Coyotes Top 20 prospects, Fall 2009

By Kyle Kujawa

Over the past few seasons, Phoenix has seen an influx of young talent move from prospect onto the NHL club full time. What’s left is a list of players that, while weaker than the past few seasons, still has more than a few players of interest. There’s a solid framework for the team’s next wave as well as good depth in the AHL knocking at the door.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D 8.5C
2. Viktor Tikhonov, C 7.5B
3. Brett MacLean, LW 7.5C
4. Jonas Ahnelov, D 7.0B
5. Kevin Porter, C 7.0B
6. Chris Summers, D 7.0C
7. Nick Ross, D 7.0C
8. Chad Kolarik, RW 6.5B
9. Maxim Goncharov, D 7.0D
10. Sami Lepisto, D 6.5B
11. Chris Brown, LW 6.5C
12. Jared Staal, RW 6.5C
13. Mike Lee, G 7.0D
14. David Schlemko, D 6.5C
15. Michael Stone, D 6.5D
16. Colin Long, C 6.0C
17. Vladimir Ruzicka, C 6.5D
18. Jordan Szwarz, RW 6.0C
19. Brett Hextall, C 6.0C
20. Justin Weller, D 6.0D

1. (NR) Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D – 8.5C

6’2, 176 pounds
1st round, 6th overall, 2009
July 17, 1991

Ekman-Larsson had a lot of success as a rookie in the Allsvenskan, the second highest league in Sweden. He had the highest plus/minus in the Allsvenskan as well as more points than any other U-18 player in the league. His productivity did not go unnoticed around the hockey world. He was quickly heralded as one of the brightest stars in what was the deepest draft class for Sweden in some time.

The puck-moving defenseman needs to stay at least one more year with his Swedish club, Leksand IF, to fill in and mature. Ekman-Larsson has already established himself as a player who can be relied on for big minutes at a high level of play. He’ll be part of Sweden‘s 2010 U-20 team.

2. (3) Viktor Tikhonov, C – 7.5B

6’2, 187 pounds
1st round, 28th overall, 2008
May 12, 1988

Coming into camp last sesaon with a little less hype than fellow rookies Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker, Tikhonov had little trouble finding an NHL job and holding on to it. Tikhonov played 61 games for the Coyotes in 2008-09, so he’s just games shy of officially graduating as a prospect. Now entering his sophomore season, Tikhonov will look to hang on to the checking line role he had for most of last season. Tikhonov boasts a reliable defensive game and a maturity seen in very few young players. Tikhonov’s offensive production declined in the second half, and he even had a short stint in San Antonio. However, he showed an already well-developed skill set and certainly has the ability to improve on his point totals with more ice time.

3. (7) Brett MacLean, LW – 7.5C
6’1, 195 pounds
2nd round, 32nd overall, 2007
December 24, 1988

MacLean answered a big question surrounding his future this season as a rookie in San Antonio. His 21 goals proved that he can be a big scorer and he wasn’t just benefiting during his junior career from playing with John Tavares. One of just three 20-goal scorers on the Rampage, he quickly became a top-line threat. MacLean boasts a big-league shot already and could be an early injury callup for the Coyotes. MacLean has made a lot of progress as a skater, but his continued improvement will be the determining factor for seeing NHL time.

4. (5) Jonas Ahnelov, D – 7.0B
6’3, 215 pounds
3rd round, 88th overall, 2006
December 11, 1988

Over the course of the past year, few Coyotes prospects have seen their stock rise as high as Ahnelov. The Swedish defender came over to North America after three seasons in the SEL and instantly turned heads as he transitioned his game to the smaller rink. Ahnelov is built in more of the physical, stay-at-home mold. With the exception of an injury that sidelined him for about two months, Ahnelov played a lot of minutes on the Rampage blueline, quickly becoming a mainstay in the top four. Another season of seasoning and a little more confidence in his offensive game before Ahnelov sees significant time at the next level.

5. (4) Kevin Porter, C – 7.0B
5’11, 195 pounds
4th round, 119th overall, 2004
March 12, 1986

Coming off a tremendous senior season at Michigan, capturing the Hobey Baker along the way, Porter established himself early in 2008-09, making the NHL club out of camp. Porter played 34 games before hitting a midseason slump that saw him demoted to the AHL. From there, the fire in his offensive game was rekindled with 35 points in 42 games. A two-way threat and strong competitor on every shift, Porter will certainly be getting a look on the NHL club once again. However, with a much deeper group of forwards already slated for Phoenix this year, Porter could end up with a scoring role in San Antonio.

6. (6) Chris Summers, D – 7.0C

6’2, 185 pounds
1st round, 29th overall, 2006
February 25, 1988

The swift-skating Summers is now entering his senior season at Michigan, having elected to stay despite speculation he might turn pro this summer. Due to an early-season injury to Mark Mitera, Summers served as captain for the Wolverines, a role he will be reprising this season. Summers has played both offense and defense during his career, but ended up sticking on the blueline this past season. Summers is rounding into a very sound two-way defenseman. His skating ability and vision on the ice has always made him an elite puckmover, but his positioning and physical play has improved over the years as well. Summers is definitely still on track to make an impact on the Coyotes roster down the road.

7. (8) Nick Ross, D – 7.0C

6’1, 194 pounds
1st round, 30th overall, 2007
February 10, 1989

Ross is leaving a decorated junior career for the professional ranks this season. He spent last season split between Kamloops and Vancouver of the WHL and put up a career high in goals with 11. Ross is billed as a physical, defensive defenseman, but as he progressed through juniors he assumed more of an offensive role. Now San Antonio bound, next season will be crucial for Ross to stake out a regular spot in a lineup already loaded with Coyote prospects. Ross will need to fight off the questions about his desire, as some suggest he does not bring a full effort every night.

8. (9) Chad Kolarik, RW – 6.5B

5’11, 180 pounds
7th round, 199th overall, 2004
January 26, 1986

A prolific scorer in college, Kolarik’s first year in the AHL showed much of the same. He finished second on the team in points (50) and third in goals (20). Kolarik is a smart, two-way player who boasts a very mature game which helped him make a seamless move to the professional ranks. While he didn’t get a look in Phoenix last season, he looks like a player who’s ready for a taste at the NHL at any time. Kolarik looks like he could be a very  good energy-line player in the NHL, but his natural touch around the net and big shot indicate that he has a good chance at becoming something more than that.

9. (10) Maxim Goncharov, D – 7.0D

6’3, 194 pounds
5th round, 123rd overall, 2007
June 15, 1989

No Phoenix prospect saw his stock rise quicker than Goncharov did this past season. Despite two and a half full seasons in the RSL/KHL, Goncharov was still a mystery until he was exposed in national play. Goncharov starred for Russia at the WJC, showing some skill with five goals in the tournament and a very well-developed overall game. He is a great skater for a player of his size, he is strong in his own end, and he has a cannon of a shot that he took often in the WJC. The only issue now is getting Goncharov to come to North America. He’s said that he wants to make the jump, but he will be spending next season with CSKA Moscow in the KHL.

10. (NR) Sami Lepisto, D – 6.5B
5’10, 194 pounds
Trade with Washington, 2009
October 17, 1984

Phoenix added Lepisto this summer when they acquired him from Washington for a fifth-round pick in 2010. What they received is a very seasoned and skilled player who is ready for NHL action in the very near future. Lepisto just completed his second full season in North America after a career developing with Jokerit in Finland. He has evolved into a very smart puck-moving defenseman in the AHL capable of putting up big numbers, and his four points in seven games with the Capitals last season show that he is close to ready for a permanent NHL home. Whether or not he jumps right to the NHL remains to be seen. Phoenix re-signed him this summer on a one-way deal, giving them seven NHL defensemen on one-ways. However, Lepisto does not need to clear waivers if they determine he could benefit from another year in the AHL.

11. (NR) Chris Brown, LW – 6.5C

6’2, 191 pounds
2nd round, 36th overall, 2009
February 3, 1991

The second Coyote draft pick in 2009, Brown provides an element that is not so common in the Phoenix system. He is a tenacious forward who plays a high-octane game. Brown spent the season with the U.S. National Under-18 team where he racked up 20 goals and 120 penalty minutes. This season he’s joining the University of Michigan, where Phoenix has maintained a good rapport for some time. Brown enters the program known more for his size, physical play, and goal-scoring ability in front of the net over skill. The Coyotes have seen Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter evolve into strong two-way players with good offensive instincts, and they can only hope that Brown follows something close to the same path without losing too much of the edge that makes him an intriguing project.

12. (11) Jared Staal, RW – 6.5C

6’3, 198 pounds
2nd round, 49th overall, 2008
August 21, 1990

The youngest of the Staal brothers, Jared didn’t quite break out the way the Coyotes would have hoped after they made him a second-round pick in last year’s draft. Staal did not show much improvement in his offensive game –- his 19 goals in 67 games with Sudbury leave a lot to be desired. It’s too early to write him off all together though, as he’s still learning to use his size and he occasionally show flashes of the kind of skill many expect from his last name. He has the tools to be a good checking line player some day, if he can prove that he’s willing to battle every night and assert himself a little more in high-traffic areas. Staal will return to the OHL for one more season and he is expected to contribute more on the score sheet.

13. (NR) Mike Lee, G – 7.0D
6’1, 185 pounds
3rd round, 91st overall, 2009
October 5, 1990

It was no secret in the draft that the Coyotes would look to add a goalie, and they traded up for the 91st pick to take Lee. Lee was the USHL‘s Goalie of the Year as a rookie and was near the top in every major statistical category. Lee is a butterfly-style goalie with above average athleticism. Lee is an exceptional skater and puckhandler and likes to get involved often. He’s headed to St. Cloud State this season on a team that already boasts two goaltenders drafted into the NHL (Jase Weslosky and Dan Dunn), so how much playing time he will see is still up in the air. Indications from USA’s under-20 camp are that he is the favorite to start at the WJC.

14. (13) David Schlemko, D – 6.5C

6’1, 195 pounds
Signed as Free Agent, 2007
May 7, 1987

Anyone looking for breakout candidates among Phoenix’s prospects probably weren’t targeting Schlemko, who spent all but one game of 2007-08 in the CHL with the Arizona Sundogs. Schlemko made a seamless jump into the AHL and even enjoyed a three-game cup of coffee in the NHL. Schlemko rapidly ascending the Coyotes depth chart and finished the season as one of the top defenders on the Rampage. This season, he’s got his work cut out for him as he’ll be battling Ahnelov, Ross, and Lepisto in the race to become the next Phoenix defensive prospect to graduate to the NHL.

15. (16) Michael Stone, D – 6.5D

6’4, 206 pounds
3rd round, 69th overall, 2008
June 7, 1990

A third-round pick last season, Stone has increased his stock in a year’s time. Playing on the highest scoring team in the WHL, Stone set career highs in goals and points, scoring 19 goals and 61 points on the season. Stone does not have the skills of the typical offensive defenseman. At 6’4, he has the size along with the puck-moving ability to eventually find success at the next level. However, most of his offensive game centers around his lethal slapshot. On a veteran Calgary team, Stone is in a good place to see even more minutes this coming season than he did last season.

16. (20) Colin Long, C – 6.0C

5’11, 183 pounds
4th round, 99th overall, 2008
June 19, 1989

A jack of all trades but master of none, Long repeated last season’s performance as a big-time scoring threat in the WHL, putting up 91 points on the year. Serving as captain, Long and the Kelowna Rockets caught fire in the playoffs, winning the WHL en route to an appearance in the Memorial Cup. Long is a crafty, playmaking center who creates offense with his patience and vision. Phoenix could sign him and let him try the AHL, but as of right now it looks like a pretty safe bet that Long will spend his overage campaign with the Rockets. While his point totals are impressive, Long needs to get more aggressive and fiery to ensure that he gets a contract from Phoenix.

17. (18) Vladimir Ruzicka, C – 6.5D
6’2, 187 pounds
4th round, 103rd overall, 2007
February 17, 1989

Now with two full seasons under his belt at Slavia Praha, Ruzicka is slowly but surely earning a bigger role on a strong team. This season, Ruzicka didn’t surpass the 15 points he put up last year. However, not too many young players put up earth shattering offensive totals in the Czech Extraliga. Playing against competition his own age at the WJC, Ruzicka put up five points in five games on a team that wasn’t deep. Because of the lack of international transfer agreement, the Coyotes hold his rights indefinitely. At this point in his career, Ruzicka has the skill to be a promising forward, but he is still very much a perimeter player.

18. (NR) Jordan Szwarz, RW – 6.0C

5’11, 189 pounds
4th round, 97th overall, 2009
May 14, 1991

As Phoenix had loaded up in the past few drafts on high scoring offensive talents, it makes sense that they would take a flier on Szwarz — more of a two-way player who projects as a third or fourth liner. Szwarz put up 51 points in 67 games for Saginaw and he returns there this year poised for a much bigger role. It’s a very real possibility that Szwarz will end up on the top line. He has the ability to be an effective scorer in the OHL, as he’s an above-average playmaker and he makes plays happen with his tenacity and strong play in high-traffic areas.

19. (NR) Brett Hextall, C – 6.0C

5’11, 188 pounds
6th round, 159th overall, 2008
April 2, 1988

The son of Ron Hextall, Brett quietly had a very productive freshman season with the University of North Dakota. Hextall plays a simple and direct game and makes plays with his speed. Hextall is a tireless worker and a relentless skater who has quickly developed a reputation as an agitator, who certainly isn’t afraid to get hostile when he needs to. However, Hextall also turned heads with his ability to score regularly, as he put up 12 goals on the season and even saw power-play time. It appears Phoenix might have something with last year’s sixth-round pick.

20. (NR) Justin Weller, D – 6.0D

6’2, 205 pounds
4th round, 105th overall, 2009
July 26, 1991

Weller is the fifth 2009 draft pick to crack the Coyotes top 20 this season. Even though he saw his season limited to just 32 games on one of the worst teams in the WHL, Phoenix still saw something in Weller enough to pick him up in the fourth round. A defensive defenseman who only has seven points to show for two seasons in the WHL, Weller is a hard-worker with upside. His positioning is his strength and he keeps his game simple – he does not often take risks. He plays a physical brand of hockey and is a mobile skater for his size. However, he needs to make better decisions under pressure and improve slightly on his skating. Weller should get a chance to be Red Deer’s top shut-down defender this season.