Coyotes AHL prospects review

By Ryan Garner

The 2004-05 season was the worst in the 10-year history of the Utah Grizzlies franchise. After getting off to a rough start, winning only one in their first 12 games, the team was beset by injuries and struggled at both ends of the ice for the majority of the year. Utah finished last overall in the American Hockey League, scoring fewer goals than any other club while giving up the most. Ten Phoenix Coyotes prospects either began the season with the Utah Grizzlies or spent the majority of the season playing there. Here’s a look at how those prospects fared this season.

Goaltenders

David LeNeveu – No other American Hockey League netminder lost more games this season than David LeNeveu. The Fernie, BC native suffered 32 losses between the pipes for the Grizzlies and struggled with his consistency throughout the 2004-05 campaign, his second in the AHL.

The talented prospect saw a lot of rubber playing behind Utah’s inexperienced defensive corps as the Grizzlies only managed to outshoot their opponents in 21 of their 80 games. LeNeveu was often called upon to try and steal wins because of the club’s sputtering offense and came up short more often than not. The 21-year-old netminder finished the season with a 2.93 goals against average and .909 save percentage in 48 games, splitting playing time with veterans Jean-Marc Pelletier and Jamie Storr. While the season proved to be a disappointment, LeNeveu showed occasional flashes of brilliance and benefited from working with Phoenix Coyotes goaltending coach Grant Fuhr. His improvement became evident near the end of the season, as he won three of his last six games.

Despite a difficult year, LeNeveu is still looked upon as an elite prospect. Chosen by the Phoenix with the 46th overall pick at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, LeNeveu is very solid technically and has the talent to be a starter at the NHL level someday. He’s expected to return as the Utah Grizzlies starting goaltender for the 2005-06 season.

Defensemen

Keith Ballard – Keith Ballard entered his rookie year after a spectacular collegiate career at the University of Minnesota and hoped to make a smooth transition to the professional game. Unfortunately, the offensive defenseman saw his plus/minus plummet and he had a difficult time adjusting to the speed and skill of the American Hockey League.

The highly-touted prospect entered the 2004-05 season eager to display the speed and stickhandling skills which had helped him become an offensive force at the college level. However, Ballard was often guilty of being too fancy in his own zone and opposing forwards were able to capitalize on the young rearguard’s mental errors. Ballard served as the Grizzlies power play quarterback and the majority of his points came with the man advantage. Despite his defensive struggles, the 22-year-old defenseman demonstrated some excellent offensive skills and received an invitation to the 2005 AHL All-Star Game as the Utah Grizzlies lone representative. Ballard was sidelined for the final 19 games of the season after suffering a high ankle sprain in a game against the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks on March 11th. The Baudette, Minnesota native was named the Utah Grizzlies rookie of the year, finishing the season with two goals and 18 assists for 20 points in 60 games and a -29, second worst in the entire league.

The 11th overall pick at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Ballard has plenty of offensive upside and still projects to be a talented offensive defenseman in the National Hockey League. The difficulties of the 2004-05 season should help him focus more on his defensive responsibilities and develop a more well-rounded game. He should return to the Grizzlies next season for another year of development at the AHL level before making the jump to NHL play.

Joe Callahan – Joe Callahan received the dubious distinction of finishing the 2004-05 season with the worst plus/minus rating in the American Hockey League. Entering the professional ranks after three solid seasons with the Yale Bulldogs, the 22-year-old defenseman ended a dismal and disappointing rookie campaign with a -35.

Callahan had an impressive showing at the Grizzlies training camp and saw most of his ice time on Utah’s top two defensive lines. However, the big rearguard was prone to defensive lapses and struggled through a 22-game stretch from early December to late January when his plus/minus dropped by 19. At 6’3, 219 pounds, Callahan plays a physical game and does his best work along the boards and in the corners. He also has some offensive upside to his game and makes smart outlet passes. The Brockton, Massachusetts native finished the season strong, posting five points and a -2 in his final 20 games and earning year-end honors as the Utah Grizzlies most improved player. Callahan finished the year with 11 points in 75 games.

Although he faltered at times this year, Callahan has the physical tools to be a fifth or sixth defenseman at the NHL level. His positional play showed great improvement and his confidence grew near the end of the season. Chosen 70th overall by Phoenix at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Callahan should benefit from a couple years of seasoning in the AHL before competing for a spot on the Phoenix Coyotes blueline.

Matthew Spiller – Matthew Spiller emerged as the leader of the Utah Grizzlies defensive corps during the 2004-05 season, his first full year in the American Hockey League. At 6’5, 230 pounds, the mammoth rearguard brought a dominant physical presence to the rink every night and shouldered a considerable amount of playing time on the Grizzlies top defensive pairing.

The 22-year-old defenseman benefited from 51 games with the Phoenix Coyotes during the 2003-04 season and it served him well playing for the Grizzlies. Possessing a 90-plus mph slap shot and a healthy mean streak Spiller quickly established himself as reliable two-way defenseman, posting three points in his first four games and punishing opposing forwards who dared to venture into the Utah zone. After 40 games he had eight points and a -9 patrolling the Grizzlies blueline. Injuries to Grizzlies defensemen caused Spiller to take on a larger role in the second half of the season and it seemed to take a toll on his performance. Over his last 40 games he only registered three points with a -17. Despite his poor second-half showing, Spiller garnered year-end honors as the Utah Grizzlies defenseman of the year. The Daysland, Alberta native finished the season with three goals and eight assists for 11 points in 80 games and a -26, third-worst in the league.

Selected by the Coyotes with the 31st overall pick at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, he has the defensive instincts and physical attributes to be a reliable defensive defenseman in the National Hockey League for a long time. Spiller is still growing and maturing and should develop into an even more intimidating physical package in the next couple years.

Dustin Wood – Dustin Wood spent the majority of the 2004-05 season, his second in the American Hockey League, on the Grizzlies third defensive tandem and his game showed gradual improvement. The 23-year-old rearguard chipped in offensively and brought a strong work ethic to the rink each night.

At 6’1, 208 pounds, Wood is a no-nonsense defensive defenseman who constantly hustles, grinds down opposing forwards and works well along the boards. The Scarborough, Ontario native’s best performance came during the end of the season, as he registered four points and was even in the final 20 games of the year. Wood appeared in all 80 games and provided the Grizzlies with valuable minutes, finishing the season with 10 points and a decent -19.

Signed as a free agent in 2004, Wood has done a good job establishing himself as a reliable defenseman at the AHL level. He may not have the skills to advance to the National Hockey League, but he’s physical, covers his defensive assignments well, and is very good in the corners.

Forwards

Randall Gelech – No other Utah player offered up more surprising play during the 2004-05 season than Randall Gelech. After a solid junior career with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, the rookie forward made a smooth transition to the professional game and provided the Grizzlies with a consistent work ethic and reliable two-way play.

Gelech had an impressive year playing on the Grizzlies checking line and filling a spot on the club’s top penalty-killing unit. Although he saw limited time on the Utah power play, the Elfros, Saskatchewan native was a consistent contributor. His 15 goals, five power play goals, and 12.6 shooting percentage were each good enough for second on the Grizzlies squad. Gelech is a tenacious forechecker and his size (6’3, 212) helped him to be effective along the boards and in front of the net. The 21-year-old winger brought intensity and gritty play to the rink every night and ended the year on a high note, posting five points in his final four games of the season. Possessing soft hands and a nose for the net, Gelech finished the season with 15 goals and 12 assists for 27 points in 76 games.

Chosen 203rd overall by Phoenix at the 2003 Entry Draft, Gelech had his stock rise considerably this season and will battle for a roster spot at the Phoenix Coyotes training camp when it opens. Defensively sound with a great work ethic, the hard-nosed prospect has the intangibles that could make him a checking-line winger at the NHL level.

Jakub Koreis – Center Jakub Koreis showed gradual improvement as he adjusted to the rigors of professional hockey during the 2004-05 season, his first in the American Hockey League. The talented prospect wasn’t a key contributor, but he did gain valuable experience playing on Utah’s depth lines.

Koreis entered the season after a very successful training camp, earning himself a roster spot with the Grizzlies. At 6’3, 213 pounds, he has a big frame that helps him win battles in the corners, possesses an excellent shot, and has great vision which enables him to find open teammates. However, the 21-year-old center had difficulty adjusting early on and spent the first half of the season on Utah’s fourth line, where he saw limited playing time. During the second half Koreis received increased playing time and saw some action on the Grizzlies power play. One of the knocks on the Plzen, Czech Republic native during the year was his awkward skating in the neutral zone and inability to battle his way through checks, but he showed noticeable improvement and finished the year strong, scoring seven points in the final 17 games of the season. He finished the season with five goals and six assists for 11 points in 79 games.

Koreis was selected by Phoenix 19th overall at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft and has plenty of offensive upside. Despite his struggles adjusting to the professional game, his game has improved immensely since crossing the pond prior to the 2003-04 season. A very talented prospect, if he can stay healthy and develop his skills, he could compete for an NHL job in the next couple years. Look for the hard-working Koreis to take on an expanded role with the Grizzlies next season.

Kiel McLeod – An intimidating package of size and skill, Kiel McLeod saw his offensive numbers increase during the 2004-05 season, his second in the American Hockey League. The 6’6, 233-pound center was a mainstay on the Grizzlies scoring lines and top power play unit all season long.

The 22-year-old pivot entered the season looking to build on his rookie season with the Springfield Falcons and become a main contributor offensively for the Grizzlies. Assisted by his tremendous size and strength, McLeod led Utah with six power play goals because of his effective work in the slot and soft hands that help him to capitalize on scoring chances in close. An average skater, the Sherwood Park, Alberta native employs a punishing physical game and he’s fearless in his defense of teammates. McLeod struggled to produce at times during the season but ended the year strong with 11 points in his final 20 games. His powerful shot helped him finish third on the club with a shooting percentage of 11.3 percent. McLeod finished the season with 13 goals and 12 assists for 25 points in 73 games for the Grizzlies.

Originally drafted 53rd overall by Columbus at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, McLeod was signed as a free agent by Phoenix in 2003. His size is one of the key reasons he will compete for an NHL job at the Phoenix Coyotes training camp this fall, but he’ll most likely return to the Utah Grizzlies for the 2005-06 season. McLeod is a very intriguing prospect and he should continue to improve his offensive totals next season.

Martin Podlesak – Injuries have plagued Martin Podlesak’s professional career and the 2004-05 season brought more of the same, almost ending before it even began. The 22-year-old center appeared in 10 of the Grizzlies first 16 games before suffering a separated shoulder in a fight against the Houston Aeros Kyle Wanvig on November 28, 2004.

Podlesak entered the season after a decent showing at training camp and saw most of his limited ice time on the Grizzlies fourth line. Every player has to deal with injury at some point in their career but the Melnik, Czech Republic native has run into bad luck, partially because of his own slight stature and poor decision making. Podlesak finished the season with one assist and a -3 in 10 games for the Grizzlies.

It’s hard to judge where Podlesak is at talent-wise because he hasn’t played any meaningful minutes for the past 18 months. He’s now listed at 6’6, 220 pounds and the added bulk should assist his durability when he makes his return with the Grizzlies next season. Drafted by the Phoenix 45th overall at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, it’s anybody’s guess how Podlesak will perform after such a lengthy injury.

Fredrik Sjostrom – No other Utah player entered the season facing greater expectations than Fredrik Sjostrom. After appearing in 57 games for the Phoenix Coyotes during the 2003-04 season, many expected the 21-year-old winger to excel offensively for the Grizzlies in 2004-05. While he did manage to put up decent numbers, it was hardly a dominant performance.

Sjostrom spent the season on Utah’s scoring lines and was a regular on the top power play unit, appearing in all 80 games for the Grizzlies. An incredible talent, the Fargelanda, Sweden native possesses a great shot, superb stickhandling, and often uses his excellent speed to generate scoring chances. Unfortunately, Sjsotrom proved to be very streaky throughout the year and didn’t score his first goal until the 15th game of the season. However, he went on to score 16 points in the next 16 games from late November until late December after netting his first one. Following that, he failed to register a goal in his next 22 games. At 6’1, 217 pounds, the talented prospect is able to fight his way through checks and he’s tough to knock off the puck. A flashy but intense competitor, Sjostrom ended up second on the club in scoring and led Utah with four game-winning goals. The speedy winger finished the season with 14 goals and 24 assists for 38 points in 80 games for the Grizzlies.

Drafted by Phoenix 11th overall at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Sjostrom benefited from another year of development in the American Hockey League. Probably the most talented prospect in the Phoenix Coyotes system, he should see playing time with the NHL club in the fall. Sjostrom has the potential to be a scoring-line winger at the NHL level, but raw talent can only take a player so far and it’s just a question of whether or not he has the drive to succeed at the next level.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.