Career crossroads for many Phoenix Coyotes prospects in 2013-14

By Pat Paeplow

Andy Miele - Portland Pirates

Photo: Andy Miele may yet see time in Phoenix during the 2013-14 season, but he will open the year in AHL Portland (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

The 2013-14 season will be a “put-up or shut-up” campaign for Phoenix Coyotes prospects at all levels. This season will determine whether Andy Miele belongs in the NHL and whether players like Brendan Burke and Samuel Fejes are even legitimate prospects.

As preseason camp comes to a finish, it is worthwhile to note that these prospects are in competition with each other just as much as they are with the opposing team. Max Domi has turned a lot of heads in his first professional camp but the reality is that the Coyotes are unlikely to retain both him and Andy Miele on the NHL roster. If Miele is demoted again this year, it will rob Brendan Shinnimin of an opportunity to center the first line and showcase his playmaking. Every decision Don Maloney makes will reverberate throughout the prospect pool.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Brandon Gormley, D, Portland Pirates (AHL)

Going into training camp, Gormley is penciled into the top AHL pairing in Portland. Phoenix enters 2013-14 with overwhelming depth at the defensive position both at the NHL level and in their prospect pool. However, injuries like the concussion Rostislav Klesla suffered in the preseason as well as the lingering possibility of a landscape-altering trade by GM Don Maloney could alter the course of Gormley’s season.

Gormley moves the puck better than all of the Coyotes prospects except David Rundblad. Unlike Rundblad, he conducts himself steadily in his own zone. If Rundblad does not excel on the powerplay in Phoenix, Gormley’s more conscientious two-way game may make better sense on the bottom-pairing for head coach Dave Tippett.

Bounce Back
Lucas Lessio, LW, Portland Pirates (AHL)

A hand injury derailed 2012-13 for Lessio. It could have been a breakout campaign for the big, versatile winger. He had already turned in two solid seasons for the Oshawa Generals in which he excelled in all three zones. The 2012-13 season should have been an opportunity for him to be a cornerstone of an Oshawa team contending for an OHL championship. Lessio also would have likely played in the World Junior Championships, which is a typical springboard for any player attempting to prove his merit to NHL front offices.

If all that would have played out, Lessio probably would have entered training camp with an upper hand at cracking the Coyotes NHL roster which is riddled with question marks at the forward position. As it stands, Lessio hung tough in the preseason but he is still an unproven commodity, destined to begin the season with Portland.

Lessio brings a lot to the table. He has soft hands and impressive speed while using his frame to battle in the corners. If all these aspects of his game translate well into the AHL, Maloney will have a versatile tool to fall back on in the event of injury or a roster shake-up. Lessio could be the type of player that could be called up to play effectively on any of the four lines.

Unsigned for 2014-15
Andy Miele, C, Portland Pirates (AHL)

Miele had a good training camp with the Coyotes, but he was recently assigned to open the year in the AHL. As the Portland Pirates leading scorer in 2011-12 and 2012-13, it was important for him to show he could score consistently in preseason action. Even more crucial was that he was able to contribute from the wing. Prior to the 2013-14 preseason, Miele was deployed exclusively as a center in offensive situations. His lack of strength and inability to win puck battles prohibit him from being used in defensive postures in the NHL. However, his success at wing gives Tippett at least a modicum of versatility to work with if he has the inclination to keep Miele up.

Miele was signed to a one-year deal in the summer of 2013, which means it is time for him to put up or shut up. Maloney will not re-sign Miele in 2014 just to throw him down in Portland again. By then, he will either have earned himself a spot in the Phoenix top-six or Maloney will let him walk and move on to the development of other playmaking prospects like Brendan Shinnimin.

Junior

Top junior prospect
Max Domi, C, London Knights (OHL)

Eventually, Domi will get sent back to London. It might be after the nine-game grace period, but as well as Domi has acquitted himself in camp, sending him back just makes sense. He will get to play in the Memorial Cup. He will get to play in a World Junior Championship and he will get another year of development under the Hunter brothers, who have a history of churning out quality NHL players from the London Knights. Maloney can take advantage of all these avenues toward development without having to burn a year off Domi’s entry-level deal.

When he does start skating at the NHL level, Domi will be an impact forward. He has great speed and lateral movement combined with excellent puck skills and physical courage uncommon in a playmaking forward. Domi is often an emotional sparkplug for his team just because it is so rare to see that much tenacity in such a small package.

Bounce Back
Yan-Pavel Laplante, C, Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL)

Laplante already partially bounced back from the shoulder injury that cut his season in half in 2012-13. He came back to become a key member for the PEI Rocket in the QMJHL playoffs. For the 2013-14 season, the Rocket move to Charlottetown, becoming the Islanders. For their inaugural season to be a success, Laplante must provide a solid two-way game, keeping the opposition’s top line in check on a nightly basis.

Laplante’s game is all about energy. He disrupts and physically challenges the opposition for every last sliver of ice. Even at the junior level, any scoring he provides is a bonus. Laplante will be a fourth-line forward at the professional level.

Breakout
Brendan Burke, G, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Last season, Burke split time with Mac Carruth (CHI) for Portland en route to a WHL championship and an appearance in the Memorial Cup championship game. Unfortunately for Burke, Carruth wrestled away all the minutes in the Memorial Cup. Now, with Carruth graduated to the Chicago Blackhawks organization, Burke is firmly entrenched as the Winterhawks’ number one goalie. He will have to provide steadiness and reliability in net in order for Portland to duplicate last season’s success. His ability to hold down the number one job and endure the growing pains as the revamped Winterhawks break themselves in will be a test of his mental toughness.

Burke was Phoenix’s sixth round draft pick in 2013, a selection in line with the team’s tendency of selecting players with an NHL pedigree. Burke’s father Sean was an NHL goalie for nearly twenty years and currently holds the titles of Assistant to the General Manager and Goaltending Coach for the Coyotes organization.

Amateur

Top amateur prospect
Zac Larraza, LW, University of Denver Pioneers (NCHC)

The NCAA trails behind the CHL in its ability to develop young prospects for the NHL game. That being said, one of the few areas where the college game excels is in providing an environment for big-bodied players to develop their finesse game. Had he gone to the CHL, Larraza’s game would have been missed behind the waves of talent, relegated to third or fourth line grinding and, if he really hustled, some penalty kills. NCAA hockey has allowed the 6’2 winger to show off a scoring touch which makes him a more intriguing prospect than his sixth round draft status suggests.

Larraza came to the University of Denver via the U.S. National Team Development Program. At Denver, Larraza’s use of his big frame has evolved from straightforward bump and grind to a nuanced approach, using his size to shield the puck and set up a lethal quick-release shot. He scored 12 goals in 36 games in 2012-13 helping Denver qualify for the NCAA tournament. Larraza will likely take on an even more prominent role in his junior season.

Bounceback
Samuel Fejes, LW, Colorado College Tigers (NCHC)

Fejes is a graduate of Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the Minnesota boarding school which has churned out some of the greatest hockey players of this generation. Expectations were high for Fejes, who was a prolific scorer at Shattuck. Fejes' ability to play in space and his nose for the net were projected to translate immediately at the college level. Unfortunately, Fejes ran into a learning curve at Colorado College, managing only eight goals and 14 points in a sheltered role.

If Fejes' skill set is for real, it should begin to rear its head on the score sheet this season. A player of his billing should feast on the more wide open brand of hockey in the NCAA. At the outset of the season, Fejes should be able to earn a top-six role as well as a position on the half-wall in the Tigers’ power play.

Freshman to watch
Connor Clifton, D, Quinnipiac University Bobcats (ECAC)

Clifton is another product of the U.S. National Team Development Program. He participated in the Ivan Hlinka U18 tournament as well as the U18 World Junior Championships in Sochi. Clifton logged bottom-pairing minutes with the USNTDP, yet displayed a high compete level in the corners and efficient decisions with the puck in his own zone. Listed at 5’11 and only 175 pounds, his size is certainly an issue for an NHL defenseman but he has up to four years to fill out his body and his game.

Clifton will be attending Quinnipiac, a program on the rise which entered Division 1 in 2005 and in 2012-13 went on a run to the NCAA National Championship game. Despite Quinnipiac’s recent emergence on the national scene, the program boasts an eighteen year streak of winning records, a solid pipeline of Canadian talent, and ten players sent to NHL development camps in 2013.

Europe

Top European prospect
Niklas Tikkinen, D, Espoo (SM-liiga)

After Phoenix allowed their rights to Alexander Ruuttu to expire, Tikkinen stands alone as the only Coyotes prospect currently playing in Europe. In a way, this may be a testament to the work of European scout Robert Neuhauser and the Coyotes player development in general. Often, if a European draft pick remains overseas it can be an indication that his game may not translate to the more physical North American style or, even worse, the player has reservations about coming overseas and dedicating himself to making an NHL rosters. Phoenix has several Europeans whose game has crossed over to North America such as Oliver Ekman-Larsson, David Rundblad, and Tobias Rieder. Henrik Samuelsson, although an American, was playing for MODO in the Swedish Elite League but came back to North America to compete in the CHL in North America amongst other NHL prospects.

Since he was drafted in the fifth round in 2012, Tikkinen has been a project. He moved from defense to forward in his draft year. Playing in the men’s division as well as international tournaments, he has shown an impressive ability to make plays off the rush using his speed and skating ability. However, he loses battles in the corner and along the wall consistently. This would likely be an even greater liability in North America. He is signed in Finland through 2015 which gives Maloney some time to evaluate and measure what level of commitment this player is worthy of.

Follow Pat Paeplow on Twitter: @Ppaeplow

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