Winnipeg Jets struggling farm still loaded with top-notch prospects

By Tony Piscotta
Josh Morrissey - Winnipeg Jets

Photo: Winnipeg’s number one defense prospect, Josh Morrissey, has struggled to put up points in his rookie AHL season, but sits second on the team in shots on goal (courtesy of Graig Abel Collection/Getty Images)

 

Making the playoffs last season for the first time since 2006-07 — when the franchise played in Atlanta and was known as the Thrashers — the Winnipeg Jets appear to have things heading in the right direction: with several young prospects working their way into roles in the NHL lineup.

Unfortunately for new AHL affiliate Manitoba one of the organization’s most dynamic prospects, 19-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers, went directly from the QMJHL to the NHL. Former University of Michigan center Andrew Copp also made the Jets as a first-year pro — playing a solid lower line role in his first 30 NHL games.

While Winnipeg is in the thick of the Central Division, cooling a bit after a red-hot start, the Moose have struggled to score goals and have the fewest points in the AHL’s equivalent. Manitoba is tied with last-place Iowa Wild in the Midwest Division, although the Moose have several games in hand. The Moose scored more than three goals just twice in their first 27 games.

With first-year pros such as goalie Eric Comrie and skating defensemen Josh Morrissey and Jan Kostalek, along with former Portland Winterhawks center Chase De Leo, all in the lineup, Manitoba should be a lot stronger by the end of the season.

Comrie is expected to handle the bulk of the goaltending for Manitoba while Connor Hellebuyck is with Winnipeg.

Hellebuyck was 2-7-1 in 10 starts with the Moose despite a 2.41 goals against and .927 save percentage before being recalled by the Jets when veteran Ondrej Pavelec suffered a knee injury. The former Massachusetts-Lowell goalie allowed single goals in each of his first three NHL starts and was 4-0 before back-to-back losses to Chicago and St. Louis. He now holds a 7-3 record and a .932 save percentage.

Pavelec is expected to be out until at least the end of January.

Defenseman Brenden Kichton, a third-year pro, shares the team scoring lead with DeLeo as both have 16 points. Kichton’s defensive game remains a work in progress and he has yet to appear in an NHL game during his career. 

Twenty-seven games into the season there are only six Moose players in double digits in terms of points. One of those players, however, former Portland Winterhawks’ center Nicolas Petan did not join the Moose until until late November after opening the year in Winnipeg. In his first 14 AHL games the 20-year-old scored two goals with nine assists.

AHL

Connor Hellebuyck, G, 22

A workhorse for previous AHL affiliate St. John’s as a rookie in 2014-15 when he played in 58 of 76 regular season games, Hellebuyck has the tools to be an NHL starter. Signed following his sophomore season with the River Hawks, he has the ideal stature of an NHL starting goalie and is an athletic goaltender who uses his size to advantage. While he is likely to experience ups and downs as NHL teams see more of him, his progress to date is impressive.

Eric Comrie, G, 20

Comrie is in his first pro season after spending four years with the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League. The third goalie taken in the 2013 NHL Draft when he was selected late in the second round, he is also a high calibre goaltending prospect. Comrie played for Canada’s U20 team in the World Juniors in 2015, appearing in two games for the gold medal-winning squad.

Seeing more duty than expected as a rookie, he has played well for the Moose, going 6-8-2 in his first 16 starts while posting a 2.87 goals against and .910 save percentage. The half-brother of one-time NHL forward Mike Comrie, he grew up in both Los Angeles and Edmonton and has an understanding of the game that is advanced for a player his age.

Brenden Kichton, D, 23

Kichton continues to be one of the better offensive defensemen in the AHL but has yet to receive an NHL call-up in his third season of pro hockey. His lack of prototypical size sometimes has him at a disadvantage defensively but his skill set and approach is similar to successful young defensemen such as Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen and the Bruins’ Torey Krug. He is not quite as skilled and mobile as those two and he will have to polish the other areas of his game to reach the next level. 

Josh Morrissey, D, 20

Morrissey has had the fits and starts not uncommon for a 20-year-old in his first season of pro hockey. As skilled and highly-touted as any of the prospects in the Winnipeg system, he was a key member of Canada’s gold medal-winning U20 team and the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets last season. Morrissey’s skating and stick handling skills compare favorably with most defense prospects. His offensive production with the Moose (one goal, three assists in 27 games) has been limited to this point but he should play a larger role as he gets used to competing against the bigger, more skilled players in pro hockey.

Jan Kostalek, D, 20

Kostalek signed with the Jets last March during a point-per-game season in his third year with the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic. Like Morrissey he is a mobile, skilled presence on the blue line but he has struggled to make the adjustment from junior to pro hockey. The second youngest defensemen (behind Morrissey) on a group that includes NHL veteran Jay Harrison, he had two assists and was -10 in his first 23 games. 

Julian Melchiori, D, 24

Melchiori is in his fourth AHL season — skating for the Moose after three seasons in St. John’s. One of the bigger players in the Jets’ system, he is a stay-at-home defender with limited offensive inclination to his game. He is a solid defender at the AHL level but has appeared in just one NHL game with the Jets (in 2013-14). He could be a short-term answer should there be an injury in Winnipeg but more than that at this juncture would be a bonus.

Andrew MacWilliam, D, 25

Signed as a free agent over the summer after appearing in 12 NHL games with the Maple Leafs last year, MacWilliam is in his third pro season after a college career at the University of North Dakota. A defense-first defender with some toughness to his game, he has limited offense to his game; using his size and strength to advantage in his own end. With the depth in the Jets’ system he too faces steep odds in playing for Winnipeg barring injuries with the parent club.

Joel Armia, RW, 22

One of the key players acquired in the trade that sent Evander Kane to Buffalo last spring, the 2011 first-round pick recently made his debut with the Jets after spending the first part of the season in the AHL. Now in his third pro season in North America, Armia’s size and skating ability make him an intriguing prospect. He  is more of a two-way player than a pure scorer or a bang-and-crash power forward despite his draft status. In 18 games with Manitoba prior to being called up he scored three goals with five assists and was +3 with 16 penalty minutes.

Chase De Leo, C, 20

The Jets’ fourth round pick in 2014 — one year after they selected his former Portland Winterhawks’ teammate Petan in the second round — De Leo has had an immediate impact in the lineup for the Moose and is the club’s top scoring forward. At 5’10”, 185 lbs. he is sometimes at a disadvantage due to his size. Like some other successful smaller players he offsets that disadvantage with speed and an ability to put himself in the right spots. Tied with Kichton for the team lead with 16 points in 27 games, he’s scored a team-leading seven goals with nine assists.

Nicolas Petan, C, 20

A small but fast and highly-skilled forward who was a dominant scorer in the WHL, Petan made the Jets out of training camp, skating in 14 games before being assigned to Manitoba on November 19th. He scored his first NHL goal and was -2 playing both wing and center in a fourth-line role for the Jets but has added a jolt of offense since joining the Moose. Along with De Leo and current Jets rookie Nikolaj Ehlers he is expected to be a big part of things in Winnipeg in the future.

Scott Kosmachuk, RW, 21

Kosmachuk is seeing increased ice time in his second AHL season. One of the team’s younger skaters, the former 100-point scorer in junior hockey has limited numbers thus far — four goals and six assists in 27 games — but he has continued to refine his two-way play and is steadily adapting to the pro game. While he is not likely to match the production he had in leading Guelph to the 2014 Memorial Cup, his combination of size and skill suggests he can be an effective second or third line forward one day.   

J.C. Lipon, C, 22

Like Kosmachuk, Lipon was a dynamic scorer in junior hockey who continues to develop his overall game. Close to making the Jets out of training camp, the combative forward was the Moose’s leading scorer before suffering an injury in early December. After leading St. John’s with 163 penalty minutes in 75 games last year, Lipon was playing a more disciplined game while maintaining a physical edge before suffering his injury. He projects as a Steve Downie-like agitating forward with some scoring ability. 

Ryan Olsen, C, 21

Olsen has shown flashes of progress in his second pro season, matching his goal total from last year (four) in his first 27 games while providing a physical presence to the Manitoba lineup. A late round pick in 2012 following his second junior season with the Saskatoon Blades, Olsen has some offensive elements to his game but to this point remains a long-range project.

Austen Brassard, RW, 22

Brassard is another bigger forward who plays a hard, two-way game and has some scoring ability. In his third pro season, he is among the scoring leaders for the Moose while also possessing a physical edge to his game. He is not expected to be a big scorer at the NHL level but his size and willingness to engage suggests he can be a solid lower line forward.

Jimmy Lodge, C, 20

Lodge has struggled to work his way into the lineup for Manitoba in his first pro season — appearing in 14 of the team’s first 27 games with no points nor penalties. With several AHL veterans in the lineup, and Adam Lowry recently demoted from Winnipeg, Lodge could end up spending time in the ECHL to get more experience. A consistent scorer in junior hockey, he is a long-term project at this point and will require some time at the minor pro level before he is NHL-ready.

Axel Blomqvist, 20, LW

Blomqvist, like Lodge, was seeing little ice time for the Moose in his first pro season. With no points and two penalty minutes in 10 games for Manitoba, he was recently assigned to the ECHL’s Tulsa Oilers. Another big forward who was a consistent scorer in the WHL, Blomqvist is another long-range project and must adjust to the speed and skill level in pro hockey if he is to one day reach the NHL.

Winnipeg Jets Prospects at the 2016 World Junior Championship

The Jets will have three prospects skating for their respective countries. Defensemen Sami Niku will compete in his second tournament for Finland while Red Deer Rebels’ 18-year-old Michael Spacek will represent the Czech Republic and forward Pavel Kraskovsky, who plays for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL, will skate for Russia.

Two players that were thought to be shoo-ins to at least be invited to the Team USA tryout camp — forwards Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic — were somewhat surprisingly not selected. Both Connor and Roslovic were first-round draft picks in 2015 and both are having strong seasons in their first year of college hockey at Michigan and Miami respectively.

Winnipeg Jets Prospect of the Month

Kyle Connor - Winnipeg JetsMany observers felt that the University of Michigan would take a huge step back after losing its top three scorers to pro hockey. Thanks to leading scorer Kyle Connor and a balanced scoring attack, that has not been the case. While the Wolverines don’t face the heart of their schedule until the second half of the year, beginning with the Great Lakes Invitational after Christmas, they have split series with traditional power Boston University and Big Ten favorite Minnesota. Making his college debut as an 18-year-old, Connor has tallied 12 goals with 12 assists in his first 16 college games while also posting a team best +16 plus/minus.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way