The Winnipeg Jets were expected to struggle out of the gate this year — particularly in the goaltending department — but thanks to a strong team defense and a balanced scoring attack they are holding their own. The Jets have been good on the road thus far, posting a 6-4-2 record away from the MTS Centre.
While it is still early in the season the fact that the Jets were challenging Nashville, another early season surprise, and pre-season favorites St. Louis and the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks for the top spot in the Central Division was encouraging. Winnipeg has allowed five more goals than it has scored in its first 19 games but the 42 goals they’ve allowed are the ninth fewest in the NHL.
The 37 goals scored by the Jets, however, is better than only two teams — Buffalo and Florida — and is something that will need to improve if Winnipeg hopes to compete the rest of the season.
In terms of scoring ability the organization is probably one or two years away as much of their high-end talent when it comes to offense is still playing junior hockey or at the NCAA level.
Nikolaj Ehlers of the QMJHL‘s Halifax Mooseheads, the Jets’ first pick in 2014, appears to be the organization’s prize jewel while 19-year-old Nicolas Petan topped the 100-point mark in the past two seasons with the WHL‘s Portland Winterhawks.
Here is a closer look at the nine Winnipeg players currently playing junior hockey, all of whom are in the Canadian Hockey League.
Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Halifax Mooseheads
Acquired: 1st round (9th overall), 2014
After a slow start (by his standards), the 2013-14 CHL rookie of the year has heated up as the Mooseheads adjust to life without Jonathan Drouin. With points in eight straight games for Halifax, including a hat trick with an assist in the Mooseheads’ 5-4 shootout win over Acadie-Bathurst on Nov. 12th (he was also the only player to score in the shootout), Nikolaj Ehlers is Halifax’s second-leading scorer behind 2015 draft-eligible Swiss forward Timo Meier.
While there were some who felt Ehlers was NHL-ready this season, the extra year should allow him to add size and strength and continue to refine all aspects of his game.
Jan Kostalek, D, Rimouski Oceanic
Acquired: 4th round (114th overall), 2013
An offensive, smooth skating defenseman, the Prague native is off to his best start in his third year in the QMJHL. After impressing during the Young Prospects tournament with the Jets rookies, he is part of a veteran Rimouski team that is running roughshod over the QMJHL to start the season.
In his first 21 games Jan Kostalek has scored four goals (one less than his career-high) and has 10 assists — second only to 17-year-old Simon Bourque amongst Oceanic defensemen. Rimouski has the league’s best record, winning 17 of its first 25 games, and is battling with Baie-Comeau and Quebec for the top spot in the competitive East Division race.
Yet to sign an entry-level contract with the Jets, Kostalek is likely to play for the Czech Republic in the 2015 World Juniors. The strength of his game is his versatility to play either a defense-first game or push the offense depending on the situation and the players around him. While he does not have the optimal size of some of the other defensemen in the Winnipeg pipeline, his skating ability and instincts should be a nice compliment to some of the bigger, defense-first defensemen currently playing in Winnipeg or in the system.
Axel Blomqvist, RW, Victoria Royals
Acquired: Signed as free agent, September 2013
Axel Blomqvist, one of the taller forwards in the Western Hockey League, has been a streak scorer during his time with the Royals and that trend is true once again this season.
After going without a goal in the first three games of the season — though he did have two assists — he scored four goals in a three game span and had three goals in back-to-back games. After a three assist effort against Tri-City on Nov. 2nd he was scoreless in the next four games before scoring two goals against Vancouver on November 15th. After last year’s 48 win season Victoria is hovering around the .500 mark to start the year. How Blomqvist and the Royals progress during the season should give an indicator to his pro potential.
While Blomqvist’s inconsistency and sporadic defensive play are a source of concern, his combination of size and skill suggest he can be a successful NHL scorer down the road.
Eric Comrie, G, Tri-City Americans
Acquired: 2nd round (59th overall), 2013
Now in his fourth WHL season, Comrie continues to be one of the league’s top goalies and is pushing for a spot with the Canada squad that will host the 2015 World Junior Championship.
Forecasting the future for any junior goaltending prospect is tricky but Comrie’s size and athleticism suggest he has a fairly high ceiling. Productivity-wise, he has been as successful as any goaltenders in his age group and appears to have the makeup to be a special player.
Tri-City and Everett are battling for the lead in the U.S. Division to start the season. Undrafted 19-year-olds Parker Bowles, Beau McCue and Brian Williams have been the leaders offensively while Comrie’s 12 wins are third most amongst WHL goalies behind Kelowna’s Jackson Whistle (16) and Jordan Papirny of Brandon (14).
Chase De Leo, C, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired; 4th round (99th overall), 2014
The Winterhawks struggled to start the season under first-year coach Jamie Kompon after reaching the WHL finals the past four years and winning the league and finishing as the Memorial Cup runner up to Halifax in 2012-13.
With former head coach Mike Johnston now coaching the Penguins and players like Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier and Derrrick Pouliot having moved on to pro hockey, players like Chase De Leo and some of the other returnees are being counted on to play larger roles. After starting the season at 1-7-2 the team has righted the ship a bit, winning seven of it’s next 10 games.
So far the 19-year-old from California has proven been a big part of that turnaround. One of 15 forwards on USA Hockey’s final roster following the World Junior Championship U20 camp at Lake Placid in August, De Leo is currently leading the Winterhawks in scoring with 12 goals and 12 assists in his first 20 games and is plus-six with six penalty minutes.
Scouts will continue to have concerns about his size and ability to withstand the punishment at the pro level until De Leo plays at that level, but his combination of determination, speed and scoring prowess make him an intriguing prospect.
Josh Morrissey, D, Prince Albert Raiders
Acquired: 1st round (13th overall), 2013
Josh Morrissey made a strong push to earn a spot with the Jets during training camp before the Winnipeg personnel staff determined that the best course for his long-term development was for the 19-year-old to return to the WHL for one more season; he may potentially skate for Canada in his second world junior tournament.
Long-term he is probably the most skilled offensive defenseman in the Jets’ system with the capability to take over games at times and add scoring from the back end. After getting off to a fast start, going plus-six with four goals and five assists in his first 11 games, Morrissey slumped a bit after playing in both games for the WHL All-Stars against Russia in the Subway Series
An assistant captain for his WHL squad, Morrissey played for the Canada team that finished fourth in Stockholm last year and is expected to be part of the group that hosts this year’s World Junior Championship.
Nelson Nogier, D, Saskatoon Blades
Acquired: 4th round (101st overall), 2014
The start of Nelson Nogier’s 2014-15 season has been a good news-bad news story.
On the plus side, he accorded himself well with Winnipeg’s entry in the Young Prospects tournament and appears healthy after his season-ending shoulder surgery last season. He has logged a lot of ice time with the Blades to start the season.
On the downside of things, Saskatoon is one of the younger teams in the WHL and has not played very well. A defensive defensemen, Nogier was a team worst minus-23. At least some of that is attributable to playing a prominent role on a team that has allowed 52 more goals than it has scored in just 22 games but for any player it is difficult to compete on a nightly basis when there is little chance of success.
Nicolas Petan, C, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 2nd round (43rd overall), 2013
Like Josh Morrissey, Nicolas Petan made a strong push for a spot on the NHL roster before being returned to his junior team. Petan also skated in the 2014 World Juniors and is a candidate to skate for Canada once again this year. In two games at the Subway Series he was minus-one with no points and two penalty minutes.
With several new faces in the lineup as well as a new head coach Portland has not dominated the league the way it has for the past four seasons, but since returning from the Jets training camp Petan has been a consistent offensive force. He has scored just four goals in his first 16 games but has a team-leading 17 assists.
After their early season struggles, the Winterhawks look to be hitting their stride and Petan looks like he will once again be in the middle of things.
Jimmy Lodge, C, Saginaw Spirit
Acquired: 3rd round (84th overall), 2013
Jimmy Lodge, like Jan Kostalek, has yet to sign an entry-level contract with the Jets and like the Rimouski defenseman he would re-enter the draft next June if he is not signed before then.
The Downingtown, PA native is off to a fast start in his fourth OHL season, scoring 10 goals with eight assists in his first 18 games. The Spirit, after losing to Erie in the first round of the playoffs last season, are hovering around the .500 mark and currently in second place in the West Division.
Lodge has been a fairly steady scorer during his time with Saginaw. The Jets would like to see him develop more consistency in the other areas of his game.
Injured in USA Hockey’s Summer Evaluation Camp prior to the 2013 World Juniors, he was not invited to Lake Placid this summer.
Winnipeg Jets Top Performing Non-Junior Prospects: October
Clearly the play of the goaltenders in the Jets organization — from the NHL level on down — has been the big story for the Jets in the first month of the season. While the success at the top of the depth chart is impressive the big surprise is the play of the two goalies at the NCAA level.
While some of Jamie Phillips‘ success can be attributed to the play of the Huskies in head coach Mel Pearson’s fourth season, few could have expected things to go this well. The junior has played every minute of every game thus far for Michigan Tech and is 10-0 with two shutouts, posting a microscopic 1.20 goals against and .957 save percentage. The Huskies are 8-0 in WCHA Conference play and swept Michigan, Pearson’s alma mater, in two non-conference games.
Jason Kasdorf‘s win total is not as impressive but the fact that he is fully recovered and handling the lion’s share of the goaltending for the Rensselaer bodes well for his future. After stopping 31 shots against Notre Dame in a 3-2 win in the season opener, Kasdorf lost his next four starts. However, the following weekend he was in net on back-to-back nights as the Engineers swept defending national champion Union. In his last five starts the Winnipeg native allowed more than two goals just once and is now 5-6 with a 2.31 goals again and .926 save percentage.
Of the three Jets’ prospects currently skating in Europe — a fourth player whose rights are held by Winnipeg, forward Tomas Kubalik, has had a rebirth of sorts for KalPa Kuopio but by HF criteria is no longer considered a prospect — the most impressive has been 18-year-old center Pavel Kraskovsky.
Skating in Russia’s junior league with Loko Yaroslavl in domestic play, Kraskovsky was with the Russian all-stars during the Subway Series and scored two goals in a 3-2 win over the WHL in Brandon, Manitoba. A sixth-round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, Kraskovsky is far from a finished prospect and his future ambitions are a bit of a mystery at this point. His combination of size and skill make him an intriguing prospect.
Winnipeg Jets Prospect of the Month: October
The emergence of Jamie Phillips has been a big story, and top prospects like Josh Morrissey and Nikolaj Ehlers are living up to their advance billing while the Portland duo of Chase De Leo and Nic Petan continue to put up big numbers, but for the first month of the season the Prospect of the Month honors belong to Rimouski’s Jan Kostalek.
Big offensive numbers for a defenseman playing on a powerful team at the junior level hardly guarantee future success. But what has set the Czech-born defenseman above the other prospects in the Jets system in our eyes is that he is playing all roles and doing so while he is in his contract season.
Like some of the other prospects in the Winnipeg player pool there are concerns about his size and strength and how his game will translate to the pro level. The fact that he plays such a mature game at an early stage in his career has impressed.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter at @HockeyNJ12