Logjam of ripening defensemen overwhelm Phoenix Coyotes depth chart

By Pat Paeplow
Lucas Lessio - Phoenix Coyotes

Photo: Rookie pro Lucas Lessio broke camp with the Coyotes but was assigned to AHL Portland after three NHL games (courtesy of Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

 
The Phoenix Coyotes may have the most unbalanced prospect pool in the league. On defense, they have more legitimate players than places to put them. At forward, they may be forced to convert their young centers to address the scarcity of talent on both wings.

Of course, General Manager Don Maloney could pull the trigger on some deals to even out his roster breakdown.

At the blue line, their institutional depth begins at the NHL level. Along with world-class defensemen like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, the Coyotes have seven other players signed to one-way contracts, which limit roster flexibility. So many of them at one position means NHL-ready talent has spilled over onto the Portland Pirates, the Coyotes AHL affiliate. Maloney recently had to send defenseman Chris Summers and his one-way contract through waivers to manage his roster space, exposing the player to any team in the league that wished to poach him.

Some of this is legitimately due to the team being without a real owner for so long. Under the stewardship of the NHL, Maloney was hamstrung, really only able to pull the trigger on crucial, nuts-and-bolts roster moves. In 2013-14, under a true ownership group, the shackles are free. It is likely that one of their short term goals in hockey operations will be to balance out the breakdown of the depth chart throughout the organization.

The biggest void is the lack of a pure sniper on the wing. The organization is chocked full of grinders of different degrees of skill at all levels from the NHL to junior. There are also gifted playmakers like Mike Ribeiro in the big leagues, Max Domi in the CHL, and even Andy Miele and Brendan Shinnimin in Portland. Yet, there are no players at any point along the organization’s pipeline that have true goal-scoring ability that could translate to the professional level.

Don Maloney has attractive trading pieces with which to address this dilemma. He could peddle veterans like Yandle or Rostislav Klesla or redundant prospects such as Brandon Gormley or David Rundblad. The route he chooses will be dictated by how competitive the Coyotes are down the stretch. If he feels like they are a contender, Maloney will deal the kids. If not, veteran defensemen sell at a premium at the trade deadline.

Left Wing

The left wing portion of the depth chart features Lucas Lessio and Chris Brown who are the most NHL proven of all the forward prospects. Both players had impressive training camps and started the regular season with the big club. However, the Coyotes got off to a rough start and they were both sent packing to Portland, a strategy employed by Head Coach Dave Tippett, to shake up the locker room.

They were replaced by Brandon Yip and Tim Kennedy. These four, and any other wingers in Portland that are playing with an edge, are likely to comprise a taxi squad that will round out the Phoenix Coyotes bottom-six throughout the regular season.

Lessio and Brown are both big and physical. Lessio has enough finesse that it was his versatility ability which reportedly displaced young phenom Max Domi for the open forward position in camp. In Phoenix, Brown was actually deployed as a right wing in spite of his listing on the depth chart. He will probably plateau into a bottom-six role although he did log some power play minutes during his time in Phoenix.

Entering his second AHL season in Portland, Darian Dziurzynski needs to continue his hard-nosed play yet start to contribute offensively. This versatility was what prompted Phoenix to draft him in the fifth round in 2011.

Further down the pipeline in the NCAA, Hunter Fejes and Zac Larraza are both developing into players with some scoring touch. Fejes is returning to Colorado College for his sophomore season. A slick skater with all kinds of moves in space, Fejes will look to assert himself as a consistent scoring threat after a transitional year as a freshman.

Larraza was a seventh round selection by Phoenix in 2011, basically just a flyer on a big body. In 2012-13 he had a breakout year, scoring 12 goals in 36 games. Larraza was poised to build on this in 2013-14 but he broke his clavicle in the preseason. He should return sometime in late November.

Center

Andy Miele and Brendan Shinnimin are the two most NHL-ready center prospects. Both are playing in the AHL for the Portland Pirates. They are basically photocopies of each other. Miele destroyed the NCAA and won the Hobey Baker while Shinnimin led all of Canada in scoring in Major Junior and won the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy. Both went undrafted because of their size. In Portland, Miele has scored at a much higher rate but they have both proven to be more than competent in the AHL. Despite success, neither have sniffed the NHL beyond a handful of games because they cannot win physical battles behind their own net like an NHL center must to be effective.

For either of these players to experience success, they will have to take advantage of an unforeseen circumstance like an injury. Nobody, including Maloney and Tippett, will give these two a chance if there is a more conventional option available. However, if one of them does get a shot, Phoenix might be the ideal environment because of their big rugged wingers capable of doing the heavy lifting in the corners.

Ethan Werek and Jordan Martinook start the season as the third and fourth line centers for the Portland Pirates. Both are gritty energy players who have never been deployed in a scoring role in professional hockey.

Scott Arnold is Phoenix’s remaining professional center prospect. A two-way player, Arnold starts 2013-14 on loan to the Toledo Walleye in the ECHL.

Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson, Phoenix’s last two first round picks and their two best hopes at forward, were both returned to junior hockey following training camp. Both Domi and Samuelsson are playing out of position in 2013-14 on the wing. It could be a strategy by their respective coaches to deploy them with the most talented forward available. In Edmonton, Samuelsson plays next to Ottawa’s first-round selection, Curtis Lazar, while Domi flanks Bo Horvat, the Vancouver Canucks first round pick. On the other hand, it is not inconceivable that Derek Laxdal and Dale Hunter could be doing the Phoenix front office a solid and getting these two acclimated to a position of need for the Coyotes.

Already in 2013-14, both Samuelsson and Domi have exhibited polar displays of greatness and immaturity. Playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings, Samuelsson has tallied 19 points in 10 games. Averaging nearly two points a game makes it seem like Samuelsson is dominating all takers but he has fallen into a tendency of taking lazy stick penalties and unsportsmanlike conduct calls at crucial points, offering the opposition chances to go ahead or claw back into a game. Samuelsson was one of the earliest cuts from the Coyotes training camp in spite of being one of their most physically gifted prospects.

At the very least, Samuelsson is getting on the ice. Domi can hardly manage that. Domi has only gotten in three games for the London Knights. This is after turning in an impressive training camp that had many wondering why he was not kept up for at least the nine-game grace period.

In his first game, Domi laid out Guelph’s Brock McGinn (CAR) with a head shot that served no purpose within the context of the game. In his first game back from suspension, Domi was embarrassed by Belleville defenseman Jordan Subban (VAN). Subban goaded Domi off his game and into a double minor and misconduct penalty.

Domi and Samuelsson both have skill that is well documented and undeniable. What is unclear is their discipline and professionalism. These concerns should not surprise either of them. They both have fathers who could explain to them how a reputation has a way of following a man around for some time. If they get tagged as hot-heads in major junior, it is almost certain opponents will attempt to push those buttons down the road in the NHL.

Meanwhile, Laurent Dauphin quietly continues to develop his subtle, versatile game under the radar in the QMJHL. He has above average speed but nothing like Domi’s wheels. He is nowhere near as physically imposing as Samuelsson but he could pack enough muscle on his 6’0 frame to hold his own.

Dauphin plays for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, a team that may feature the least depth in the QMJHL. Consequently, he sees the ice in all kinds of situations. He is often deployed with sniper Charles Hudon, a Montreal Canadiens prospect. But he has also matched against the opposition’s best line and, of course, power plays and penalty kills. By the end of 2013-14, he could be the most fundamentally sound center in the Coyotes prospect pool, a poor man’s Patrice Bergeron.

Yan-Pavel Laplante will return to the QMJHL for 2013-14. His PEI Rocket moved to Charlottetown where he will look to continue his gritty, opportunistic brand of hockey.

Right Wing

Right wing is the scarcest position on the ice in the Phoenix prospect pool. Again, one of the reasons players like Domi and Samuelsson are being deployed on the wing could be because someone in the Phoenix front office is looking at their depth chart and seeing the lack of prospective wingers and the age of players like Shane Doan and what all that adds up to.

Going into 2013-14, the best right wing prospect was Tobias Rieder. After a prolific junior career with the Kitchener Rangers, Rieder began his season with Portland. At the Pirates training camp, he skated his way onto the first power play unit as well as the top long alongside Andy Miele. Unfortunately, Rieder’s first game was a microcosm of his entire career. He scored two power play goals before being helped off the ice with a lower body injury that would require a cast.

Injury is becoming an alarming trend for Rieder. In 2012-13, a broken hand in the OHL playoffs delayed his professional debut. It is important for him to get back on the ice and re-assert himself into Portland’s top six. This would probably help him crack the German roster for the World Championships where he could exhibit his ability against NHL-caliber competition.

While Rieder recuperates, Philip Lane will benefit from the extra exposure. Lane came on with Portland in 2012-13 with a surprising scoring touch. He began the season on Brendan Shinnimin’s wing but may see some time on the first line and power play depending on what happens with Chris Brown and Lucas Lessio. If he continues in his progression he may even find his way onto that bi-coastal rotation between Portland and the Phoenix fourth line.

Jordan Szwarz and Brett Hextall are the third and fourth line right wingers in Portland. Hextall plays with a little speed and a lot of heart which should provide him with a job in the AHL for years to come. Szwarz was named Portland’s captain which is a sign of his character and leadership. It also indicates management has a hunch he is not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Coyotes 2013 seventh round selection, big Jedd Soleway will enter his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin where the open ice of the NCAA may offer him the space to incorporate some finesse into his repertoire.

Defense

Of Phoenix’s defensive prospects, three of them are legitimately ready for the NHL right now.

David Rundblad and Michael Stone have already signed one-way contracts. Rundblad came to Phoenix when Kyle Turris felt the need to leverage his way out of town. As an offensive defenseman he dealt with accusations of irresponsibility in his own zone, a typical counterpoint for that type of player. So far in 2013-14, Rundblad has been a healthy scratch in a handful of games but this is attributable to Phoenix’s amount of quality defensemen in general and the redundancy of offensive puck-moving defensemen in particular. When he has played, Rundblad has behaved with maturity in his own zone and looked good on the power play opposite Ekman-Larsson.

In a vacuum, Rundblad is probably currently the best defenseman out of all the Phoenix prospects. In reality, the Coyotes already have two of the best puck-handling defensemen in the NHL in Ekman-Larsson and Yandle. That, coupled with Rostislav Klesla’s scary injury in the preseason, makes Michael Stone the most important prospect in the entire system in the short term.

Stone basically became an NHL hockey player last season, holding down the third pairing all season. Stone does nothing flashy. He has good size which he uses to establish position in front of the net and in the corner. He consistently finds a way to gain possession of the puck and accurately determines the best available method to get it over his own blue line.

In most organizations, Brandon Gormley would have gotten a taste of the NHL in 2012-13 and would have been a full-time player this year. In Phoenix, Gormley is in Portland mostly because he has the only contract that can be shipped to the AHL without another team being allowed to snag him off waivers. Right now, this is probably frustrating for him both psychologically and financially. In the long run, it may be the best thing that ever happened to him as a hockey player.

In 2012-13, Gormley was a minor-league version of Ray Bourque. He played about half of every game and was leaned on in every conceivable situation. Because of this, he is slowly becoming the most versatile defenseman in the entire organization.

Connor Murphy and James Melindy will support Gormley on the Portland blue line in 2013-14. Both were highly regarded defensemen in the CHL in 2012-13. Melindy played for Moncton in the QMJHL while Murphy skated with the run-and-gun Sarnia Sting. Both players will need to learn the importance of system play at the professional level. Their ability to adapt will dictate their ceiling.

Portland’s defense is rounded out with a newcomer, Mathieu Brisebois, and a veteran minor-league player, Mathieu Brodeur. Brisebois is an undrafted defenseman out of the QMJHL. He is an excellent skater looking to prove his average size will not be an impediment to effectiveness in the AHL.

At 6’5, Brodeur has size to spare. He has spent the better part of three seasons in the ECHL and AHL, trying to develop the body control and technique required to keep up with the pace of professional hockey. Brodeur is not a goon; he is a legitimate prospect with true potential. However, at 23, he has to start to show signs of putting it all together if he wants Maloney to continue to invest not just money, but a roster spot on his development.

Justin Weller begins 2013-14 in Gwinnett at the ECHL level again. In order to keep his development on schedule he really needs to play his way into the AHL this season.

Justin Hache will return to Cape Breton in the QMJHL for a pivotal season. He will be the cornerstone of the Screaming Eagles defensive corps, providing him the opportunity to develop immensely while exhibiting his potential.

Rhett Holland and Connor Clifton should both see loads of ice time in the NCAA. Holland will be a sophomore at Michigan State while Clifton enters his freshman year for 2012-13 NCAA runner-up, Quinnipiac.

Overseas in Finland, Niklas Tikkinen rounds out the defensive prospects. A converted forward, Tikkinen has good offensive skills but needs to show he can endure the physical grind of his new position. He is signed with the Espoo Blues in the Liiga through 2015.

Goalies

Mark Visentin is back in Portland as the de facto number one in 2013-14. Mike Smith is showing no signs of falling off so Visentin’s duty is to continue to put in work and maintain consistency.

Mike Lee is making the jump from the ECHL to back up Visentin. He has already made one start for Portland in 2013-14, looking somewhat shaky against Providence. This is probably an anomaly since Lee fared well in a handful of starts for Portland in 2012-13.

Louis Domingue must maintain focus in Gwinnett. He split time with Lee in the ECHL in 2012-13 and posted similar numbers. Frustration would be understandable but he should remember the season is young. If Lee continues to crack up, Domingue must be prepared to take advantage.

Brendan Burke and Marek Langhamer both enter the 2013-14 WHL season as their team’s prospective number one goalies. After a rough indoctrination to North American hockey in 2012-13, Langhamer is off to a strong start with the Medicine Hat Tigers. Early in the season, Brendan Burke’s performance has been up and down for Portland. The Winterhawks are feeling the sting of Seth Jones sticking with the Nashville Predators. Burke will need to provide timely goaltending for his team to have any hope of repeating their Memorial Cup success.

Follow Pat Paeplow on Twitter: @Ppaeplow