The Utah Grizzlies entered the 2004-05 AHL season with a new slogan encouraging their fans to “See Red”. After 52 games the team’s dismal play has given Utah fans plenty of opportunity to do just that. The Grizzlies have given up more goals and also allowed more goals than any other team in the league. While the team has struggled to record of 14-35-0-3, the performance of the Phoenix prospects ranges from surprisingly strong to simply terrible.
David LeNeveu – Goaltending prospect David LeNeveu has seen his numbers drop slightly from last year’s campaign with the Springfield Falcons and the losses have piled up dramatically. The 21-year-old has split playing time evenly with fellow netminder Jean-Marc Pelletier and both have struggled at times behind Utah’s weak defensive corps.
Goaltenders are generally made or broken by their confidence level and anytime a coach decides to split playing time it often leads to poor performances. Some nights LeNeveu stands on his head and gives Utah a decent chance to win, on other nights he lets in a couple early goals and the rout is on.
Overall, LeNeveu is sound technically and his numbers have been great considering the amount of defensive support he’s received. The youngster is a highly-touted prospect but until he’s handed the reigns as a No. 1 goaltender it will be hard for him to gain the confidence necessary to progress to the next level.
Keith Ballard – Nobody expected the struggles Keith Ballard has experienced during a difficult rookie season on the Utah blue line. Considered an offensive defenseman, the 23-year-old experienced difficulty adjusting to the skill of the professional game early on. While his defensive play has improved gradually, he possesses one of the lowest plus/minus totals in the league at -26.
Ballard has been the quarterback of the Grizzlies power play all season and currently sits tied for fifth on the club with 19 points (leading all defensemen), 15 of them coming with the man advantage. A talented stickhandler, Ballard will rush the puck down the ice and create scoring chances with his blazing speed. However, these rarely result in goals and despite having the team’s third-highest shot total at 99, he has managed to net only two goals this season.
Ballard was the Grizzlies lone representative at the AHL All-Star Game, a selection based more on his offensive talent and reputation than his on-ice performance this season. Despite the slow start and defensive struggles, he has developed himself into a better all-around defenseman and his development should continue.
Joe Callahan – Joe Callahan entered his rookie year after a solid career at Yale University and a good stint with Springfield at the end of last season. However, things have not been easy for the big rearguard. Never much of an offensive threat, Callahan has only mustered four points this season, matching his total in 13 games last year and he has the worst plus/minus in the league at -28.
Callahan is good in the corners and uses his big frame to clear the crease effectively. Unfortunately, poor foot speed and occasional lapses in judgment on the defensive end have resulted in frustration and negative results this season. Purely a defensive defenseman, Callahan’s play should improve as he adjusts to the speed and skill of AHL play.
Matthew Spiller – There’s no doubt Matthew Spiller benefited from his play with the Phoenix Coyotes last season and the on-ice results have been evident this year. The 22-year-old has easily been the Grizzlies most reliable defenseman, demonstrating consistent play and a dominant physical presence.
You will never see Spiller jump up into a rush, but he moves the puck well and makes good decisions from his own end. He possesses a healthy mean streak and it’s nearly impossible for an oncoming forward to try to slip past him along the boards. Spiller is very smart and uses his long reach to his advantage when tying up opposing forwards and clearing the puck.
If there is one downside to Spiller’s game it’s that he’s prone to undisciplined or retaliatory penalties at times. Despite this he has been a leader on the Utah blue line and there’s no reason to think that he won’t have a job in the NHL when play resumes.
Dustin Wood – If the mark of a good defensive defenseman is going unnoticed, then Dustin Wood is a great one. Spending the majority of the season on Utah’s third defensive tandem with rotating defensive partners, Wood has had a decent season.
The 23-year-old has seen some time on the penalty kill and he brings a consistent work ethic to the rink every night. Wood’s plus/minus of -17 is right around the middle of the pack on the struggling club. Although not large for a defenseman at 6’1, he works hard along the boards and stays out of the penalty box.
Randall Gelech – Some of Utah’s most surprising play this season has come from rookie forward Randall Gelech. The 21-year-old lined up at center during his years with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL but head coach Pat Conacher has moved him to the wing this season and the results have been good. Despite a regular shift on the Grizzlies checking line and a lack of power play minutes he currently leads the team with 11 goals.
Gelech is arguably the hardest working player on the Grizzlies squad and he’s been a fixture on the penalty-killing unit all season. He possesses great hands around the net and he’s developed good chemistry with veteran winger Erik Westrum. At 6’3, Gelech has a nice physical side to his game and he’s one of the Utah’s strongest forecheckers.
He finishes his checks, never takes a shift off, and chips in the occasional goal. What more could you ask for from a rookie checking-line winger? Drafted in the seventh round of the 2003 Entry Draft, Gelech has seen his stock rise this season. He’s sound defensively and his offensive numbers should improve as he gets more comfortable with the professional game.
Jakub Koreis – It’s hard to imagine any player being more ineffective than Jakub Koreis has been this season. The 20-year-old center has been disappointing all season, only mustering four points playing on the Grizzlies fourth line.
The Grizzlies were expecting much more from Koreis, drafted 19th overall by Phoenix in the 2002 Entry Draft, but he’s failed to deliver. He lines up for the occasional faceoff, but that’s usually as often as the puck finds his stick and despite his good size at 6’3, he rarely goes to the net or creates any type of scoring chances. Unfortunately, his progression seems to have stalled and he’s been a complete non-factor for the Grizzlies this season.
Kiel McLeod – No other player on the Grizzlies squad dwarfs opposition players like the mammoth Kiel McLeod. Listed at 6’6, 240 pounds, McLeod is good in the faceoff circle and he’s a consistent presence in the opposing team’s slot on the power play. This is one of the main reasons he leads the team with five power play goals.
The 22-year-old center employs a strong physical game and he’s always the first to step in and defend his teammates. McLeod could make better decisions when he has the puck, but he has good hands around the net and he creates space with his intimidating presence.
While he may never put up big numbers, McLeod is strong on his skates and he’s an effective big man. His production needs to improve if he ever hopes to take the next step in his development.
Martin Podlesak – Injuries at the AHL level have plagued Martin Podlesak’s career and stalled his development. Unfortunately, this season proved to be no different. The 22-year-old center appeared in 10 games for the Grizzlies before suffering a separated shoulder that ended his season prematurely.
Podlesak was not effective when healthy and appeared to be awkward an uncomfortable on the ice. He did show a willingness to engage in fisticuffs. Podlesak posted good numbers in junior but they’ve failed to translate to any success in the pro ranks thus far.
Fredrik Sjostrom – Nobody can question Freddy Sjostrom’s talent. After a strong showing with the Phoenix Coyotes last year many were expecting Sjostrom to light up the scoreboard consistently in the AHL. The 21-year-old winger has blinding speed and a shot that could rival most NHL players, but the talent hasn’t translated into success on the stat sheet.
Despite numerous quality scoring chances, Sjostrom has only eight goals in 52 games. He’s great at getting into scoring position, but whether it’s a wide-open net, a breakaway, or a perfect feed on an odd-man rush, the speedy Swede has been unable to finish, with only a 6.7 shooting percentage.
He works hard and has the talent to make the NHL, it’s just a matter of whether or not he can live up to his potential and become the dominant scoring threat everyone expects him to be.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.