Coyotes 2004 draft evaluation

By Kyle Kujawa

In the 2004 draft Phoenix Coyotes chose to replenish their offensive cupboard, targeting nine forwards and just one defenseman.  Despite a messy situation involving their first selection, the 2004 draft can be seen as a step in the right direction for the organization.  It has already produced four players who have seen significant NHL action, with a few more still on the horizon.

Blake Wheeler, RW
1st round – 5th overall (Breck School, USHS)
Status: NHL Player
NHL games: 81 

Phoenix showed considerable faith in Wheeler when they made him the fifth overall selection, against the critiques of many analysts who believed they should have traded down if Wheeler was their guy. 

Wheeler had the ideal blend of speed, size, and skill and projected as a top-six power forward.  He was physical and played the game at a high pace, with a knack for showing slick hands around the net.  His stock didn’t immediately skyrocket when he joined the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2005-06, but he was able to become an impact player as a freshman.  His college career was highlighted by an appearance at the World Junior Championships for the United States and a breakout junior season, where he was thrust into the spotlight.

Wheeler caused something of a stir last offseason when he rejected the Coyotes’ offers to become an unrestricted free agent, able to choose the team he wished to play for.  He chose the Boston Bruins and made the team out of training camp, scoring 21 goals and 45 points on the year.

It may be disappointing that this strong campaign did not come as a Coyote, but it is a tremendous credit to the scouting staff, as Wheeler looks exactly like the player that Phoenix saw when they went off the board for him.  Phoenix was awarded the 35th overall selection in the 2008 Entry Draft as compensation for not signing him.

Logan Stephenson, D
2nd round, 35th overall (Tri-City, WHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games: 0

Stephenson is an in-your-face physical defenseman more in the shut-down, stay-at-home mold.  He offered size, strength, and grit and enjoyed a WHL career that saw him in the last group of cuts for the gold-medal winning Team Canada at the 2006 World Junior Championships.  He skates and moves the puck well enough, but was never much of an offensive factor up until his final year in the WHL.  Phoenix hoped that Stephenson would bring a Scott Stevens type of presence to their blueline.

Stephenson hit a bit of a wall when he turned professional, having trouble being as physical and as mean to bigger, older players in the AHL.  He spent two full seasons with the San Antonio Rampage where he showed signs of development, but lacked an overall consistency.  Stephenson was expected to emerge as San Antonio’s go-to defender this season, but that plan ended when Phoenix shipped him to Anaheim for Joakim Lindstrom.  Months later, Stephenson was on the move again as part of the package that sent Samuel Pahlsson to Chicago.

He remains a regular in the AHL as a reliable, aggressive player who knows his role and keeps it simple.  His upside is likely more of a bottom-pairing guy, but he will need a new contract from Chicago this offseason.

Enver Lisin, RW
2nd round, 50th overall (Crystall Saratov, RUS-2)
Status: NHL Player
NHL games: 78

Lisin was expected to be a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft, but when he slipped, Phoenix traded up 10 spots to grab him.  His skills were very enticing, as he was probably the fastest skater in the draft, in addition to a dangerous wrist shot and a multitude of good finishing moves.  He slipped because he was tagged as a one-dimensional and lazy player.

He landed in North America in 2006-07 and immediately showed Phoenix that he had the skill to be an impact player.  His game-to-game consistency was an issue and his lack of a defensive game quickly had him in the dog house.  He was demoted to the AHL, but disputed the move and went back to Russia.

He came back to North America the next season and rededicated himself to the franchise.  Two full seasons split between the AHL and NHL has helped him learn the system and his place in it.  He has become more competitive on a day-to-day basis, but his game is still tipped more in the direction of his explosive offensive skills.  Lisin had his most active year in the NHL this season, playing in 48 games.  He hasn’t entirely secured a regular spot in the lineup for next season, but his chances look very good.

Roman Tomanek, LW
4th round, 103rd overall (Povazska Bystrica, SVK)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games: 0

Phoenix again swung for the fences with a fourth-round selection on another high-octane offensive forward, Roman Tomanek. Tomanek had excellent speed and was a superb puckhandler who was not afraid to try something new with the puck.  He was a tenacious forechecker, but not always a conscious defensive player. However, off-ice issues surrounded his arrival to North America and his motivation was questionable.

He came over to the WHL the season after he was drafted, where injuries limited him to just 19 games.  He returned to the WHL for a second season, showcasing some of his high level of offensive skill but an overall unrefined game.  He violated an unspecified team rule in the WHL and was sent back to Slovakia for the duration of his season.

Tomanek played the 2008-09 season back in the top Slovakian league.

Kevin Porter, RW
4th round, 119th overall (NTDP U-18)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games: 34

Porter was regarded as more of a playmaker before joining the University of Michigan – a player with good wheels and outstanding ability for his size.  Under the tutelage of coach Red Berenson, Porter put up some great numbers but also cultivated his defensive game, emerging as one of the best two-way players in recent Michigan history.

Porter was instantly a factor in Michigan’s offense, logging big minutes even as a freshman.  He elected to stay in college for his senior season, a decision that paid off for him and the Wolverines.  He captained a young team to the overall No. 1 seed en route to capturing the 2008 Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the nation’s top collegiate performer.

As a first-year pro, he made the Coyotes out of camp, as one of the organization’s best overall defensive players.  His speed and creativity allowed him to chip in some points when he could, but things went south midseason when he was demoted to the AHL.  He finished strong with San Antonio, racking up 35 points in 42 games and a load of confidence along with it.  This confidence will help him next fall as he hopes to stay in the mix for a permanent roster spot.

Kevin Cormier, W
6th round, 168th overall (Moncton, MJAHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games: 0

Cormier was a rare pick drafted out of the Maritime Junior A league before joining the QMJHL in 2004-05.  It was clear early on that Cormier had one purpose -– to fight.  He emerged as a true heavyweight fighter in the QMJHL, bouncing around between three different teams.  In his final two years, he paid more attention to his conditioning and skillset to make himself more appealing as an enforcer who could handle a regular shift.

Cormier was signed by Phoenix last season and played for the CHL affiliate, the Arizona Sundogs.  New Jersey acquired him from Phoenix in the offseason for defenseman Sean Zimmerman.  Cormier played most of the season for the ECHL’s Trenton Devils, but wasn’t in the lineup every night.  By all accounts, he’s got a great fighting record, but is not a regular shift player.  If he ever gets an NHL callup, it will only be for one purpose.

Chad Kolarik, C
7th round, 199th overall (NTDP U-18)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games: 0

It’s hard to mention Kolarik without acknowledging Kevin Porter.  The two were each selected by Phoenix out of the U.S. National Team Development Program before four years at Michigan.  Kolarik found himself teamed with Porter often.  He also became a reliable two-way player, but Kolarik was always known a little bit better for his offensive skills.  At Michigan, he shifted to the wing and became a successful scorer with an arsenal of slick moves and an appetite to shoot from anywhere.

By his senior season, Kolarik had established himself as a strong two-way player with a good all-around game.  Porter was the top offensive threat that year, but Kolarik was dangerous and had no objections to Porter being in the spotlight.  Kolarik gave it his all every night and became regarded as more of the heart and soul to Porter’s speed and skill.

This attitude continued as Kolarik turned pro this season with the Rampage.  His 50 points in 76 games put him second on the team in scoring and near the top of all AHL rookies for most of the season.  He didn’t get a taste in the NHL this season, but is expected to have an opportunity to seize one of the last few forward spots in training camp.

Aaron Gagnon, C
8th round, 240th overall (Seattle, WHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games: 0

While the previous forwards Phoenix selected in this draft were more offensively oriented, or at least strong two-way performers, Gagnon was the first pick projected more as a shutdown center.  He brought energy and a strong work ethic to the rink every night, and in five years with Seattle, he committed himself to playing whatever role he was needed.  His fruitful junior career was highlighted by a two-year stint as Seattle’s captain.

Phoenix never offered Gagnon a contract, but he parlayed a career offensive year as an overager into a contract with the Dallas Stars.  The Stars had no AHL affiliate this past season, so Gagnon was loaned to the Grand Rapids Griffins.  His role was small, consisting mostly of killing penalties and taking crucial faceoffs.  A good, aggressive skater, Gagnon will need to show a little bit more as a third-year pro to earn another contract.

Will Engasser, LW
9th round, 261st overall (Blake School, USHS)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games: 0

Engasser had to wait much longer than expected before hearing his name called, as he was ranked 73rd among North American skaters by Central Scouting.  He was a finalist for Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey, given to the state’s top hockey player.  Engasser had all the tools be a dominant collegiate athlete, but never put it together at Yale.  At his best, he was an energetic fourth line player who could lay on the body.  He never played more than 25 games in four years.  He hung up his skates for medical school following his graduation.

Daniel Winnik, C
9th round, 265th overall (University of New Hampshire, HE)
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 128

Phoenix has gotten great value out of this ninth-round pick.  Undrafted in 2003, Winnik was selected after a fairly uneventful freshman season at the University of New Hampshire.  Phoenix felt he was more of a two-way power forward hybrid who had the skills to become a third or fourth line player.  Winnik had good size, was tough to move, was an efficient skater, and had the hockey sense to contribute in any situation.

Winnik groomed his game for two more seasons at UNH, exploding offensively for 81 points in 81 games.  He made the Coyotes out of camp in 2007-08 and established himself as a bottom-six forward who could supply some offense and take care of his own end.

Injuries sidelined him for part of this season and he didn’t re-establish himself as a regular until February.  But even prorated to a full season, Winnik’s numbers aren’t nearly as impressive as what he accomplished as a rookie.  He needs a new contract this offseason and seems like a good bet to get one, but will need to bring more of the energy he did as a rookie, since he will be battling for a roster spot with younger, more offensively skilled players.