The Winnipeg Jets have yet to reach the NHL playoffs since re-locating to Winnipeg from Atlanta for the 2011-12 season, but under general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff the club has steadily been building up a group of talented prospects.
Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps, reached the Calder Cup finals a year ago and players like forwards Adam Lowry and Eric O’Dell, defenseman Brenden Kichton, and goalie Michael Hutchinson — who went from playing in the ECHL to making his NHL debut and started all 21 playoff games — all will push for ice time with the Jets in the near future.
The real excitement, however, is for the Jets’ prospect pool at the major junior level.
Nic Petan was the second-leading scorer in the WHL a year ago, and he and teammate Chase DeLeo figure to once again have big seasons for the Portland WinterHawks. Nikolaj Ehlers, the Jets’ 2014 first-round pick, appeared as good as advertised during training camp before being returned to Halifax of the QMJHL, and defensemen Josh Morissey has a nice blend of skill and instincts and figures to skate for Canada in his second World Juniors tournament this year.
At the NCAA level, Michigan junior Andrew Copp figures to be one of the top players on his team, while defensemen Jack Glover, who skated for the gold medal-winning USNTDP U18 team last spring, begins his college career at Minnesota. Goalie Jason Kasdorf, who missed all but two games for RPI last season due to a shoulder injury, impressed as a freshman in 2012-13 and could be special if he can return to form.
The one area in which the Jets have not been as active in recent years is in Europe, where there are only four players skating this season; all of these players are on the fringes of the Jets’ prospect pool for differing reasons.
Top Pro Prospect
Brenden Kichton, D, St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
While not as highly-regarded as Trouba, Morrissey or Glover in the Jets’ system, Brenden Kichton was the leading scorer amongst IceCaps defensemen as a 21-year-old rookie last season. Long-term he must continue to improve his skating and the defensive aspects of his game, but his offensive approach is first rate.
Krichton made a push for a spot with the Jets during training camp but with four defensemen 29 years old or older currently on the roster and Dustin Byfuglien capable of skating on the blue line there is no hurry to rush him. He will begin the year with St. John’s, but he and Ben Chiarot are the leading candidates for a recall should an injury occur or anyone falters.
The Jets had other candidates for this spot, such as Lowry, who made the Jets out of training camp this season after a 33 point season with St. John’s last year, and first-year pro Scott Kosmachuk, but Kichton’s game should fit in well as the Jets continue to upgrade their roster.
Julian Melchiori, D, St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
One of three defensemen, along with Trouba and Chiarot, to make their first NHL appearance last season with the Jets, Melchiori showed progress in his second pro season despite nagging shoulder and elbow issues that eventually ended his season prematurely. At 6’1 and 190 pounds, Melchiori has the size and strength to be a strong shutdown defender while also chipping in to the attack at times. Melchiori’s plus-19 plus/minus during the regular season trailed only Chiarot among IceCaps.
The time missed last season hampered his development, but if the 22 year old continues to progress he could eventually work his way into a lower paring role with the Jets.
J.C. Lipon, RW, St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
J.C. Lipon provided both crunch and scoring as a 20-year-old AHL rookie last year with St. John’s. He led the IceCaps with 136 penalty minutes but also tied for third on the team with 33 assists. While leading scorer Jason Jaffray is back for the IceCaps, three of the top five scoring forwards from last year are elsewhere this season. This should provide Lipon with the opportunity to play a larger role for St. John’s.
The Jets have several talented forwards coming up through their pipeline so a spot in the top-six in the NHL lineup is hardly a sure thing at this point. With another season like 2013-14, and should Evander Kane be moved as some of the rumors suggested, Lipon could be a good fit with his abrasiveness and scoring ability. His goal scoring totals in junior hockey in his last two seasons with Kamloops suggest he is capable of similar numbers at the pro level.
Top Junior Prospect (tie)
The real excitement in the Jets’ prospect pool is at the junior level, where the trio of Ehlers, Morrissey and Petan have displayed high-end skill that rivals that of the young guns with the Edmonton Oilers. While Petan’s lack of size may be a factor at the NHL level it was difficult to differentiate between Ehlers and Morrissey, so we have featured both players.
Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Many scouts felt the Jets received a gift when the Halifax Mooseheads forward from Denmark slid to Winnipeg at the ninth spot in the 2014 NHL Draft. While a bit light and not overly strong at this point in his career, the 2013-14 Canadian Hockey League and QMJHL Rookie of the Year is as offensively gifted as any forward prospect in his draft class and flat out flies.
While there were some thoughts that Ehlers might stick with the Jets as an 18 year old he returned to Halifax, where he will be expected to carry the load now that leading scorer Jonathan Drouin is with the Lightning.
Talent-wise, he could be the most gifted forward prospect in the organization since Alexander Burmistrov was drafted by the then-Thrashers in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft.
Josh Morrissey, D, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
Like Ehlers, Josh Morrissey has a high ceiling in terms of his future potential and has played at an extremely high level in junior hockey. In addition to having a big year in his third WHL season with the Raiders and skating for Canada in the 2014 World Junior Championship, Morrissey stepped right into the lineup for St. John’s during the IceCaps’ playoff run and was a big asset.
Morrissey, like Ehlers, was in the hunt for a spot with the Jets this season before being returned to Prince Albert for his 19-year-old season. Long-term there does not seem to be any question that he is capable of eventually stepping into a top-four slot on the Jets’ blueline. Morrissey will also likely skate for Canada in this year’s World Juniors.
Nelson Nogier, D, Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Prior to suffering a shoulder injury that eventually required season-ending surgery in December, Nelson Nogier was being looked at as one of the top defensemen in the 2014 NHL Draft class. Instead he skated in just 37 games for Saskatoon and lasted into the fourth round, where the Jets selected him with the 101st overall pick.
A tall defender with a long reach, Nogier does not play an overly physical game but his reach and positioning make him a strong defender in his own zone. As with any defensive-defenseman, the 18 year old will likely take time to reach his potential.
Now back with the Blades after spending two weeks in his first Jets’ training camp, the fact that Nogier is back on the ice and competing without complications is a good sign.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Jimmy Lodge, C, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
Drafted following a breakout season for the Saginaw Spirit in 2012-13, Jimmy Lodge was hampered by injuries in the first half last year but appeared to hit his stride later in the season. Invited to USA Hockey’s U20 evaluation camp in Lake Placid in August, he suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of training camp and forced him to miss time early in the year. He also missed time a few weeks later with a concussion.
When healthy, the West Chester, Pennsylvania native proved capable of providing steady offense and competing on a nightly basis. Lodge, along with overage forward Luke Cairns, is expected to provide veteran leadership for a young Saginaw forward group this season.
The Jets had 10 draft picks in the 2013 NHL Draft, including seven players from major junior hockey. Of those seven, only Lodge and Rimouski defenseman Jan Kostalek have yet to sign entry-level contracts.
Top Amateur Prospect
Jack Glover, D, University of Minnesota (NCAA)
The fourth of five defensemen from the USA Hockey National Team Development program taken in the 2014 NHL Draft, Jack Glover was selected by the Jets in the third round (69th overall). A tall, rangy skater who moves the puck well, he is still fairly early in the development process but should continue to improve as he adds bulk and strength while playing for the Gophers.
Not overly combative, Glover made great strides in his second year with the NTDP and Minnesota has done a nice job in recent years of producing NHL defenders.
Bounceback Amateur Prospect
Jason Kasdorf, G, Rennsalear Polytechnic Institute (NCAA)
Viewed by some as little more than a sentimental hometown pick when he was selected in the sixth round in 2011 out of the lower tier Manitoba Junior Hockey League, Jason Kasdorf spent the following season in the USHL and then emerged as a legitimate NHL prospect after an outstanding freshman season at RPI in 2012-13 when he was named the ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year.
Expected to be the Engineers’ starter last season, the Winnipeg native was injured early in the third period of an October game against Boston College. After attempts to rehabilitate his shoulder were unsuccessful he underwent season-ending surgery in November. Senior Scott Diebold, who played the majority of the season in Kasdorf’s absence, is back and the two are expected to share the goaltending duties this year.
Freshman to Watch
Clinston (C.J.) Franklin, LW, Minnesota State-Mankato (NCAA)
C.J. Franklin is one of four players in the Winnipeg system who will be freshmen this season. The epitome of the proverbial late bloomer, the former Minnesota high school star was selected by the Jets as a 20-year-old in the fifth-round of last June’s draft.
While not a lights-out prospect in terms of skating and technical skills, Franklin led Sioux Falls of the USHL with 32 goals in his first season two years ago and led the Stampede in points in 2013-14.
He will return to Minnesota this season while skating for the WCHA’s Minnesota State Mavericks. Though Minnesota State has generally been in the shadow of neighboring programs like Minnesota and St. Cloud State, the Mavericks won 20 games for the first time since 2003-04 last year in coach Mike Hastings’ second season. Leading scorers Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul LaFontaine return, and Franklin could fit in well.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Peter Stoykewych, D, Colorado College (NCAA)
The last player selected in the history of the Atlanta Thrashers when he was selected in the seventh round (199th) overall in the 2010 NHL Draft, Peter Stoykewych enters his senior year at Colorado College. Named a team captain for the Tigers for the upcoming season, the Winnipeg native has been a leader for the school’s program and was involved with the selection process for new head coach Mike Haviland.
Stoykewych is a no-frills defensive defensemen. While his offensive game is limited, Stoykewych has the size and strength to be a presence in his own end.
Both he and fellow senior Tigers’ defensemen Aaron Harstad are Jets prospects as is Michigan defenseman Brennan Serville, and all enter their final season of college hockey looking to earn a contract.
Top European Prospect
Tomas Kubalik, RW, KalPa Kuopio (Liiga)
Tomas Kubalik, left wing Ivan Telegin and late round picks defenseman Marcus Karlstrom (2013, 7th round) and center Pavel Kraskovsky (2014, 6th round) are the only Jets’ prospects in Europe this year and none would be considered sure-fire prospects at this point.
The oldest of the four, Kubalik has NHL experience. He appeared in four games with Columbus in 2010-11 and eight more games in 2011-12. He was obtained by the Jets in a March 2013 trade with the Blue Jackets, returning to Europe last season. He is currently a restricted free agent.
Heading back to the Czech Republic to play for Lev Praha in the KHL rather than returning to the AHL, things did not go as planned for Kubalik last year. He was frequently a healthy scratch with the eventual KHL runners-up, playing in 11 regular season games and eight playoff contests.
With Lev Praha not icing a team this year for financial reasons, Kubalik is in Finland this year and has had a resurgence this season skating for KalPa. Playing alongside another Czech forward and former Lev teammate Michal Birner, Kubalik has scored one goal with eight assists and is a team-leading plus-seven after the team’s first 11 games.
Bounceback European Prospect
Ivan Telegin, LW CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Ivan Telegin, like Kubalik, is coming off a lost season last year, but in the 22-year-old Russian forward’s case that had more to do with health issues than a lack of production. A fourth-round selection by the Thrashers in 2010, he played three seasons in the OHL before skating for the AHL’s St. John’s Ice Caps in 2012-13.
Assigned to the IceCaps last season, Telegin refused to report to St. John’s after his concussion issues the previous year and was suspended by the Jets. He signed to play for CSKA Moscow in the KHL and was set to skate for the club when his suspension was lifted in December; his post-concussion issues, however, prevented him from getting back on the ice.
Telegin is back with CSKA Moscow this year and has scored one goal in six games. A consistent scorer in junior hockey, Telegin’s size and skating ability are first rate and suggest he can be effective at the NHL one day. At the same time, losing a full season and his health concerns have set his development back.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Marcus Karlstrom, D, Mora (Allsvenskan)
As with any seventh-round pick, Marcus Karlstrom was a project when he was selected by the Jets with the 194th pick in the 2013 draft. Off the radar and having never played in the Sweden national team junior program, he spent last season playing junior hockey. He appeared in one SHL game with AIK.
Now with Mora in Allsvenskan (Sweden’s second league), he is playing at the men’s level and the Jets should get a truer picture of his long-term potential. On the plus side, he moves well for a bigger player and has some offensive elements to his game.
Winnipeg has a deep pool of young defensemen and will have some hard decisions to make about a number of prospects at the end of this season. Where Karlstrom fits in that mix depends on how he plays in Mora this season.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter at @HockeyNJ12