The Winnipeg Jets roster is one of the youngest in the NHL this season, and have had six prospects make their NHL debuts already in 2015-16. Few teams are able to rely on the strength of their young guns to the extent of the Jets, with a couple of them earning full-time NHL gigs.
Although the team is struggling as a whole right now, and will be in a tough position to climb back into the playoff picture in the rugged Central Division, several rookies are continuing to prove that the future in Winnipeg is very bright.
Three developing prospects were lucky enough to represent their country last month at the 2016 World Junior Championships, a once in a lifetime opportunity for Michael Spacek (Czech Republic), Sami Niku (Finland), and Pavel Kraskovsky (Russia).
But it was one Wolverine who took the cake last month, blowing away competition after a blatant snub from the WJCs, and earning Prospect of the Month honors in the process.
Nikolaj Ehlers, RW, 19
Ehlers has experienced a roller coaster ride of a rookie season, starting off his NHL career in exciting fashion. The highly skilled winger began the year with four goals and nine points in October, becoming one of the leaders in the Calder Trophy race. He then found out just how excruciating the league can be, tallying just three assists over the next 25 contests. Now nearing the end of January, Ehlers seems to have hit his rhythm again, benefiting from new linemate Blake Wheeler to record his first career hat trick on January 26th.
The 19-year-old has begun to use his strengths more often, and confidence is clearly growing in the ‘Dashing Dane’. He is using his 6’0 frame to hold off defensemen, and is becoming accustomed to the ‘dump-and-chase’ game that is the NHL. Ehlers has scored seven goals and ten points so far in January, and is just beginning to learn the ins and outs of the NHL game.
Connor Hellebuyck, G, 22
Hellebuyck has quietly been making a case for himself in the Calder Trophy race. Appearing in 22 games for the Jets, he has put up some exemplary numbers. With a 2.10 goals against average and a .927 save percentage, Hellebuyck ranks seventh and eighth respectively in the NHL in both major goaltending statistics. The Commerce, Michigan native has made himself comfortable in the league, quickly adapting to the pace and style of the game. Hellebuyck has been able to use his 6’4 figure to his advantage, effectively cutting down shooting angles and directing rebounds away from traffic. As a 22-year-old, it is only a matter of time until he takes over the crease from Ondrej Pavelec on a full-time basis.
Andrew Copp, C, 21
Copp was able to crack the opening night roster for the Jets and hasn’t looked back. After a spectacular junior season with the Michigan Wolverines, Copp made his NHL debut on April 11th, 2015, tallying an assist against the Flames. Now in his rookie year, he has a goal and four points, all while gaining invaluable experience of the NHL lifestyle. The 21-year-old center has been able to uphold a respectable 47.5 faceoff percentage, while averaging just seven minutes of ice time per game. His 47.1 corsi-for percentage ranks fairly low on the team, but he hasn’t been given a great opportunity to have strong possession numbers. Copp still remains a very promising prospect for the Jets with potential for some offensive upside.
Joel Armia, RW, 22
Armia has spent most of the season with the Jets AHL affiliate, Manitoba Moose. However, his promising play in the minors has earned him 18 games with the Jets, scoring two goals and three points. Armia was acquired as a part of the Tyler Myers-Evander Kane trade, and was a 16th overall selection in 2011. The winger has been able to skate over ten minutes a night on average, while controlling a respectable 52.9 CF%. Another area to which Armia has contributed greatly is in creating 54.7% of the total scoring chances while he is on the ice. In just 18 games, Armia has become one of the Jets best players in terms of advanced statistics.
Nicolas Petan, C, 20
Petan was able to crack the Jets opening night roster as well, but only appeared in 14 games, becoming a frequent victim of the healthy scratch before being sent to join the Moose in mid-November. In those games, Petan scored one goal while seeing around nine and a half minutes of ice time per game. Unlike Armia, Petan sits at the bottom of most advanced stats categories on the team. With a mere 41.4 CF%, Petan sits more than 4% behind the second worst player in that category, Alex Burmistrov. Of the total scoring chances created while Petan is on the ice, only 41.3% of them have been created by Winnipeg. The 20-year-old, who was once a scoring machine in the WHL, simply was not contributing enough in the NHL. The move to keep Petan in the minors appears a far more sensible one. With the Moose, Petan has scored three goals and 19 points in 26 games.
J.C. Lipon, RW, 22
Lipon had spent most of the 2015-16 season in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose, before being called up by the Jets to make his NHL debut on January 18th, 2016. Lipon has only appeared in two games thus far, but is still a part of their NHL roster for the time being. He has zeros across his entire stat sheet, playing just over six minutes a night so far. The 22-year-old was the 91st overall pick in 2013, selected for his playmaking abilities that seemed to still be developing. He has good vision of the ice, but will also engage physically if needed, totaling at least 100 penalty minutes over his past five full seasons, spent in the WHL and AHL.
2016 World Junior Championships Results
Michael Spacek was selected to the Czech squad in hopes of being one of the leaders alongside Pavel Zacha (NJD) and David Pastrnak (BOS). He was often the most noticeable player on the ice for his country, and tallied two goals and five points by the end of the tournament. Spacek’s skating was visibly much stronger than at this time last year, and was also able to make smart, simple plays when there was pressure around him. His offensive game is continuing to develop as he gains confidence playing in the WHL with the Red Deer Rebels. Spacek continues to be a very promising prospect in the Jets organization.
2015 seventh-rounder Sami Niku was a part of Finland’s shutdown pair, not expected to contribute significantly offensively on a loaded Finnish blueline. The 19-year-old was representing his country for the second consecutive year at the World Juniors, and was able to help his team come away with the gold medal on home ice. Niku’s skating has seen obvious improvements this year, and he is making more responsible decisions with the puck. While Niku will never be dangerous on the offensive side of the game, he looks to have the potential to grow into a reliable defensive defenseman in the Jets system.
Pavel Kraskovsky had the honor to represent Russia while also wearing an ‘A’ on his jersey at the 2016 World Juniors. He was a large part in their run to the gold medal game, adding four points in seven games. Kraskovsky, who has made the jump to the KHL this season, took on the role of a leader and ran with it, becoming a player that coach, Valeri Bragin, could rely on in all situations. The 19-year-old has an improved snap shot, and is a talented playmaker as well, but could use some more work with his skating while becoming stronger too.
Jets Prospect of the Month
The Winnipeg Jets’ top draft pick from 2015 is breaking out in a big way this season, growing into an intriguing choice for Prospect of the Year. Much like Dylan Larkin, Hockey’s Future’s choice as Prospect of the Year in 2014-15, Kyle Connor is excelling in his freshman year at Michigan. He is currently in a tie for third in points in the NCAA, with 36 in 21 games (with three less points and three fewer games played than leader Andrew Poturalski). He is also tied for second in goals with 18. Past the halfway point of the season, Connor would likely receive more than a few votes for the Hobey Baker Award.
Over the past month, Connor is constantly gaining more experience and confidence. Since December 4th, Connor has been the hottest player in the country, scoring 13 goals and 24 points in the team’s ten games. As he continues on his tear, Michigan keeps climbing up the rankings, rising from 10th to 6th in the new year alone.
Connor was drafted by the Jets out of the USHL, while he was a member of the Youngstown Phantoms, where he scored 34 goals and 80 points in 56 games. He is a natural goal-scorer with a deceiving release, which clearly isn’t being picked up by NCAA goaltenders either. He looks to be well on his way to making the jump to professional hockey next year, with an NHL debut undoubtedly imminent. Connor is the Jets top prospect outside of the NHL right now, and certainly has the potential to become a top-six center within three years.
Article written by Devin Slawson
Follow Devin on Twitter via @SlawsonTHW