Strong drafting and Don Maloney’s clever work over the phone – plus the presence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson – should have the Arizona Coyotes back into contention soon. The team in fact brought strong efforts for most of the 2015-16 season, but a playoff berth was asking a lot of this roster. The good news is the franchise has organizational depth to rival any team’s.
But beyond even a potential star in Dylan Strome, what the Coyotes have is good young and unproven players, so adding another elite talent is crucial at the 2016 Draft. With that core in place, it is easy to imagine the AHL affiliate Springfield Falcons will be an enjoyable one to watch in coming years, but the NHL product could also be one of the league’s best by the end of this decade.
Even with a number of graduations (Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Klas Dahlbeck) from the last list, this Top 20 still features a blend of prospects with tremendous offensive upside, including a half-dozen who will top 100 points in junior by the end of this season. The defensive side of things is less certain, but adding Kyle Wood to the mix certainly helped matters. Goaltending can generally be solved with money when the opportunity arises, but Louis Domingue made a strong case for being next season’s backup and soon graduates as a prospect.
The way the Top 20 stands now will certainly change in its next version, with new arrivals from the 2016 Draft bumping some of the pros on the cusp of aging out or graduating. For now, this is the group: somewhat top-heavy but not even including four or five honorable mentions that would undoubtedly have a place in most teams’ top group.
20. (NR) Christian Thomas, LW, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Montreal Canadiens, December 2015
Thomas has proven to be a valuable pro player, but as a pending restricted free agent his future is in some doubt with Arizona. In all likelihood, he is worth a small raise, and as a player with speed and skill has a spot in the system. Thomas has bounced around as a young pro, but the Coyotes should find a spot for this player.
19. (20) Philip Samuelsson, D, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Pittsburgh Penguins, December 2014
Samuelsson is close to aging out as a prospect, but he still has value as a young defenseman. He was one of Springfield’s better players this season, using his offensive ability to put up some points for a club that lacked a real scoring threat in its forward ranks. It has been a long road for the 2009 second-rounder but he has improved in some areas over the years. As with Thomas, he will be a restricted free agent. Arizona’s blueline situation is quite a bit less settled than its forward depth though, with only two NHL defensemen signed for 2016-17, making it seem very likely that Samuelsson gets another contract. At just 24, he has amassed a lot of pro hockey experience that could pay dividends.
18. (NR) Conner Bleackley, C, 7.0D
Acquired via trade with Colorado Avalanche, February 2016
Reports suggest that Bleackley has no place in the Coyotes’ future plans, since the team would receive a second-round pick in 2016 by not signing him. Bleackley was a 2014 first-rounder (23rd overall) who has been criticized for not taking his physical training seriously enough. His game with the Red Deer Rebels has declined as well, going from 68 points in his draft season to just 42 over this season. That said, he has some natural talents and plays a complete game. Perhaps his ceiling is not as high as it was once expected to be, but Bleackley still has the WHL playoffs and the Memorial Cup to show that he can further elevate his game. A good showing in one or both of those tournaments certainly helps make the case for signing a 20-year-old with promise who has hopefully learned from his past mistakes. A freshly-motivated young player might beat the allure of a lottery ticket.
17. (18) Michael Bunting, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 117th overall, 2014
In some way, Bunting is a prototypical Coyotes player: a hard-working defensive-minded forward who flies under the radar despite putting up points. Bunting paid some dues with an ECHL stint this season, but was one of the best rookie Falcons in the AHL. Still just 20 years old, Bunting had one of the best seasons of any Coyotes prospect, given the degree of difficulty. With a relatively weak left wing depth chart, Bunting certainly carved out a bigger role for himself next season.
16. (NR) Sergei Plotnikov, LW, 5.5B
Acquired via trade with Pittsburgh Penguins, February 2016
Plotnikov was a tremendous scorer in the KHL with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and while his skating being a bit below-average by NHL standards accounts for some of his struggles, the potential is there for a bit more. He is versatile and violent at times, and offers some more experience and strength on what promises to be a young team next season. He is a restricted free agent to be, but so far the Russian seems like a decent fit on the Coyotes, and should be a low-cost way to get a veteran presence on the ice next season.
15. (15) Kyle Capobianco, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2015
With a cluster of CHL defensemen coming up, it seems only fair to slot Capobianco in where he ended this past fall. Once again the Sudbury Wolves have been one of the worst teams in the OHL, and once again Capobianco patiently contributed points from the blueline while doing his best to stop the bleeding of goals against. What effect playing on an undermanned squad has on a player varies a lot. Having a lot of time with the puck can lead to bad habits of course. Capobianco also needs more strength before he is a truly viable pro option, but the 18-year-old offers some excellent offensive-zone skills.
14. (NR) Kyle Wood, D, 7.0D
Acquired via trade with Colorado, February 2016
Wood is a right-handed offensive defenseman. He gets a slight nod over Capobianco due to his size (6’5, 209 lbs.) and improving physical game. A third-round pick (84th overall) in 2014, Wood is one of those prospects who has had to learn to deal with his growth and adjust his skating. A 16 goal scorer for the North Bay Battalion last season, Wood has again brought some offense to his club. He takes a bit of a back seat to 2016 eligible partner Cam Dineen, but he and Wood form an effective tandem. One might wish for a bit more aggression from Wood, but all in all he is an intriguing prospect who helps shore up what was one of the only soft spots in the organization.
13. (13) Dysin Mayo, D, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2014
Mayo is one of the only defense prospects with an entry-level contract signed at this point. His improvements make him the top defenseman in the system. Mayo came onto the scene with a great Memorial Cup back in his draft year, but has provided leadership and steady play for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the two since as well. Sitting third on the team in scoring with 42 points, Mayo is perhaps not likely to be an offensive dynamo as a pro. He is a calm player who should thrive in a solid system.
12. (NR) Adin Hill, G, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2015
The Coyotes have one major weakness, and that is goaltending. A high pick spent on Hill was meant to address that, and so far he has provided some needed encouragement. The Calgary native has some good size, and while his save percentage slipped a little this season, the Portland Winterhawks have not been a particularly dominant squad. His .918 save percentage does put him in the top ten for the WHL, and that’s without taking into account his heavy workload: his backup played just seven games. In all, Hill has done all that anyone could ask of him and offers a bit more upside than some of the others in the system, with the caveat that his NHL future is several years away.
11. (6) Brendan Perlini, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2014
Perlini’s point-per-game draft season put him in the conversation with some of the game’s top prospects. The two seasons since have poured a little water on that fire. With just 40 points on the season for an underachieving Niagara squad, and a pointless World Juniors appearance to boot, it has to be asked where the potential has gone. Perhaps a more motivated player will show up for the OHL playoffs, but in this group of high-flying forwards, keeping pace is no easy task. Perlini has the package of skills needed to be an effective top-six forward at the next level, but it has to come together in a more evident way.