Over the last four years, the Coyotes have increased their success in the scouting department tenfold. Long gone are the days of going with a high-risk, high-reward method of selecting prospects. Instead, the club has been tactically precise in their pursuits. Phoenix has also benefited from not trading talent or picks away for players either in or over their prime.
There have been a couple scouting personnel changes over the years, but it is obvious they’ve been for the best. Current Director of Scouting Keith Gretzky and Assistant Director Steve Lyons have been with the club for some time and are some of the most respected scouts in the business. Both have put the club in a great position while adding a wealth of talent. It’s been a long time coming, but things are finally starting to look up in the desert.
This position has never been a strong suit for the franchise. Over the last few years, the Coyotes have shown a propensity to go after netminders later in the draft. It seems to have helped, as it’s always costly to burn an early pick for a prospect who will take time to grow and learn the position at the higher levels. There really hasn’t been anyone of caliber commensurate to the selections the Coyotes have carried in the first rounds. And when there has, they’ve needed to address other needs.
The most seasoned goaltending prospect actually came to the Coyotes from the New York Rangers last year at the trade deadline. Al Montoya has spent the last three seasons developing in the minors, where he hasn’t been bad, but he’s yet to step out and be a top goalie in the league. He came into the Phoenix’s AHL affiliate in San Antonio season and did an admirable job in a short time. The 23-year-old had a great camp this year, and the Coyotes want to keep him working hard until opportunity knocks. That is, until Ilya Bryzgalov convinces the team that he’s the starter from here on out, the club won’t move Mikael Tellqvist.
Behind Montoya is surprise prospect, Josh Tordjman. The former QMJHL netminder went undrafted, but the Coyotes came calling and snatched him up as a free agent. He’s been toiling in the minors with the San Antonio Rampage, where he’s been getting better year after year. He’s still a ways off and there is no rush at age 23.
Joel Gistedt and Scott Darling are the Coyotes other two at this position, but both are a bit farther off in their development. Gistedt is making his transition from the European game to the North American style in the CHL with the Arizona Sundogs. Darling is a freshman at the University of Maine.
The Coyotes have had a knack for picking defensemen over the last four drafts. Each year, they’ve added some very talented rearguards to help make their roster more diverse, competitive, and younger for years to come. Keith Yandle, Jonas Ahnelov, Nick Ross, and Chris Summers make up the “Big Four.” Each adds a different characteristic and all are expected to be important players within a couple of years. Yandle’s progress over the last few years (along with management’s trust in him) paved the way for the Olli Jokinen trade that saw Phoenix ship out Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton to Florida. Yandle is a stronger transition defenseman, who has offensive pop. Ahnelov is with Yandle in Phoenix, but he’s currently sitting on the IR. Management had a good indication that he was going to be able to make a swift transition, but no one guessed he would make the team out of camp. Often compared to Mattias Norstrom, the young Swede is a defensive-defenseman who has a knack for getting gritty and shutting down the opposition. Summers is the swift-skating, mellow mannered Scott Niedermayer type of blueliner. Currently in his junior year at the University of Michigan, the 20-year-old was expected to help the offense at wing, but injuries have forced him to remain at the rear. Lastly, there’s Ross, who’s in the WHL with Kamloops. He’s a two-way defenseman with an offensive eye, but his stronger suit is in his own end.
Outside this quartet, the Coyotes have numbers on the blueline, but all these prospects are in need of more development. Most notably, David Schlemko (San Antonio), Sean Sullivan (San Antonio), and Michael Stone (WHL – Calgary) are three to keep an eye on.
Though they’ve found talent on the left side, the Coyotes still don’t have an overabundance of it. As of right now, their two top dogs are in Phoenix. Mikael Boedker has continually impressed, and the Great Dane hasn’t stopped yet. His speed, tenacity, and puck possession skills were exactly what Phoenix was looking for when they selected him with their first pick in the 2008 draft. The former Kitchener Ranger is averaging 17:30 of ice time throughout seven games (leading all Phoenix rookies), and he has three points (all goals) and is a minus-1.
Kevin Porter’s natural position is center, but the Coyotes have moved him to left wing. This is not a surprise, as the same move was made when Porter was at the Michigan. Last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner is a smart two-way player, who reads and reacts very well. He put up consistent numbers at Michigan, but other than his two-way play, his leadership, confidence, and demeanor adds to his overall worth. It’s no surprise he made the Coyotes out of training camp. He wasn’t going to take a top-six role, but there was room for a smart, hardworking forward who would do what it takes to win on both sides of the ice.
Behind Porter lies another former OHLer in Brett MacLean. Coming off consecutive strong years with the Oshawa Generals, MacLean continues to work towards an NHL spot. The London, Ontario native is currently impressing with San Antonio — not a surprise since he spent the whole off-season preparing for the jump. Scoring is not a problem, as he exited juniors leading the OHL with 61 goals last season. While he’s got a ways to go, he immediately looked to strengthen his foot speed and overall stamina. Even though Phoenix looked to add youth, room was still tight for rookies.
The Coyotes have quality talent up the middle, as Kyle Turris leads the pack. Leaving Madison and flying south to start his pro career made tons of people happy in Phoenix. Management got giddy too, as they went out and got Jokinen to take over as the first line center to give the rookie some breathing room. Turris is expected to be one of the cornerstones of the franchise for years to come, and he’s off to a decent start. The 18-year old is a natural goal scorer, but he’s also a dynamic skater and stick handler. To remain a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate, Turris is going to have to show that junior-A flair that put him on the map.
Phoenix made a move to get Viktor Tikhonov at last summer’s draft because they thought he’d be a great piece of the youth movement puzzle. They expected him to require some seasoning with San Antonio before making the jump, but the youngster had this year on his mind. Tikhonov’s development got a boost from playing in the Russian Super League (RSL), and the Coyotes were happy it transferred back to the States. He was yet another rookie who came into camp and impressed from the start. Tikhonov is a hard skater and he’s hard on the puck. He can skate with pack and do the little things that make him valuable to the team at an early age. The American-born Russian is also a fixture who should remain in the desert for years to come and the Coyotes are eager for him to hit his full stride.
Outside these two top rookies, Phoenix also has Benn Ferriero, who’s in his final season at Boston College. The 2006 seventh-round pick has been a constant for the Eagles and more of the same is expected this year. Across the Atlantic, they also have two decent centermen in Vladimir Ruzicka and Anton Krysanov. Ruzicka is one of the youngest members on Slavia Praha back in the Czech Republic. His numbers aren’t off the chart, but the education he’s been receiving for the second straight year is transforming him into a well-rounded player. Krysanov on the other hand, is playing with a relatively young team in Lada Tolyatti. He’s currently in his fourth season in the Russia’s top league, where the 2005 pick has put up consistent numbers.
Colin Long is the last of the notables at center. The WHLer is a bit off in the picture, but the California native is currently trying to show everyone his 100-point (31 goals, 69 assists) “explosion” last season with the Kelowna Rockets wasn’t a fluke. Already chipping in more than a point a game, Long relies on his speed, his offensively gifted mind and a good set of hands. The skilled forward wasn’t drafted his first time around in 2007, but with some time, the Coyotes are hoping he turns out to be a steal.
It’s sort of a crapshoot with the talent on this side of the ice. The Coyotes top prospect here should be Enver Lisin, but he’s yet to show that he’s set for the NHL. There’s a good chance he was a victim of the numbers game (Phoenix picked up Ken Klee off waivers), because the Coyotes sent him back to San Antonio a day ago. When he’s on, he’s a swift-skating sniper. When he’s off, he takes himself out of the picture. He’s still only 22 years old and has a lot to prove he’s worth a contract extension. Rampage head coach Greg Ireland had success working with him last year, so everyone’s hoping some more seasoning pays off. If not, chances are he’ll return to Russia and play in the KHL.
Chad Kolarik is coming off a great career at the University of Michigan and has blazed a little trail in the AHL. He has risen to the talent and speed level, and there are no signs that he’s going to stop until he gets a legitimate shot to play with the Coyotes. A former linemate with Porter in Ann Arbor, Kolarik is a speedy sniper who has a good two-way qualities. A stop in San Antonio is only going to make him stronger, as he’s going to benefit from working with the coaching staff. The only question that remains is, can Phoenix find him a spot if he shows he’s ready this year?
First-year Coyote Alex Bourret is another option the club has at right wing. He’s looking to bounce back from an off year, where he battled some injuries. The former QMJHLer is a gritty forward, who still has to show he can manage his time effectively. The Coyotes want the 22-year-old to continue to use his speed and puck possession skills to create offense. So far he’s responded, as he’s jumped to the early lead in scoring down in San Antonio.
Jared Staal is the remaining prospect at this position that the Coyotes feel has a legitimate shot down the road. Currently playing with the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL, Phoenix expects the youngest Staal to continue to grow his game on the ice and fill out his frame. He’s from good pedigree, and the club is by no means going to rush him along. They envision him to mature into a good two-way player who can use his body to create havoc.
What a difference four years makes. As promised, the Coyotes have revitalized their organization through the draft. After years of misses, Phoenix has graduated players that are currently in prime-time roles for the club. They’ve also signed young free agents or traded for prospects that have made an impact in the desert. With numerous members on the scouting staff and front office having a keen eye for young talent, this appears to be a continuing trend for the franchise. Though, when they start racking up the wins and sliding down in the draft, everyone is going to have to elevate their games to get it right.
Phoenix needs to add players upfront, as the numbers have been dwindling. They don’t quite have depth when it comes to overall numbers, but they’re extremely happy with whom they have. This will come in handy, as they look to move more players into the mix down the road.