The Arizona Coyotes have actively addressed the composition of their prospect pool since the 2013-14 trade deadline. A year ago, there was a logjam of talented defensemen throughout their pipeline. At the deadline, general manager Dave Maloney traded David Rundblad to the Chicago Blackhawks. At the 2014 NHL Draft, the Coyotes grabbed seven forwards while only selecting two defensemen, both in the late rounds.
This balance should facilitate the organization’s ability to develop their young players. They won’t have a horde of defensemen competing for a finite amount of icetime on their AHL affiliate in Portland. Conversely, they won’t find themselves grooming undrafted free agents for top-six forward slots.
The Portland Pirates should be a key beneficiary of the revamped prospect pool. In 2013-14, the Pirates were last in their division. With an injection of talented young forwards like Henrik Samuelsson and Tyler Gaudet along with key veterans signed to minor league deals, Portland should be expected to contend for a playoff spot; this contributes to prospect development in its own way.
Henrik Samuelsson will be the most intriguing center prospect to watch as he attempts to make the leap into professional hockey in Portland. It has been speculated that his skating deficiencies could relegate him to the wing. However, with the loss of Andy Miele and considering Brendan Shinnimin’s lack of consistency, Samuelsson may be given every chance to fail as a center. As curious as observers are to gauge Samuelsson’s skating against professionals, it will be truly revealing to see how much his physical dominance translates. Every aspect of his game, from his scoring to his truculence, originates from the physical advantage he has always had against the opposition.
Tyler Gaudet will also enter his first full season of professional hockey. Gaudet should initially be deployed in a bottom-six role along with Jordan Martinook. With Gaudet’s versatility, opportunism and work ethic, he could develop into a core member of the Pirates by season’s end.
Max Domi being sent back to the OHL was one of the most notable roster moves of training camp. Domi has dominated the CHL to the point it seems to almost bore him. It is difficult to see how playing in London will aid in his development. On the other hand, he probably is not quite ready for NHL competition and the AHL is not yet an option. Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett have an established trend toward favoring prospects that have paid their dues in the AHL. This season will test Domi’s focus and challenge him to be a leader on a talented London Knights club which has struggled to live up to their potential.
Ryan MacInnis, Laurent Dauphin and Yan-Pavel Laplante all return to their respective CHL clubs with something to prove. All three should significantly increase their offensive production. In Kitchener, MacInnis hopes to follow the development arc of Samuelsson and put up gawdy numbers. Dauphin and Laplante project as third and fourth-liners, respectively. If they have legitimate NHL talent they will be able to carry their QMJHL teams. So far Dauphin has four goals in five games as captain of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens while Laplante has tallied five goals and two assists in seven games for the Victoriaville Tigres.
Lucas Lessio begins 2014-15 back in Portland but he is a prime candidate for promotion to Arizona. He is Portland’s most consistent goal scorer and features both size and physicality. These attributes are practically prerequisites for a prospect looking for consistent playing time on a Tippett-coached team.
Darian Dziurzynski, Daniel O’Donoghue and Greg Carey will all compete for playing time in Portland on the left wing. Dziurzynski’s path to success is dependent on his ability to set a tone and defend his teammates. O’Donoghue and Carey have more upside. Both were undrafted free agent signings in 2014. Both were also consistent scorers and put up outstanding possession numbers in the NCAA. AHL competition will reveal whether these analytics translate into identifying diamond-in-the-rough prospects.
Brendan Perlini, Arizona’s 2014 first round selection, will look to have a breakout season for the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL. He put up 71 points in 58 games in 2013-14, but he is capable of much more. Last season, his 6’2, 205 pound frame was almost a wasted asset. When he learns to apply his size and strength, his impact will increase exponentially.
Christian Dvorak returns to the London Knights looking to jump from a third-line shutdown role to a top-six scoring slot. He certainly has the skills to make this leap, but Domi’s return to the Knights may clog the depth chart. Michael Bunting will step into a leadership role with the Soo Greyhounds after the departure of Gaudet. He is a tenacious pest with a knack for timely scoring. After his playoff heroics as Memorial Cup MVP, Edgars Kulda will return to the Edmonton Oil Kings. This is a crucial season for Kulda as he was buried behind the stockpiles of talent. Many are wondering who the real Kulda is; the one that put on a show at the Memorial Cup or the one that went dormant for long stretches of the regular season.
Following the draft, Anton Karlsson was believed to be headed to North America. The Erie Otters selected him in the import draft, but he signed a two-year contract with Skelleftea in the SHL. There are pros and cons to this choice. Erie would have offered him the opportunity to develop alongside Connor McDavid and in relatively close proximity to Coyotes management. The SHL will offer the opportunity to play pro hockey against men. This could accelerate his development provided he can play his way into regular ice time.
Zac Larraza will play the final season of a standout college career in 2014-15. The senior will serve as a captain for the Denver Pioneers, who are always a serious contender for an NCAA championship. Hunter Fejes must rebound from a rough sophomore season at Colorado College, where he missed several games and did not score a single goal. Arizona’s seventh round selection, Jared Fiegl enters his freshman season at Cornell University. The gritty USNTDP product will have an opportunity to refine his skating and finesse game in the Ivy League.
In 2013-14, Jordan Szwarz took a leap forward in his hockey career. He was called up to the Coyotes and skated in 26 NHL games. He seemed to establish himself as a fourth-line player who Tippett was willing to rely on. Szwarz was returned to Portland following training camp but his track record and leadership traits suggest he would be the top consideration for a bottom-six call up.
Tobias Rieder was a revelation in his first season of professional hockey in 2014-15. Acquired from Edmonton, Rieder scored 28 goals and 20 assists in 64 games. Far from a floater, Rieder is very reliable in all three zones and effective on the penalty kill. With demonstrated scoring production at the professional level and acuity in most situations, Rieder is another prospect primed for an NHL stint provided there is no backslide in his game early on.
Philip Lane will compete for depth minutes in Portland. Lane showed promise in his professional debut in 2012-13, scoring 14 goals while contributing grit and defensive prowess. Injuries derailed his chances to build on that start in 2013-14. Lane will look to rebound this season in the final year of his contract.
At 6’3, 220 pounds and possessing an NHL-caliber shot, Jedd Soleway has some of the building blocks of a prototypical power forward. His stickhandling and skating require refinement. Entering his sophomore season at the University of Wisonsin, the NCAA talent pool allows Soleway to be deployed in a scoring role, an atmosphere where his game may round out and flourish.
One of training camp’s surprises was Brandon Gormley being cut and demoted to the Coyotes AHL affiliate. Gormley has been the Pirates de facto number one defenseman for the past two seasons, matching up against top lines, quarterbacking Portland’s power play and killing penalties. The former first round selection was anticipated to make 2014-15 his first full NHL season. Apparently, Gormley has been hampered by injury through training camp and the beginning of the AHL season. If he is fulfilling expectations, Gormley should be able to rehab and play his way back into the NHL this season. Conversely, Connor Murphy will be in Arizona from the beginning. After looking solid in 30 NHL games in 2013-14, Murphy is back looking to play a full season in Arizona, where the depth chart is significantly thinner on the right side. Expect Murphy to play with more confidence and be more ambitious with the puck on his stick.
2014-15 is an important season for James Melindy. Melindy is built solidly and skates very well, but he did not look comfortable in Portland last season. This is interesting because, with the Coyotes unloading defensive prospects, it will be difficult to shelter Melindy. Expectations for him should be nothing less than a top-pairing defender who can be deployed in any situation against AHL competition this season. Melindy exhibited a solid two-way game in the CHL which has yet to translate. Justin Hache will also look to carve out a niche on the Portland blue line. This will be the rugged defender’s first full AHL season after a stellar CHL career which included a Memorial Cup Championship with Shawinigan in 2011-12.
In the NCAA, Rhett Holland and Connor Clifton will anchor their bluelines at Michigan State and Quinnipiac, respectively. Holland dominates physically in the NCAA, but it would be encouraging if his passing and overall play in space evolves. Clifton is an above-average puck mover. He is physical as well but he needs to play with more composure and limit his penalty minutes. If Clifton can cut down the penalty minutes while maintaining his physicality, he is Arizona’s most promising prospect at the NCAA level.
Dysin Mayo and David Westlund were the only defensemen selected by the Coyotes at the 2014 draft. The smooth skating Mayo will look to follow up on Memorial Cup campaign with the Edmonton Oil Kings. As Edmonton’s top defensemen, Mayo must cut the defensive lapses out of his game in order to step into a core role and enable the Oil Kings to build on last season’s success. Westlund will play his second season with Brynas in the SHL.
Mark Visentin enters the season solidly entrenched as the Portland Pirates No. 1 goalie. He showed loads of resilience last season when he was under siege most nights, playing behind an outgunned roster. Portland has appeared to have added depth this season. This should offer an opportunity to evaluate Visentin’s play in the high leverage atmosphere provided by playoff hockey.
Louis Domingue jumped up and stole the Portland back-up role from Mike Lee in 2013-14. Lee succumbed to injuries and ineffectiveness and Domingue turned in a few impressive and timely AHL starts. Mike Lee will begin the season with Arizona’s ECHL affiliate, the Gwinnett Gladiators. This is a fluid competition which will test each goalie’s mental strength and persistence. Domingue is a big, athletic keeper while Lee relies more on technical acuity.
Marek Langhamer signed an entry-level contract with the Coyotes in the offseason but was returned to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL following training camp. The Tigers made some noise in the WHL playoffs last season and Langhamer, their most valuable player, will try to lead them to the next level. Brendan Burke’s Portland Winterhawks will be one of the teams standing in their way in the WHL. Burke’s stock has dropped over the past couple seasons because he has been unable to hold down the starting job for an extended period. Like his father Sean Burke, he relies on his size and positioning. Seven games into the season, he has compiled a goals against average of 4.35 and .865 save percentage.
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