The Winnipeg Jets defied the odds this season with their never say die mentality, overcoming injury and hardship on their way to edging out the defending Stanley Cup Champions and clinching the franchise’s first playoff appearance since its return to Winnipeg. The return of playoff hockey after its nearly 20 year hiatus from Winnipeg has reignited the burning passion of the fan base, making one thing clear moving forward: simply making the playoffs is not enough anymore.
With numerous high-end prospects on the horizon that will be battling for roster spots in the coming years, there is little doubt that the Jets and their fans will soon forget the playoff drought of years past. Some of these prospects receiving awards here will be a big part of any future success.
Since being selected in the 4th round of the 2013 NHL entry draft, Andrew Copp has led by example and in doing so displayed a work ethic that is well beyond what one would typically expect from a player in his early 20s.
After being named captain prior to his junior season at Michigan, Copp had another solid season – putting up career highs in both points and assists. His lead by example mentality has gained the attention of upper management and Copp was rewarded with an entry level contract last month, making him the first player selected by the Jets in the 2013 draft to see NHL action.
One of the key pieces acquired by the Jets in the blockbuster Evander Kane trade, Joel Armia is a budding power forward whose arsenal of offensive abilities is highlighted by a wicked and deceptive shot that seems to baffle goaltenders at every level.
His 6’3 frame mixed with soft hands and a strong ability to finish in tight areas makes him a very formidable player for opposing defenders to contain.
Another year in the AHL will hopefully allow Armia to focus on improving his skating and defensive skill. These improvements mixed with his already impressive skill set will no doubt be beneficial towards Armia taking the next step forward toward being an NHL mainstay.
Morrissey has had another exceptional year playing in the WHL splitting time between the Prince Albert Raiders and Kelowna Rockets. Already considered to be one of the elite two-way defencemen before the season, Morrissey’s outstanding offensive instincts were on full display as he dominated the competition in his final year of junior hockey.
Morrissey’s great year was highlighted with a gold medal and all-star honors while competing for Canada at the World Juniors last winter.
Next season will be a big step for Morrissey: he will likely be playing big minutes in the more competitive AHL, if he can continue his success he is poised to be appearing in a Jets uniform sooner rather than later.
Without a doubt the most offensively gifted prospect in the Jets’ system, Nikolaj Ehlers had another spectacular season for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL.
With the departure of former star and leading point scorer Jonathan Drouin, Ehlers was required to carry the offensive load for the team. He responded to the task with his second consecutive 100 point season, leading the Mooseheads in points and plus-minus, and adding another 31 points in 14 playoff games.
Ehlers’s game, which is defined by his electric speed and unbelievable offensive prowess, will no doubt continue to improve as he continues to mature and add size and strength to his frame.
This year spent honing his skills will help him further advance his game playing against bigger and stronger opponents, as he may have to be pencilled in to the lineup for the 2015-16 in Winnipeg, rather than return to junior, where he has proven all he can.
Prospect of the Year: Connor Hellebuyck, St. John’s IceCaps
One of the few bright spots on a St. John’s team that finished last in their division this year was the impressive goaltending performance by Connor Hellebuyck. Playing in his first year of AHL hockey, after 2 seasons at UMass-Lowell, Hellebuyck played lights-out all season: posting a .921 save percentage with a 2.58 goals against average and 28-22-5 record – all of this on a team that scored the fourth fewest goals in the AHL.
Had it not been for Hellebuyck’s superb play this year, an already disappointing season for the IceCaps could have been even worse. He more than proved he was up to the task after making the jump from college, and his strong play will undoubtedly place him in contention for the backup position with the Jets next fall. Hellebuyck also appears to be the starter for a youthful Team USA squad in the current IIHF World Hockey Championships, something that bodes very well for his fortunes with the national squad.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Jack Glover, University of Minnesota (NCAA)
Glover’s lack of offensive production this season at the University of Minnesota should not be seen as a red flag regarding his future development. Playing in his freshman year, the 18-year-old Glover was in and out of the lineup fighting for ice-time amongst a very deep defensive core.
His rare mix of size and speed will no doubt be more relied upon more heavily in his sophomore season and the maturity of a year of collegiate hockey under his belt will hopefully see Glover establish himself as a formidable force on the blueline. He still remains a very promising prospect to watch moving forward.
Most Improved Prospect: Jamie Phillips, Michigan Tech University (NCAA)
In a prospect pool that already had noteworthy depth at the goaltender position, the unexpected emergence of Jamie Phillips as a serious contender creates a logjam of early 20s prospects at the top of the Jets’ organization.
In his junior season at Michigan Tech, Phillips posted a .933 save percentage and 1.74 goals against average and 28-9-2 record – rightfully earned him a nomination for the Hobey Baker award, awarded annually to college hockey’s most outstanding player in the United States.
Whether he returns for his senior year a Michigan Tech or makes the jump to go play in the AHL – where he will be battling against other promising goaltenders Eric Comrie and Connor Hellebuyck – the long-term outlook for Phillips is very promising if he continues to develop and add to the impressive numbers he put up this past year.
Overachiever: Ben Chiarot, Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets’ remarkable run that put an end to the city’s nearly 20-year post-season hockey drought may have never have come to fruition had it not been for the club’s ability to rebound and overcome lengthy injuries to important players at various points of the season.
The depth of the organization was put to the test to fill the void and weather down the storm brought on by a string of injuries which hit throughout the lineup. One of the players that rose up the challenge and never looked back was defenseman Ben Chiarot who was called on when the club faced multiple injuries on the back end.
Chariot slowly gained the trust of coach Paul Maurice with his reliable play, seeing his average minutes rise as the season wore on and even appearing in two of the Jets’ playoff games.
Underachiever: Scott Kosmachuk, St. John’s IceCaps
Scott Kosmachuk is definitely experiencing some growing pains after making the jump from junior to the AHL. The former 100-point scorer a year ago with the Guelph Storm, the speedy Kosmachuk was held to just 28 points and a -28 rating in 70 games this year with St. John’s.
Though disappointing, it was not just Kosmachuck who failed to produce offensively. The team as a whole struggled to put up points all season long – finishing in the bottom-five in the AHL for goal production. Hopefully next season will see a bounce back in offensive production for Kosmachuk and the IceCaps as a whole.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Nicolas Petan, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
There is no question that Nic Petan is a player who possesses top of the line speed and offensive touch. Whether or not the 5’9 Petan will be able to replicate his offensive production while competing against bigger, stronger, and faster opponents in the NHL is another story.
The AHL is overflowing with offensively gifted undersized players who have been unable to reproduce their junior success against the unforgiving professional game. However, the NHL is constantly changing: very much shifting now towards a style of game that favors speed and skill.
Petan exemplifies the category of high risk/reward. His performance at the World Juniors for Canada no doubt proved he can flourish while playing against the very best his age class has to offer; however all this success is taken with a grain of salt when attempting to gauge how he will fare going against the best in the world.
Prospect of the Month
Fresh off signing his first professional contract with the Jets last month, the 6’1, 200 pound Copp plays a hard-hitting two-way game that balances nicely alongside the undersized and flashy offensive players that are at the top of the Jets prospect pool.
Copp made some significant strides in his development over his past three years at Michigan. If he can add another dimension to his offensive abilities he has all the physical attributes to emerge into a bruising NHL power forward for years to come.