Defense once again highlights Phoenix Coyotes’ prospect system

By Andrew Sykes
Connor Murphy - Team USA

Photo: Defenseman Connor Murphy, who will compete for a spot on Team USA at the 2013 WJC, is one of three first-round picks on the Phoenix Coyotes' blue line depth chart. (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 
As has been the case over the past few years, the Phoenix Coyotes prospect pool is built around their strong group of defensive prospects. Elite talents like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson quickly became franchise cornerstones and gave way to a new crop led by the likes of first-round studs Brandon Gormley, David Rundblad, and Connor Murphy.

While the defense is without a doubt the organization’s strength, the club has begun to improve their offensive depth as well. With a good mix of power forwards on the wing and some skilled centers down the middle, the Coyotes have their most well-rounded group of forward prospects in quite some time.

Left Wing

On the left side of the ice the Coyotes are not deep in terms of future NHL talent but they have added to their depth at the position over the past few years. Lucas Lessio, a 2011 second-round selection, leads the way as the club’s top left wing prospect and is really the only player with a chance to be an impact player in the NHL. The 19-year-old is a strong bodied forward with good straight-line speed and quality goal-scoring instincts.

After a solid three-year career at the University of Michigan, 21-year-old Chris Brown has now moved on to the pro ranks and is quickly proving how far his game as come with the Portland Pirates in the AHL. While he does not quite have the offensive ability as Lessio, Brown is a hardworker who is able to be an effective player thanks to his speed, strength, and puck-skills.

Behind Lessio and Brown there is a considerable drop off in terms of talent, but certainly no shortage of grit. With his ability to play the role of a heavy-hitting pest as well as chipping in offensively, Darian Dziurzynski has the chance to be a surprise contributor in the club’s system. On two separate occasions in his junior career, Dziurzynski amassed 100+ penalty minutes and scored 27+ goals, including a 35-goal, 125-penalty-minute season in 2010-2011.

Gritty players like Zac Larraza, Kale Kessy, and raw high-school product Samuel Fejes round out the Coyotes left-wing pool and will all be looking to improve their stock within the organization in the next few years.

Center

While they do not possess overwhelming depth down the middle, the center position has become the strongest of all the forward positions and is filled with some intriguing prospects. Intriguing in the sense that it is hard to project how successful or unsuccessful some of them will be as pros.

Former Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele (5’8, 175) and the reigning CHL Player of the Year Brendan Shinnimin (5’10, 180) are two small but supremely skilled centers who have the ability to put up points in bunches. Miele, who is in his second season with the Portland Pirates, was the club’s leading scorer a year ago, and is fully capable of improving upon his 16-goal, 54-point rookie campaign.

Although similar to Miele in stature and skill, the 21-year-old Shinnimin is different in that he is a highly aggressive player who also likes to mix it up with a chippy style of play. Coming off an incredible 58-goal, 134-point season with the Tri-City Americans in his final junior season, the undrafted Shinnimin is jumping right into the AHL where he will be given the chance to prove that his 2011-2012 season was no fluke.

The club’s top ranked center prospect though is 2012 first-round selection Henrik Samuelsson. Already an imposing figure at 6’3 and over 200 pounds, Samuelsson possesses impressive attributes for an 18-year-old. While some may consider him more suited to play on the wing, Samuelsson’s size and developing offensive arsenal is reminiscent of Ryan Getzlaf in that he is a slick puck-handler and has very soft hands for someone his size.

A second-round pick in 2012, Jordan Martinook is another player who could end paying big dividends down the road. A late bloomer, Martinook played only two junior seasons but made a huge impact a year ago when he scored 40 goals for the Vancouver Giants. That performance boosted his draft stock greatly to that of a surprise second-round choice.

Despite going through some struggles in his first AHL season, 21-year-old Ethan Werek is a well-rounded player who has the potential to be a checking-line center in the NHL. Originally thought to be an offensive player following a productive junior career, Werek’s lack of speed might hold him back from playing a scoring-line role but his all-around smarts and work ethic will keep him in the mix.

Right Wing

Right wing is not a strong point of the Phoenix prospect system but that is not to say that the club is not benefiting from the position. Four of the team’s five right wing prospects are currently playing professionally, with three playing with the Portland Pirates in the AHL.

In Portland, the team is receiving contributions from three gritty right wingers who have all adjusted quickly to the pro game. Jordan Szwarz, Brett Hextall, and Philip Lane came in as low maintenance players who earned their way to the next level not so much because of their skill, but rather their ability to play a feisty, physical game. Szwarz and Hextall are both in their second AHL seasons and are similar players in that they are both smaller players who use their speed to play an effective energy role.

A second-round pick, Lane might have been expected to produce more than he did throughout his junior career but he is the type of player who could very well end making more of an impact as a pro than he did as a junior because of the way his skills continue to evolve and mesh with his power forward frame.

Nineteen-year-old Alexander Ruuttu, a surprise second-round selection from the 2011 draft, remains in Europe playing between teams in Finland’s top two leagues. Currently playing with Kiekko-Vantaa, Ruuttu is already showing an improvement in his offensive production, something that could have him on the rise among Phoenix prospects.

Hoping to rebound from an injury-plagued season a year ago, Andrew Fritsch is back to the form he showed two years ago when he was a point-per-game player with the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL. Now playing for Sault Ste. Marie, Fritsch’s production and offensive skills give him the look of someone who, as a sixth-round pick, is very much a draft day steal.

Defense

Any time a team has stockpiled three first-round defensemen along with a bevy of other talented rearguards, it is easy to pinpoint the strength of that organization. The Coyotes impressive defensive core is led by 2010 first-round pick Brandon Gormley who has taken over as the club’s top prospect. Closely following him is David Rundblad who was acquired last season as a part of the deal that sent Kyle Turris to Ottawa. Rounding out the first-round trio is the team’s first-round choice from 2011 Connor Murphy, who is currently starring for the Sarnia Sting in the OHL.

With the likes of Gormley, Rundblad, and Murphy not far off from full-time NHL duty, Phoenix has an embarrassment of riches on the blue line which already features all-star talents in the 26-year-old Yandle and 21-year-old Ekman-Larsson. And it does not end there. There are several other defensive prospects who continue to make their own case for an NHL roster spot. Michael Stone and Chris Summers have a handful of NHL games under their belts while Maxim Goncharov is another youngster who has the potential to see action with the big club.

Justin Weller and Mathieu Brodeur are two defensive-defensemen who certainly do not possess the elite two-way abilities of the aforementioned players but will help add to the club’s depth in the minors.

Eighteen-year-old James Melindy, a third-round pick from the 2012 draft is a player very much on the rise and should easily develop into a solid NHL prospect much the same as guys like Summers and Stone. In addition to Melindy, the Coyotes added further defensive depth with Michigan State freshman Rhett Holland, Finnish blueliner Nikals Tikkinen, and Cape Breton summer acquisition Justin Hache at the 2012 draft.

Goaltending

There has not been a goaltender drafted by the Coyotes and then make his way through the system to become the team’s starting goaltender in quite some time, but Mark Visentin is on the right path to doing just that.

Very rarely do you see 20-year-old netminders playing in the AHL, and although Visentin is not yet the starter for Portland, the fact that he is pushing for the job says a lot about his development. The former Niagara IceDogs standout endured a fair share of criticism throughout his junior career despite often being considered the best goalie in the OHL. Criticism that he can now use as motivation to prove those who doubted his first-round selection wrong, and that he indeed has the goods to become a starter in the NHL.

Like Visentin, Louis Domingue and Mike Lee have moved on from solid junior and collegiate careers and are both just getting their feet wet at the professional level. A third-round pick in 2009, Lee’s stock is on the rise after a three-year stint at St. Cloud State University where, despite playing for a sub-.500 team, Lee registered some impressive numbers. He is currently off to an excellent start with the Gwinnett Gladiators in the ECHL while the 20-year-old Domingue has started out as his back-up.

The lone newcomer to the group is Czech goalie Marek Langhamer whom the Coyotes took in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. The 18-year-old decided to come over to North America where he is sharing the goaltending duties for the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL.

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