most consistent goalies. While most of the hype lies out west, the Jets also have a few under-the-radar prospects currently putting up excellent numbers in both the OHL and QMJHL as well.
Josh Morrissey, D, Prince Albert Raiders
Acquired: 1st round (13th overall) in 2013
Morrissey has done everything and more to prove that the Jets draft day “reach” was a smart gamble. Through 28 WHL games, Morrissey is only two goals shy of his 2012-13 total of 15, and needs just twelve points total to match last year’s tally of 47. On a Raiders team that is hovering around .500 and has been outscored on aggregate, his respectable plus-11 mark leads the team.
Morrissey has left the Raiders for a brief time to take part in the 2014 World Junior Championships for Team Canada, a spot that was never a certainty given the depth of Canada’s junior talent at the position. Among the players that Morrissey beat out for an invitation was Sault Ste. Marie’s Darnell Nurse (EDM), who was drafted five spots ahead of Morrissey in June.
Most thought Morrissey was a longer-term project when he was drafted, though his play since may have changed minds both inside and outside of the organization. His professional contract, signed just before the season started, is testament to the impression he has made.
A smaller player who relies on speed and elite hockey sense to compete against bigger players, Morrissey will receive his best test yet in Malmo, playing against the best junior talent the world has to offer. His performance at the tournament will serve as a strong litmus test as to how far his recent development has taken him.
Nicolas Petan, C, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 2nd round (43rd overall) in 2013
Joining Morrissey for Team Canada in Malmo will be Petan, who has put up offensive numbers that are impossible to ignore.
Playing on a Portland team that features four of the WHL’s 12 leading scorers, Petan leads the pack with 66 points, ranking him second behind Spokane’s Mitch Holmberg, an undrafted 20 year-old. His 46 assists are nine more than the next closest player in that category (Holmberg).
Like Morrissey, Petan can use the World Juniors as a showcase to prove that his lack of size will not be a detriment at higher levels of play, as his vision and puck skills are not in question. He appears to be in line to do just that, as he will likely be teamed up with 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin (TBL) on one of Brent Sutter’s top lines in Malmo.
Eric Comrie, G, Tri-City Americans
Acquired: 2nd round (59th overall) in 2013
Comrie looks set to play a career high in games this season for the Americans, a significant feat for a player who has had trouble staying healthy. Last season, double-hip surgery cut Comrie’s year short in January, and likely affected his draft status, bumping him down into the late second round.
This season, Comrie has appeared in 30 of a possible 36 games, and though the Americans are last in the ultra-competitive American Division of the WHL, they still sport a winning record. The second-lowest scoring team in the WHL owes much of their success to Comrie’s steady play. With a 2.52 goals against average and .923 save percentage, Comrie ranks in the top ten in the WHL in every category.
He was given strong consideration for the Canadian WJC team, but he ultimately lost out to Zachary Fucale (MTL) and Jake Paterson (DET). With a full WHL season on the horizon, he has been tasked by the Jets’ brass to become a more aggressive goaltender by starting farther outside the crease, as they believe he has the athletic ability to recover and make scramble saves should the need arise.
Lukas Sutter, C, Red Deer Rebels
Drafted: 2nd round (39th overall) in 2012
Sutter is still trying to find himself despite an off-season trade to Red Deer from Saskatoon after a season in which his production fell from 59 points in 2011-12 to just 24 last season. Early season injuries limited him to just five games in September and October, and his November/December was marred by a 15 game goalless drought that finally ended on December 14th against Lethbridge. He then followed up with his first two-goal performance of the season against Medicine Hat on the 17th.
A feisty player who has topped 160 penalty minutes in three consecutive seasons, Sutter has always been a combative player who tends to struggle and take ill-advised penalties. Leading up to the holiday break, he had collected at least one minor in eight consecutive games.
While his December has been more promising, with four points and a plus-three rating in seven games, Sutter still needs consistency and discipline to get back a level that will justify his second round pick status.
Ryan Olsen, C, Kelowna Rockets
Drafted: 6th round (160th overall) in 2012
A key member of the WHL’s best team this season, Olsen has steadily developed into a top line player at the junior level. Since joining the Rockets in 2012, Olsen has compiled 47 goals and 41 assists in 101 games, while posting a plus-36 rating for a team that has won 80 games in that span.
Olsen’s impressive statistics have yet to translate into a professional contract with the Jets, and his mission this season has been to develop a two-way presence in an effort to boost his status.
A tall, rangy player at 6’2, 190 pounds, Olsen has the physical tools to be a defensive forward in the NHL mold, but transitioning from a junior scorer to a potential professional checker is still something that remains a work in progress.
Axel Blomqvist, RW, Victoria Royals
Signed as a free agent in October, 2013
The very definition of a project, Blomqvist has been on a hockey odyssey this year. He was draft eligible in June but not selected. He signed a tryout contract with the Jets, and impressed enough in the Penticton prospect tournament and his brief stint in camp to earn a professional contract on October 1st. He was then shipped back to Lethbridge, where he played the first 19 games of the season for the WHL’s worst team (to date, they are 6-27-5). He posted a minus-10 and was accused of playing disinterested hockey, despite being one of the team’s leading scorers. He was traded to Victoria on November 20th, and his play has improved with his movement up the standings. His 11 goals eclipses his season total (59 games) from 2012-13, his debut in the WHL, and he is a lock to top his point total of 33 from a year ago as well.
A hulking forward at 6’6 and 212 pounds, Blomqvist plays to his size and also has decent vision. His improvement will have to come in the skating department, and with his developmental future secured and two more seasons after this to be eligible for the junior level, he will have several years to grow. He will need time to develop into an NHL-caliber player, and there are no guarantees with a player whose edges are still very rough.
Jan Kostalek, D, Rimouski Oceanic
Drafted: 4th round (114th overall) in 2013
Kostalek’s game has always been modeled on smooth consistency, however the 2013-14 season thus far has been anything but for the Czech-born defenseman. All 17 of his assists have come in one of two five-game stretches, oddly enough the first five games of October and November, respectively. In his other 20 games, Kostalek has just one goal and is a minus-4. He had gone 11 games without a point (and was a minus-9) before he left the Oceanic to join the Czech World Junior camp on December 8th.
Kostalek will almost be a mainstay of the underdog Czech team, as one of just three players on the squad to have been drafted by an NHL team to date. For the team to find any success against the heavyweights of the tournament, Kostalek will have to relocate his consistency quickly, and carry that back to Rimouski when he returns to the CHL ranks in January.
Jimmy Lodge, C, Saginaw Spirit
Drafted: 3rd round (84th overall) in 2013
Lodge started the season battling injuries, and his offensive game suffered as a result. As his health improved, his offensive game blossomed, getting back to the levels that saw his stock rise leading up to the draft. Despite solid statistics (12 goals, 20 assists in 29 games overall), the Downingtown, Pennsylvania native was not invited to team USA’s camp for the World Junior tournament. Lodge has seemingly taken the snub in stride, scoring five goals and adding six assists in December.
A small forward, Lodge is listed at 6’1, 165 and is not noted for any one high-end skill. Instead, he is lauded for his hockey sense, vision, and nose for the net.
Durability also remains a concern for Lodge, who has yet to put in a full season in his three years in the OHL. The Jets can only hope that Lodge fills out and gets stronger, which is very much a possibility for a player who will not turn 19 until March.
Scott Kosmachuk, RW, Guelph Storm
Drafted: 3rd round (70th overall) in 2012
Kosmachuk is in his fourth full season with the Storm, and while his numbers have climbed every year, they have jumped into another stratosphere in 2013-14. Through 35 games, he has racked up 26 goals, good for third in the OHL, and 25 assists, helping the Storm to a league-high 176 goals through 35 games.
Kosmachuk’s stellar play earned him an entry-level contract, and not a moment too soon, as he will turn 20 in January and is in his final year of CHL eligibility.
Former knocks on Kosmachuk were that he did not always give a consistent effort and he was not a useful defensive player. This season, Kosmachuk has seemingly put both to bed, to the point where he has been used in a penalty-killing role for the Storm on a semi-consistent basis. An edgy player who agitates opponents, Kosmachuk still has a tendency to take ill-advised penalties at times. Also, like many other prospects on this list, Kosmachuk’s question mark revolves around whether or not his skill set will overcome his smaller stature at a higher level.
Tucker Poolman, D Omaha Lancers
Drafted: 5th round (127th overall) in 2013
A late-bloomer in his second season with the Lancers, Poolman has committed to his “hometown” North Dakota (Poolman grew up just across the Red River in East Grand Forks, Minnesota) and will be 21 by the time he gets on campus next fall for his freshman season.
A big defenseman at 6’3, 194 pounds, Poolman plays a two-way, all-situations game, as evidenced by his 21 goals, 17 of which came on the power play, in 90 USHL games.
Poolman remains a long way off, but players with his size and big shot will always carry a level of intrigue.