Make-or-break seasons ahead for many Arizona Coyotes prospects

By Pat Paeplow
Photo: Ryan Macinnis (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Photo: Ryan Macinnis appears poised to add a bit more offensive production to his already solid defensive game in 2014-15. (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

The Arizona Coyotes head into training camp with some key roster spots available. With Mike Ribeiro having left town, Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson and Lucas Lessio will all vie for the vacancy in Arizona’s top nine forwards. Also, Brandon Gormley appears ready to finally wrestle away an NHL roster spot from the fading veterans at the bottom of Arizona’s depth chart like David Schlemko.

Internal competition will be the theme throughout all stages of Arizona’s prospect pipeline in 2014-15. In the AHL, the Portland Pirates will be overloaded with forward prospects. Along with many former first round picks, there are promising depth players like Tyler Gaudet, Laurent Dauphin and Yan-Pavel Laplante. The problem is that there simply will not be enough ice time to go around. Some will take advantage of their opportunities while others may have their professional hockey career stall out.

In the NCAA and in Europe there are several unsigned prospects like Zac Larraza and Rhett Holland who may or may not project as depth players in the NHL. General manager Don Maloney and the rest of Arizona’s front office must determine whether their potential is realistic enough to invest a contract in, as NHL clubs are only allowed to have 50 players under contract. With such a finite amount, investing in one prospect could mean cutting ties with another.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Brandon Gormley, D, Arizona Coyotes (NHL)/Portland Pirates (AHL)

As Arizona’s top prospect, all eyes will be on Brandon Gormley to convert his potential into reality in 2014-15. Gormley is a steady, not flashy, defenseman who excels at all facets of his position. Breaking out of the defensive zone and through neutral ice, Gormley executes accurate passes that challenge any breakdown in the opponent’s defensive structure. This vision and assertiveness adds a dimension to his even-strength game and makes him a very capable quarterback on the power play. In defensive zone coverage, Gormley plays with a high degree of composure.

All signs point to Gormley playing in Arizona throughout 2014-15. With players like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson ahead of him on the depth chart, he is unlikely to be deployed in all situations as he was in the AHL for the Portland Pirates in 2013-14. Initially, Gormley will probably toil on the bottom-pairing. Indicators of success early on will be his ability to win physical battles against NHL competition as well as his degree of confidence while distributing the puck. Tape-to-tape passes through the neutral zone will be a sign of seemless transition, while pucks slapped off the glass and abandoned in the neutral zone will indicate growing pains.

Bounceback Prospect
Philip Lane, RW, Portland Pirates (AHL)

Many were caught off guard to find Phil Lane listed at No. 19 among Arizona’s top prospects this year, as Lane had a horrible season in 2013-14. He sat out large chunks of the Portland Pirates’ season with an undisclosed injury (the AHL does not maintain an injury report). In the 39 games he did play, he scored just three goals and three assists and was ineffective in his own zone.

After such a season it is easy to forget Lane’s promise. In 2012-13 he stepped into the AHL and played two-way hockey, chipping in 14 goals on a gritty Portland team that finished second in their division. In 2011-12, after Arizona invested a second round pick into acquiring him, Lane was one of the leading scorers for the talent-starved Brampton Battallion, who he helped guide to the OHL playoffs.

Lane is a big, physical forward who understands how to play disciplined hockey and, at his best, also contributes timely scoring. Don Maloney has stockpiled players like this since he replaced Wayne Gretzky as general manager in 2009. For Maloney, rugged forwards who never hesitate define the Coyotes identity. For Maloney to promote his culture, he needs players like this to succeed and grow within the organization. Lane needs to display he has recovered from his injuries and can still engage physically. If he can prove this while contributing to Portland’s return to the AHL playoffs, Maloney would probably keep him on the roster in 2015-16.

NHL-bound Prospect
Lucas Lessio, LW, Portland Pirates (AHL)

Lucas Lessio earned a Coyotes roster spot out of training camp in 2013-14. He endured the ups and downs that any rookie has while finding his stride in the NHL. Unfortunately for him, the Coyotes struggled as a team and Lessio was demoted as a part of a roster shake-up. He went on to dominate AHL competition with 29 goals in 69 games despite playing on a last-place club in Portland. He did everything that could have been expected to earn another shot at the NHL but, with Arizona making a late push for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, Lessio got lost in the shuffle and was never recalled.

The Coyotes enter 2014-15 needing more punch on their scoring lines. Max Domi is the trendy pick to step in and solve these problems but Lessio is the under-the-radar name who has paid his dues within the organization. He has a track record of producing consistently at the professional level and, more importantly, has acclimated to Dave Tippett’s grinding defense-first system over the past season.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Brendan Perlini, LW, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)

With former first-rounders Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson graduating after storied CHL careers, Arizona’s top junior prospect is their first round selection in 2014. Perlini is big and strong, yet he generates most of his scoring opportunities with his skating ability and puck skills. He scored 34 goals and 71 points in 58 games in 2013-14, his first full season with the IceDogs.

Headed into 2014-15, Perlini should be able to increase his scoring frequency, though a better indicator of his developmental progress will be his physical play. Like most other teenage prospects, he needs to add mass. More important at this stage, he should begin to initiate contact more often. Usually, Perlini uses his size to absorb contact from opponents attempting to deny him access to prime scoring real estate. He needs to start using his size on the forecheck, to regain possession while wearing down his opponent physically and mentally. If this aspect of Perlini’s game evolves it will improve his two-way game and endear him to the decision-makers in Arizona.

Offensive Breakout
Ryan Macinnis, C, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

Unlike Brendan Perlini, Ryan Macinnis has already established his two-way credentials. His discipline is apparent and his instincts are sure to benefit from his physical maturity in the years to come. These attributes alone make him an intriguing prospect that could grow into a bottom-six role if his progress is reasonable.

If he develops the offensive components of his game, however, Macinnis could blossom into one of the most elusive types of prospect, the often discussed yet rarely seen power forward. At 6’4, he has the size. He has the tenacity. He also appears to have the raw finesse attributes and overall hockey sense. All that is missing is the actual production.

Put simply, prospects don’t go from 16 goal seasons in the CHL like Macinnis had to being top-six forwards in the NHL. If he is destined to produce in the NHL, his first step will be dominating in Kitchener in 2014-15. A good template for Macinnis would be to follow the development arc of Henrik Samuelsson, a similarly styled player. Samuelsson scored less than a point per game in his first season in the CHL. Once he caught his stride, he tallied 80 points in 69 games. The season after that he manhandled his opposition en route to the Memorial Cup.

When the 2014-15 season is over, it should be fairly obvious whether Macinnis has true scoring line potential or is just another big body who might fill a bottom-six role.

Bounceback Prospect
Christian Dvorak, C, London Knights (OHL)

Christian Dvorak suffered a devastating knee injury midway through the London Knights’ 2013-14 season. He made it back to appear in the Memorial Cup, where the Knights performed poorly and Dvorak did not look like the same player.

One of the keys to Dvorak’s success is his skating ability, including both his lateral movement and acceleration. In 2013-14, he played his way onto the third line, establishing himself as a dependable defensive forward who could be relied upon in the most crucial game situations. With forwards such as Max Domi departing from the Knights roster, there is an opportunity for Dvorak to take the next step and establish himself as a first-line center. Last season, along with his speed, he flashed the puck skills which would seem to make him a fit for that role.

He has already captured the hard-earned trust of Knights coach Dale Hunter. This may offer him the benefit of an extended look but, ultimately, it is all predicated on him being completely recovered from his knee injury. Without his legs, he simply is not the same player.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Connor Clifton, D, Quinnipiac (NCAA)

Connor Clifton may be only 5’11 and 175 pounds, but his willingness to engage physically has never been in question. If anything, he needs to learn some restraint. Throttling his tenacity down could keep him out of the penalty box and his team off the penalty kill. Clifton had 106 penalty minutes in 36 games in 2013-14; keep in mind that there are no fighting majors in NCAA hockey.

Clifton is a very efficient defenseman when he is not in the penalty box. He does not make spectacular offensive plays but he does execute passes purposefully, always trying to put his forwards in an advantageous position. Clifton is good on his edges and uses this ability to limit opposing forwards’ time and space off the rush, usually forcing a dump-in or low percentage play. He could be one of the best defensemen in the ECAC if he learns to play in his own zone without constantly taking penalties and putting himself at a disadvantage.

Bounceback Prospect
Hunter Fejes, LW, Colorado College (NCAA)

Hunter Fejes had an encouraging freshman campaign for Colorado College. A sixth round selection of Arizona in 2012, he transitioned from the legendary Shattuck St. Mary’s program to NCAA hockey and scored eight goals in 41 games being deployed in mostly a third-line role. He was expected to challenge for a role on a scoring line in 2013-14, but Fejes missed nearly half the season with injury. He never settled into a role when he was in the line-up and wound up with just a single assist in 26 games. 

Although he is not a can’t-miss NHL prospect, Fejes is arguably the most talented forward on the Colorado College roster. He has excellent one-on-one skills. He skates well and he has good size at 6’1. Compared to the talent in his conference, he has the skill to generate scoring opportunities with finesse or physicality. Not only should Fejes bounce back as a junior, he should be a core piece that his team leans on. Anything less is an underachievement.

Freshman to Watch
Jared Fiegl, LW, Cornell (NCAA)

Jared Fiegl is another hardworking forward, the type of player Don Maloney loves to stockpile and build his team around. His scouting report reads much like that of Jordan Szwarz, Phil Lane and Jordan Martinook. Fiegl was drafted in the seventh round in 2014 out of the US National Development Program.

As a freshman at Cornell, Fiegl will likely be able to secure a third-line role. Playing in the ECAC should afford him an opportunity to skate on a scoring line as an upperclassmen. Ultimately, he may be able to evolve enough through four years of NCAA eligibility that Maloney would be willing to invest one of his 50 contracts in him.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Anton Karlsson, LW, Skelleftea AIK (SHL)

Anton Karlsson, Arizona’s third round selection in 2014, is a solid two-way forward who excels on the forecheck and any other situation where he can beat his opponent by outworking him. Having captained several of Sweden’s national teams, he has a demonstrated record of leadership and strong intangibles.

Karlsson was selected by the Erie Otters in the CHL Import Draft. Initial indications were that he would play in Erie, where he might have been on a line with Connor McDavid. Instead, he signed with Skeleftea AIK. NHL teams typically prefer to have their most valuable prospects in North America where it is easier for them to exert their influence. Although Karlsson’s decision to play in Sweden may diminish his stature in the eyes of the Coyotes, he should gain valuable experience playing against men provided he receives consistent ice time in their highest division. 

Unsigned for 2015-16
David Westlund, D, Brynas IF Gavle (SHL)

David Westlund was one of only two defensemen drafted by the Coyotes in 2014. Rather than invite him to training camp, Don Maloney elected to leave the Swede unsigned. meaning he would remain with his SHL club. Westlund appeared in 21 games for Brynas in 2013-14 in Sweden’s highest division, where he appears to already have gained the confidence of the coaching staff.

At 6’3 and 207 pounds Westlund has good size. He is a stay-at-home style defender. These types of defensemen are traditionally very difficult to evaluate. Because their game is based more on decision-making than measurables, projections on how they will react to the faster pace of more advanced levels of hockey are often inaccurate. Therefore, it benefits Maloney to allow Westlund to reveal more of himself before committing to the player with a professional contract.

Follow Pat Paeplow on Twitter @PPaeplow