Legal squabbles between the Board of Trustees of Portland, Maine’s Cumberland County Civic Center and the ownership group of their primary tenant, the Portland Pirates, have relegated the team to the northern reaches of Maine for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, on the ice, the Phoenix Coyotes AHL affiliate finds themselves in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference standings.
At the root, the dispute is all over how the two sides will divvy up food and beverage revenue generated from hockey fans cheering for their team at the Civic Center. While the factions angle to get theirs, the Pirates players commute an hour north to the Androscoggin Bank Colisée in Lewiston. The Colisée is simply not a professional-caliber facility. For fans, the arena offers high school football-style bench seating that accommodates less than 4000, which helps to explain why the Pirates have the worst attendance in the league. For players, the Colisée does not have the facilities necessary to provide therapy, training and treatment. It would be difficult to argue that all of the circumstances off the ice have not affected player morale and, consequently, professional development.
Prior to a recent winning streak, the Pirates were dead last in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. The team’s key weakness early on is their inability to consistently generate scoring opportunities.
Brandon Gormley, D, 21
Despite the Pirates underwhelming team performance, Gormley remains the organization’s brightest and most well-rounded prospect. He is a defenseman that combines physical gifts with excellent decision-making. He has no true weaknesses. Management is bringing Gormley along in the same fashion as Oliver Ekman-Larsson when he was in Portland. Along with being given progressively more responsibility on the ice, Gormley is now being encouraged to develop as a leader, being named an assistant captain despite his young age.
By all accounts, Gormley put in a ton of work over the summer. He arrived at camp bigger and stronger. His hard work has been rewarded. Coach Ray Edwards force-feeds Gormley minutes, deploying him close to half the game every night. Consequently, he leads all defensemen in scoring with one goal and 13 assists in 27 games. Yet, his greatest contribution is his execution in his own zone. Gormley oozes efficiency and composure, making subtle adjustments to regain possession or breakout in the face of an overwhelming forecheck. These are key plays for an inconsistent team that needs wins. They also provide an excellent example for the other prospects on a talented but raw defensive corps.
Gormley is an NHL-ready defenseman right now. He would be in Phoenix if Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle were not jamming up the depth chart on the left side. Still, despite the turmoil in Portland, Gormley is probably better off in the short term playing 25 minutes a night in the AHL rather than being kept on a short leash on Dave Tippett’s bench.
Lucas Lessio, LW, 20
The 2013-14 season has taken a bitter turn for Lessio. The versatile power forward was off to a great start, playing his way onto the Coyotes NHL roster in training camp. After three games he was demoted to Portland where he has managed only 13 points in 23 games.
It would be easy to attribute Lessio’s slump to underachievement or bitterness at his demotion or another character flaw but goal scorers do have a tendency to slump following a demotion. Max Domi slumped when he was returned to the London Knights. Finishers sometimes try to cut their plays much too fine when confronted with the gobs of time and space that just do not exist in the NHL. Right now, it is not constructive to read too much into a short-term drought when logging second-line minutes in Portland were the exact expectations for Lessio after his injuries in 2012-13.
Chris Brown, LW, 22
Another big winger that generates a lot of offense from the forecheck, Brown has been back and forth between Portland and Phoenix all season long. Sometimes, Don Maloney will recall him simply to have him in the pressbox, available in case of injury, during road trips. When he is with the minor league club, Brown has managed to be one of the Pirates most effective players. Dressing for 24 AHL games, he has scored five goals and 13 assists. He is also a +10 which is astonishing considering that Portland has been a last place club for most of the season.
Tobias Rieder, RW, 20
Rieder’s first professional hockey game was a microcosm of his entire career. Against the Manchester Monarchs, Rieder scored two goals before leaving the game with a foot injury, which would eventually cost him over a month. Rieder has always had a scoring touch, especially in high-leverage moments, but always seems to miss chunks of time with injuries.
Still, Rieder hit the ground running when he returned, scoring four goals in his first three games back. Overall, he has scored nine goals in 21 games. His ability to snipe coming off the half-wall has translated from juniors. Rieder has also shown a tolerance for punishment in the dirty areas in front of the net where scoring opportunities can be manufactured.
Andy Miele, C, 25
Nobody should be surprised that Miele is the Pirates greatest offensive threat in 2013-14. The Hobey Baker winner has been one of the most consistent producers in the entire Phoenix organization since he was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011. It just remains to be seen whether GM Don Maloney and Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett are willing to give serious NHL minutes to a player lacking in physical presence like the 5’8 Miele.
Miele has been deployed with multiple linemates this season. He has played with Rieder when he is injury-free and with Jordan Szwarz before he stuck with the Coyotes. Brown often plays on his left side although Edwards has recently installed Lessio on that wing in an effort to jumpstart his production. There have also been experiments with Jordan Martinook and Phil Lane on Miele’s line. Through it all, Miele has chugged along. He has 13 goals and 14 assists in 26 games, tied for 13th place in AHL scoring.
Miele recorded his first professional hat trick against the Worcester Sharks on December 14th. Previously, he was recalled to Phoenix for a four-game stint where he recorded a pair of assists.
Brendan Shinnimin, C, 22
Shinnimin’s prolific scoring in the CHL still has not translated to the professional level. In 2012-13, in a full season, he recorded just 12 goals and 21 assists. He should be fully acclimated to professional hockey by now, but through 26 games in 2013-14, Shinnimin has five goals and eight assists. This is not good enough for a scorer whose size renders him virtually one-dimensional.
In a way, part of this can be blamed on Miele. As long as he is producing in Portland, Miele will always be the first line center, getting most of the offensive zone faceoffs and deployment on the first wave of the power play. This sticks Shinnimin with muckers and grinders like Ethan Werek on his line, getting deployed in a lot of defensive situations. Ultimately, if Shinnimin does not break through and outplay Miele, he is just a redundant player and a wasted roster spot.
Mark Visentin, G, 21
Visentin has been the Pirates number-one goalie again this season. Despite a lack of run support, his individual performance has been solid. In 22 appearances, he has a 2.80 goals against average and .914 save percentage.
Visentin has certainly had his low points. The worst was when he was pulled in both games of a back-to-back against the St. John’s Ice Caps on October 30th and November 1st. However, he rebounded with one of his best performances of the season in his very next appearance when turned away 45 of 46 shots to lead the Pirates to a victory over their rivals, the Worcester Sharks, snapping a nasty losing streak in the process. That appearance in particular and Visentin’s consistency throughout the season despite the distraction on and off the ice have been an indication of a solid mental make-up, which is the true cornerstone of any capable NHL goaltender.
Ethan Werek, C, 22
Werek is one of the many Pirates that have been hampered by injury in 2013-14. Because of his undisclosed injury, Werek has only dressed for 13 games, recording a goal and three assists. Werek is another center who would benefit from Miele getting promoted to the parent club for an extended stay. This would kick Shinnimin up to the scoring line, providing Werek exposure in a shutdown center role.
Jordan Martinook, C, 21
In his second season of professional hockey, Martinook still has not been able to make the prolific scoring of his junior days translate into AHL success. Martinook has a big NHL-caliber shot but he does not seem able to process the game at a professional speed yet. A strong player with good balance, he excels in simple situations like digging in the corner, which is where he generates most of his scoring opportunities. Ultimately, Martinook may be better off on the wing where his skating deficiencies would be less evident and decision-making away from the puck is less complex.
James Melindy, D, 20
Melindy’s first full professional season got off to a rough start. He has been hampered by injury and has appeared in only seven games so far in 2013-14. He already got his feet wet in the AHL at the tail-end of 2012-13 after his season with the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL ended. Although he has always been a well-rounded defenseman, the speed of the professional game may serve to define Melindy’s true playing style because he will be forced to rely on his true strengths when playing under duress.
Philip Lane, RW, 21
Lane was a pleasant surprise in 2012-13 when he broke into professional hockey playing a solid two-way role on Portland’s third line. He has taken a step back in 2013-14, managing just a sole assist in 10 ineffective games while missing loads of time with injury. Lane remains unavailable with a long-term upper-body injury.
Lane has a strong 6’2 frame to go with relatively soft hands. During last season’s emergence he came off like a mirror image of Lucas Lessio, a power forward who could play virtually any brand of hockey. Had Lane maintained that development arc, he might have been due for an audition in 2013-14. With his current injury problems, that is off the table. Coming out of Brampton in the OHL, Lane was an unheralded draft pick. Realistically, when he returns from injury, he will have to prove himself all over again.
Mathieu Brodeur, D, 23
The 2013-14 season is Brodeur’s fourth full year of professional hockey. He has never been a serious threat to crack an NHL roster but his play has been fairly solid in the early going this season.
Brodeur is a player that has late-bloomer written all over him. Standing 6’6 and knowing how to use his body, the Coyotes have good reason to let him hang around and see how things play out. He is, and always has been, excellent in his own zone, where his size and reach give him an advantage over just about any forward in the AHL. However, he continues to struggle in the offensive zone where he conducts himself with a glaring lack of confidence. He has a tendency to bail out of the zone early when he anticipates his teammates losing possession, resulting in uncontested zone exits for the opposition
Mathieu Brisebois, D, 21
Brisebois is playing his first season of professional hockey, experiencing the full spectrum of growing pains young defensemen must endure.
It is hard to overstate the gap between major junior and AHL hockey. The rate of speed and immediacy of puck transition can make any young defenseman look out of place. As the season progresses, Brisebois needs to be more ambitious with the puck. He only has one assist through 19 games this season. He should become a more effective puck-mover, provided he finds confidence in his abilities at the professional level.
His ability to survive and thrive in the corners and along the wall could determine his viability at the next level. At 5’10, Brisebois is small for a defenseman. He needs to maximize his strength and perfect his board play. If Brisebois can round out his game somewhat, he could be a serviceable third-pairing defenseman, quarterbacking the second wave of the power play.
Louis Domingue, G, 21
Domingue has shuffled back and forth all season between Portland and the Coyotes ECHL affiliate, the Gwinnet Gladiators. He dominated in Gwinnett with a 2.01 goals against average and .939 save percentage. His numbers came back to Earth slightly when he stepped up to Portland. Still, a 2.23 goals against average and .932 save percentage in the AHL are very encouraging numbers.
Mike Lee, G, 23
Lee’s season has been disrupted by a lower-body injury he suffered in early November. He has looked shaky at best in his five appearances. A 3.81 goals against average and .872 save percentage have not been acceptable numbers for a goalie since they started wearing helmets.
It is most likely that Lee has been ineffective because of his injury. This may have been compounded by a rush to come back and defend his job from the upstart Louis Domingue. Whatever the reason for Lee’s ineffectiveness, the Coyotes have only two slots for goalies in the AHL and those will go to their most effective keepers regardless of circumstance.
Brett Hextall, RW, 25
The 2013-14 season is Hextall’s third year of professional hockey. He has played all of them in Portland under the supervision of the Coyotes front office. With limited scoring ability, Hextall has carved out a niche as an energy forward despite his small stature. When his contract expires at the end of the season, Don Maloney will have an overwhelming sample size to make an informed determination as to whether Hextall is capable of ever playing NHL hockey.
Darian Dziurzynski, LW, 22
Dziurzynski has dressed in 23 games in 2013-14, notching only a goal and assist on a fourth line that is usually cobbled together with whatever players are left after all the roster moves and injuries are announced. This should not be an excuse for Dziurzynski. The typical AHL chaos caused by injuries and last minute call-ups are golden opportunities for fifth round marginal prospects like this player. Throughout his career, he has been a jack-of-all-trades with a willingness to drop the gloves. Dziurzynski needs to make an honest inventory of his skill set and determine what type of player he needs to be in order to give himself his most realistic shot at playing in the NHL.
The Coyotes ECHL affiliate, the Gwinnet Gladiators, are also off to a rough start, stalled at the bottom of their conference. Justin Weller is the only Coyotes prospect currently on the Gladiators’ roster. The 22-year-old is a big, stay-at-home defenseman. He is a decent skater and puckhandler. He needs to incorporate these skills into his game with more confidence and become more versatile in order to warrant a call up to Portland.
After starting the season in Portland, both Jordan Szwarz and Connor Murphy have played the bulk of the season in the NHL with the Phoenix Coyotes. Szwarz, who was initially named captain of the Pirates, carved out a niche on the Coyotes fourth line before being sent back to Portland on December 29th. The 20-year-old Murphy was initially called up because of an injury to Derek Morris. Dave Tippett has shown confidence in the youngster, exposing him without any apparent hesitation to a wide variety of demanding situations.
On the right side, Murphy has also usurped David Rundblad, who remains a fixture in the pressbox. He is a victim of his contract which exposes him to waivers if the Coyotes attempt to send him to Portland. Maloney does not want to let him go for nothing, but he does not seem to be willing to move him for his current market value.
Goaltender Marek Langhamer is the only Coyotes prospect competing in the 2014 World Junior Championships in Sweden. He was in net for the Czech Republic when they upset Canada in group play, winning in a shootout on December 28th. Despite their play in the CHL, Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson were left off the Canadian and American rosters, respectively.
Follow Pat Paeplow on Twitter: @Ppaeplow