After re-locating from Atlanta to Winnipeg prior to the 2010-11 and hiring a general manager with roots in western Canada, it is not surprising that the Winnipeg Jets have focused much more of their energy on procuring talent from both the WHL and those players in western Canada and Minnesota bound for college hockey careers.
Under Toronto native Rick Dudley the then-Thrashers drafted players like Zach Bogosian and Alexander Burmistrov out of the OHL, while the Atlanta lineup was stacked with high profile imports such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, and current Jets like defensemen Tobias Enstrom and goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
Not surprisingly, the Jets have focused on procuring talent from western Canada with Saskatoon-born Kevin Cheveldayoff as general manager. Since Cheveldayoff took over, Winnipeg has made just two late round selections from Europe (not including 2014 first round pick Nikolaj Ehlers, a Denmark native who plays for Halifax in the QMJHL). At the same time, 15 of the 28 players taken in the drafts from 2011 to 2014 were from either the WHL (nine players) or NCAA-bound players from the western provinces or Minnesota (six).
Whether the big emphasis on western talent was due to economics, familiarity, or a preference for a certain style of play, the culture of the franchise since moving has changed dramatically. The 2014-15 season for the Jets will go a long way to determining the franchise’s ultimate fate, as the club looks poised to take the next step after just missing out on the playoffs the past few years.
The addition of Ehlers with the ninth pick in the 2014 draft immediately upgraded the skill level of the Jets’ prospect pool, particularly at a position where the Jets had little depth. Team captain Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane give the Jets two first rate players, but after that veteran journeyman T.J. Galiardi and rookie Adam Lowry are currently in the lineup.
Ehlers, the Rookie of the Year in all of major junior hockey last year, is a fast skater with an array of offensive skills who can read the play well. Though his size and strength is a concern, there were some who thought the 18-year-old might make the Winnipeg roster this year before he was sent back to Halifax.
Lowry is a two-way forward who can play in all situations and has the size and strength to be a power forward. Skating for the AHL‘s St. John’s IceCaps last season, Lowry scored 17 goals with 16 assists in 64 regular season games and played in 17 of 27 playoff games, scoring two goals with three assists, as St. John’s reached the Calder Cup finals. He is seeing lower-line duty with the Jets to start the season. Long-term his skill set suggests he can eventually contribute offensively.
Ivan Telegin is a bit of a mystery at this point due to his health issues. Hampered by concussion problems in his first pro season with the IceCaps two seasons ago, Telegin was suspended for the first half of the 2013-14 season after refusing to go back to St. John’s. Later in the year he secured a contract in the KHL and the suspension was lifted by the Jets but he was unable to play due to complications from his injury. Now healthy and fit, he is seeing time with CSKA and hoping to put his injury issues behind him.
Carl Klingberg made his NHL debut in 2010-11 with Atlanta, appearing in one game following a season with Frolunda in Sweden‘s Elitserien. He did not score his first NHL goal until the final game of last season with the Jets. Skating for St. John’s the last three seasons while appearing in nine NHL games with the Jets (three last season), Klingberg was the 34th player taken in the 2009 NHL draft but has mostly been a two-way player at the AHL level. Still just 23 years old, his size and physical nature make him valuable in a lower-line role. He scored a career-high 22 goals for St. John’s last season but the potential for him being an impact scorer at the NHL level seems unlikely.
In the 2014 NHL Draft the Jets used two of their final three picks on left wings C.J. Franklin and Matt Ustaski, both of whom will begin their college hockey careers this year. Franklin, a former Minnesota high school players who led the USHL‘s Sioux City Stampede in scoring in 2013-14, was selected by Winnipeg in the fifth round. The 20-year-old will be a freshman at Minnesota State. Ustaski, who skated for Langley in the BCHL last season, was picked in the seventh round and will play for the Wisconsin Badgers this year.
With Bryan Little and 21-year-old Mark Scheifele in the NHL, Winnipeg has two quality centers who, barring injury, should be fixtures for the Jets for the next few seasons. In terms of number of prospects, the center position appears to be well-stocked for the Jets. In reality, with the exception of Portland Winterhawks’ 19-year-old Nic Petan there are no players who jump out as high-end blue chip prospects.
Petan has been among the WHL’s leading scorers the past two seasons and plays with a tenacity that belies his small frame. He impressed at the development and regular camps for the Jets before being returned to Portland. Last June Winnipeg selected Petan’s Winterhawks teammate Chase De Leo. Like Petan, the California native is undersized but he is strong on the puck and also put up big numbers last season on one of junior hockey’s top teams.
Patrice Cormier was a highly-regarded second-round pick (by New Jersey in 2008), but like Klingberg he spent most of last season in the AHL — appearing in nine games with the Jets — and no longer appears to be a high-end prospect. A strong two-way forward during his junior days in the QMJHL, Cormier has appeared in 49 NHL games during this four seasons in the Atlanta/Winnipeg organization but has yet to establish himself with either the Thrashers or Jets. A big part of the IceCaps’ run to the finals, he made the Jets out of training camp this season before suffering an eye injury.
The University of Michigan’s Andrew Copp, a one-time high school quarterback, is the Jets’ top center prospect at the NCAA level. Selected in the fourth round in 2013 following his freshman season with the Wolverines, Copp led Michigan with 15 goals last year and was the team’s second-leading scorer behind fellow NTDP product J.T. Compher (BUF). Tanner Lane enters his junior season for the University of Nebraska-Omaha. To date he has been a checking-line type whose offense has been limited.
Of the centers currently skating with St. John’s, Eric O’Dell seemed to earn the trust of coach Paul Maurice in 30 NHL games last year but the 24-year-old was back with the IceCaps to start the season. Ryan Olsen is a 20-year-old rookie after scoring 30 goals in the WHL with Kelowna last year.
Nineteen-year-old Jimmy Lodge is now in his third season with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit. The Downingtown, PA native battled through an injury-plagued season a year ago. The 2014 third round pick has yet to sign an entry-level contract with the Jets.
The other center prospect for Winnipeg is 18-year-old Pavel Kraskovsky. A sixth round pick this past June, Kraskovsky is off to a fast start with Loko Yaroslavl in Russia’s junior league and is a candidate to skate for the U20 team in the 2015 World Juniors.
Of the three forward positions the right wing spot appears to be the thinnest in terms of number of prospects. Veteran journeymen Blake Wheeler and Michael Frolik, both former first round picks, had careers seasons a year ago and the Winnipeg brain trust is counting on them to match that performance this year. Chris Thorburn, Anthony Peluso and Matt Halischuk round out the depth at the NHL level.
J.C Lipon, now in his second season with St. John’s, fits the Jets theme of scoring ability and toughness; albeit with a bit more size than Nic Petan. Lipon led the IceCaps in penalty minutes but also had 33 assists last season and scored 36 goals for Kamloops in his final season of junior hockey two years ago.
Scott Kosmachuk, now a rookie with St. John’s after leading Memorial Cup runners-up Guelph in scoring last year, is another player to watch. While his big numbers with the Storm were impressive, he was playing on a dominant team and was skating in the OHL as a 20-year-old. The Toronto native’s production this season should be a truer indicator of his long-term potential.
Two other right wings currently playing in St. John’s are Patrick Holland and Austen Brassard. Holland, acquired from the Canadiens just before the season along with goalie Peter Budaj, skated in five games for Montreal last year and is entering his third AHL season. Brassard, 21, played in 29 games for St. John’s last year as an AHL rookie, returning home for nearly two months for personal reasons before finishing the season with the club.
Nineteen-year-old Axel Blomqvist, signed to an entry-level contract as a free agent after attending the Jets’ 2013 training camp, was returned to Victoria for his third WHL season.
Tomas Kubalik, now 24, is a restricted free agent skating for KalPa Kuopio in Finland after playing in just 19 games with Prague Lev in the KHL last season. Kubalik has had a resurgence in the early part of the season with KalPa and could bear watching if he continues to perform well.
The emergence of Jacob Trouba as a 19-year-old rookie was impressive as he was among the leaders for rookies in ice time. With veterans Mark Stuart and Tobias Enstrom as well as Trouba and 24-year-old Zach Bogosian the Jets have a good mix of experience and youth on the top end of the defense corps. Veterans Grant Clitsome, Adam Pardy and 25-year-old Paul Postma provide depth and opportunities for the younger AHL prospects are limited barring injury.
The real excitement among the pool of defense prospects for Winnipeg is at the junior level, where 18-year-old Josh Morrissey is one of the WHL’s top players. Morrissey was impressive after joining St. John’s for the AHL playoffs last spring, but despite speculation that he might make the Jets out of training camp he was returned to Prince Albert. He is a likely candidate to skate for Canada in the 2015 World Juniors.
Nelson Nogier is another player in junior hockey garnering attention. Picked in the fourth round last June after missing much of the season due to injury, the Saskatoon Blades’ 18-year-old is considered one of the better skating defensive defenders. Jan Kostalek, who skates for the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL and also represented the Czech Republic in the 2014 World Juniors, is a 2013 draft pick who has yet to sign an entry-level contract.
As far as the AHL level goes, Brenden Kichton, now 22-years-old, emerged as the top offensive defenseman prospect for St. John’s after leading all IceCaps defensemen with 10 goals and 38 assists as a rookie.
Both Julian Melchiori and Ben Chiarot had a chance to make their NHL debuts with the Jets last year and should continue to progress. Melchiori has an intriguing combination of size, mobility and playmaking ability while Chiarot is a physical defender that fits the “hard-to-play-against” mode.
The Jets have five defensemen prospects playing college hockey this year — two of whom will be freshman and three others entering their senior season.
Jack Glover, another product of the NTDP program, was selected in the third round in this past draft and is beginning his freshman season at Minnesota. A native of Golden Valley, Minnesota, Glover is tall and skates well and was among the most improved players in the USA national team program last season. Tucker Poolman, a native of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, will skate for the University of North Dakota after spending the last two seasons with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers.
The three seniors include a pair of teammates in Colorado College’s Peter Stoykewych and Aaron Harstad as well as Brennan Serville, a teammate of Copp’s with the University of Michigan.
Serville, a third round selection by the Jets in 2011, has spent much of his time with the Wolverines in the shadows of players like Trouba, New Jersey‘s Jon Merrill, and Canadiens’ prospect Mac Bennett but has been a fixture on the blue line since his freshman year. Stoykewych is a team captain for the Tigers under new coach Mike Haviland and he and Harstad are expected to anchor what looks to be a veteran defense group.
The Jets have one defensemen prospect currently playing in Europe in Marcus Karlstrom. A seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft based largely on his size and potential, Karlstrom is playing with Mora in Sweden’s second league, AllSvenskan.
Michael Hutchinson began last season in the ECHL but impressed in three late season starts for the Jets and was in net for the club’s AHL affiliate St. John’s during that teams run to the Calder Cup Finals. He will start the season as the backup to Ondrej Pavelec but the Jets appeared to hedge their bets, acquiring the veteran Budaj (who is starting the year with St. John’s) just before the season.
The future appears bright in terms of goaltending prospects as the Jets have three young goaltenders who show promise.
Connor Hellebuyck was one of the top goalies in college hockey in his freshman and sophomore seasons at Massachusetts-Lowell. He signed an entry-level contract with the Jets last spring rather than returning to Lowell for his junior season and should have an excellent mentor with Budaj in St. John’s.
Eric Comrie has been one of the top goalies in the WHL in his first three seasons. A workhorse for the Tri-City Americans last year, he was in net for 60 regular season games and all five playoff games and then joined St. John’s for a two-game stint at the end of the year.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the emergence of Winnipeg native Jason Kasdorf for RPI two years ago as a freshman. A sixth round pick in 2011 out of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, he spent a year in the USHL and was then the ECAC Hockey Rookie of the year in leading Rensselaer to a second-place finish. Kasdorf missed all but two games last year due to a shoulder injury but is back in net this year.
One-time University of Denver goalie Juho Olkinuora is in his second pro season after splitting the year between the ECHL and the IceCaps. Jamie Phillips, a seventh round pick in 2013, is now the starter for Michigan Tech as a junior after backing up Pheonix Copley (WSH) last season.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter at @HockeyNJ12