Defense and goaltending highlights of Phoenix Coyotes CHL prospect pool

By Andrew Sykes
Photo: 2011 draft pick Lucas Lessio is currently among the top offensive players for the Oshawa Generals. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Phoenix Coyotes feature a great deal of talent within their CHL prospect pool; possessing a group of players that are almost certain to make an impact professionally in the near future.

The group is headlined by first-round picks Brandon Gormley, Mark Visentin, and Connor Murphy along with second-rounders Lucas Lessio and Phil Lane. There are also some late-round picks performing well such as goaltender Louis Domingue and forwards Andrew Fritsch, and Darian Dziurzynski.

OHL

Connor Murphy, D, Sarnia Sting
Acquired: 1st round (20th overall) in 2011

The Coyotes first-round pick at the 2011 NHL Draft, Murphy had originally planned on staying in his home state and attending Miami Ohio University. Instead the 6’3 rearguard elected to join the Sarnia Sting in the OHL where he is unfortunately still awaiting his first action of the season.

Before he was ever even able to play a game with the Sting, Murphy suffered a knee injury at the USA’s National Junior Evaluation Camp and has been sidelined ever since. Having struggled with a back injury for most of last season, the knee problem is another setback in Murphy’s development, but taking the time needed to heal properly is of utmost importance as he is still very young.

If and when Murphy is able to return to the lineup it would be a major boost to the already high-flying Sarnia lineup. The 18-year-old is a gifted two-way defenseman who possesses a smooth-skating ability and natural offensive instincts. His presence on the point would give the Sting another lethal weapon which already includes the awe-inspiring skills of Nail Yakupov.

Mark Visentin, G, Niagara IceDogs
Acquired: 1st round (27th overall) in 2010

The reigning OHL Goaltender of the Year, Visentin and his Niagara teammates have been plagued by inconsistency for much of the year. Expected to be one of, if not the top team in the league coming into the season, the IceDogs are yet to play up to the standard befitting of a team with so much talent.

Visentin’s season got off to a shaky start with an injury causing him to miss several games early in the schedule. His play picked up when he returned but it is still not at the level it was at this time a year ago. With a 6-7-1 record in 15 games to go along with a 2.92 goals against average and a .894 save percentage, Visentin’s numbers are a product of a porous defense in front of him and a team that has yielded an average of three goals per game.

Despite his up and down performance through the season’s first two months, the 19-year-old is a candidate to once again be picked as one of the netminders for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. As the starter on last year’s squad, he is likely to grab one of the two spots but he will have to start to play better if he hopes to lock down the number one job once again.

Lucas Lessio, LW, Oshawa Generals
Acquired: 2nd round (56th overall) in 2011

The club’s second-round pick in 2011, Lessio came into the season with high hopes for himself and his junior team in Oshawa. After an excellent rookie OHL season in which he scored 27 goals and totaled 54 points, Lessio was one of a handful of top prospects who were expected to give the Generals a chance to compete for the league title. Things haven’t quite worked out that way and while the club has had no trouble scoring; they are one of the worst defensive teams in the league.

Statistically Lessio got off to a strong start but has cooled down in recent games. The 18-year-old winger ranks second on the team with 12 goals and trails fellow prospects Boone Jenner and Nicklas Jensen in team scoring with 20 points in 25 games played. The one stat that stands out in a bad way though is his minus-10 rating which is an example of the team’s inability to keep the puck out of the net.

Elected to represent the OHL in one of the games in the Subway Super Series against Russia, Lessio was also an invitee to Team Canada’s Summer Evaluation Camp. Unlikely to make the team, he must concentrate on turning in a more consistent effort on a game to game basis as he has the ability and potential to raise his game to an even higher level.

Phil Lane, RW, Brampton Battalion
Acquired: 2nd round (52nd overall) in 2010

Now in his third year in the OHL, this was to be an important season in Lane’s development as a hockey player. As a second-round draft pick Lane’s first two seasons in Brampton were somewhat of a disappointment from a statistical standpoint. While his numbers aren’t exactly off the charts again this year, Lane’s all-around play and leadership has been integral to the Battalion’s surprising success.

Like all of his teammates, The 19-year-old power forward has bought into coach Stan Butler’s tactics of having a defense-first team where the forwards are equally as responsible defensively as the defensemen. In 25 games Lane is third on the club with 16 points and has used his big frame to play a physical, grinding game both as a forechecker and backchecker.

Although Lane may never become the elite offensive player one might expect out of a high draft pick, the current season is setting him up perfectly for his future as a professional hockey player. He is learning what it takes to be a winner while playing the two-way game that coaches and general managers covet at the next level.

Andrew Fritsch, RW, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: 6th round (105th overall) in 2011

Unquestionably a draft-day steal by General Manager Don Maloney in 2011, Fritsch was coming off an excellent year in which he scored 27 goals for the eventual OHL champion Owen Sound Attack. An off-season trade to Sault Ste. Marie left Fritsch in possibly an even better situation as he would be surrounded by veteran talent on the Greyhounds.

Fritsch stormed out of the gate scoring at nearly a point-per-game clip with 14 points in 16 games, but has been bothered by an injured wrist and has missed the club’s past eight games.

The 18-year-old winger was selected to play for the OHL at the recently played Subway Super Series but his injured wrist forced him to miss the game. When he is able to return, look for Fritsch to pick up his fine play as the Greyhounds try to keep pace with the likes of Plymouth and Sarnia in the OHL’s West division.

QMJHL

Brandon Gormley, D, Moncton Wildcats
Acquired: 1st round (13th overall) in 2010

Taking over as the top prospect in the Coyotes organization, Brandon Gormley is following the likes of Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the club’s next great defenseman. After battling injury a year ago and playing on a young and rebuilding team in Moncton, Gormley and the Wildcats have made a return to form. The 19-year-old blueliner ranks second in the QMJHL in scoring among defensemen with 24 points in 21 games and he has also spearheaded Moncton to a tremendous turnaround from last year.

One of the best defensemen in all of junior hockey, Gormley was thought to have had a chance at cracking the Coyotes roster but with the team being quite sound defensively it was best that he be returned to junior for one more year.

He will now have the chance to do something he likely would have done last year had he not suffered a knee injury prior to the selection camp, and that is play for Team Canada at the WJHC. Gormley is considered to be pretty much a lock to make the team and should become one of Canada’s most important blueliners at the tournament.

Louis Domingue, G, Quebec Remparts
Acquired: 5th round (138th overall) in 2010

Coming off a year in which he announced himself as a rising goaltending prospect, Domingue is once again proving his worth while playing for one of the top teams in the CHL. Another Phoenix prospect with aspirations of playing for Team Canada at the WJHC, Domingue currently leads the QMJHL with a .934 save percentage and a 2.16 goals against average. Add in a sparkling record of 12-2-2 and the 19-year-old has given himself a good chance to grab one of the two spots on Canada with his fellow Phoenix prospect Mark Visentin likely holding down the other.

A big 6’3 net-minder with impressive athleticism in the crease, Domingue will be in the spotlight all season as he and his Quebec Remparts pursue the league title and perhaps a trip to the Memorial Cup. His fine play has also put himself right up there with the aforementioned Visentin as the top goaltending prospects in the Phoenix organization.

WHL

Justin Weller, D, Red Deer Rebels
Acquired: 4th round (105th overall) in 2009

Now in his fifth year as a member of the Red Deer Rebels, Weller is turning in another excellent performance in his overage season. A steadfast, defensive-defenseman, Weller is the leader of a strong defense-core that features the likes of Edmonton Oilers prospect Alex Petrovic and 2012 top prospect Matthew Dumba.

The 20-year-old might not be known for his offensive production but he has been no stranger to being on the ice while goals are scored. Last year Weller ranked among the league leaders with a plus-24 rating and is up there again this year currently at plus-12.

While he tends to get overlooked by his more high-profile teammates, Weller has been one of the most solid blueliners in the WHL for the past few seasons. His mobility and physicality will give him a good chance at beginning his pro career in the AHL next year.

Darian Dziurzynski, LW, Brandon Wheat Kings
Acquired: 5th round (141st overall) in 2011

One of the most rugged forwards in the WHL, Darian Dziurzynski continues to prove that he has the offensive ability to match his physical and chippy style of play. Last year as a member of the Saskatoon Blades, Dziurzynski had a truly remarkable season in which he sat in the penalty box for a total of 125 minutes but still managed to score 35 goals and dish out 22 assists. His impressive statistical output caught the eye of the Coyotes scouting staff who drafted the 20-year-old in what was his third attempt at landing with an NHL club.

Four games into this season Dziurzynski was dealt to the Brandon Wheat Kings, who as a contending team, coveted the veteran forward. In 15 games with his new club, the energetic winger has found the back of the net 12 times and continues to play an aggressive physical game that always keeps opponents on their toes.

Kale Kessy, LW, Medicine Hat Tigers
Acquired: 4th round (111th overall) in 2011

Like Dziurzynski, Kale Kessy is an aggressive player who doesn’t shy away from contact and is no stranger to dropping the gloves. While he doesn’t possess the scoring ability that Dziurzynski does, Kessy can generate offense with his rambunctious style and his 6’3 frame. The left-winger is in his fourth season with the Medicine Hat Tigers and has a goal and nine assists through 21 games this year.

A fourth-round pick in 2011, Kessy’s grit and determination is obvious but he must continue to improve his skating if he hopes to make a greater impact as a professional.

Harrison Ruopp, D, Prince Albert Raiders
Acquired: 3rd round (84th overall) in 2011

A surprising third-round pick at the 2011 NHL Draft, Ruopp wasn’t high on many lists heading into the draft, but At 6’2 and close to 200 pounds he was a player that Don Maloney pegged as a future shutdown defender. The 18-year-old blueliner is in his third season with the Prince Albert Raiders who rank as one of the worst teams in the WHL.

The team’s poor performance isn’t doing any favors for Ruopp’s numbers but the young rearguard continues to provide as much stability as he possibly can for the club and is certainly their toughest player to play against on a nightly basis.

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