The Phoenix Coyotes prospect pool has continued to evolve into a solid all-around group thanks to some smart draft picks and timely free-agent signings and trades. Building from the crease out, General Manager Don Maloney and his staff have made a consistent effort in creating a defense-oriented system that revolves around stingy zone play from the defensemen and a strong two-way approach from the forwards.
The club has an impressive list of blueliners who have developed quickly allowing for them to see time in both the AHL and NHL, and while the forwards are a more unheralded group, they too are beginning to see some progression at the professional level.
Phoenix had been particularly thin on the left-side the last few years and it was something that Maloney made sure to address this past off-season. While he once again went the way of a defenseman with his first pick, the rest of the Coyotes 2011 NHL Draft was heavy on forwards with a total of four players listed as left-wingers being selected.
Lucas Lessio, Darian Dziurzynski, and Kale Kessy were three of those picks and are all playing in the CHL this year, while late-round pick Zac Larazaa is playing in the NCAA with the top-ranked University of Denver.
Dziurzynski and Kessy are both very feisty wingers who like to play an in-your-face style in a grinding third or fourth line role. Dziuzynski however is coming off an excellent offensive year that saw him score 35 goals, so there very well may be more to his game than many had originally thought.
The 18-year-old Lessio is without question the most talented of the bunch and immediately became one of the organizations best forward prospects. At 6’1 and 200 pounds, Lessio is a tremendously gifted offensive player with excellent size, skill and athleticism. He has all the tools of an elite-level winger and has gotten off to good start in his second season with the Oshawa Generals in the OHL.
The Coyotes continue to be thin in terms of depth down the middle choosing to acquire veteran centers to play in the NHL rather than drafting and developing young pivots.
Ethan Werek was acquired in a trade that sent 2010 second-round pick Oscar Lindberg to the Rangers. The center does possess a nice skill-set but may lack the speed and quickness to become a top two-line center.
One of the more intriguing players in the Coyotes system comes in the 5’8, 175 pound frame of Andy Miele. A versatile forward, Miele was the 2010-11 Hobey Baker winner at Miami-Ohio University, and as an undrafted player, his services were up for grabs. With his unquestionable ability to provide offense, Miele was signed to a contract and made a strong bid at making the Coyotes after an excellent training camp. He was assigned to Portland in the AHL where he recently recorded a five-point game and earned a call-up to the big club.
22-year-old Colin Long is a purely offensive center who now in his third pro season is yet to really establish himself as a point-producer at the AHL level. After playing most of last year in the ECHL, the diminutive Long will need to make greater contributions in Portland this year if he hopes to stick with the organization.
Continuing to play for Slavia Praha in the Czech league, 2007 fourth-round pick Vladimir Ruzicka has developed into a solid prospect but whether or not he will ever attempt to play in North America remains a question.
2011 second-round pick Alexander Ruuttu possesses the ability to line up on the wing or at center and is currently playing with the Jokerit program in Finland. Ruuttu is a good sized, quick skating forward who combines a skilled offensive repertoire with a hard working two-way game.
Phil Lane (Brampton) and Andrew Fritsch (Owen Sound) are two sturdy players hoping to make impacts with their respective OHL teams this year. Lane, a second-round pick in 2010 is a power forward who plays a physical brand but still needs to improve his overall skill-set.
A sixth-round pick in 2011, Fritsch is coming off an excellent 27 goal, 62 point season with the Owen Sound Attack and is at a point-per-game pace through 13 games with his new team in Sault Ste. Marie.
Brett Hextall, the son of former NHL goalie Ron Hextall, has quickly become a player that is closing in on being NHL-ready. A small but tenacious player, Hextall has tremendous speed and is effective in both zones.
Like Hextall, 20-year-old Jordan Szwarz has begun his first pro season and has become a player who fits the mould of a future third or fourth line grinder in the NHL.
Signed to a one-year contract in August, 23-year-old Viktor Tikhonov once again failed to make the Coyotes out of training camp. Although he remains on contract with the club, he will play his season with St. Petersburg in the KHL and his time with the organization has likely come to an end.
The recent success of the Phoenix Coyotes has been spearheaded by a strong defensive unit, and with the organization continuing to stock-pile young talent on the blue line, it doesn’t appear that the future will be any different.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been the club’s top prospect ever since he was taken as the sixth-overall pick in 2009. After an up and down first season in North America, the smooth skating 20-year-old appears to have found his comfort zone in the NHL and is now a fixture in the Coyotes lineup.
With Ekman-Larsson set to graduate as a Coyotes prospect shortly, he will pass the torch to another blueliner who will step in to fill the void as the top ranked Phoenix prospect. Brandon Gormley was the club’s first-round pick in 2010 and has developed into one of hockey’s best defensive prospects currently not playing professionally.
Had the Coyotes blue line not been stacked with so many proven veterans, Gormley may very well have made the team this year. He was assigned to play another year of junior where he will be a dominant player in Moncton and figures to play a major role on team Canada’s blue-line at the World Junior Championship.
Taking a defenseman in the first-round for the third straight year, Don Maloney made somewhat of a surprise move by selecting rearguard Connor Murphy in 2011. At 6’3 Murphy is blessed with all of the attributes of a top-notch defenseman. The 18-year-old son of former NHLer Gord Murphy, Connor was set to begin the season with the Sarnia Sting in the OHL but a pre-season knee injury has prevented him from getting his junior career under way.
Phoenix also possesses depth within their minor-league system which is led by 23-year-old Chris Summers. Summers has been pegged by Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett as the first player to be called upon to fill in whenever an injury to one of the regulars occurs. He is considered to be the most NHL-ready minor leaguer with the likes of Maxim Goncharov, Michael Stone, Nick Ross, and Mathieu Brodeur a step or two below him.
After playing three injury plagued seasons in the AHL, big Swedish blueliner Jonas Ahnelov decided to go back to his home country where he is playing the current season with Modo in the SEL.
The Coyotes future between the pipes is headlined by two young net-minders currently playing starring roles with their respective junior clubs. Mark Visentin, a first-round selection in 2010 plays with the Niagara Icedogs and is coming off a season in which he was named the goaltender of the year in the OHL. The 19-year-old got off to a bit of a slow start this year mainly due to a nagging groin injury but is rounding back to form and is once again the front-runner for the starting job for team Canada at the WJC.
Visentin’s biggest competition as the team Canada starter may very well come from another Phoenix goaltending prospect. Louis Domingue of the Quebec Remparts has developed into one of the best goalies in the CHL, and as a fifth-round pick in 2010, he is starting to look like an excellent draft steal for the Coyotes.
21-year-old American Mike Lee is in his junior season at St. Cloud State and although his numbers don’t look great, Lee has been solid in goal playing behind one of the weaker teams in the WCHA.
The lone goalie in the Phoenix minor-league system is 24-year-old Marc Cheverie who was acquired from Florida in an off-season trade. Cheverie is playing with the Coyotes ECHL affiliate Gwinnett Gladiators and will need to play well if he hopes to move up to Portland and replace the likes of AHL veterans Curtis McElhinney and Justin Pogge.