Phoenix Coyotes late-round draft picks making their mark in NCAA

By Pat Paeplow

Jedd Soleway - Wisconsin Badgers

Photo: Wisconsin freshman Jedd Soleway, a top-nine and power play contributor this year for the Badgers, fits the Phoenix Coyotes mold of big, hard-nosed forwards (courtesy of Dan Sanger/Icon SMI)

The Phoenix Coyotes have made a habit of hoarding big, physical hockey players throughout all levels of their organization. This trend holds true in their pool of college hockey prospects. It is a player-type they clearly value.

To date, defenseman Niklas Tikkinen, ranked the ninth best defensive prospect in Finland by Hockey’s Future, is the only Coyotes prospect playing hockey in Europe.

Europe

Niklas Tikkinen, D, Espoo Blues (SM-liiga)
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, 2012

In 2013-14, Tikkinen has bounced around quite a bit. The Blues have loaned him out to four other clubs over the course of the season. It is customary for large clubs such as Espoo to loan out their younger players to lower divisions and smaller SM-liiga clubs in rural areas and should not be considered a reflection on Tikkinen’s play. Despite skating with the Finnish U20 team for 10 pre-tournament games he was not selected to the WJC roster that would go on to capture gold in Malmo.

In 17 total SM-liiga games, Tikkinen has registered one goal and two assists. He is reported to play with much more composure and effectiveness when he is loaned out to lower level teams although he is currently logging second-pairing minutes with Espoo. As a converted forward, it makes sense that skating and puck distribution are his primary assets. Being 5’11 and well under 200 pounds means his ability to give and take physically will always be questioned until he proves himself playing North American professional hockey.

In order to retain his rights, the Coyotes must sign Tikkinen to a contract before the 2014 NHL Draft.

NCAA

Connor Clifton, D, Quinnipiac Bobcats (ECAC)
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2013

In his freshman season, Clifton’s speed and puck handling have translated well to college hockey, especially Quinnipiac’s up-tempo, puck possession style of play. He has five goals and four assists this season and is one of the best freshman defensemen in the entire conference.

Clifton’s most valuable asset is probably his composure. He is a great skater and a very capable puck handler and distributor. Composure ensures these attributes do not diminish under forechecking duress or in high leverage game situations. Although he is clearly undersized for an NHL defenseman, his skating ability allows him to avoid dire physical confrontations. When he must engage physically, his above average balance coupled with a natural truculence helps mitigate his size disadvantage. Clifton is a right-handed shot defenseman which is a position of scarcity on most NHL clubs. As he attempts to complete his journey to the NHL, this will give him some latitude to prove he can be effective despite his size.

In 2012-13, the Bobcats went on a magical run all the way to the NCAA championship game where they fell to neighboring Yale. Their success has carried over to this season, but the Bobcats were unable to get past Colgate in the ECAC semifinals, losing in double overtime 3-2.

Zac Larraza, LW, Denver Pioneers (NCHC)
Drafted 7th round, 196th overall, 2011

In his junior season at the University of Denver, Larraza has 8 goals and 9 assists through 28 games. He is logging third line minutes, usually being deployed with Emil Romig and Gabe Levin. Denver holds a 16-14-6 record heading into the inaugural NCHC tournament. They must win the conference championship in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Larraza is home-grown Arizona talent. He grew up playing for the Junior Coyotes and PF Changs Tier 1 Junior team. At 6’2 he is another prospect that fits the power forward mold which is so valued within the Coyotes organization. Larraza has a big dangerous shot but its role in his game has diminished as he has stepped up to higher levels of hockey. At more competitive levels, he has found his niche playing a conscientious, almost Tippett-inspired, three-zone game.

Jedd Soleway, RW, Wisconsin Badgers (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th round, 193rd overall, 2013

Currently in his freshman season, Soleway has tallied 6 assists through 32 games for a deep Wisconsin team that is ranked sixth in the NCAA. His first season of college hockey has been a transition process but Soleway has responded well, gaining confidence and earning more responsibility from Coach Mike Eaves as the season has progressed. He is typically deployed in a third-line role with seniors Jefferson Dahl and Sean Little. Recently, Soleway has seen ice time on the second wave of the Badgers power play.

At 6’3 and 220 pounds, Soleway has the size and strength of an NHL power forward right now. He looks to skate toward body contact, and he never shied away from a scrap when he played in the BCHL. His shot has already become legendary at a young age. Playing in the NCAA, where he will be deployed on scoring rather than grinding lines, could have a very positive effect on this seventh round selection. Like many Coyotes prospects, Soleway has definite hockey roots. His father was once a professional prospect and his mother was a power skating coach for the Detroit Red Wings.

Hunter Fejes, LW, Colorado College Tigers (NCHC)
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2012

Fejes has had a poor sophomore season. After leading all Colorado College freshman in scoring in 2012-13, he has just a mere assist in 26 games this year. Recently, a lower body injury cost him three weeks in late February and early March.

Unlike many Coyotes prospects, Fejes lacks a true physical or defensive presence. He is a finesse player with terrific one-on-one skill. He is probably the best pure goal scorer the Coyotes possess at this stage of their pipeline. In 2011-12, he led the storied Shattuck St. Mary’s program in scoring. However, because his game is so one-dimensional right now, there is nothing to mitigate his lack of production. When his skills are not translating into goals, he is not an impact NCAA hockey player and he certainly is not a viable NHL prospect.

Last season, Fejes really stepped up his game in the post-season. He was a key contributor for Colorado College as they went on a run all the way to the WCHA championship game and fell a win short of qualifying for the NCAA tournament. This year, after limping through the regular season with a 6-22-6 record, Fejes and the Tigers were unable to redeem themselves in a hard fought, first round series against North Dakota.

Rhett Holland, D, Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten)
Drafted 4th round, 102nd overall, 2012

As a redshirt freshman, Holland has four assists in 31 games this season. As a true freshman in 2012-13, he played three games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Lake Superior State.

Holland needs to round out his game and the college hockey environment should allow him to do that. He is 6’2 and understands how to use his size to neutralize forwards in front of the net and in the corners. He struggles with mobility in open ice, both with facing an oncoming rush on defense and distributing the puck in offensive situations. In the CHL, he could probably fall back on his physicality and be a big, intimidating bruiser to earn ice time. The NCAA is refereed much more tightly and he will need to face his flaws and correct them in order to develop into a top-pairing defenseman for the Spartans.

Michigan State held a 10-16-7 record going into the Big Ten tournament, where the team fell in the first round to Ohio State.

Other Notes

On March 7th, Brandon Gormley was called up to the Coyotes. Since the recall he has dressed for two games, playing bottom-pairing minutes. Gormley was on the ice for 13:22 in a shootout victory over Tampa Bay and 11:49 against Florida in a 2-1 win.

Andy Miele was recalled to Phoenix on March 9th. He was deployed sparingly in three games against Tampa Bay, Florida and Boston before he was reassigned to Portland.

The Coyotes unloaded some of their top prospects in two deals at the trade deadline. Forward Chris Brown was sent to Washington along with Rostislav Klesla for Martin Erat and John Mitchell. Mitchell is a huge 6’6, 220-pound center who played four years at the University of Wisconsin before making the jump to the AHL.

The Coyotes also finally moved on from defenseman David Rundblad. He was dealt, with prospect Mathieu Brisebois, to the Chicago Blackhawks for a second round selection in 2014.

In a final deal, Phoenix acquired defenseman Cade Fairchild from St. Louis and assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Portland. Fairchild is an offensively gifted yet undersized defenseman. He was a standout at the University of Minnesota and dressed for a handful of NHL games with the Blues but nagging injuries have interfered with his development as a professional.

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