The Phoenix Coyotes‘ prospect cupboard is in a transitional stage, as most top prospects have graduated in recent years. A quick start out of the gate has turned some heads around the league and most of the team’s young players seem to finally be hitting their stride. The graduations in recent years have really chipped away at the team’s prospect depth. However, defensive depth is still good. And when you consider that graduated prospects Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker are currently in the AHL, the lack of prospect depth up front isn’t going to hurt the team any time soon.
Phoenix decided to go with a more veteran look on their bottom two lines this year, so Viktor Tikhonov started the season in San Antonio, just a few games shy of officially graduating as a prospect. Tikhonov was streaky at times, but turned heads with his strong two-way play as a rookie in the NHL. He also showed bursts of the high-end offensive skill that made him a first-round talent, so rather than put him in a less than ideal situation, Phoenix elected to give him big minutes on a stacked San Antonio team to start the season.
Arial”>Joining him in San Antonio is another highly-touted winger in Brett MacLean. MacLean has a big shot which helped him score 21 goals as a rookie in the AHL. He’s picked up where he left off this year, notching five in his first 10 games. His size and shot will make him a threat to score at the next level, but his effectiveness will come as he continues to improve his skating.
Looking a little ways down the road, a pair of 2009 draft picks shore up the depth lacking on the wings, in Chris Brown and Evan Bloodoff. Brown is a freshman at the University of Michigan, and his powerful, gritty style have helped him to three points in his first four games. The speedy Bloodoff played more of an energy role for the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets, and was looking to assume more of a scoring role this season before he tore his ACL in September. He’s expected to be out until at least February.
Former Hobey Baker winner Kevin Porter is the top prospect at center. Entering his second professional season, he’s started the year with San Antonio. Porter is one of the top two-way prospects in the system. He plays the game hard and competes on every shift, making him a good bet to be a checking-line player one day. However, his offensive skills are dangerous as well, and he’s scored at every level he’s played at so far.
Also in San Antonio is Colin Long, who was finally signed before the season after a long look at training camp. Phoenix could have left him in the WHL for one more season, but he impressed and earned a spot on a deep San Antonio team. He only has one goal to show for it so far. Another former WHL scoring star, Justin Bernhardt, started the season in San Antonio but has since been demoted to Las Vegas of the ECHL. Bernhardt had 92 points in his final season of junior before Phoenix signed him this offseason.
Coming off of a productive freshman season, Brett Hextall is now a sophomore at the University of North Dakota. He plays an agitating, aggressive game, but is more than capable of putting up offense at the collegiate level.
Needing to have a big season is the enigmatic Vladimir Ruzicka. He’s entering his third full season as a regular in the top Czech league, and is on pace to top all of his career highs. His 10 points in 20 games leave him already one point shy of tying what he put up last year, and five points back of his career best. Ruzicka has always had the skill to put up better numbers, but needed to get more assertive on the ice and play more in traffic.
Rounding out the list are a pair of skilled Russians who may never make the jump back to North America. Alexander Nikulin is back in the KHL after Phoenix acquired him prior to the 2008-09 season. He did not produce in the AHL like he did in Ottawa’s system, and he’s currently without an NHL contract. Anton Krysanov is a tall centerman drafted in 2005, but has yet to touch North American soil. He spent the past four and a half seasons with Tolyatti Lada in the KHL, before joining Moscow Dynamo before this season.
The team is currently not very deep on natural wingers on either side, but one promising youngster is current San Antonio forward Chad Kolarik. Kolarik had a more than respectable 50 points in 76 games with the Rampage last season, but was one of the few top prospects not to get a taste in the NHL. The two-way forward has come out strong out of the gate this season, with seven points in 10 games.
Jared Staal has been criticized in the past for not playing with enough fire and consistency, but has come out of the gate strong in his fourth season in the OHL, scoring above a point-per-game pace for the first time. Staal doesn’t have the same elite skill as his brothers, but his size and flashes of ability around the net still leave him as an intriguing prospect. Also in the OHL is hard-working forward Jordan Szwarz. Szwarz is an alternate captain this season and is also being counted on heavily for more offense. He has 10 points in 13 games so far.
Lastly, recent signee Matt Watkins starts his professional career in Las Vegas after a four-year career with North Dakota. Watkins is a sound two-way player with good offensive instincts, despite his modest offensive numbers in college.
Leading off a very deep defensive corps is recent first round pick Oliver Ekman-Larsson. In his second season in the Swedish Allsvenskan (second tier), Ekman-Larsson is well on his way to proving that last year was not a fluke. He led the entire league in plus/minus last season, and is already back on top in that category with a +12. He’s also picked up seven points in 13 games. He’s also among league leaders in an unfamiliar category – penalty minutes. His 68 penalty minutes are second in the league, but not much too concerning when you consider that 50 came courtesy of two fights. The Allsvenskan hands out five minute majors plus 20-minute misconducts for dropping the gloves.
Fellow Swede Jonas Ahnelov has picked up where he left off in his first season across the pond. His game isn’t going to thrill, but he plays a smart and responsible game in his own end. The most important thing for him this season is staying healthy; however, he has already been missed five games due to injury.
Acquired this offseason from Washington, Sami Lepisto has already made a positive impression in the NHL. His puck-handling skills and vision on the ice has made his transition to the NHL a successful one, and head coach Dave Tippett is confident enough to reward him with just over 17 minutes of ice time per game.
Next up, a pair of former first-round picks each have a lot to prove this season, and will be given the roles to do so. It seems like forever ago that Phoenix took Chris Summers in the first round of the 2006 draft. Summers is now a senior, a captain, and is being leaned on for big minutes. He’s a permanent fixture on the blueline after playing some forward in the past, and has started the season with three points in four games. In 2007, Phoenix picked up Nick Ross, who is starting his professional career in Las Vegas of the ECHL. He’d likely be in San Antonio if there weren’t Anaheim prospects occupying two spots in the team’s top six already, but starting in the ECHL gives Ross an opportunity to play big minutes right out of the gate.
One of Russia‘s biggest stars from last year’s World Junior Championships, Maxim Goncharov, has already proven to be a gem of a late-round pick. He’s entering his third full season in the KHL now, where his role is continuing to expand. He is expected to play in North America next season.
The high-scoring Michael Stone is back in the WHL, already with 13 points in 15 games. He has work to do with his defensive zone play, but he has the size and skating ability to be an effective minute-munching defenseman for the Calgary Hitmen.
One of the players projected more as bottom pairing defensemen is David Schlemko, who saw some NHL time last season after starting his professional career in the CHL. Schlemko is expected to play big minutes on a young defensive corps, as one of the most experienced players on the roster.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in San Antonio this season has been the strong play of 25-year-old defenseman Sean Sullivan. Never a huge producer in college, Sullivan leads the team with 10 points in eight games and has earned a call-up to Phoenix. He likely will not stick in the NHL, but it’s a shot of confidence for a player who’s trying not to get lost among the bevy of high picks playing in San Antonio right now.
Filling out the Rampage roster are two reliable, stay-at-home defensemen in Sean Zimmerman and Jeff May. Zimmerman has played every game after spending some time with the CHL’s Arizona Sundogs last season. Jeff May, a former Detroit draft pick, was signed by Phoenix late last season after bouncing around to four different teams in the AHL and ECHL.
Considered a player who could have gone higher in the draft if he were healthier, so far fourth-round pick Justin Weller has played in every game for Red Deer of the WHL. He is a physical, mobile defenseman who projects as a true shut-down defenseman. After being scoreless his first two seasons, Weller picked up his first career WHL goal in this one.
Not to be forgotten are a pair of stay-at-home defensemen in Mathieu Brodeur and Tim Billingsley. A former third-round pick, Brodeur is entering his third season with Cape Breton in the QMJHL and needs to establish himself as one of the premier defensive defensemen in the league. After earning praise for his strong play as a rookie, Billingsley is looking to work his way back up the depth charts and return to the form that netted him 27 points in his draft year. So far, he only has one point in his first 13 games.
Mike Lee was clearly Phoenix’s target in net this past draft, and with good reason. The USHL Goalie of the Year has already established himself as St. Cloud’s starting goaltender as freshman, with a save percentage of .926 through his first two starts. Lee is a very safe bet to make the USA’s under-20 team and looks right now to be the favorite to start.
Hulking 6’5 sophomore Scott Darling has returned to the University of Maine, where it looks like he’ll be seeing a lot of rubber this season. His 4.18 goals against average is the best among the three goalies who have seen action so far. Playing time is the only concern for Darling, as he’s only registered a decision in two of Maine’s six games.
After sitting out last year for a transfer, Brett Bennett has finished his move from Boston University to the University of Wisconsin, where he’s currently splitting time as a junior. Wisconsin boasts one of the deepest defensive corps in the entire NCAA, so Bennett could be poised for a long playoff run.
Still in the system is Joel Gistedt, who has disappointed in North America since coming over highly regarded from Sweden. Gistedt spent the season in the CHL last season and only played 29 games. This season, he’s the backup goalie for Las Vegas in the ECHL. He’s not off to a good start, with a .828 save percentage in the only two games he’s played.