Phoenix Coyotes minor-league system led by group of rookie defensemen

By Andrew Sykes
Photo: Maxim Goncharov is among several rookie defensemen this season to play for the San Antonio Rampage. (Photo Courtesy of the NHL.)

After narrowly missing the playoffs last year, the San Antonio Rampage are leaving little doubt to whether they will be in the post-season this year. With a record of 23-9-1, the Rampage are in first place in the AHL‘s Western Conference and have the second best record in the entire league.

The club’s turnaround has been bolstered by the play of four rookie defensemen who are all playing their first season of professional hockey.

AHL

Jonas Ahnelov, D, 23

The oft-injured Ahnelov continues to be unable to stay on the ice and after playing in just 43 games a year ago, the 23-year-old has found himself on the shelf yet again. Having appeared in just 18 of San Antonio’s 33 games so far this season, Ahnelov is yet to register a point and is the owner of a disappointing minus-five rating.

The once promising blueliner’s inability to stay healthy for any extended periods of time has really hindered his development. Two years ago Ahnelov was considered to be one of the most NHL ready defensemen in the Phoenix system, but he has since fallen far down the depth chart with a large group of younger players ahead of him.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, 19

One of the top prospects in all of hockey, Ekman-Larsson began the year with the Coyotes who simply couldn’t say no to the 19-year-old’s tremendous poise and skating ability. After struggling somewhat through his first 10 games, he was sent down to San Antonio where he bolstered an already potent Rampage blue-line. The 19-year-old played in 10 games before he was re-called by the Coyotes in early December.

In 23 games for the Coyotes, Ekman-Larsson has picked up six assists but is still in search of his first NHL goal. The multi-talented blueliner has averaged over 17 minutes of ice time and is a plus-one

Maxim Goncharov, D, 21

In his first season of pro hockey in North America, Goncharov has made a seamless transition from the KHL to the AHL. An excellent training camp caught the eyes of the Coyotes brass and almost landed Goncharov on the opening day roster, but the 21-year-was the odd man out in tight battle with fellow youngsters David Schlemko and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

In 31 games for the Rampage, the young Russian rearguard has tallied four goals and added three assists while maintaining a steady plus-six rating. Known for his aggressive and sometimes rambunctious style of play, Goncharov has been one of the club’s most consistently physical players and is among the team leaders with 36 penalty minutes.

Josh Lunden, LW, 24

A free agent singing in 2010, Lunden has had a hard time finding some game action for the Rampage so far this year. The 24-year-old has battled shoulder injuries in the past and the University of Alaska-Anchorage product has played in only three games this season.

Having not played a game since the middle of October, Lunden will be hoping that he isn’t a forgotten man when he is ready to play again. With San Antonio rolling the way they are, it certainly won’t be easy to work himself back in the line-up.

Brett MacLean, LW, 22

After narrowly missing out on making the Coyotes, MacLean is once again turning in a performance that ranks him among the best players in the AHL. The high-scoring left-winger led the Rampage in goals and points a year ago and is on his way to doing the same again this year. MacLean, who recently became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer has played in 32 games this year notching a team-high 14 goals and dishing out 17 assists for 31 points which is the top mark on the team. He also leads the team in power play goals and is second with a plus-nine rating, but what MacLean loves to do the most is shoot the puck and his 134 shots on goal is the second most in the league.

MacLean certainly hasn’t let the disappointment of not realizing his NHL dream for a third straight season effect his play. While it is quite surprising that a player with MacLean’s ever growing repertoire is still yet to play a National Hockey League game, the 22-year-old remains one of the best offensive players not playing in the NHL and should find himself up with the big boys before too long.

Jeff May, D, 23

Signed as a free agent in 2009, May is in his third season in San Antonio and has turned into a reliable stay-at-home defenseman for the club. He has played in 22 games picking up three helpers along the way.

Although he is just 23, May is actually one of the more veteran and experienced players on the San Antonio Rampage. He and long time AHL’er Garret Stafford have provided excellent leadership for a young defense core which has featured at times up to for rookies.

Nick Ross, D, 21

A former first-round pick, Ross is still trying to find his way in the Coyotes minor league system. After splitting time last year between the AHL and ECHL, Ross disappointingly began this year with the Las Vegas Wranglers where he played in 11 games collecting three assists.

When Oliver Ekman-Larsson was recalled by the Coyotes in early December, a spot was opened on the Rampage blue line and the 21-year-old was called to fill the void. He has since appeared in eight games and has recorded just two assist, but has played a solid two-way game and is starting to assert himself as more of a reliable presence on the back-end.

Michael Stone, D, 20

A year ago, Stone was a fourth-year veteran and captain of the Calgary Hitmen who advanced all the way to the Memorial Cup semi-finals. This year he is one of a handful of rookies getting their first taste of pro hockey.

In 31 games, the 20-year-old has one goal and seven assists for a point total that is the second highest among Rampage blue-liners. But while he is doing fine in terms of offense, the defensive side is where he is having some problems. Stone currently sits at a minus-three rating which is the worst rating among defensemen and the second worst total on the team.

Although the bad plus/minus is something that is likely to be bothersome to Stone, the fact remains that he is having a solid season and a nice start to his professional career.

Ch
ris Summers
, D, 22

Summers is a player whom the Coyotes expected a lot out of this season and he certainly hasn’t disappointed. The University of Michigan grad is playing in his rookie season with the San Antonio Rampage and the 22-year-old has quickly become one of the best rookie rear-guards in the league. While he isn’t exactly lighting up the score-sheet with one goal and five assists in 33 games, Summers has been excellent at both ends of the rink which is evidenced by his team leading plus-12 rating; a total which also happens to be the third best in the league among rookie skaters.

At 22, Summers is older than a lot of the other rookies in the league and it has definitely shown. He has played with the confidence, smarts and poise of a seasoned veteran and he should only continue to improve as the year goes on.

Viktor Tikhonov, RW, 22

The 2007-2008 season must now seem like a distant memory for young Viktor Tikhonov. That was the year in which Tikhonov played in 61 games as a 19-year-old rookie for the Phoenix Coyotes. Since that time, the now 22-year-old Tikhonov hasn’t seen a sniff of NHL action and has played parts of the last three seasons in the KHL and with San Antonio in the AHL.

This year with the Rampage Tikhonov has played in 28 games scoring four goals and adding 13 assists. It hadn’t really been the season he was hoping for when he was a late cut at the Coyotes camp and things got even worse when he recently went on the shelf with a broken hand. Despite the slow start and the untimely injury, Tikhonov will still have a chance to salvage the season later in the schedule and into the playoffs where he will be counted on to be a key contributor to the Rampage attack.


ECHL

Justin Bernhardt, C, 22

A former 35 goal-scorer during his final junior season, Bernhardt has yet to show his offensive skills on a consistent basis in the minors. The 22-year-old saw 14 games last year with San Antonio but has spent all of the 2010-2011 season with Las Vegas. In 18 games, Bernhardt has collected seven assists but is yet to find the back of the net this year.

Mathieu Brodeur, D, 20

On a team loaded with young up and coming defensemen, Brodeur is the one first year-pro who didn’t make the Rampage roster. Having been a late season callup out of junior for two games in each of the last two seasons, the towering 6’6 blueliner has played 25 games for the Wranglers where he is still in search of his first point. A big stay-at-home defenseman, Brodeur has played well defensively and has arguably been the club’s most steady and consistent player on the back-end.

Colin Long. C, 21

As a rookie pro, Long appeared in 29 games last year for the Rampage before a head injury cut his season short. This year the 21-year-old once again began his season in San Antonio where he spent five games with the club but was quickly demoted to Las Vegas in the ECHL. The former high-scoring junior then played in another five games with the Wranglers where he showed his offensive prowess by scoring four goals and handing out four helpers. Unfortunately for Long he was hit by the injury bug again and has been out since mid-November.


SPHL

Scott Darling, G, 22

Darling is in his first year as a pro but has fallen off the radar and is currently playing with the Louisiana IceGators in the SPHL. A sixth-round selection in 2007, Darling has struggled mightily this year playing in 22 games and posting a record of 5-16. The 6’6 net-minder is coming off a season in which he played very well for the University of Maine, but the 22-year-old will need to rediscover his game if he hopes to make his way through the system.

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