Top prospects’ graduations cause shakeup of Winnipeg Jets Top 20

By Charlie Beattie

Nicolas Petan - Portland Winterhawks

Photo: Portland Winterhawks’ center Nicolas Petan is the top forward prospect in the Jets spring Top 20 list, trailing only defenseman Josh Morrissey for the top spot (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

The two names that have dominated this list for the past few seasons, Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, have moved on to become key figures in the present setup for the Winnipeg Jets, causing somewhat of a shakeup to the rest of the list.

Josh Morrissey takes over as the undisputed crown jewel of the system, while Nicolas Petan offers dazzling offensive talent despite questions about his size.

Beyond that, there is little in the way of high-end depth at the forward or defensive positions, an issue that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff may look to address through roster moves and the draft this summer. The Jets do have several intriguing projects, however, and they are backboned by four solid goaltenders in waiting.

1. (3) Josh Morrissey, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 13th overall, 2013

Morrissey’s numbers exploded this season with Prince Albert, nearly doubling his goal total to 28 and chipping in 45 assists to boot, despite playing 11 fewer regular season games than a year ago. He did not get to show much in the playoffs, as the Raiders were swept in the first round of the WHL tournament by Edmonton.

In addition, he added three points (one goal, two assists) for Canada at the 2014 World Junior Championships, and one more point in a six-game stint with St. John’s to end the season.

The smooth-skating Morrissey will be in an interesting spot when 2014-15 opens. At 19, he will be too young to be sent to the AHL, and his game is edging closer and closer to an NHL spot. The Jets’ blue line is a crowded house at the moment, with six regulars currently signed through 2015-16, but roster shuffling could open a spot for Morrissey by the time September arrives.

2. (4) Nicolas Petan, C, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2013

Petan’s scoring pace dipped ever so slightly after the new year, and though he could not join the 130-point club as speculated in earlier prospect updates, he still led the WHL with 78 assists and finished second in overall scoring with 113 total points.

Petan joined Morrissey on the Canadian roster at the World Juniors, finishing the tournament as the team’s second leading goal scorer (behind Anthony Mantha (DET)) with four, while forming a formidable partnership with Jonathan Drouin (TBL).

Size will continue to be the root of any doubts surrounding Petan, but his playmaking ability is not in question. Undoubtedly, the smoothest offensive player in the system, Petan will likely need time and use the final year of his remaining junior eligibility. Despite having nothing to prove at that level, it is likely his destination for another year as he seeks to add whatever size and strength he can.

3. (5) Adam Lowry, LW 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 67th overall, 2011

Lowry’s first season in the pro ranks included an extended adjustment period in the fall, as his offense suffered while he looked for space on the ice. He mustered just three goals and four assists through the season’s first three months, but since the Christmas break, Lowry has been able to break out, becoming a key forward for a team that won 13 of 14 at one stretch to charge into the AHL playoffs.

The 6’5”, 205-pound Lowry is certainly physical enough for the top level, and with his offense trending up, he may merit a serious look in training camp next fall.

4. (6) Connor Hellebuyck, G, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 130th overall, 2012

The story coming into the 2013-14 season for UMass-Lowell was what Connor Hellebuyck could do for an encore. The answer was quite a bit.

While unable to lead the RiverHawks back to the Frozen Four, Hellebuyck did get them back into the NCAA tournament with stellar numbers once again, posting a 1.79 goals against average and  a .941 (leading the NCAA in both categories) save percentage while appearing in five more games this season. For his efforts, he was honored with the Mike Richter Award, newly created this season to honor the top goaltender in the NCAA.

Hellebuyck signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Jets on April 6th, marking the end of his collegiate career. While far from NHL ready, he should get a fair shot at the AHL next season in what is sure to be a major shakeup of the Jets’ organizational goaltending depth chart.

5. (8) Eric Comrie, G, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2013

Comrie’s numbers this season were less important than the fact he simply played the entire campaign free of serious injury. After his season was cut short in 2012-13, Comrie not only made it through the entire schedule, but earned serious consideration for the Canadian World Junior roster (ultimately he was not selected), and earned a tryout cameo in St. John’s late in the season, when injuries and call-ups left gaping holes in the organizational depth chart.

Comrie’s first professional game was memorable, as he earned third star consideration despite not starting the game and giving up five goals (he made 35 saves in relief of a game that finished 8-7), earning high marks for his poise and focus from IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge.

Comrie will undoubtedly return to the WHL next season, his final year of junior eligibility, and should be a front-runner for Team Canada at the World Juniors once again. Comrie’s ceiling may be the highest of any of the Jets’ goaltending stable, but as the youngest of the crop, he will need time as he works on staying aggressive in his crease to compliment his quickness and lateral movement.

6. (7) Jimmy Lodge, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2013

Lodge saw his numbers take a downward turn this season, despite playing for a more successful Saginaw Spirit team as a whole (he did, however, lose one of his linemates from a season ago in Garret Ross). He approached 30 goals in the 2012-13 campaign, but managed just 19 during the regular season this year. He did rebound with a two-goal, two-assist performance in the OHL playoffs, however the Spirit were ousted in the first round.

Another smallish forward with strong hockey sense, Lodge will likely head back to junior in 2014-15 as he looks to add strength to his 166-pound frame. Lodge is a longer-term projection for the Jets, but his speed, vision and strong shot merit some hope for his future.

7. (11) Scott Kosmachuk, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2012

As expected, Kosmachuk put up excellent numbers in his overage season for Guelph, teaming up with fellow over-agers Zack Mitchell (MIN) and Brock McGinn (CAR) (as well as 2014 draft eligible Robby Fabbri) to form a potent attack for the Storm. Kosmachuk finished the regular season with career bests in goals (49) and assists (52) to finish third in the league in scoring. To date, Kosmachuk has nine goals and nine assists in 13 playoff games, as the Storm lead Erie 2-0 in the OHL’s Western Conference Finals.

Kosmachuk’s hallmark to this point has been his scoring ability, but with the difficult adjustment to the professional ranks looming, he will have to expand his game. He does have a feistiness, despite his lack of size (5’11” and 185 pounds) as evidenced by the fact that he has topped 100 penalty minutes in every season of his career except 2013-14, when he had 83.

Ticketed for St. John’s in the fall, Kosmachuk adds another well-rounded forward to the stable of prospects, but the club will have a better feel for his game after he is challenged by professional competition next season.

8. (12) J.C. Lipon, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2013

Like Lowry, Lipon had to make the difficult adjustment from dominant junior player to AHL rookie this season, and had a similar adjustment period before becoming a key cog in the IceCaps second half surge.

Lipon has recorded 24 of his 38 points after the calendar shifted to 2014, though only four goals. Always more of a playmaker than a scorer, Lipon will have to work on finding and taking his own shots as he progresses.

Though slightly undersized at 6’0” and 180 pounds, Lipon plays a tough game, racking up 14 fighting majors in the AHL this season, and leading the IceCaps with 136 penalty minutes. His NHL ceiling may be as a third line agitator/pest who chips in some offense.

9. (10) Ed Pasquale, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 117th overall, 2009

Pasquale was on his way to his best professional season in 2013-14, but opted for season-ending hip surgery in early February. At the time of the injury, he was 17-13 with a 2.43 goals against average and a career-best .920 save percentage

The timing of the injury was unfortunate for Pasquale, as it almost certainly cost him a chance at a late season call-up (that went to his replacement, Michael Hutchinson, instead) but it was the nature of the injury that may prove to be more hampering long term. The IceCaps insist that they did not shut Pasquale down, but rather he opted for the surgery on his own, and against the team’s wishes.

Mostly complicating Pasquale’s status is how well Winnipeg’s other goaltenders played in his absence. In addition to Hutchinson, St. John’s also received excellent play from Eric Comrie (on a limited basis) and also tryout player Tyler Beskorowany, a former second-round pick of the Dallas Stars. Connor Hellebuyck’s decision to turn pro further clouds the picture.

Pasquale is a restricted free agent, and returning to Winnipeg may mean facing stiff competition for the second goaltending spot with the big club, assuming it is vacated by pending free agent Al Montoya.

10. (15) Andrew Copp, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2013

Copp’s transition from hybrid football/hockey player to full time skater should be considered complete after a stellar sophomore season in which he contributed 29 points in 33 games and served as an alternate captain for the University of Michigan. The only negative for Copp stems from the fact that his hometown Wolverines missed out on the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

Copp will return to Ann Arbor for his junior season as the team’s first junior captain since current Detroit Red Wing Luke Glendening held the post in 2010-11. For a strong two-way player who is still finding untapped hockey skills, the Jets gamble on potential is looking like a winner at this point.

11. (NR) Michael Hutchinson, G, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, 2013

While the Jets’ already had three goaltending prospects heading into the season, Hutchinson has been a revelation since signing last summer on a tryout contract after being released by the Boston Bruins. A former third round pick, Hutchinson began the year in the ECHL with Ontario, and took over the number one spot in St. John’s after Ed Pasquale went down with an injury, providing a seamless transition for a team that had been, and continued to be, on a roll in the AHL.

By happenstance, Hutchinson was the next in line when the Jets needed a goaltender late in the season, and he sparkled in a three game cameo. He lost his NHL debut 1-0 to Minnesota but beat his old club Boston three nights later for his first NHL victory, stopping 32 of 33 en route to being named the game’s number-one star.

Hutchinson’s combined stat line at all three levels this season is beyond impressive, with an overall record of 39-9-3, combined with a 2.11 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. While starting the year as somewhat of an afterthought, Hutchinson’s play may have taken him to the top of the heap among goaltenders competing for the potential vacancy in Winnipeg next season.

12. (18) Brenden Kichton, D, 7.0D
Drafted 7th round, 190th overall, 2013

Kichton exploded out of the gate this season, silencing any doubters as to whether or not his undersized, offense-first game from the blue line could translate from juniors to the pro ranks. He ranks as the IceCaps fifth leading scorer and top defensive blueliner, racking up 10 goals and 37 assists to date.

That being said, Kichton’s offense has taken a downturn since the beginning of February, with just one goal and nine assists in his last 30 games, casting doubts on his ability to hold up to the rigors of a full professional season. It is also somewhat telling that despite the Jets injury problems on defense this season, Kichton did not earn a call up to the NHL, illuminating perhaps his true place on the organizational depth chart.

Still, Kichton cannot be ignored due to his offensive abilities alone. Named the IceCaps top rookie this season, as well as to the AHL All-Rookie team, the 22-year old Kichton is worth monitoring moving forward.

13. (19) Eric O’Dell, C, 6.5C
Acquired in a trade with Anaheim, 2009

O’Dell was on a point-per-game pace with St. John’s when he was recalled by the Jets in December, spending the remainder of the season with the parent club.

While O’Dell was originally limited to fourth line duty, he was eventually elevated up the lineup in mid-March after earning the trust of head coach Paul Maurice, who paired him with Evander Kane for a handful of games. O’Dell posted double-digit minutes in the final 14 games of the season, after doing so just once in the previous 16 games. Overall, he recorded three goals and four assists on the campaign.

O’Dell’s future with the Jets may hinge on whatever roster shakeup occurs this summer, but the extension given to Maurice could be a sign that he will continue to have a roster spot in Winnipeg. For now, O’Dell has been returned to the AHL to aid in the IceCap’s playoff run, but he appears to have offered himself a strong shot at full time NHL consideration next season.

14. (NR) Carl Klingberg, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 34th overall, 2009

With his back against the wall after a rocky professional career (not to mention a slow start to this season), Klingberg has turned in a fine performance in 2013-14, forcing the Jets to ponder what they want to do with a holdover from the Atlanta era of prospects.

Klingberg will be waiver eligible next season, and may move on if GM Kevin Cheveldayoff decides he cannot hold down a regular roster spot with the Jets in 2014-15. Klingberg certainly has not made that decision easy, as he has added consistent scoring for the first time in his career at the AHL level, while continuing his pesky forechecking work. He scored once in a late-season, three game cameo with the Jets as well.

What may ultimately tip the scales in Klingberg’s favor is the fact that players with his combination of size (6’3”, 205 pounds) and excellent skating ability are rare, and his work ethic and tenacity make him a useful player on any line.

He will return to St. John’s for the playoff run, and then await word on his future over the summer. He has certainly done everything he can to impress, however, with his finest professional season to date.

15. (13) Jordan Samuels-Thomas, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2009

Samuels-Thomas finally exhausted his college eligibility this season, and is expected to sign a professional contract at some point in the near future, though, somewhat surprisingly, this has not happened in Winnipeg to date. The 2009 draft pick has until June to sign with the Jets, or else he would become a free agent.

His size and strength make for an intriguing package as a power forward, and his back-to-back 29 point seasons for the Quinnipiac Bobcats brought his collegiate total to 50 goals and 104 points in four years.

He did suffer a shoulder injury during his senior year which caused him to miss a handful of games and may explain his current absence from any roster, however it would not explain his lack of a contract. His is a situation certainly worth monitoring as June approaches.

16. (NR) Ben Chiarot, D, 6.5D
Drafted 4th round, 120th overall, 2009

Chiarot has formed one-half of a dynamic defensive duo (along with Zach Redmond) for St. John’s this season, and his play merited two call-ups to the NHL, where he made his debut on November 2nd against Chicago.

His plus-29 mark easily led the IceCaps and was good enough for fifth in the AHL, and his 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) marked a professional best.

Chiarot has great size at 6’3”, 222 pounds and has made a slow, steady progression since being drafted in 2009. Two seasons ago, he split time between the ECHL and the AHL, before finally sticking with the IceCaps last season.

Moving forward, Chiarot will have to be better handling the puck to improve beyond a fringe prospect, especially with the depth on the back end for Winnipeg, but his size and steady play are certainly positives.

17. (NR) Ryan Olsen, C, 6.5D
Drafted 6th round, 160th overall, 2012

Olsen posted his second straight 30-goal season with Kelowna, and he has been a key figure in their run to the Western Conference finals in the WHL, where the Rockets are an even 1-1 in their series against Nicolas Petan’s Portland Winterhawks.

Looking ahead, Olsen’s game will be much more defensively focused once he hits the professional ranks, and his ability to play shutdown minutes against top opposing forwards will be what carries him.

Olsen signed his three-year, entry level contract in December, and with no junior eligibility left, he will almost certainly spend 2014-15 in St. John’s as he adjusts, but at this point he looks solid value for his sixth round draft position.

18. (16) Julian Melchiori, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall, 2010

Melchiori provided a steady defensive presence with St. John’s for most of the season, appearing in 50 minor league games and posting a plus-19 rating while adding one goal and 10 assists. Injuries along the blue line provided opportunities for several cameos this season with the Jets, and Melchiori was no exception, posting 8:43 of ice time in his one appearance on December 27th against Minnesota.

Melchiori’s game does not have much flash to it, but he is a stingy, physical defenseman who is responsible in his own end and has helped solidify the IceCaps as one of the AHL’s best defensive units. While his upside is limited by his lack of offensive contribution, Melchiori’s future hinges on how well he can develop a simple first-pass game to go along with his coverage abilities.

19. (NR) Axel Blomqvist, LW, 6.5D
Signed as a free agent, 2014

Blomqvist benefited from a mid-season trade that took him out of a disastrous Lethbridge team and to Victoria, where he finished with 43 points in 46 games and helped the Royals to the second round of the WHL playoffs. In the process, Blomqvist, who went undrafted in 2013, earned an entry-level contract with the Jets.

A big-bodied forward at 6’6” and 212 pounds, Blomqvist has good scoring touch, but does not always play as physically as someone his size probably should. In addition, he is a very raw skater, and footwork will be something that he must work on if he is to progress in the professional ranks. There were also attitude questions in Lethbridge, as he sought to force a trade due to clashes with Hurricanes’ head coach Drake Berehowsky.

In all, Blomqvist is still a long-term project, and has another year of junior eligibility to exhaust for the sake of development.

20. (17) Lukas Sutter, C, 6.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 39th overall, 2012

A shoulder injury sidelined Sutter for the season in mid-February, ending his season and effectively ending his junior career as well.

The timing could not have been much worse for Sutter, who had moved to Red Deer from Saskatoon in an effort to revive his fledgling junior career, which saw a dip in points from 59 two seasons ago to 24 last year. He had 10 goals and 13 assists when he was sent in for surgery, so it is reasonable to assume a moderate bounce back factoring in the 27 games he effectively missed.

Still, Sutter’s offense has not progressed the way the team had hoped since he was drafted, and he has yet to be offered an entry-level contract by the Jets. Whether or not he receives that offer at this point depends on both his recovery and the Jets valuation of his two-way play.

For now, he is still under the Jets’ umbrella, and as long as he stays there he merits inclusion on this list. Stay tuned, however.