Oliver Ekman-Larsson remains top prospect for Phoenix Coyotes

By Andrew Sykes
Photo: The 27th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Mark Visentin is amidst a breakout year in the OHL and has been among the top goaltenders in the league for much of the 2010-11 season.

With the likes off Ekman-Larsson, 2010 first-round pick Brandon Gormley and a trio of blueliners playing in San Antonio, defense is the strong point of the Phoenix prospect pool. Up front, Brett MacLean is the most NHL ready forward while youngsters Jordan Szwarz, Chris Brown and Oscar Lindberg are developing nicely as well. In goal, Mark Visentin is enjoying an excellent season and is the club’s top prospect between the pipes.

1. (1) Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, 8.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 6th overall, 2009

In his first professional season, not to mention his first experience with North American professional hockey, the highly-touted blueliner took some time to adjust to the NHL but has continued to improve with every game he plays.

After making the Coyotes out of training camp, Ekman-Larsson played well through the first month of the season but management ultimately felt that he might be better suited at honing his craft in the AHL. He was sent down to San Antonio in early December and appeared in 10 games for the Rampage before injuries allowed him to be re-called and the 19-year-old has made the most of his second opportunity. In 42 games played with Phoenix, Ekman-Larsson has displayed his incredibly gifted skill-set which includes possessing the poise, skating and puck-smarts of a player beyond his years. After going scoreless through the first 29 games of the season he scored his first NHL goal against San Jose and has added 10 assists to go along with the single tally.

While it hasn’t been a barrage of production in terms of points, Ekman-Larsson’s play in his first year has been every bit as good as the Coyotes could have expected when they drafted him with the 6th overall pick in 2009.

2. (2) Brett MacLean, LW, 7.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2007

Since starting his pro career in 2008, MacLean has developed into a scoring star with San Antonio in the AHL; placing the young-winger on the cusp of full-time NHL duty. After turning in a 30 goal, 65 point campaign a year ago, MacLean has again been excellent offensively for the Rampage and is hovering right around a point-per-game.

This year the 22-year-old was selected to compete in the 2011 AHL All-Star game for the first time but he also achieved an even greater thrill. With injuries to a few of the Coyotes forwards, MacLean was called up and given his first taste of the NHL. On December 29th MacLean was in the line-up for Phoenix as they took on the Los Angeles Kings, and he certainly made the most of his chance; scoring a goal in the club’s 6-3 win.

Despite some short-comings in terms of his skating, particularly a lack of quickness, MacLean is a very smart and effective offensive player. His ability to read the ice and find his way into the prime scoring areas has enabled him to score at every level he’s played and if scoring a goal in your first NHL game is any indication, he just might be able to do so in the big leagues as well.

3. (4) Brandon Gormley, D, 7.5B
Acquired: 1st round, 13th overall, 2010

What started out as a very promising season quickly turned into one of disappointment for the 2010 first-round pick. Gormley entered his third year in the QMJHL as one of the best defensemen in all of junior hockey and as expected he came out firing on all cylinders to start the season. With his pedigree as a top rear-guard in the CHL, Gormley was all but a lock to make team Canada for the World Junior Championships but this is where his disappointment would begin. On November 26th he suffered a significant injury to his knee which ended his dream of playing for Canada and forced him to miss 13 regular season games with his junior team in Moncton.

Since returning to the lineup has resumed his role as team leader and despite the time he missed, is the club’s leading-scorer among defensemen. In 36 games to date, Gormley has scored 10 goals and dished out 27 assists, giving him a point-per-game average for the season despite continuing to recover from the knee injury.

Despite his excellent point production, Gormley is more of a steady all-around defensemen rather than a pure offensive type. He plays a smart and efficient game in all areas of the ice, possessing the ability to settle the play down and make good decisions under pressure.

4. (6) Chris Summers, D, 7.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 29th overall, 2006

A first-year pro, Summers has brought the steadiness and leadership you would expect from a four-year collegian and former captain at the University of Michigan. A first-round pick in 2006, Summers has enjoyed a very successful rookie season in the AHL. In 53 games with San Antonio he has totaled just eight points but has played an excellent all-round game which can sometimes be difficult for a first year player adjusting to a higher level of play. His plus-three rating is tied for the highest-total among Rampage defensemen.

When injuries took their toll on the Coyotes blue line in late January, the 22-year-old was called up and played in his first NHL game in a 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. He played against the Kings again two nights later but was a disappointing minus-three in a 4-3 loss. He was reassigned to San Antonio where he continues to play an integral role on the Rampage blue line.

5. (5) David Schlemko, D, 7.0C
Acquired: Free agent, 2007

The 23-year-old Schlemko has spent the entire season with Phoenix but unfortunately the rising young blueliner has appeared in just 25 of the club’s 58 games. On January 17 Schlemko was hit by Sharks forward Scott Nichol and has been experiencing post-concussion syndrome’s ever since. The skilled offensive-defenseman had registered five assists in his 25 games before the injury.

In the last few days Schelmko has received the good news of being cleared to resume skating and has begun practicing with the Yotes, but is still considered day-to-day.

6. (3) Viktor Tikhonov, RW, 7.0D
Acquired: 1st round, 28th overall, 2008

After spending most of last season in Russia, Tikhonov returned to North America where he has spent the entire 2010-2011 season with San Antonio. The club’s first-round pick ba
ck in 2008, Tikhonov had a good rookie season with Phoenix has a 20-year-old but hasn’t seen any NHL action since. This year Tikhonov once again started slow but has picked up his game while playing in a top 6 role for the Rampage. In 37 games the 22-year-old has seven goals and 16 assists.

It has been a continuous downfall on the depth chart for Tikhonov ever since that rookie season in the NHL, but the young Russian still has the ability and the potential to eventually get back to the big club.

7. (7) Maxim Goncharov, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 5th round, 123rd overall, 2007

It didn’t take long for Goncharov to adjust to his first season in North America as the young Russian defenseman is quietly having an excellent rookie season in the AHL. The 21-year-old was a fifth-round pick in 2007 and has turned into quite the steal for the Phoenix organization. In 54 games this year with San Antonio, Goncharov ranks second on the team among defensemen in both goals with six and points with 15. One of three first-year players on the Rampage blue line, Goncharov’s performance ranks right up with the best of all first-year players.

A lanky energetic player, Goncharov plays an aggressive style and is effective at both ends of the ice. He provides an offensive punch by utilizing his excellent quickness and acceleration to spearhead the rush or to pull away from oncoming forecheckers. Defensively he is keen on searching out open ice hits but has walked the fine line of being aggressive yet smart as evidenced by his plus-three rating.

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

A sophomore at the University of Michigan, Brown is following up an excellent freshman year with another solid performance for the Maize and Blue. A rare hockey prospect from the state of Texas, Brown was a second-round draft pick in 2009 and has continued to develop into the power-forward that the Coyotes hoped he would be when they selected him.

A CCHA all-rookie performer a year ago, Brown’s point production has slipped a little but the recently turned 20-year-old has still played well. In 32 games this year he has seven goals and 18 points and has used his large frame to be a consistent physical presence which has led to a team-high 41 penalty minutes.

Despite the drop in offensive production, Brown was selected to play for team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships where he played an effective grinding role to help the Americans capture the bronze-medal.

9. (9) Mark Visentin, G, 7.0C
Acquired: 1st round, 27th overall, 2010

The second goalie taken in last year’s draft, Visentin has been nothing short of spectacular in junior this year. In his third year with the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL, Visentin has put together the most statistically impressive season of perhaps any goaltender in the CHL. In 36 games he has compiled an amazing 23-7-6 record to go along with a miniscule 2.43 goals against average and a .919 save percentage and leads the league in both respective categories. Of course any time a goalie puts up those types of numbers, much of the credit must go to the team playing in front of him and Visentin has been aided by the fact that Niagara has been one of the CHL’s hottest team for the past two months.

With all the success that he has enjoyed, the season hasn’t been all roses for Visentin. What began as a dream come true for the young net-minder when he was selected as one of Canada’s two goalies for the World Junior Championships ended in heartbreak as the Canadians, with Visentin in goal, surrendered a three goal lead in the third period in the gold medal game and watched the Russians capture gold on their home soil. It was a crushing defeat for all of the Canadian players, but particularly for Visentin, who as the goaltender shouldered much of the blame.

With the World Juniors behind him, Visentin certainly has much to look forward to as he and his Niagara teammates embark on what could very well be a long playoff run which they hope won’t end until some time in late May at the Memorial Cup.

10. (10) Michael Stone, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 69th overall, 2008

The third member of the rookie-trio currently manning the San Antonio blue line, Stone has been a consistent performer during his first pro season. His 55 games played are the most of any Rampage player to date and his 12 total points ranks him third on the team in defensemen scoring. Although he hasn’t managed to maintain a plus rating like fellow rookies Chris Summers and Maxim Goncharov, Stone has been solid defensively playing a very simple but efficient game.

The team captain for last year’s WHL champion Calgary Hitmen, Stone brings strong leadership and a calming presence to the team despite it being his rookie season. The 20-year-old uses his 6’3 height to his advantage, although not in a physical sense, preferring instead to pokecheck with his lengthy reach.

11. (11) Oscar Lindberg, C, 6.5B
Acquired: 2nd round 57th overall, 2010

A second-round pick in 2010, the 19-year-old Lindberg has spent the 2010-2011 season with Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League. As one of the younger players among a veteran group of forwards, Lindberg has performed admirably. In 35 games he has scored four goals and collected seven assists while playing mostly on the team’s third and fourth lines. For the second straight year he was chosen to represent Sweden at the World Junior Hockey Championships where he tied for the team-lead in points despite being used as a third-line center.

Still very much a developing player, Lindberg doesn’t yet have the most overwhelming skill-set but he does have the potential to be a good offensive player. He has good instincts with the puck and is a smart playmaker on the perimeter. While not the fastest of skaters, his stride is strong enough to enable him to get into dangerous scoring areas. Lindberg is also a very solid defensive player who has seemed to excel in a shutdown role so far in his young career.

12. (18) Jordan Szwarz, RW, 6.5C
Acquired: 4th round, 97th overall, 2009

People are finally starting to take notice of Szwarz who spent the first few years of his career as a much underrated player. Now in his fourth season with Saginaw in the OHL, Szwarz’s game has taken off this year while playing with a team that has some excellent talent surrounding him. As the club’s longest tenured player and team captain Szwarz had long been known for his leadership abilities more than his offense, but that has changed mightily this season. He currently ranks second on the team in scoring with 60 points having already surpassed his previous career high of 54, and while his point production has improved, his defensive game remains as strong as it always been. Szwarz leads the Spirit with a plus-30 rating which is made more impressive by the fact that the second best rating is a plus-18.

While the boost in offense certainly doesn’t make Szwarz a cant-miss future NHL scoring star, it has shown people that the 19-year-old can bring more to the table than just leader
ship and grit.

13. (12) Nick Ross, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2007

Much like was the case a year ago; Ross has had a tough time staying in the line-up for San Antonio and has once again found himself up and down between the AHL and the ECHL. The club’s first-round pick in 2007, Ross is yet to truly establish himself in his young professional career. In his time this year for the Rampage he appeared in 17 games registering five assists and to his credit was a very solid plus-six, but fell victim to the numbers game and was re-assigned to ECHL affiliate Las Vegas. In 17 games for the Wranglers the 22-year-old has a goal and nine assists.

14. (13) Mathieu Brodeur, D, 6.5D
Acquired: 3rd round, 76th overall, 2008

Yet another blue-liner experiencing his first season of professional hockey, Brodeur has spent the entire 2010-2011 season with Las Vegas. The towering 6’6 defenseman has played in 48 games which is the second most of any player on the Wranglers roster. As his enormous size would indicate, Brodeur is strictly a stay-at-home defenseman with little offensive upside to his game and has but a single assist to his credit this year. Defensively he has been sound, playing a strong positional game and utilizing his size to keep on-rushing players at bay.

Aside from rarities such as Zdeno Chara and Tyler Myers, it usually takes some time for such tall players to grow into their body. The 20-year-old Brodeur will need continued work on his overall agility along with skating and quickness if he hopes to get to the next level.

15. (15) Colin Long, C, 6.5D
Acquired: 4th round, 99th overall, 2008

A former high-scoring junior, Long has been a solid contributor this season with the Las Vegas Wranglers. The 21-year-old started the year with San Antonio but was never really given the chance to produce and was sent down after just five games. Since rejoining the Wranglers, the slick centerman has been one of the club’s best offensive players scoring 11 goals and dishing out 14 assists for 22 points in 30 games. After missing more than a month due to injury Long returned to action in early January and has been one of the club’s leading-scorers since that time.

An undersized but smart player, Long’s greatest attribute is his ability to make the players around him better. He sees them game well, is a very good playmaker, and is at his best when he plays an in-your-face type of game. With his offensive abilities already in place, Long will need to work on his strength and his overall positioning and awareness in the defensive end if he hopes make to his way up the depth chart in the Phoenix system.

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

It remains to be seen whether Lane will develop enough offense to become more of a scoring threat going forward in his young career. The big winger scored 18 goals last year as a rookie with the Brampton Battalion which caught the eye of the Coyotes who coveted his size and raw ability and selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft. This year Lane has struggled with consistency at times and through 43 games he has 11 goals and 13 assists.

While his stats don’t appear to be great at first glance, Lane has arguably played better than last year and has brought the physical edge and defensive presence that both the Battalion and Coyotes were hoping to see. His even rating is the second best among all Brampton forwards and his 75 penalty minutes are also the second most despite the fact that he has missed 13 games because of injury and suspension.

Lane has made a conscientious effort to be a physical presence on a nightly basis and use his size to his advantage. While he is still very much filling in to his 6’3 height, Lane has the strength to be an imposing force along the boards and in front of the net.

17. (14) Jonas Ahnelov, D, 6.5D
Acquired: 3rd round, 88th overall, 2006

Having been sidetracked by a slew of injuries the last two seasons, Ahnelov has been able to stay healthy for the most part this year and is slowly but surely getting his career back on track. The 23-year-old played in just 11 games a year ago but this year he has appeared in 34 games registering one goal and one assist. As one of the biggest defensemen in the Rampage lineup, Ahnelov’s role is to be a player that opposing players hate to play against.

A sturdy 6’3 defender, Ahnelov is a powerful skater who possesses incredible lower-body strength. When he wants, he can be a punishing force on the back-end as he is very accustomed to playing a physical game.

18. (20) Justin Weller, D, 6.0C
Acquired: 4th round, 105th overall, 2009

Now in his fourth year with the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL, Weller has become one of the most dependable defensive-defensemen in the league. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Weller has thrived this year as a shut-down defender for the Rebels and has also chipped in more offense than he did in his previous three years. The 19-year-old has established career highs in goals and assists as well as having a plus-23 rating.

Weller’s play has been boosted by the fact that the Rebels have been one of the best teams in junior hockey and he should continue to thrive as the playoffs draw near.

19. (17) Mike Lee, G, 6.0D
Acquired: 3rd round, 91st overall, 2009

A gold medal-winning goalie for team USA at the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championships, Lee has been solid in his sophomore season at St. Cloud State. The 20-year-old’s numbers aren’t impressive but they are a reflection of the team in front of him who simply put haven’t been very good. After splitting most of the games a year ago, Lee has been given the reigns as the clear-cut number one goalie for the Huskies who currently sit in 9th place in the WCHA standings.

With a 10-11-4 record, a 2.84 goals against average and a .906 save percentage; Lee has battled hard all year between the pipes for a below-average team and remains one of the Coyotes top goaltending prospects.

20. (19) Brett Hextall, C, 5.5C
Acquired: 6th round, 159th overall, 2008

The son of long-time NHL goalie Ron Hextall, Brett is a small and quick center, who like his dad, is a very feisty player. A junior at the University of North Dakota, Hextall got off to a slow start offensively this year but has picked up his game considerably and has been one of the Fighting Sioux’s most dangerous forwards as of late. Listed at 5’10 and 186 lbs, Hextall is a lightning-quick skater who doesn’t shy away from anyone and despite his small stature; led the team in penalty minutes as a freshmen. With his tremendous speed and tenacious work-ethic, he projects as a third or fourth-line energy player with the ability to be a tireless forechecker and an excellent penalty killer.