Arizona Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney being fired is one of the strangest stories of the post-season so far. The former Winnipeg franchise better known in recent years for city council controversies than on-ice success drifted back toward soap opera just when it seemed the hockey part was improving. Whoever replaces the veteran manager this summer owes him a phone call of thanks for helping to establish one of the league’s best prospect groups. Holding their own first round pick in the 2016 Draft, plus the New York Rangers’, means the team can bolster a good group even further.
Every year around this time, Hockey’s Future gives out awards to prospects who stood out for good (sometimes for not so good) during the season. There was plenty of reason for optimism when the season began and with several players still making deep playoff runs, individual and team accolades are still within sight for some. Not every player who enjoyed positives this season gets a mention, but then the road to NHL success is long, bumpy, and unfair at times. None of these young Coyotes will have illusions about a tough business as they grow into roles as pro players, facing competition from each other and themselves as they seek to build a champion in Arizona under a new management regime.
A 2014 fourth-round pick, Bunting is a player who took some time to arrive in the OHL. Yet in his second season, he scored 37 goals and 37 assists in 57 games for the powerhouse Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. His commitment to playing solid fundamental hockey has served him well, as he had a remarkable rookie pro campaign. He had an early seven-game assignment with the Rapid City Rush of the ECHL, but was firmly established once he returned to the Springfield Falcons. Bunting would not likely have been anyone’s choice for rookie scoring leader, but he is ahead of Laurent Dauphin (who showed some promise at the NHL level this season) with just a few games left on the slate. Tenacious and courageous, Bunting has exceeded expectations this season in one of the world’s toughest leagues.
Hardest Shot: Kyle Wood, D, North Bay Battalion (OHL)
Wood represents the main return from trading Mikkel Bødker’s expiring contract. In a system stocked with players with two-way ability, the defense was an area of concern. Wood helps to address that. The big rearguard scored 16 goals last season, and put up a respectable 39 points in 49 games during this campaign. An early-season wrist injury may have hampered his shooting velocity some, but the 6’5 right-hander can still put the puck on net. The annual OHL Coaches’ Poll awarded Wood in the Hardest Shot category (Eastern Conference) this year as well, and he was the second-place finisher last season. With his entry-level contract already signed, Wood will be counted on to provide some of that offense in the AHL next season.
Best Defensive Prospect: Ryan MacInnis, C, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
As mentioned above, the actual defensemen in the Coyotes prospect pool are a somewhat undistinguished, and wholly unproven, group. Furthermore, after franchise cornerstone Oliver Ekman-Larsson and solid veteran Zbynek Michalek, the team has yet to sign any NHL blueliners for next season. Players like Phil Samuelsson and perhaps Dakota Mermis or Justin Haché might push for bottom-pairing roles, but there are many question marks.
So this award goes to Ryan MacInnis, a player who has enjoyed a breakout season for the Rangers. His defensive game is still a work in progress, but he has learned how to use his size and skating better this season. He finished second in the Best Defensive Forward category (Western Conference) in the OHL Coaches’ Poll. With continued improvement on his faceoffs to go along with his offensive skills, MacInnis will carve out an important role in this group.
Fastest Skater: Nick Merkley, RW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
The Coyotes have some of the fastest skaters in the NHL with players like Tobias Rieder, Anthony Duclair and Max Domi. Using the Blackhawks’ first-round pick in the 2015 Draft, the Coyotes added Nick Merkley to a pool that does not have a lot of speed right now. Merkley does not have the straight-ahead speed of the aforementioned, but he brings agility and shiftiness along with his other skills that make him a player who is a dangerous skater. After a solid 90 point season in his draft year, Merkley was off to another good season with Kelowna before suffering a knee injury. While it takes him off the ice at an important time in his career, Merkley will no doubt apply the same work ethic he brings to his game to his rehab efforts.
Prospect of the Year: Max Domi, LW, Arizona Coyotes (NHL)
Max Domi is not going to win the Calder (thanks to what is one of the strongest rookie groups since 1979-80) but the 21-year-old put together a great season for the Coyotes. Along with Anthony Duclair, the Coyotes rookies brought a lot of excitement to a club that is going through a rebuilding process. Domi sent a message that he wants to be a foundational piece. He showed off his creativity with the puck, making passes that forced teammates to think the game at his pace and setting a Coyotes rookie record for assists. He showed a lot of courage, getting to the net against NHL competition and scoring a respectable 18 goals on the season. Domi also showed a feisty side in recent weeks, pushing back, dropping the gloves and displaying a lot of spirit. It was a growth year for Domi as it is for any NHL rookie, but one which will help the next group of young talents arrive prepared for the challenges of the world’s best league.
Breakout Player for 16-17: Kyle Capobianco, D, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
The Sudbury franchise has struggled for several seasons now, but in doing so has also gathered some intriguing pieces for a resurgence. Capobianco may not be around to see the light, but if he returns next season, the Wolves may finally be able to put together a winning effort. The return of 2016-eligible players Alan Lysczarczyk and Dmitry Sokolov, along with 2018-eligible David Levin, should help improve the squad considerably. A strong all-around player like Capobianco is also crucial to this effort. His offensive output plateaued this season but should once again tick upward as he spends less time defending and more time driving the play as his skills suggest he can.
Connor Clifton is a player who had some pedigree before he committed to Rand Pecknold’s up-and-coming Quinnipiac program. He came out of the USNTDP program and made Team USA’s U-18s roster in 2012. Getting to play college hockey with his brother Tim was an enticement to Connecticut, but along with that was the knowledge that the Bobcats have become a national power in recent years. Clifton’s freshman season was impressive for the physicality he showed, putting up 106 penalty minutes in a league with no fighting. Yet with just nine points that season and only five the next, it was a fair question whether Clifton could do more than agitate.
He doubled his previous point total in this his junior campaign, scoring seven goals and 28 points in 43 games, and finally coming of age as a defender who can make a play with the puck, and pick his spots wisely when it comes to sending a message. Though his team came up short against a stacked North Dakota squad in the national championship game, Clifton was a key part of an excellent season. He has a lot to be proud of as a collegiate player, and may have arrived as a legitimate pro prospect for the Coyotes.
Overachiever: Christian Dvorak, RW, London Knights (OHL)
The overachiever award seems to damn a good player with faint praise, but it does more than that: it sets reasonable expectations. Dvorak is no doubt one of the most important prospects in the Coyotes system. He is a dynamic scorer with a solid all-around game, who racked up 109 points last season and arrived as a major prospect of interest. Unfortunately, the Coyotes had little choice but to send Dvorak back to junior, and while 121 points in 59 games seems like a lot, it also is. With 52 goals heading into the playoffs, it is clear that his shot is ready for the next level test. Dvorak and a Knights team loaded with elite junior talents still have the remainder of the playoffs to prove capable of claiming a major trophy. That said, even if he and his teammates fall short somehow, Dvorak will still have proven all he can against his age group and can look forward to the next challenge.
Underachiever: Brendan Perlini, RW, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
Perlini’s second post-draft season was not altogether terrible, but right now fans might wonder whether the 12th overall pick of the 2014 Draft might have been used on another player. The IceDogs are finding some supporting scoring at the right time of the playoffs, giving Perlini more time to redeem a middling campaign. Perlini finished third on the team in scoring, under a point-per-game pace for the first time since his OHL debut back in 2012. Like teammate Joshua Ho-Sang, Perlini may have felt disappointed not to have cracked an NHL lineup and lacked a little motivation at times during the regular season. While he has not become a dominant force yet, there are still some skills there to unlock. Though already signed to an entry-level deal, Perlini has to show a bit more to earn the trust of the new management group.
Highest Risk/Reward: Dylan Strome, C, Erie Otters (OHL)
Coming on one year later, 2015 will probably be known as the McDavid draft. It’s a shorthand that puts undue pressure on incredible athletes like Jack Eichel and Dylan Strome, not to mention the rest of the athletes who had their names called by an NHL team last June. Eichel has risen to the challenge already, stepping into the NHL and scoring 56 points in his rookie season. Strome’s organization again acted prudently in sending the junior-eligible center back to the Erie Otters, to round out some details and see what he could do without McDavid.
Strome put together a 111-point season over 56 games (a number which should maybe garner more praise) and looks to lead the Otters to the Memorial Cup berth that eluded them last season. It’s all part of the maturation process for Strome, who has the skills to be an all-star player in the NHL. The Coyotes are building up a truly impressive group of prospects bolstered by young players like Domi, Duclair, and Ekman-Larsson. Strome need not be the final piece to the puzzle – his supporting cast also has amazing potential – but if he can step in and contribute like his fellow stars from the 2015 Draft, Strome will certainly prove the wisdom of betting on a scoring center with elite athletic ability.
Prospect of the Month
Although it was pointed out above that players two years removed from their draft season, on teams loaded with top-shelf talents, should do well in junior leagues, one has to say that Christian Dvorak has still played well over the last month or so. With 15 points in nine games, he is part of a deadly balanced attack and sits third on the team in playoff scoring. He has stepped up his faceoff game as well, winning 65% of his draws. The team has only challenges left in front of it, as they go head-to-head with Ryan MacInnis and the Kitchener Rangers, but Dvorak has still done much to establish himself this season, showing that his outburst last season is part of a positive trend in his growth.