Several Phoenix Coyotes prospects achieved career-changing milestones in 2013-14. Jordan Szwarz and Connor Murphy made their NHL debuts. Others, like Tobias Rieder and Yan-Pavel Laplante, enjoyed their first taste of professional hockey with the Portland Pirates.
Newly drafted prospects like Max Domi experienced the rigors of an NHL training camp for the first time, learning the demands and responsibilities that come with being a professional athlete.
Phoenix missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year in 2013-14. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, this could be grounds for at least a slight roster shake-up which may create opportunities for the most promising and well-prepared Coyotes prospects. The individuals listed below have stood out amongst their peers this season.
Prospect of the Year: Connor Murphy, D, Phoenix Coyotes (NHL)
Several prospects throughout the Coyotes system may arguably have higher ceilings than Connor Murphy. In the CHL, both Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson are displaying a scoring flair that is desperately needed on the big club while, in Portland, Brandon Gormley continues to refine his skill. He will be a better all-around defender down the road. However, in 2013-14, no other prospect performed as well or at as high a level as Connor Murphy.
Murphy made his NHL debut in November after injuries opened a hole on the right side of the Coyotes defensive depth chart. He scored in his first game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and went on to play 30 games in the NHL. Head Coach Dave Tippett did not deploy him like an inexperienced rookie. Rather, Murphy saw ice time in all situations including penalty kills, against the opposition’s top scoring lines as well as clutch and late. In 2014-15, a job as an NHL regular will be Murphy’s to lose heading into training camp.
In April 2014, the Coyotes signed Gaudet to a three-year entry-level contract. Although he finished the season in Portland, the center spent the majority of the season with the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL.
There have been many prospects that were passed over in the NHL draft but Gaudet is the rare professional to also have gone undrafted by each and every OHL team. Gaudet possesses many attributes typical to late-bloomers. Most importantly, he has begun to fill into a 6’3”, 200-pound frame, and at 21 years old, he still has the capacity to add more muscle mass. Throughout his short career, Gaudet has been known for utilizing his size and strength in a defensively conscientious manner. However, with the Greyhounds this season, Gaudet increased his offensive production to nearly a point-per-game rate without sacrificing the trademark defensive responsibility that made him a coach’s favorite throughout the amateur ranks.
Best Defensive Prospect: Brandon Gormley, D, Portland Pirates (AHL)
With fellow defenseman Connor Murphy being selected as the overall Prospect of the Year, it may seem counterintuitive that Gormley usurps him as the best prospect in his defensive group. The reality is that the composition of the Coyotes depth chart conspired with injuries to create an opening at right defense which Murphy, to his credit, exploited. Meanwhile, the left defenseman Gormley continued to grow into the role of a top-pairing lynchpin in Portland in 2013-14. He gobbled up minutes in all situations and excelled despite playing in a virtual shooting gallery with the mediocre Pirates. The PEI native made his NHL debut on March 11th against the Lightning and went on to play in five NHL games at the end of the season. This award reflects Gormley’s higher long-term ceiling. He has displayed the skills and consistency of a 30-minute NHL defenseman.
Fastest Skater: Max Domi, C, London Knights (OHL)
Domi is the Coyotes fastest prospect. He is probably the fastest skater in the organization in true game situations. His top-gear speed rivals any long-strider but its Domi’s freakish acceleration which really jumps out along with his dynamic lateral mobility which he can execute at nearly top speed. He also possesses a remarkably quick first step, allowing him to jack-rabbit in tight areas behind the net or in corners.
Domi’s roller coaster season culminated this month when his London Knights hosted the Memorial Cup. Domi scored a pair of assists but London lost all three of their round-robin games.
Hardest Shot: Lucas Lessio, LW, Portland Pirates (AHL)
If the award for this category was handed to the player who could put the most velocity on a puck in a skills competition, the winner would be Jordan Martinook. However, Martinook scored just 14 goals in 67 games with the Pirates. This is an indication that the ability to execute an effective shot in the traffic and chaos of an actual hockey game should be taken into consideration.
Down the stretch with Portland, Lessio peppered goalies with his shot. He can wind up and crank a high velocity slapper when afforded time and space but he also manages to release terrific wristers and snapshots in traffic and under duress. This is why he led the Pirates with 29 goals in 2013-14. Lessio combines all this with the strength and scrappiness to battle for loose pucks in the corners and rebounds in the goalmouth. All of this could add up to a significant amount of NHL games played in 2014-15.
Overachiever: Yan-Pavel Laplante, C, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
Laplante draws his entire identity as a hockey player from his intensity. For an NHL prospect, his individual skills are very mediocre. However, he is all in on every shift, engaging physically at top speed with little regard for his own body. After six pro games in 2013-14, he will play a full AHL season with the Portland Pirates in 2014-15. If Laplante can make his frenetic style translate from junior hockey to the professional ranks without his bigger, faster opponents sending him to injured reserve or the penalty box for large chunks of time, the Coyotes could have a valuable bottom-six forward on their hands. Listed as a center, Laplante was deployed as a wing in Victoriaville after the trade.
Underachiever: Brendan Shinnimin, C, Portland Pirates (AHL)
Brendan Shinnimin had a golden opportunity to step into the Pirates roster and prove his scoring prowess in junior would translate into pro hockey. Phoenix signed the undersized Shinnimin as an undrafted free agent after he tore up the WHL and won the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy in 2011-12. It is likely that management felt Shinnimin could produce like the Hobey Baker winner, Andy Miele, another undrafted free agent. Despite being deployed on a scoring line, Shinnimin managed just 28 points in 52 games.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Andy Miele, C, Portland Pirates (AHL)
Three years from now, it would not be a much of a surprise to see Miele suiting up for an NHL All-Star Game. On the other hand, it will not be a shocker if he is out hockey altogether. For the diminutive Miele, it all hinges on whether he is given an opportunity. In Phoenix, he has never been given a true shot. At the AHL level, Miele excels as a playmaking center on a top scoring line. Whenever he has been called up, he winds up playing wing on a second or third line, getting abused in board battles all night. In order for Miele to have a realistic opportunity, he needs a team to give him a legitimate 20-game NHL stint, centering a first or second line.
The Coyotes may not be the organization to take that risk. They are probably too competitive to take such a gamble. They probably have a little too much depth at center, especially with Max Domi challenging for a roster spot next year. Miele is an unrestricted free agent heading into the summer.
Hardest Worker: Laurent Dauphin, C, Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)
Dauphin’s game is rooted in his work ethic. He has decent individual skills but nothing that really pops out from other top line forwards in the QMJHL. Dauphin consistently displays tenacity and determination to battle through fatigue and lactic acid late in periods to keep his feet moving. This is what elevates him into the range of a bona fide NHL prospect. He generates many of his best scoring opportunities through relentless forechecking, gobbling up turnovers from defensemen who lose the test of wills. Conversely, Dauphin makes his own defensemen look good by bearing down on opposing forwards on the backcheck. This commitment forces the rush to stay predictably North and South. Puck carriers are unable to take advantage of lateral space resulting in stalled and sloppy zone entries.
Breakout Player for 2014-15: Brandon Gormley, D, Portland Pirates (AHL)
Gormley managed to appear in five NHL games toward the end of 2013-14. However, throughout most of the season, he was a victim of the Coyotes stockpile of talent on defense. In many organizations he would have been an NHL regular for the entire year. Despite this adversity, Gormley continued to excel in all phases. An NHL roster spot should be his to lose in 2014-15. Unless he drastically regresses, Gormley’s days riding buses in the AHL are behind him. However, two seasons spent playing 25 minutes a night in Portland instead of riding the bench or the pressbox in Phoenix will pay major dividends for Gormley, smoothing out his transition from AHL stud to top-four NHL defenseman in 2014-15.