Deep defense at the heart of the Winnipeg Jets professional system

By Charlie Beattie

Brenden Kichton - Winnipeg Jets

Photo: Winnipeg 2013 pick Brenden Kichton ranks third in the AHL in scoring amongst defensemen with 28 points through 36 games for the Jets affiliate in St. John’s (courtesy of Terrence Lee/Icon SMI)

With several scattered injuries at the NHL level, including blue chip defenseman Jacob Trouba at one point, no less than seven AHL regulars have seen spot duty with the Winnipeg Jets this season. When not plugging holes at the NHL level, the St. John's IceCaps have provided stingy opposition to the rest of the AHL this season.

With professional veterans on defense and in net, St. John’s has stayed in contention for a playoff spot primarily through their abilities to keep opponents at bay.

While the IceCaps’ lineup does not boast the cream of the Jets’ prospect crop, it does provide depth, as evidenced by the sheer number of players utilized at the top level this season.

In addition to the veterans, a trio of rookies have made their mark this season. Forwards Adam Lowry and J.C. Lipon have adjusted to the professional level and have started to assert themselves as the calendar turns to 2014, while undersized defenseman Brenden Kichton has used prior draft snubs to motivate him and has proven to be a rock of the lineup.

NHL

Mark Scheifele, C, 20

Scheifele’s struggles from the beginning of the season seem to be a distant memory as the calendar turns to 2014. After a long, much publicized and scrutinized goal drought stretching from October 1st to November 25th, Scheifele’s ice time fluctuated, and opinions on whether or not he was in over his head at the NHL level were a talk radio staple.

Scheifele’s offense finally arrived in late November, and after a 24-game stretch to start the season that yielded one goal and four assists, Scheifele has started to produce like a top-six forward, posting 18 points (6 goals, 12 assists) in his last 22 games. Oddly enough, Scheifele has not found the net at MTS Center this season, with all seven of his goals coming on the road (his only career goal prior to this season, in 2011, came in Toronto). Having seen his ice time rise to over 17 minutes per game in December, Scheifele is averaging 20 minutes in four January games.

Scheifele still has adjustments to make to be a complete player, however. His faceoff percentage is still woeful at 41.7%. His inability to consistently win draws has kept him primarily on the bench when the Jets’ special teams units have become involved in the action.

Still, Scheifele’s transformation has brought a positive air around a player whom the Jets’ brought along patiently after making him their first ever draft pick after relocating from Atlanta. Scheifele’s recent play has started to repay that faith. He began the season as a key element to the Jets’ success, and as he moves towards graduation from prospect status, he remains integral to the Jets’ future.

Jacob Trouba, D, 19

Whereas Scheifele’s adversity was performance-related, Trouba’s came through injury. Trouba suffered a frightening neck injury on October 18th when he crashed into the boards attempting to check St. Louis’ Jordan Leopold. The injury cost Trouba 17 games, but his play did not skip a beat upon his late November return.

Playing primarily on a line with stay-at-home Zach Bogosian, Trouba has been allowed to venture forward, and his 13 points are tied for second among Jets defensemen despite the missed time.

Trouba came into the season with a reputation as a power-play weapon due to his big shot, however it is at the other end of the special teams spectrum where Trouba has made his mark. Only Mark Stuart has averaged more time on the ice than Trouba when the Jets are shorthanded.

Trouba still has room to grow into his 6’2 frame, and must add size to provide more physical punch. Known for gambling on big hits, one positive of his injury is that it has tempered his desire to take chances, forcing him to stay in position.

Trouba continues to project as a complete defenseman with limitless upside, with some believing that he is already the most important blueliner the Jets have on their roster right now. Heady, but well deserved praise for a player with barely 30 NHL games.

Eric O’Dell, C, 23

O’Dell led the IceCaps in scoring, posting 12 goals and 17 assists in 29 games, earning his first NHL call up on December 17th, five years after he was drafted in the second round by Anaheim.

O’Dell appeared in four games in his first week with Winnipeg, posting no points and compiling six minutes in penalties while averaging under six minutes per game on the fourth line. He was then a healthy scratch for five consecutive games prior to two more limited appearances in January.

O’Dell has average size but is not an overly physical forward and does not hold much value as a bottom-six forward at any level. With offense as the hallmark of his game, he has to find a way to convince the Jets’ brass that he is worth a spot on a scoring line.

Zach Redmond, D, 25

Redmond is another player who has earned a brief call-up to the NHL level this season, skating in three November games for the Jets and posting a minus-two. He was a healthy scratch in six other games. With the IceCaps, he has posted five goals and seven assists in 15 games.

Redmond is in a tricky spot, having proven seemingly all he can at the minor league level, but with Winnipeg’s blue line a crowded house, opportunities have been tough to come by. Another came along when the defenseman was recalled to Winnipeg on January 10th.

Redmond’s knock is that, while big (6’3, 205 pounds) he is not consistently physical. Despite that, he possesses good offensive instincts for a defenseman.

AHL

Ed Pasquale, G, 23

Pasquale remains the top option in St. John’s, putting up workhorse numbers and playing more minutes than all but three goaltenders in the AHL. In addition, he seems to have rebounded well from a subpar 2012-13, and he ranks in the top ten in both goals against (2.28) and save percentage (.923) while seeing an average of just under 30 shots per game.

Pasquale plays a very safe, economical goaltending style, and his strengths and weaknesses are fairly par for the course for a goalie of this nature. He is big, plays a positional game, but his lateral movement and quickness are questionable. His recovery is not the best when the play breaks down.

Even with the improved play this season, Pasquale continues to wait behind Al Montoya and Ondrej Pavelec for an NHL shot. Having signed a one-year deal in the offseason, and with two big prospects (Eric Comrie and Connor Hellebuyck) lurking behind him at the amateur levels, Pasquale’s future with the Jets remains uncertain.

Juho Olkinuora, G, 23

Olkinuora has seen only limited duty backing up Pasquale this season, his first full season as a pro coming out of the University of Denver.

Enduring long stretches without a game, Olkinuora has never been able to find a consistent game, posting an .893 save percentage in just nine appearances this year. While scouting reviews have been generally favorable when he has played, highlighting his compete level and overall athleticism, Olkinuora remains a mystery simply due to his small sample size of professional games.

Olkinuora is another in the Jets’ stable of “big” goaltenders, as in addition to Pavelec and Montoya, Pasquale, Olkinuora, and Michael Hutchinson are all 6’2 or taller.

Austen Brassard, RW, 20

Brassard signed an entry-level deal with the Jets’ organization in early June, and scored in his season debut on October 18th against Hershey. It would prove to be his only goal in six appearances. After being listed as a healthy scratch for several weeks (he had last played on November 2nd), it was confirmed in early December that he had left the team for personal reasons in mid-November and that there was no set timetable for his return to the team.

No specifics were given for the former fifth round pick’s absence, but he recently returned to the IceCaps lineup on January 7th. Brassard has one goal in eight games on the year.

Adam Lowry, C, 20

There was some question as to where Lowry would line up on the ice coming into the season. The final decision was a demanding season of learning the professional game at center for the former Swift Current Bronco.

The combination of rookie struggles and the rigors of covering all 200 feet of the ice have caused Lowry’s offensive numbers to suffer, and he has put up just 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 28 games. An early season injury to his shoulder did not help his cause either.

Still, Lowry is highly thought of by the Jets’ brass, mainly due to excellent skating ability to go along with his size (6’4, 187 pounds) as well as his willingness to do whatever is necessary to win. He has been turned loose by the coaching staff as well. Early in the season, he worked closely with veteran team captain Jason Jaffray. In early December, he was moved to a new line, centering fellow youngsters J.C. Lipon and Carl Klingberg.

Still only 20, Lowry’s offense has time to gel at the professional level. Even if he never develops that side of his game, his usefulness will go beyond the score sheet.

Carl Klingberg, LW, 22

Klingberg’s ability has never been in question. He has excellent speed to go with ideal (6’3, 205 pounds) size, possesses good scoring touch, and plays a 200-foot game.

While there is seemingly nothing that Klingberg cannot do, there seems to be too many games where he seemingly does not do anything at all. Consistency seems to be the only knock on the Swedish holdover from the Atlanta regime.

Klingberg’s sometimes maddening ways have dogged him again this season, and in early November he found himself a healthy scratch for a handful of games. Since his return, and a change in lines that has put him with rookies J.C. Lipon and Adam Lowry, Klingberg’s offense has returned, posting seven goals and five assists in 18 games since November 23rd.

Klingberg’s NHL career has spanned just seven total games, the last of which came in the 2011-12 season. If he can maintain the level he has shown over the past month plus, there is no reason to believe he will not get another look.

Patrice Cormier, C, 23

Cormier has continued his pattern of spot duty at the NHL level, getting a 13-day, three-game call up in October, while spending the rest of the season with St. John’s. He has appeared in at least nine NHL games every year since 2010-11, with one goal and one assist (both of which came when the team was still in Atlanta).

It is almost difficult to believe that Cormier is still only 23, as he feels so much like a known commodity at this point. While his offense has never developed, he maintains a physical presence on the ice with a willingness to stick up for his teammates. This season has been no different, with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 30 AHL games. Cormier ranks second on the team with 61 penalty minutes. He also had one fighting major (against the Capitals’ Tom Wilson) in his October stint with the Jets.

No one expects Cormier to suddenly develop the offensive skill set to fit inside his power forward body, but it remains to be seen if he can play a consistent role on the fourth line of an NHL team.

John Albert, C, 24

Albert walked a long road to his NHL debut this season, playing eight games with the Jets in December and scoring his first NHL goal in his debut against the Rangers on December 2nd (on his first NHL shot, no less). He was drafted in 2007, and spent four full seasons at Ohio State before finally turning pro in 2011-12. In 122 professional games since, Albert has just 17 total goals, five of which have come this season.

While offense is not what Albert has been known for, he is a hardworking, grinding player, and that was not overlooked upon his mid-December demotion back to St. John’s. He was named an alternate captain for the team on December 27th (The IceCaps had not played since December 15th prior to that night) in place of Eric O’Dell, who had been recalled to Winnipeg.

J.C. Lipon, RW, 20

Like Adam Lowry, Lipon is also in his first season at the professional level after four years with the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL. Also like Lowry, Lipon has found the adjustment difficult at times, finding himself a healthy scratch four times this season while posting among the worst plus/minus ratings on the team at minus-seven to go with his six goals and 12 assists.

However, there are signs that Lipon is starting to get comfortable, with eight points (one goal, seven assists) posted since the calendar hit December. Forming one third of the aforementioned kid line with Lowry, and Klingberg, the undersized Lipon has been given a chance to find the scoring touch that saw him post 89 points in his final season with the Blazers. 

Undersized and seemingly undervalued throughout his career, Lipon does not have the pressure of a high draft slot (he was a third round pick) to carry, and will be allowed to develop at a steady pace. Continuing his recent trends will go a long way towards an eventual NHL look for a player who once had a difficult choice to make between pursuing pro hockey or becoming a member of the international wakeboarding circuit.

Brenden Kichton, D, 21

Kichton’s first professional season has been a rousing success on all fronts. His offensive game has translated well to the professional level, as he is far and away St. John’s leading defensive scorer. His 28 points has him second on the team in scoring and third in the AHL among defensemen. He is the league’s leading rookie defenseman scorer.

Maintaining that scoring pace will be Kichton’s ticket to bigger and better things, as his size, which has already seen him passed over by the team that originally drafted him (the New York Islanders) will always be somewhat of a limitation.

Kichton’s defensive game is still a work in progress, but with so many players above him on the organizational depth chart, he will be allowed to work on his drawbacks at the minor league level for the foreseeable future. For his part, he has been converting the Jets’ brass slowly with his showing at that end of the ice this season, and with continued improvement, he could prove to be a steal of seventh round draft pick. 

Julian Melchiori, D, 22

Yet another defenseman who has earned a look with the big club this season, Melchiori donned a Jets sweater for the first time on December 27th, after his third call-up to the team on the year. He played 8:41 in a 6-4 victory over Minnesota and was sent back to St. John’s on December 31st.

While with the IceCaps, Melchiori has been the stable, stay-at-home option on their top defensive line. He does not play a flashy game, and has not scored this season, but his plus-five rating ranks among the best on the squad and he has been a key component of a team that has allowed just 97 goals in 36 games on the season.

Tough, physical, and with a long reach, Melchiori’s chance lies in his ability to play a shut-down role as he has never shown the ability to be an offensive threat of any kind. 

Ben Chiarot, D, 22

A player who was languishing in the ECHL two seasons ago and endured an average AHL season last year, Chiarot has been the other half (with Kichton) of a pleasantly surprising defensive duo for the IceCaps this year. His three-goal, seven-assist output through 31 games has nearly eclipsed his 12 points through all of last season, and he has become a plus player, ranking fourth on the team with a plus-four.

Chiarot’s journey culminated with a call-up to the NHL for a November 2nd clash with the Blackhawks, playing 10:47 and posting a minus-3 rating in the game. It was a far cry from the steadiness that has been the hallmark of his game at the AHL level.

ECHL

Michael Hutchinson, G, 23

Hutchinson was picked up as a free agent from the Boston organization this season, and after three years with the Providence Bruins of the AHL, has found himself taking a step backwards to the ECHL this season as Pasquale and Olkinoura have handled the crease duties in St. John’s.

While Hutchinson’s numbers in the ECHL have been excellent, posting a 22-4-2 record, 2.08 goals against average, and a .921 save percentage through the halfway point of the Ontario Reign season, his path is severely blocked within an organization whose goaltending depth long term also includes junior goalie Eric Comrie and collegian Connor Hellebuyck. Hutchinson has already experienced a squeeze out in Boston, having to make way for first round pick Malcom Subban in the Bruins’ organizational depth chart. It remains to be seen if the same thing is happening with Winnipeg.

Cody Sol, D, 22

Sol is a mountainous defenseman who moved the wrong direction this season, finding himself reassigned to the ECHL’s Ontario Reign out of training camp. It is the second consecutive season in which he finds himself two levels below the NHL. He was reassigned to Winnipeg’s then ECHL affiliate Colorado last season after starting the year with St. John’s.

Sol is 6’4 and 245 pounds, and plays a classic enforcers role, having racked up 64 penalty minutes in 34 games this season. As a player, he has many factors working against him. His role is slowly fading away from the professional game, and he is a member of an organization that has never really shown him that he is needed, being a draft pick of the old Atlanta regime. Limited in what he brings to the table, Sol will need major changes to occur if he is to claw himself back into organizational consideration.