Defensmen, physical wingers dominate Phoenix Coyotes Top 20 update

By Pat Paeplow

Max Domi - London Knights

Photo: Max Domi, the Coyotes’ top pick in 2013, ranks in the top five in the OHL in scoring for the London Knights (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Coyotes system has shifted this spring because of the graduation of Michael Stone as well as the emergence of Connor Murphy and Jordan Szwarz.

The organization continues to boast immense depth on the blue line. They also seem to have an assembly line churning out big, hard-nosed wingers. The Coyotes AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates, have suffered through a rough, basement dwelling season. Several key Pirates have missed large stretches due to injury. In spite of the losses, Portland coach Ray Edwards has been hard at work, initiating several key prospects to the rigors of professional hockey. Tobias Rieder, James Melindy, and Mathieu Brisebois are all experiencing the grind of a full professional hockey season for the first time in 2013-14.

1. (1) Brandon Gormley, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 13th overall, 2010

Gormley was an NHL-ready defenseman entering 2013-14. Nothing has happened to change his status. There is simply a glut of defensemen in the Coyotes organization signed to one-way contracts. Gormley, with his two-way deal which is exempt from waivers, is the odd man out. In particular, on his natural left side where Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle are ahead of him on the depth chart and chewing up most of the minutes.

For the moment, from a developmental standpoint, the AHL is a better place for him. In Portland he plays over 25 minutes a night in diverse situations. In a lineup that finds itself outgunned and under siege on a nearly nightly basis, the coaching staff leans on Gormley heavily to keep them competitive. In Phoenix, he would probably play 10 minutes a night or less. With Ekman-Larsson and Yandle as alternatives, coach Dave Tippett would only deploy Gormley in extremely sheltered situations.

2. (2) Max Domi, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2013

After Phoenix sent him back to the OHL’s London Knights following his first NHL training camp, Domi got off to a slow start. He was not scoring at his usual pace, but most alarming, he lost his sense of the line between aggressive hockey and dirty play. Instead of being an agitator getting under the opponent’s skin, he was a liability, taking crippling penalties. His poor start was probably the driving factor in Hockey Canada leaving Domi off of their 2014 World Junior Championship roster. Since the beginning of December he has righted the ship. His Knights are beginning to show more consistency as they head toward the Memorial Cup. Individually, Domi currently stands fifth in the OHL scoring race with 29 goals and 53 assists for 82 points in 51 games.

3. (3) Henrik Samuelsson, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2012

Samuelsson also missed out on attending the World Junior Championships. His skating ability has always been his Achilles heel and the prevailing logic is that this shortcoming is how USA Hockey justified passing him over for the tournament played on the big international ice surface in Malmo, Sweden.

The snub is about the only stain on an otherwise stellar 2013-14. Samuelsson has been among the WHL’s leading scorers since the beginning of the season, currently totaling 29 goals and 48 assists. With his veteran leadership, the Edmonton Oil Kings sit on top of the Eastern Conference and boast the stingiest team defense in the entire WHL.

4. (7) Connor Murphy, D, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2011

Murphy has jumped up more than any prospect in the Coyotes system this season. On November 16th, he scored a goal in his NHL debut against Tampa Bay. Since then, Murphy has carved out a niche on the right side of the Coyotes defensive corps. The 6’3 Murphy has dressed for 26 NHL games so far this season. He was deployed with Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the Coyotes top pairing and in penalty killing and defensive zone situations.

Recently, Murphy has taxied back and forth between Phoenix and Portland. This seems to be more of a development technique than a demotion. Murphy’s game has not shown any signs of dropping off. The extra touch of time and space in the AHL offers him the opportunity to fine tune some flaws in his play that were exposed in the break-neck pace of NHL play. The fact that he has acquired a degree of Dave Tippett’s hard-won trust bodes well for his future in the desert.

5. (5) David Rundblad, D, 7.5D
Acquired via trade with Ottawa, December 2011

David Rundblad has only dressed for 12 Phoenix Coyotes games this season. He has spent the rest of his time in the press box. He was signed to a one-way contract in the summer of 2013, meaning an attempt to send him down to Portland for seasoning would expose him to waivers and he would probably be plucked by a rival club. The only other roster move at Don Maloney’s disposal would be a trade.

Like many young skilled defenseman, Rundblad has a tendency to make poor decisions that result in scoring opportunities for the opposition. Tippett has always had a low tolerance for players who gamble in order to produce offense. He does not even tolerate this type of behavior from his forwards, not to mention a defenseman. It makes complete sense that a coach like this would be apprehensive about playing a defenseman like Rundblad, especially with more experienced and effective puck-movers like Ekman-Larsson and Yandle already in the lineup.

However, Rundblad has always clearly been an offensive-minded defenseman. This was obvious when they traded Kyle Turris for him in 2011. It was obvious when they signed him to a new contract over the summer. It will be obvious when the trade deadline approaches this season. Turris has already leveraged his way out of Phoenix. Whatever Rundblad’s deficiencies may be, he has a one-way contract stating he is an NHL-caliber hockey player. As he loses value with every healthy scratch, Maloney may need to consider trading him for pennies on the dollar in order to do right by the player and do what is in the best long-term interests of the Phoenix Coyotes organization.

6. (6) Lucas Lessio, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 56th overall, 2011

After threatening to make the Coyotes roster out of training camp, Lessio has settled into a top-six role in Portland. The big physical winger started shaky but currently has 16 goals and 17 assists in 43 AHL games. Along with the uptick in offensive production, Lessio has been more consistent about being an abrasive physical presence and conscientious defensive hockey player. These are the attributes that will endear him to the Coyotes front office and earn him NHL exposure until he finds his scoring touch at the highest level.

7. (8) Laurent Dauphin, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 39th overall, 2013

Dauphin continues to be a model of consistency for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the QMJHL even though there have been a few setbacks this season. First, he was suspended for a check from behind in the Subway Series then Chicoutimi’s most reliable scoring threat, Charles Hudon, was traded away as the Sagueneens slipped out of the playoff race. Despite the adversity, Dauphin leads his team in scoring with 23 goals and 30 assists through 50 games. He has managed this output while playing a 200-foot game which should transition fluidly into the Coyotes system.

8. (9) Chris Brown, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2009

Chris Brown has bounced back and forth between Portland and Phoenix all season. In Portland, he has scored 13 goals and 19 assists in 45 games, beginning to consistently utilize his size and strength to generate scoring opportunities from down low off the forecheck. In Phoenix, he is often recalled on an emergency basis. He is often slotted into the press box where the adaptability of his game makes him a useful injury replacement. In the six NHL games he did dress for, Brown has not managed to get on the score sheet.

9. (10) Tobias Rieder, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2011

Rieder may be the most natural goal-scorer on the Portland Pirates. After an injury in the second game of the season, the German has come back to score 16 goals. Rieder has transitioned decently in his rookie professional season. However, like most goal-scorers coming out of junior, he must improve his defensive zone awareness. This is being facilitated in Portland where he is being deployed in situations he was rarely exposed to with the Kitchener Rangers such as penalty kills and late-game defensive zone face-offs.

10. (11) Mark Visentin, G, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2010

Visentin’s numbers are not glimmering this season. Playing the bulk of the minutes in Portland, he has a 3.26 goals against average and .902 save percentage. A lot of this can be attributed to the opposition pinning the Pirates down in their own zone. Being stuck in these dire circumstances has revealed Visentin’s stability. He continues to compete and conduct himself professionally on a nightly basis. In a tough season for Portland on and off the ice, these are good qualities for the younger prospects to be exposed to. They are also useful attributes for the typical working environment of an NHL back-up goaltender.

11. (18) Jordan Szwarz, RW, 6.0B
Drafted 4th round, 97th overall, 2009

Like Connor Murphy, Szwarz is another pleasant surprise for the Coyotes. Initially, he was named captain of the Portland Pirates but early on, Don Maloney decided Szwarz’s leadership and on-ice persistence might be useful commodities in Phoenix. He drew into the lineup on the fourth line and what began as an audition has grown into 26 NHL games played in 2013-14.

He has only scored three goals but has performed his role well. It is much easier said than done to play with the high energy demanded of a fourth liner while avoiding poor, emotionally influenced decisions. Szwarz has done an uncanny job of maintaining this balance.

Like Murphy, Szwarz was recently sent back to Portland but this appears to be more of a predetermined step in his development rather than any response to his recent performance. He has jumped up and made a huge stride this season toward becoming an NHL regular.

12. (12) Andy Miele, C, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, April 2011

Although the Portland Pirates reside in the basement of the Atlantic Division, Miele is again one of the best playmakers in the AHL. He is currently tied as the eighth leading scorer in the league with 20 goals and 27 assists. The former Hobey Baker winner was called up to Phoenix earlier in the season. Playing in a defensive role, which does not accommodate his finesse style and small stature, Miele registered two assists in four games. He had difficulty competing in the physical areas of the rink and was not able to mitigate this by creating opportunities in small amounts of time and space like he does in the AHL.

13. (13) Brendan Shinnimin, C, 6.5D
Signed as a free agent, March 2012

Shinnimin has only six goals and 10 assists in 30 games with Portland this season. It was anticipated that he would be a dynamic playmaker, driving production on the second line like Andy Miele does on the first. However, against Bridgeport on New Year’s Eve, he was on the receiving end of a violent head shot from Marc Cantin. Cantin was suspended. Shinnimin has only appeared in three games since.

14. (14) Jordan Martinook, C, 6.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 58th overall, 2012

Martinook has been a fixture in the Portland Pirates lineup throughout the season. He has seven goals and six assists, which makes it safe to assume that Martinook’s prolific scoring from his junior days with the Vancouver Giants probably will not translate to professional hockey. The 2013-14 season has been a continuation of 2012-13 for Martinook as he converts his game to the grinding, defense-first approach that is so valued in Phoenix. Originally drafted as a center, Martinook has played the bulk of his games at left wing where his skating ability will be sheltered and less crucial to his success.

15. (16) Yan-Pavel Laplante, C, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2013

Laplante was traded from the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Checkers to the Victoriaville Tigres in December. Being traded from an uncompetitive club to one in the thick of the playoff race was certainly a positive development for Laplante. Along with the potential to experience more team success, Victoriaville has also provided Laplante the opportunity to play a shutdown role that is more appropriate for his skills and more closely resembles the role he will play in professional hockey. In Charlottetown, he was arguably their best player and relied upon to provide scoring production. Laplante has 20 goals between both clubs this season.

16. (15) Philip Lane, RW, 6.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2010

In his second professional season, Lane has scored only two goals and three assists in just 25 games. He struggled early on in the season then missed a huge chunk of games with a lower body injury. He returned to the lineup on January 17th against Springfield and has not missed a game since.

17. (17) Ethan Werek, C, 6.5D
Acquired via trade with the New York Rangers, May 2011

Like Phil Lane, Werek is another Pirate that has not played for an enormous amount of the season. Because of an undisclosed injury, Werek has only appeared in 28 games, scoring three goals and four assists. The 6’3 forward, who is still developing into his big frame, has not missed a game since returning to the lineup on January 10th against Norfolk.

18. (20) James Melindy, D, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 88th overall, 2012

Although he played a couple AHL games following the 2012-13 QMJHL season, 2013-14 is essentially Melindy’s rookie professional season. A knee injury suffered early on has limited him to 19 games. Fortunately, he appears to have fully rehabilitated. The final stretch of the regular season should provide a glimpse into how much of Melindy’s all-around game can translate into professional hockey.

19. (NR) Louis Domingue, G, 6.0C
Drafted 5th round, 138th overall, 2010

Domingue was called up to Portland from the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators following an injury to their regular back-up, Mike Lee. He responded well to this opportunity. He stuck around, continued to play well and has essentially displaced Lee as Portland’s back-up goaltender. In 19 AHL appearances, Domingue has posted a 2.79 goals against average and .917 save percentage. These numbers are not sterling but they are respectable when taking the shaky play in front of him into account. With talented goalies coming up behind him in the pipeline, it was important for Domingue to make a statement this season.

20. (NR) Mathieu Brisebois, D, 6.0C
Signed as a free agent, March 2013

Brisebois is experiencing all the highs and lows of a defenseman cast into his rookie professional season. With Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL he was a dynamic puck-moving defenseman. With just one goal and three assists in Portland this season, he has not yet revealed this dimension of his game. At 5’10, Brisebois has also had trouble winning battles in the corners and the goal crease. This is simply a period of his career he must endure. With his skating and puck-handling ability, as he matures mentally and physically, he should be able to correct these aspects of his game.