Defense dominates Coyotes prospect awards

By Andrew Sykes
Photo: David Rundblad is among the numerous very talented defensemen in the Phoenix Coyotes organization. (Photo courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The Phoenix Coyotes prospects pool has been highlighted by a strong group of defensemen for the past few years. The club has used their first round pick in the NHL Draft to take a defenseman in each of the past three years and have a group of young blueliners that rank right up there with the best in the NHL.

Many of these defensemen are featured in the year-end look at the finest prospects in the Phoenix system. Here is who gets the hardware:

Most Improved Prospect: Michael Stone, D, Phoenix Coyotes (NHL)

Stone's development from this year to last has been exceptional. It will however not come as a surprise to those who saw him play regularly during his four year junior career with the Calgary Hitmen. It was there that Stone showed all the signs of being a solid pro thanks to his two-way ability as well as his poise and maturity.

The 21-year-old defenseman was arguably Portland's best blueliner in his 51 games this season and it was that fine play that earned 13 games with the big club. With the Coyotes, he continued his strong performance, scoring his first NHL goal and adding two helpers in 13 games. He is currently sitting alongside Chris Summers in the press box for Phoenix in the playoffs, but he has certainly put himself in a good position to grab a full-time spot next year.

Best Defensive Prospect: Brandon Gormley, D, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)

 

Although Rundblad is a little further along in his development, Brandon Gormley is quickly closing in on taking over as the club's top prospect. Projected as a more solid two-way defender than Rundblad, Gormley's ability in both zones make him the Coyotes best all-around defensive prospect.

The 20-year-old was named as the best defenseman at the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championships and upon being traded from Moncton to Shawinigan, he will now have a chance to compete for a Memorial Cup for the host Cataractes in May.

With a chance at cracking the Phoenix lineup next year, Gormley gives the Coyotes an impressive trio of young blueliners along with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and David Rundblad.

Prospect of the Year: Andy Miele, Portland Pirates (AHL)

Going from being an undrafted player to someone on the cusp of being an NHL regular, makes Andy Miele the Phoenix Coyotes Prospect of the Year in 2011-2012.

The 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner, Miele was passed over in the draft because of his small stature but he has quickly shown that his lack of size will not hold him back from doing the one thing he has always done-produce offense.

Miele was set to start the year in Portland but some early season injuries allowed him to receive the call-up to Phoenix where he played in seven games with the Coyotes. Despite not registering a point in those games, Miele showed glimpses of the unquestionable offensive ability he possesses; a skill-set that will remind Coyotes fans of veteran star Ray Whitney.

Upon his return to Portland, the 24-year-old has been the club's best offensive player this season, leading the Pirates in scoring with 54 points in 69 games.

Depending on how the off-season shakes out in Phoenix, Miele could very well land himself a spot on the opening night roster with the hope of having a productive rookie season.

Fastest Skater: Chris Summers, D, Phoenix Coyotes (NHL)

After appearing in his first two NHL games last year, Summers has climbed his way onto the Phoenix roster and got into 21 games with the Coyotes this year.

An intelligent defender, his smarts with and without the puck were big reasons why he was elevated to NHL duty, but another major factor was certainly his skating. The 24-year-old possesses some impressive mobility and speed to go along with his 6'2, 210 pound frame. He is a very smooth skater who is able to elude forecheckers with his agility and effortless strides.

Summers remains with the Coyotes in their first-round playoff series but is yet to see any action. Should any injuries occur on the blue line, Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett will have all the confidence in the world in the smooth-skating young rearguard.

Hardest Shot: David Rundblad, D, Portland Pirates (AHL)

Acquired in the trade that sent Kyle Turris to the Ottawa Senators, Rundblad without question possesses NHL-caliber ability. One of the more touted defensive prospects in hockey, the Coyotes have chosen not to rush the 21-year-old blueliner, instead choosing to let him further develop his skills in the AHL.

On top of being a potentially elite-level offensive defenseman, one of Rundblad's best attributes is his excellent point-shot. A heavy and accurate shot, Rundblad's build and ability as a trigger-man may remind some of his former Ottawa teammate Sergei Gonchar.

Although he has struggled defensively in his first North American season, Rundblad has shown why he is considered to be a future power-play specialist for the Coyotes as he has scored seven goals and dished out nine assists in 30 games with Portland.

Overachiever: Brendan Shinnimin, C, Tri-City Americans (WHL)

An undrafted, overage forward with the Tri-City Americans in the WHL, Shinnimin had a year to remember in his final junior season. The WHL's regular-season scoring champion with 58 goals, 76 assists, and 134 points, Shinnimin produced the highest scoring season in the league since the 2000-01 season.

The diminutive 21-year-old was offered an AHL contract by Phoenix in 2010 but turned it down, citing the need to play one more year in junior before embarking on his pro career. It was a move that paid off in spades as Shinnimin produced the most impressive season of any of the organization's CHL prospects.

While Shinnimin's offensive numbers are certainly an indicator of the player he can become, there is still a big difference from producing as an overage junior to doing it at the AHL level. His skill-set gives him a good chance at being successful but he cannot be expected to come in and light up the scoreboard right away.

Underachiever: Maxim Goncharov, D, Portland Pirates (AHL)

After making some major strides in his first season in North America, Goncharov struggled with inconsistency this year. Possessing the raw athletic ability of a full time NHL player, Goncharov hasn't seemed entirely comfortable in his 45 games in Portland and has also fallen victim to the injury bug.

The 22-year-old Russian did receive a call up early in the year on an emergency basis but never got into a game. It has hurt Goncharov that the likes of Chris Summers and Michael Stone have moved ahead of him on the Phoenix depth chart, but he has indeed been out-played by those two players.

Despite some of his struggles this year, Goncharov remains a quality prospect and could very well play in his first NHL game at some point next year.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Connor Murphy, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL)

The club's first-round pick in 2011, Murphy is considered a high risk/high reward prospect because of the fact that he has already endured serious injuries to two different body parts. Last year, Murphy battled a back injury that hampered him for much of his season with the U.S. Development team, making his first-round selection a bit of a surprise. This year, the 19-year-old fell victim to a knee injury that cut his first season with the Sarnia Sting in half.

While it is the injuries that make up the risk part, the reward aspect of Murphy is that he is the entire package on the blue line. A similar skill-set to that of Brandon Gormley, Murphy is an effective two-way blueliner who possesses good size, puck-smarts and mobility. If he can stay healthy, he should be in for a monster year in Sarnia where he will be one of the top rearguards in the OHL.

Hardest Worker: Brett Hextall, RW, Portland Pirates (AHL)

 

For those who remember his father, it should come as no surprise that Brett Hextall is also a fiery, hard-working player. The son of former NHL goaltender Ron Hextall, Brett played his first pro season with the Portland Pirates this year and brought the same high-energy game that he played with during his collegiate career at the University of North Dakota.

A small but tenacious winger, the 24-year-old Hextall has excellent speed and likes to play a physical and chippy game. With Portland this year, he has seven goals and 15 points and has been one of the team's most consistent grinding forwards all season, endearing himself to the fans with relentless on ice work-ethic.

Breakout Player for 2012-13: Chris Brown, LW, University of Michigan (CCHA)

 

Having completed his junior year at the University of Michigan, Brown has decided to forgo his senior year and sign a professional contract with the Coyotes. A second-round pick in 2009, Brown was never a huge scorer in his college career but has the tools to produce more than he did with Michigan.

A big body with some strong straight-line skating, Brown could become more of the goal-scoring power forward that Phoenix hoped he would become when they drafted him. The 21-year-old left-wing should slot on a top three line next year with Portland, and depending on the role he is given, he could score up to 15 goals.