The Winnipeg Jets reached the playoffs last season for the first time since the franchise moved from Atlanta to Manitoba in 2011-12. It is too soon to tell whether the Jets can be a permanent fixture in the playoffs playing in the rugged Central Division or were merely a one-year wonder. Even if they should miss the post-season in 2015-16, judging by the stream of young talent coming up through the Winnipeg system the future is looking bright.
The Jets have three young forwards who made the team out of training camp with Nikolaj Ehlers and Nic Petan going directly from Canadian junior to the NHL. Center Andrew Copp made his NHL debut last spring — appearing in one game with the Jets after signing following his junior season at the University of Michigan.
Winnipeg’s attack received another surprising boost in the off-season when Russian forward Alexander Burmistrov — the eighth player taken in the 2010 NHL Draft when the franchise was still known as the Atlanta Thrashers — announced his return to North America after two seasons with Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL.
Moving the club’s AHL franchise from the Atlantic Maritimes (where they were the St. John’s IceCaps last season) to Winnipeg should make it easier for the Jets; both in keeping tabs on their younger prospects and re-calling players if the need arises. The Moose have an interesting mix of players with NHL experience such as defenseman Jay Harrison and right wing Matt Halischuk and high-end prospects like first-year pro defensemen Jan Kostalek and Josh Morrissey.
Ehlers topped 100 points in each of his two QMJHL seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads and if his early season play is any indication the 19-year-old from Denmark belongs in the conversation for the Calder Trophy. A highly-skilled player who is creative and reads the play well, Ehlers has not been fazed by the jump from junior to pro hockey and is among the team’s scoring leaders. The Jets relied on their defense and goaltending to win many close games a year ago but Ehlers looks to be part of a more potent attack in 2015-16.
In terms of goal-scoring and offensive potential, the Jets next best prospect on left wing is probably the Barrie Colts’ Brendan Lemieux. The son of former NHL forward Claude Lemieux, he was acquired from Buffalo as part of the multi-player trade that sent Evander Kane to Buffalo. Lemieux plays with the same antagonistic style of his father and scored 41 goals with 145 penalty minutes in 57 regular season games for the Colts as an 18-year-old in 2014-15.
With veterans like Halischuk, Matt Fraser, Darren Kramer, and 29-year-old Austrian forward Thomas Raffl playing left wing in Manitoba, the only left wing prospect currently with the Moose is towering Swedish 20-year-old Axel Blomqvist. In his first pro season, Blomqvist was signed as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2013-14 season and played with Victoria and Moose Jaw in the WHL last year.
Franklin is a late bloomer from Minnesota who was drafted in 2014 as a 19-year-old after two seasons in the USHL. He was one of the leading scorers for the Mavericks as Minnesota State enjoyed its most successful season since joining the Division I ranks: entering the NCAA tournament as the top seed. Foley scored at a point-per-game pace for Cedar Rapids of the USHL last season and is a freshman with the defending national champion Friars. Ustaski was a late-round project pick drafted in 2014 largely due to his size and potential and will look to have a larger role for the Badgers as a sophomore.
Ivan Telegin — a largely forgotten prospect in the Jets system — is a feel-good story merely due to the fact that he is back on the ice for CSKA Moscow after missing most of the past two seasons due to concussion issues. With the glut of forwards now in the Winnipeg pipeline and a limited role for CSKA to this point the 23-year-old may no longer be viewed as a potential Jet, nor is he likely to match the eye-popping offensive numbers he put up with the Barrie Colts in 2012-13. His perseverance in overcoming his injury issues speaks to his character.
Petan and Copp have very different skill sets but both are expected to contribute to the Jets for years to come. A high-end and speedy offensive talent who doesn’t mind competing in small areas against bigger, stronger players, Petan has played both center and wing for Winnipeg. He has struggled since scoring a goal in his first NHL game, the season opener against Boston. His lack of stature is an issue but he is a challenge for opposing defenders and would benefit from more skill around him. Copp has the size that Petan lacks but is more of a two-way center than a pure scorer. He has played a traditional fourth-line role for Winnipeg to this point but could score more as he gains experience.
First-year pro Chase De Leo on the other hand is another smaller scorer who is unafraid to go into tight areas to make plays and uses his skating skill to avoid big hits. Signed to an entry-level contract by the Jets in June after back-to-back 39-goal seasons with the Portland Winterhawks, he is another dangerous playmaker who competes every shift. Ryan Olsen, 21, is in his second AHL season after playing 60 games for St. John’s last year. Like De Leo he put up big offensive numbers in the WHL but that success has yet to translate to the next level.
The Jets have four center prospects playing college hockey this season — two of whom are viewed as significant prospects, one who is having some surprising success as a freshman and a fourth who enters his senior season hoping to earn an entry level contract.
Michigan’s Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic of Miami, both of whom are in their freshman seasons, participated in USA Hockey’s U20 Evaluation camp in August and are candidates to play in the 2016 World Juniors. Connor was a dominant scorer with the Youngstown Phantoms while Roslovic is a product of the USA Hockey National Team Development program.
Neither Mason Appleton of Michigan State nor Nebraska-Omaha’s Tanner Lane have the high-end offensive ability of Connor or Roslovic. Appleton, however, has moved into the lineup for the Spartans as a 19-year-old freshman and has the makings of an intriguing sixth-round sleeper pick. Lane was a late round projection pick when he was selected by the Thrashers in 2010 after playing at Detroit Lakes high school in Minnesota. Now in his senior season with the Mavericks, he has played in 100 career games, mostly in a lower-line role.
In junior hockey, the Jets have a trio of players. Michael Spacek has cooled off some from his hot start for the Red Deer Rebels but remains over a point-per-game in his first season away from the Czech Republic. 2015 second-round pick Jansen Harkins has struggled to put up points in a checking role for the Prince George Cougars so far this season, but his game is about more than offense and his upside remains high, as evidenced by his participation in the recent Canada-Russia series. Matteo Gennaro, a 2015 seventh-rounder, has been chipping in some points in a limited role for Prince Albert as well.
The Jets have shied away from selecting players from Europe in recent years but 2014 sixth-round pick Pavel Kraskovsky is another late round selection with some potential. Fans in western Canada had a chance to see him skate with the Russia U20 team over the summer and he began the season in the KHL with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. At 6’4, 187 pounds he has the ideal size of an NHL power forward with a willingness to play a physical (though at times undisciplined) game.
The Jets prospect picture is less certain on the right side — where six players, including first-year free agent Jiri Fronk, signed to an AHL contract, are all vying for ice time with the Moose. Fronk is a 21-year-old from the Czech Republic who scored 29 goals with 21 assists in 60 games for Cedar Rapids in the USHL last year.
Joel Armia, the 16th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft when he was selected in the first round by the Sabres, is looking for a fresh opportunity after spending most of his first two seasons in North America in the AHL, playing one game with Buffalo last season. Armia has the ideal size and skating ability of a power forward with goal scoring ability. Consistency and positional play without the puck are his biggest challenges to earning an NHL spot.
Former Guelph Storm forward Scott Kosmachuk skated for the IceCaps as a 20-year-old and is the top returning scorer among the Moose forwards. He combines a hard edge with some goal scoring ability. Austen Brassard and J.C. Lipon, both now in their third AHL seasons, also have some scoring ability while playing an energy/physical role. Lipon filled the enforcer role for the IceCaps last season, leading St. John’s with 163 penalty minutes. Rookie Jimmy Lodge is skating for the Moose as a 20-year-old.
The pool of defensemen in the Jets organization is maturing, with the bulk of their prospects now skating in Manitoba — either with the Jets or the Moose.
Four of the eight defensemen currently on the Winnipeg roster are 30 years old or older — including team leaders Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom and Mark Stuart. Twenty-one-year-old Jacob Trouba has the makings of a franchise-type defenseman while Tyler Myers, now 25, is looking to find the form he showed earlier in his career with the Sabres.
Of the defenseman currently on the Moose roster, third-year pro Brenden Kichton led St. John’s defensemen in scoring in each of the past two seasons and is an offensive threat from the blueline.
In terms of NHL-caliber prospects first-year pros Morrissey and Kostalek have the highest upside. Morrissey, one of the top players for Canada’s U20 team the past two years, displayed the ability to control a game at that level and could be special as he adds size and strength and adapts to the pace of the professional game. Kostalek, who skated for the Czech Republic in each of the last two World Juniors, has a similar skill set and was an effective playmaker from the blue line for the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic.
Third-year pro and former University of North Dakota defenseman Andrew MacWilliam, signed as an unrestricted free agent over the summer, skated in 12 games for the Maple Leafs last year and is currently with the Moose, as is huge former OHL defenseman Julian Melchiori. A third-round pick by Atlanta in 2010, Melchiori skated in one game with the Jets in 2013-14, spending most of his first three pro seasons in the AHL.
The Jets have two prospects playing college hockey this season — the University of Minnesota’s Jack Glover and Tucker Poolman at North Dakota. Now in his sophomore season, Glover has the prototypical size of an NHL defenseman yet is mobile for his size. Poolman, who hails from nearby East Grand Forks, Minnesota, is a sophomore who saw more action than anticipated on a veteran defense corps last season. He has an offensive flair to his game and is another large and mobile defenseman.
Sami Niku does not have the bulk of some of the other defensemen coming up through the system but has played at a high level for the Finland U18 and U20 teams and is skating against men in Finland’s Liiga this season. A strong skater with high-end passing and stick-handling skills, Niku is a work in progress in terms of his defensive game and consistency and will need added bulk. He is expected to play for Finland when it hosts the 2016 World Juniors in January.
Nelson Nogier is the only defense prospect for the Jets playing in the CHL while Sweden native Marcus Karstrom is with the North American Hockey League’s Austin Bruins. A fourth-round selection in the 2014 draft, Nogier is in his fourth WHL season and first full season with Memorial Cup host Red Deer after coming to the Rebels mid-season last year. Karlstrom skated in three pre-season games with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers before joining Austin. He is a long-range project at this point.
Former Thrashers/Jets draft picks Peter Stoykewych, Aaron Harstad, and Brennan Serville — all of whom are in their first pro season after completing college careers last spring — were not signed to NHL deals but are currently in the system on AHL contracts. Stoykewych and Harstad, teammates at Colorado College, are challenging for ice time with the Moose while Serville has begun his professional career in the ECHL with the Tulsa Oilers.
Goaltending, thought to be a weakness heading into the 2014-15 season, turned out to be a strength as veteran Ondrej Pavelec had the best statistical season of his career and rookie Michael Hutchinson won 21 games while posting a 2.39 goals against and .914 save percentage. The Jets rode the rookie Hutchinson to a playoff spot down the stretch last season — when he handled the bulk of the goaltending.
Both goalies are back for the 2015-16 season. A rare right-gloved goaltender, Hutchinson has shown signs that his play last season was not a fluke. Pavelec, now in his eighth season with the organization, recently turned 28 years old so he should be around for a while as well.
Winnipeg has a nice problem in that Manitoba Moose goalie Connor Hellebuyck looks fairly close to being NHL-ready while 20-year-old Eric Comrie has made a smooth jump from junior to pro hockey; showing every sign that he is the high-end goaltender the Jets hoped they were drafting in the second round in 2013.
Winnipeg scouts also appear to have hit on 2012 seventh-round pick Jamie Phillips. Now a senior at Michigan Tech, the Caledonia, Ontario native won 28 games and posted a 1.74 goals against as a junior last season. While his impressive numbers can be partially attributed to the outstanding play of the Huskies last year, the 22-year-old has the ideal physical stature of an NHL goaltender and is technically sound.
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