Coyotes CHL prospects season review

By Jeff Dahlia

In the 2005-06 season, all the (healthy) Phoenix Coyotes CHL prospects played significant roles on their teams. While there are obviously games to be played in the postseason, here’s a comprehensive look at how the prospects fared this past year, with coaches weighing in on just how big of an impact their players had this past season.

WHL

Aaron Gagnon, C – Seattle Thunderbirds – Drafted 2004, 8th round, 240th overall

Seattle Thunderbirds center Aaron Gagnon spent a good bit of his past summer with Hockey Canada. Having been selected to participate in the World Junior Evaluation camp, the Armstrong, B.C. native battled, but fell short of earning a roster spot for the 2006 WJC. Also during the process, Gagnon sustained an injury to his hand, which left many questions whether he would be able to led Seattle on the ice as the regular season started.

“He tried to play through it with us, but it got to the point where he couldn’t,” explained T-Birds head coach Rob Sumner. “He had to have surgery on his hand and went on to miss a part of the first part of our regular season.”

When the second part of the season rolled around, Gagnon was a totally different player.

“When the second half started, he was gaining strength in his hand,” Sumner said. “He was feeling better and his play got better.

“I would say about the last 20 games, he was right back to his old self, where he was dominant in most of those games and was our leader both on and off the ice, and both offensively and defensively.”

Gagnon went on to finish the season strong, where he led the Thunderbirds in scoring for the second straight season. In 62 games played, he scored 45 points (24 goals, 21 assists), and had 40 penalty minutes. His 24 goals led the team in and he tied for the team led with a +8.

This was also his first season as Seattle’s captain, something Sumner said he was confidant Gagnon could handle.

“I know what type of player he is,” Sumner said about Gagnon. “He comes to play every night and because of that, there is a certain amount of that I trusted would take care of itself.

“I tried to give him as much direction as I could because it was his first year as a captain of our team. I wanted to make sure we were working together on that.”

Through it all, he battled back and had a good season considering the injury. His numbers weren’t quite the same, but obviously the weak hand hampered him early on.

“I think he fought some confidence coming out of the injury,” Sumner recalled of his top centerman. “He straightened that out and he plowed through the rest of the season.”

Sumner feels that Gagnon will continue to grow and mature at a good pace. Right now, the head coach appreciates his captain’s core competencies, which are his overall skating ability, his toughness on and away from the puck.

“He can turn a shorthanded situation where it looks like he doesn’t have a chance or goes 1-on-2 and all of a sudden he’s using some speed, he’s protecting that puck and creating a scoring chance,” Sumner explained. “He really does play to his strengths well. For his size, he really protects the puck well. I think I’ve said it in a past interview, but I don’t consider his size as a hockey player. His skating is so good, he’s strong on the puck and he doesn’t shy away from situations.”

Overall, in Sumner’s confident he’ll be a great competitor in the future.

“He is focused on what he’s doing and where he’s going,” Sumner said. “He’s keen on being a hockey player and I think he’s a real character kid. I’m sure he’s going to chase it as hard as he can.”

Roman Tomanek, LW – Seattle Thunderbirds – Drafted 2004, 4th round 103rd overall

Having missed the majority of last year with the Calgary Hitmen due to a shoulder injury, Roman Tomanek was energized for a fresh start with his new team for the 2005-06 season. Coming off surgery on both shoulders, Tomanek used his offensive ability to help provide a healthy clip of the scoring early on.

“He came here and we gave him a chance,” said head coach Rob Sumner of Tomanek’s expected presence in the offensive zone. “He viewed himself as an offensive guy and that was something we needed.”

Tomanek responded, leading the Thunderbirds in scoring for the majority if the season.

“We counted on him during the power play and he had some success, even though our numbers had us at the bottom of the league,” Sumner explained.

While his ability to score was intact, Sumner felt the flashy winger still had a lot to learn about the other side of the ice.

“For the most part this year, I think it showed that he was not used to playing defense,” Sumner explained. “He took some steps in learning how to play in his own end. He also took some steps learning how to come back hard and backcheck.”

With just about two and a half weeks to go, Seattle had to do the unthinkable. Due to an unspecified rules violation, Tomanek was suspended from the team for the rest of the season and sent back to Slovakia. Not much has been said, and no one is willing to confirm what actually took place.

Cutting the year short at 54 games played, Tomanek collected 42 points (17 goals, 25 assists), was a +5 and had 35 penalty minutes.

Overall, it appeared that Tomanek’s commitment to the program was questionable. On the ice, all Sumner and the T-Birds wanted was someone they could rely on.

“He needs to have a level of consistency in his game every time he gets on the ice and overall, he needs to show up to play all the time,” said Sumner.

It remains to be seen how the Coyotes plan to address his off-ice issues.

Logan Stephenson, D – Tri-City Americans – Drafted 2004, 2nd round, 35th overall

One of the bigger surprises from within the system came from Logan Stephenson and the emergence of his offensive game. Known around the league as one of the tougher defensive defensemen, Stephenson stepped up to lead the Am’s into the postseason, while also leading all Tri-City defensemen in scoring.

“Logan has been everything we needed from him and more,” said Am’s head coach Don Nachbaur. “I didn’t expect him to score that much or have as many assists as he did or even be on our power play.”

Having lost two potent offensive defensemen in Clayton Stoner (MIN) and Shawn Belle (MIN) from last year’s squad, Nachbaur lost some leadership, experience, skill and proven talent on the blue line.

“We didn’t have a lot of options when it came to offensive defensemen this year,” Nachbaur said about asking the 19-year-old to get more involved with the team’s offense. “Logan stepped into that role, cherished it and I think he did a hell of a job there.”

Not only was there an emphasis on offense with Stephenson at even strength, but also Nachbaur also relied on him to quarterback the power play. And once the started to get comfortable with his new duties, his point production took off about a month into the season.

“A lot of his points come from the fact he shoots the puck really well,” Nachbaur explained. “He’s got an excellent one-timer, he finds the open man and he progressed into that role as the season went on.”

Not alone at the point, Stephenson had some help from one of the team’s top forwards.

“He was quarterbacking our power play with Ian MacDonald, who we put on the back end,” Nachbaur added. “It has been the two of them who have focused on moving the puck up ice and controlling the game in the offensive zone on the power play.

“A lot of that has to do with Ian, being the playmaker he is. On the other side, it was Logan, who stepped up and learned how to play that role.”

To his credit, Stephenson finished the season third overall in team scoring, while leading all defensemen with 53 points (10 goals, 43 assists). He finished a +5 and racked up 115 penalty minutes.

Putting up career offensive numbers for Stephenson was just half of it. Nachbaur felt that while his offensive output picked up, his defensive game did not suffer. He logged a lot of ice time.

“It wasn’t because he was the older guy or he was a higher draft pick, he got the time because he earned it,” Nachbaur said. “He was most our most reliable player back there even though we put him in a tough crunch. Having put him up against the top forwards every night, his statistics speak for themselves.”

While Nachbaur is grateful for Stephenson’s overall presence and leadership, he realizes his newfound offensive side probably won’t be his strong suit at the pro level.

“Things happen a whole lot quicker in the NHL and he’s not going to be the typical offensive guy that you see in the league now,” he explained. “First and foremost, he’s going to be a defensive defenseman and he has the ability to skate forward with the puck and make plays.

“With Logan, I think he’s defensively sound. He skates well and he doesn’t get beat that much one-on-one. Like I said, if he does, he’s such a competitor that he’ll get back there, battle and slide to keep the puck out of the net. His drive is going to be such a great intangible for him at the next level.”

At the conclusion of the regular season, Stephenson was named to the WHL’s Western Conference Second All-Star Team, something Nachbaur was glad to see.

“There is a pretty few good defensemen in our conference,” Nachbaur commented on his player earning the accolade. “But again, that is the respect he earned from his peers.”

QMJHL

Kevin Cormier, LW – Halifax Mooseheads – Drafted 2004, 6th round, 168th overall

Kevin Cormier gave the Q’s tough guys a rude awakening last season when he arrived on the scene and quickly established himself as the top enforcer with the Halifax Mooseheads. Having come back for the 2005-06 campaign, he was on a mission to prove he could be more than just a fighter.

“Last year he played that enforcer role,” said Mooseheads head coach Al MacAdam. “Last year’s team was much different than this year’s team. As last season ended, we spoke with Kevin and told him he would have to be better conditioned in order to play more.”

His primary role wasn’t going to be taken away, rather Halifax needed more from him come fall of 2006. With a younger roster and not a lot of room up front, Cormier embraced the challenge.

“It’s worked both ways,” MacAdam added. “His physical condition coming into this season allowed him to play more, as his physical side gave him more room to play.

“We thought he had a lot more jump in his step coming out of the Coyotes camp. He’s continued to work hard to maintain that. Last year he really lacked that quick acceleration and this year, it was here.”

Cormier did jump out early in the season, but leveled off at about the mid-point. He finished the season with 27 points (16 goals, 11 assist), was a -12 and led the team with 202 penalty minutes, in 69 games played.

“He has got far more ice time this season than he’s probably ever had,” said MacAdam about the correlation between Cormier’s increased ice time and increased points. “He’s played on the power play, and more regular shifts. His game has improved to the point where he’s not as one-dimensional.”

Having kept the top enforcer tag and juggling his new assignments Cormier went onto to an admirable job.

“We felt that he was still ‘the guy’ in the league,” MacAdam explained about Cormier’s mental progression. “We also felt that his preparation is a tough job, because now he had to find a balance. Now he had to prepare himself for a challenge and prepare himself to play the game. We felt it’s a good experience for him in order for him to move into the next level.”

It’s rather obvious that Cormier will not be torching goalies with great consistency in the near future, but he has earned a lot of valuable steps in the right direction this past season.

“He needs to continue to help his linemates in order to make plays,” MacAdam said of what Cormier focus should be on in order to compete at the pro level. “The next set of things he needs to do is not to handle the puck that much through the neutral zone. He needs to move the puck quicker, probably use his sentiment better in that area and to make effective decisions.

“He’s good on the boards and his jump is a lot better, but usually the sentiment he’s playing has more jump so he should be even better. So his assets are his size and his ability to drive to the net, which will be something he will rely on in the future.“

Olivier Latendresse, C – Val d’Or Foreurs – Signed as free agent Summer 2004

While his overall stats will definitely stand out, you’ll find that the key to Olivier Latendresse is actually goes a lot farther than points. On his final tour with Val d’Or this season, the skilled center will look back on the 2005-06 season with a lot of fond memories.

Providing scoring and consistency on the ice throughout the regular season, Latendresse helped lead the young Foreurs back into the playoffs.

“He was the most important attacker on our team,” said Foreurs head coach Eric Lavigne, who took as the team’s bench boss towards the end of December. “We didn’t have a lot of depth, so he played with a lot of players.”

Latendresse finished the regular season fourth overall in scoring for the QMJHL with 125 points (41 goals, 84 assists) in 70 games played. He was +5 and tallied a total of 83 penalty minutes.

Not only overall points a career best, but his offensive prowess earned him some honors throughout the year. Along with all the scoring, his leadership on the ice was also something that helped his team as much as the offensive explosion.

“When I came in, I asked him to be a leader on the ice,” Lavigne recalled. ”I told him he could make a difference and you can lead this team on and off the ice. He was very good for the club when it came to the younger players and game after game.”

With Lavigne’s confidence and with his own strong character, Latendresse developed into a true leader.

“He works hard and has a big influence on the young players,” Lavigne explained. “We were very young because we have a lot of 17-year-olds. So when they were on the bench and they were watching their captain out there working really hard shift after shift, they notice that.

“He’s a little warrior,” described the coach. “He likes to play physical, drive the net, and work hard on the boards. Sometimes when you have a skilled player, they don’t like to do these things, like paying the price in front. That’s not his style because he does all these and he’s there every night.”

As Latendresse brought all these intangibles to the table for Lavigne and the Foreurs, he seemed to gain an edge and continue to improve his all-around game, the deeper he got into the season.

“He matured a lot as the season went on,” Lavigne added. “He had a lot of responsibility because he was playing on the power play, the penalty kill, regular shifts and took a lot of important faceoffs. Like I said, he played with a lot of different wingers, so he learned a lot about the game and how to become consistent all the time.”

Known as a skilled centerman whose key assets are his game sense and speed, he’s also a competent defender too.

“He’s good in his own end,” Lavigne said with pride. “He likes to be the first guy down low, defensively. He wants the puck. I feel that is the first thing he’s thinking when he gets down there. He likes to work down low because he likes to battle for the puck. He likes to recover the puck and he loves to jump right into the attack.

“Overall, he’s a good two-way player, not just an offensive player. He works hard on the backcheck. That’s also why he plays a lot on the penalty-kill, he plays the crucial minutes and takes the important faceoffs in his own zone.”

Far from being labeled a “complete player,” Lavigne said the youngster still has some growing to do.

“He still needs some more maturity in his overall game,” the coach finally added. “He gets a bit risky because he has a lot of confidence. He tries too much sometimes, which could a little dangerous. He has the confidence in his skills, but at the next level, he is going to learn that he needs to keep the puck moving.”

But in every good player, Lavigne sees a lot of promise in Latendresse.

“I think he’ll be ready for the American Hockey League, for sure,” the coach stated. “I am pretty sure he’ll be in the big show too. I have had experience coaching in AHL and I’ve seen players make it with less talent than him.”

Keith Yandle, D – Moncton Wildcats – Drafted 2005, 4th round, 105th overall

Coming out of the Cushing Academy and not knowing much about the Q as a league, Keith Yandle was hesitant at first about heading up north to play hockey in Canada. That was until a coach and an organization sold him on the league.

“It just didn’t happen one weekend,” said Ted Nolan, Moncton’s first-year coach. “We were on Keith close to two months. We talked to him on a consistent basis and told him what we had to offer. “Now, were just thankful that he chose our league and our team to play.”

Thankful could be a bit of an understatement at this point.

“We watched him early in the summer at the USA U20 Evaluation Camp at Lake Placid, NY,” said Nolan. “That’s when we picked up on his skill level. The one thing we didn’t realize is his competitive nature.”

If Yandle needed a league and a place to prove himself, he couldn’t have ended up picking a better place do it. In his first and only season with the Cats, Yandle emerged as a one of the, if not the most offensively dominant rearguards in the entire Q.

“I don’t think we were really shooting for all those points, but I anticipated he would have a heck of a year,” Nolan said. “When you have a player with that much skill and competitiveness, chances were he was going to put good numbers on the board.”

In 66 games, Yandle scored 84 points (25 goals, 59 assists), which led all defensemen in the league in scoring this season. He was also a +50, which ranked fourth in the league. He also logged 109 penalty minutes.

Given Nolan’s system, coupled with a few skilled players up front, it couldn’t have provided a better environment for the offensive defenseman.

“He’s fit in well with our team,” Nolan explained. “We have some good forwards and he likes to get it up to them and join the rush. We play a style that is conducive to a player like Keith. We’re not a trap team, we’re not a sit back and wait team; we’re an attack team. When you have players like Keith on the back end who can skate the puck out of your zone and attack the opposition, he fits in perfect with the style we like to play.”

Quite a jump from high school hockey to the likes of the junior ranks can be tough when you’re not too sure what to expect how Yandle would react.

“Coming in, we knew all the reports from his high school games is he’d just off with the puck when he wanted,” Nolan said. “He’d play long shifts for three or four minutes, where we wanted to teach him how to be quicker.”

Much to everyone’s delight, Yandle was all ears when it was time to show he belonged, something Nolan said made a world of difference.

“The hardest part about coaching is hoping that the player will allow himself to be coached,” Nolan explained. “Keith listens and watches tape to try to learn. He adapts a lot on his own. We give him information that will hopefully help his game, help him be a better athlete and be a better person both on and off the ice.”

As much as Yandle has absorbed everything and exceeded a lot of expectations, there is always room for improvement according to Nolan.

“He’s like any other young kid,” he said. “A lot of players have to learn how to play without the puck. When Keith gets the puck, he has a natural instinct what to do with it. He knows when to press and he knows when to pass. He needs to learn how to play without the puck.

”He needs to look over his shoulder a bit more and find out who’s coming into the zone late. He also needs to work on his positioning in the defensive zone and paying a little more attention to his own side of the ice.”

All in all, Nolan is comfortable that Yandle will continue to grow well beyond his year with Moncton.

“He’s learns quickly, so that helps,” Nolan said. “When you have a guy with that level of skill and adapts so quickly, and who’s that competitive, you see that this guy has NHL written all over him.”


Pier-Olivier Pelletier, G – Drummondville Voltiguers – Drafted 2005, 2nd round 59th overall

Pier-Olivier Pelletier started off the 2005-06 season for the Drummondville Voltigeurs with a nagging hip injury that wouldn’t heal. Pelletier learned that further stress or harm to his labrum could cause permanent damage and quite possibly jeopardize his career. He went on to have season-ending arthroscopic surgery to fix the hip.

His numbers with Drummondville during the regular season were sub-par, evidence of the fact that he was trying to fight through the ailment. During his time in net with the Voltigeurs, he posted a 12-10-0 record with a .849 save percentage and a 4.05 goals against average in 22 games played.

Due to the fact Pelletier started the season playing injured and missed the majority of the season due to that injury, it seemed unfair to judge the promising netminder. It was rather obvious that Pelletier played well below what his physical and mental capabilities would allow him.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.

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