Led by a veteran lineup and some outstanding goaltending from current Jets rookie Michael Hutchinson the St. John’s IceCaps won the Eastern Conference playoff title before falling to the Texas Stars in the 2013-14 Calder Cup finals. With Hutchinson and several key players from that team playing elsewhere this season, the IceCaps struggled to start the year but are playing better of late.
The roster openings presented opportunities for some of the younger prospects to make their mark and several have made the most of that chance. While the team has still struggled to score goals at times, St. John’s is closing in on the .500 mark.
The Jets do not have as many true “blue-chip” prospects at the AHL level as there are in the junior and NCAA ranks but the fact that the IceCaps have several prospects contributing in their first season of pro hockey is a bonus for the Jets organization.
Connor Hellebuyck, G, 21
A highly-regarded prospect who turned pro following his sophomore season at Massachusetts-Lowell, Hellebuyck has been a big reason for the IceCaps’ turnaround. In one stretch in November he won six of seven starts — including two shutouts. The only loss during that stretch was a 2-1 overtime loss to Hamilton. As a result, his goals against average -which stood at 3.02 after six games- was at 2.45 heading into December. In his first 25 professional games he is 14-9-2 while posting a .926 save percentage. Winnipeg acquired veteran Peter Budaj just prior to the start of the season and the 32-year-old has no doubt been a positive influence on a player many feel can be the Jets’ starter one day.
Eric O’Dell, C, 24
O’Dell had a 30-game stint with Winnipeg last year and was one of the IceCaps’ top scorers in the Calder Cup playoffs. He opened the year with the Jets but suffered an upper-body injury before appearing in any games. After returning from the injury he passed through waivers and was reassigned to St. John’s.
He is once again the club’s top goal scorer with 12 in his first 29 games. Now in his fourth pro season, the former Anaheim Ducks second-round pick has provided a veteran presence in the IceCaps lineup. In the right situation he can be a valuable depth forward but with several high profile prospects in the Jets’ pipeline he may not get that opportunity in Winnipeg.
John Albert, C, 25
The IceCaps’ top goalscorer in 2013-14 with 28 goals, Albert also made his NHL debut and appeared in nine games in his third pro season. Back in St. John’s for the current campaign, he is leading the offensively-challenged club with 25 points in his first 36 games (ten goals, 15 assists). Albert, like O’Dell and Carl Klingberg, has developed into an effective forward at the AHL level. Smaller than most NHL forwards, he will be challenged to earn a spot at that level on a regular basis.
Brenden Kichton, D, 22
A pleasant surprise with his 38-point season as an AHL rookie last season, Kichton has yet to match those offensive numbers in 2014-15. He has also been a liability in his own end at times, sporting a -12 rating in his first 31 games. An offensively-gifted but not overly physical defenseman, the Spruce Grove, Alberta native is making the transition from just an offensive presence to a full-time all-around defender. He is experiencing the necessary growing pains associated with that development. Whether he can elevate his game to the level necessary to play at the NHL level remains an uncertainty.
Scott Kosmachuk, RW, 20
Kosmachuk is one of the IceCaps making the adjustment from junior to pro hockey. Following his 101-point season for OHL champion Guelph last season, he scored two of his six goals this season in St. John’s first four games but has had the struggles not uncommon for a 20-year-old in his first pro season. Skating in 33 of the IceCaps’ first 36 games, he is steadily adapting to the pace of pro hockey and has provided a physical element to the St. John’s lineup.
Ben Chiarot, D, 23
Chiarot opened the season with St. John’s before being re-called by Winnipeg in early December due to a string of injuries on the Jets’ blue line. Steady and responsible in his own end, he is seeing consistent minutes with the NHL club and is making a good case for staying with the Jets when the regulars return. Long-term, he is not a high-end offensive defender nor is he overly abrasive but his size and awareness make him a valuable presence in his own end. In 24 games with the IceCaps he scored four goals with five assists and was an even plus/minus.
J.C. Lipon, C, 21
Lipon is once again the IceCaps’ leader in penalty minutes while recording ten assists in 35 games. His playmaking ability and instincts suggest he can be more than just an enforcer but his team-worst -17 plus/minus is a source of concern. With the highly-skilled scorers in the Jets’ system his abrasiveness could be a welcome presence in the lineup to both create space and give the Jets some effectiveness in the corners and along the boards.
Carl Klingberg, LW, 23
Klingberg’s up-and-down season -his fourth with the organization- has mirrored that of the IceCaps. He and Patrice Cormier are the only players with the IceCaps who played for the Chicago Wolves in 2010-11, when that club served as AHL affiliate for the Atlanta Thrashers.
Klingberg is St. John’s fourth-leading scorer with 20 points and is tied for second with ten goals in 35 games. He has the prototypical frame of a power forward but doesn’t play an abrasive style. He seems to prefer a skill game though he has yet to show the consistency and productivity to to stick at the NHL level. Klingberg has five multi-point games but opened the season with one assist in the team’s first five games and had another 11-game stretch from October 26 to November 18 where he scored one goal with two assists. The 34th player taken in the 2009 NHL Draft when he was selected by the Thrashers, Klingberg has elements to his game which make him valuable in injury call-up situations but at this point more than that would be a reach.
Ryan Olsen, C, 20
The Jets signed Olsen to an entry-level contract last December and he is in his first pro season after back-to-back 30 goal seasons for an offensively-inclined Kelowna team in the WHL. Seeing limited time as a 20-year-old, his offensive output has been limited — the 2012 sixth round pick has two goals and three assists in his first 35 games — and he is still adjusting to the faster pace and stronger players at the pro level. Olsen is still eligible to play in the WHL as an overage player, but it is hoped he will see a bigger role with St. John’s over the second half.
Patrice Cormier, C, 24
Now in his fifth pro season Cormier was recalled by the Jets at the beginning of December after spending the start of the season with the IceCaps. After suffering an eye injury during the pre-season, he did not skate in his first game with St. John’s until October 17th. In 21 AHL games he scored 5 goals with 5 assists and was minus-8. A high profile player in junior hockey due to his size and scoring potential when he was selected by New Jersey in the second round in 2008, he appeared in 28 NHL games over three seasons after playing 21 games for the Thrashers in 2010-11. Long-term if he is to stick at the NHL level it would appear to be in the role of a lower-line, physical forward.
Patrick Holland, RW, 22
Holland was acquired along with Budaj in the pre-season trade with Montreal that sent defenseman Eric Tangradi to the Canadiens. Now in his third pro season, Holland appeared in five NHL games with Montreal last year but skated in just seven games this season before suffering a lower body injury at the end of October that has kept him out of the lineup. Holland had 109 points for Tri-City in his final season of junior hockey but as a pro has been more of a checking line forward who gets by playing sound positionally and using his body to advantage.
Austen Brassard, RW, 21
Brassard has skated in 35 of 36 games for the IceCaps in his second pro season. The native of Windsor, Ontario is another of the big bodied forwards in the Jets organization who will be relied on to play a sound two-way game and create space for some of the high flyers coming up through the team’s pipeline. Capable of chipping in offensively at times — he has one goal and five assists — Brassard’s calling card will be his physical play and defending if he is to reach the next level.
Chase Balisy, C, 22
Drafted in the sixth round by Nashville in 2011 but not signed to a contract this summer after completing his four year college career at Western Michigan, Balisy is skating for the IceCaps on an AHL contract. Balisy has been one of the more productive forwards in the St. John’s lineup and is the team’s third-leading scorer behind Albert and O’Dell. In his first 33 AHL games he scored seven goals with 15 assists and was -3 with ten penalty minutes. As with any unsigned player, Balisy faces long odds to crack an NHL lineup, and like some of the other IceCaps his stature may be an issue. That he is contributing as a rookie is a plus in his favor.
Juho Olkinuora, G, 24
The former University of Denver goalie skated in one game for St. John’s before being assigned to the Ontario Reign — where he spent most of last season. After seeing limited opportunities behind Vancouver prospect Joe Cannata, one of the ECHL’s top goalies to start the year, Olkinuora appeared in 13 straight games after the Canucks re-assigned Cannata to the AHL’s Utica Comets. Like Hellebuyck he has been playing some of his best hockey with the increased workload. With the depth of goaltending prospects in the organization, including Canada U20 team goalie Eric Comrie, the Helsinki native faces long odds in the Jets organization. His play with the Reign may earn him opportunities elsewhere.
Julian Melchiori, D, 23
Melchiori is in his third pro season with the IceCaps and continues to be a solid, if nondescript, presence for the St. John’s defense corps. He is not an overly combative player despite his size but will stand up for teammates if necessary and has a defense-first mentality. Fully recovered from the shoulder and elbow injuries that kept him out of the AHL playoffs, he is a solid contributor for the IceCaps but his limited offensive production and lack of high-end skills may prevent him from cracking the Jets lineup for any extended length of time.
Non-Minor League Prospect Update
The Jets prospects at the junior level continue to excite as six of them competed in the 2015 World Juniors tournament.
Goalie Eric Comrie (Tri-City), defenseman Josh Morrissey (Prince Albert), and Portand captain Nic Petan all skated for Canada and are among the leaders for their respective WHL clubs. At the WJC, Petan was tied for Canada’s leading scorer with four goals and seven assists. Morrissey was traded by the Raiders at the trade deadline and will skate for Kelowna following the tournament. Comrie split time with Montreal prospect Zach Fucale in net for Canada and recorded 17 saves in a 4-0 shutout win over Germany in his first start.
Nikolaj Ehlers, the top scorer for the Halifax Mooseheads, has 16 goals and 31 assists in 23 games in QMJHL play, and skated for Denmark. The line of Ehlers, Petan’s Portland teammate Oliver Bjorkstrand (Columbus) and undrafted Mads Eller of the Edmonton Oil Kings was dominant in WJC play and made for one of the big stories in the preliminary round.
Chase De Leo, who is the leading scorer for the Winterhawks, with Bjorkstrand second and Petan third, is skating for the USA. In 34 WHL games he has scored 17 goals with 25 assists and is +7 with 18 penalty minutes. De Leo scored the winning shootout goal in the USA’s 2-1 win over Finland.
Jan Kostalek, a 2013 draft pick who has yet to sign a contract with the Jets and is skating for the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL, represented his native Czech Republic.
At the NCAA level goalies Jamie Phillips and Jason Kasdorf have cooled a bit since getting off to big starts but both continue to handle the bulk of the workload for their respective teams and both continue to show promise. At Michigan Tech, Phillips is now 14-4 after getting off to a 10-0 start. His 1.73 goals against and .938 save percentage continue to be among the nation’s best. Kasdorf, after playing in just two games last season due to injury, has appeared in 13 of 20 games for RPI and has all six of the Engineers’ wins. His 2.65 goals against and .911 are as much a result of playing on one of college hockey’s more inexperienced teams as they are a reflection of his play.
Freshman C.J. Franklin has fit in well with surprising Minnesota State, Mankato, scoring three goals with 12 assists in his first 16 college games. Defenseman Tucker Poolman, also a freshman, has played a bigger role than expected for a veteran North Dakota team that is once again expected to compete for a national title.
Winnipeg Jets Prospect of the Month
Adam Lowry does not have the impressive statistics of some of the other prospects in the Jets’ pipeline — in his first 24 games he scored two goals with one assist — but what has been impressive is how the big 21-year-old is gradually seeing more ice time and playing in more situations as an NHL rookie.
Lowry saw a season-high 16:25 minutes of ice-time in Winnipeg’s 2-1 loss to Nashville on November 14th and scored two of Winnipeg’s three second period goals in a 5-2 win at Dallas on December 10th. Long-term Lowry is not expected to develop into a high end scorer like Ehlers, Petan or some of the others. His success as a rookie, however, suggests he can provide a strong two-way presence in the lineup for years to come.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12