The Winnipeg Jets have effectively erased the memories of ineffective drafting that plagued the franchise’s Atlanta incarnation. Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry, taken in 2011, are already NHL players capable of tough minutes. 2012 picks Jacob Trouba and Connor Hellebuyck are developing well as pros – albeit at different stages. While players picked in 2013 and onward remain to be judged, the early returns are excellent. Scouting is only one part of the equation that leads to a successful NHL franchise, but it is a crucial aspect for a frugal team like Winnipeg.
Many of the team’s top prospects have gone pro for the 2015-16 season. Having the AHL affiliate Manitoba Moose in the same city allows for close observation and careful development, plus flexibility in assignments. The Jets may be more willing to give a player a chance for a game or two when that doesn’t require travel plans from Newfoundland to, say, British Columbia. The system and the players should both benefit from the added experience and convenience.
Of the players in the college ranks, there are both potential stars and depth players, all of whom can be developed with a patient mindset. The junior ranks also boast a few players with excellent potential. Many Jets prospects will also have the opportunity to compete internationally this winter at the 2016 World Junior Championships. While the European ranks are thin at this juncture, that does nothing to lessen the overall sense that this is the best prospect group in hockey.
Top Pro Prospect
Nikolaj Ehlers, W, Winnipeg Jets (NHL)
After making the opening night roster, it was still not clear what impact Nik Ehlers might have at the NHL level this season. With his first points – including an emphatic first goal – out of the way, Ehlers will be drawing some additional attention to the Manitoba capital in 2015-16. Though there will be times he struggles – especially as teams start to key on him more – Ehlers looks like a player with all-star potential in the course of his career. He possesses elite skating ability, but has also shown his creativity, hands, and release in just a few games in the world’s best league. Though he did not often have to play defense with the Halifax Mooseheads, his somewhat surprising strength on the puck has earned him some trust from Paul Maurice. The season has barely started, but if Ehlers can keep adding that extra skill dimension on both sides of play, it bodes well for the Jets this season.
New Team in 2015-16
Josh Morrissey, D, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
Morrissey is the top defensive prospect for the Jets but he has to be stronger to meet his potential as a top-pairing defenseman. His greatest offensive output owes some credit to playing with Leon Draisaitl (EDM) in Price Albert and Kelowna. While the first-rounder impressed throughout his junior career, Morrissey still has plenty of work to do to establish himself as a pro. No rookie is in a position to expect success and early struggles are something every defenseman experiences.
This season, with veterans like Jay Harrison ahead of him and a fellow rookie like Jan Kostalek capable of putting up some points as well, Morrissey will have to be good to maintain his spot. The Jets have a decent amount of blueline depth, although more puck-moving skill might help the cause. While Morrissey might see NHL time this season, it likely will not happen until spring, and the extra seasoning can only help a player of his talents.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Brenden Kichton, D, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
The comparison to Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon is irresistible. Both players come from the Edmonton area and had standout careers for the Spokane Chiefs. Both were originally drafted – and ultimately passed on – by the New York Islanders. Both are relatively small in stature and both possess a high level of skill. After a superb rookie season in which Kichton led the St. John’s IceCaps in scoring for defensemen with a 48-point effort, he took a step back last season on an inexperienced squad.
This season sees Kichton wearing a letter, signifying the expectation that he is capable of being both an on- and off-ice leader for a franchise bringing in some younger guys. Jared Spurgeon has become an effective pro, having learned to anticipate plays and win one-on-one battles despite giving away a few pounds and inches. Kichton has to look to this season as a great opportunity to do the same. The Jets would not have spent the pick on a redraft player without belief in his ability. But in a system with a lot of young talent and a limited budget, his performance this season will speak volumes about his future with the Jets.
A projected first-rounder by several draft prognosticators, Harkins slipped a bit to the Jets at the 2015 draft. He is another important part of the overall system depth and one whose ceiling is unknown at this point. Notable for his strength in puck battles and his overall sense of positioning, Harkins projects as the kind of player who provides value in defensive play while also possessing enough skill to score points. He is not expected to put up a lot of points this season playing on a somewhat average team, but a return to his point-per-game rate from last season would just help make the case that this is player with a bright future.
New Team in 2015-16
Michael Spacek, C, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Having gone just under a point-per-game with the Pardubice U20 squad when he was just 16, and then scoring 12 points in 40 games in the Czech Extraliga last season, it is not too surprising that Spacek has found his offensive groove from the jump in the WHL. A player with excellent offensive skills and creativity, he was knocked by some scouts for an average physical game. It goes without saying he looks more comfortable against his own age group, even in the rough corners of the WHL.
The Rebels are poised for an excellent campaign with a Memorial Cup berth already in hand. Spacek looks to be in for a big season and certainly has the kinds of skills that project well for a pro career. The benefit of playing big minutes in the WHL is that Spacek will grow familiar with an NHL-style game and schedule. Though the Czechs have sometimes declined to include players who leave for the CHL, Spacek’s play this season – to say nothing of his performance internationally for his country already – ought to make him a lock for the 2016 World Junior squad as well.
Nelson Nogier, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Nogier is a fine prospect in his own right, one who made his WHL debut as a 16-year-old back in 2012. Since then he has been a mostly solid defensive presence with unexceptional scoring totals. One reason that might change is Michael Spacek’s presence on the Rebels, but the time has also come for Nogier to assert himself in the offensive zone. He plays a safe game, but he has the ability to get his shot on net more regularly. Chipping off the glass is fine too, but for Nogier to advance his career he will have to learn to make those tape-to-tape passes when available. He is not a player with a ton of offensive upside, but this season should see him with higher scoring totals and bit more confidence with the puck. By playing his calm and competent game, Nogier can do a lot to solidify a future role this season in a high-profile setting and earn an entry-level deal.
Top Amateur Prospect
Kyle Connor, C, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Connor is a rare talent, and should be able to step into the void left by Dylan Larkin‘s early departure and immediately help the Wolverines compete for a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The team lost some important pieces beyond Larkin, but getting back Zach Werenski (CBJ) helps a lot. Having a player who can pass to him in full stride should allow Connor to continue the torrid scoring he exhibited in the USHL. One of the top American prospects in his age group, Connor will be relied upon by Team USA at the WJC in the absence of some of the pros.
Freshman to Watch
Jack Roslovic, C, Miami University (NCHC)
Winnipeg’s second first-round pick of the 2015 draft seemed almost like a bonus, yet some observers seemed disappointed by Jack Roslovic’s name being called slightly ahead of the consensus rankings. The skills are apparent, the question being whether his impressive stats were helped too much by US U18 teammates like Auston Matthews (2016). Without discounting any of that player’s talent, skill needs skill around it to thrive. Roslovic can be an elite complementary player, but should be able to become a college star at Miami. The team overachieved a bit last season but with growth expected from players like Louie Belpedio (MIN) and Anthony Louis (CHI), plus the addition of Roslovic, it should have another successful campaign. Roslovic is already off to a hot start and could be one of the top freshmen scorers in the nation. He will also be a key component of Team USA at the WJC.
Jack Glover, D, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
As the National Development Team continues to draw many of the state’s top talents away from Minnesota to Ann Arbor, Michigan, Don Lucia and his staff have had to improvise to stay competitive. Last season, having a crowded blueline with several veterans meant playing top recruit Jack Glover at forward at times. He ended up with just three assists over the course of a 22-game season, but as a freshman in a somewhat new, but limited role, he adjusted over time. Although the high-profile departures of All-American Mike Reilly (MIN) and Brady Skjei (NYR) present another challenge for the coaching staff, opening up a spot for a young talent like Glover presents an opportunity. One year older, and with his tall frame a bit more sturdy, Glover will no doubt look a more confident player over the course of his sophomore season.
Top European Prospect
Pavel Kraskovsky, C, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (KHL)
Kraskovsky has not had an easy go of it in the KHL. Limited to just one point so far this season, his time on ice has gone up to around the ten minutes per game mark but he has struggled to be effective. The lanky center has improved in the face-off circle, but may not be the offensive force he appeared to be when playing against his own age group. Luckily, he will get another chance to prove his ability at the world juniors, where the young pro will serve as a captain for Team Russia. Still, though the totals disappoint now, he is a young man in a tough league and certainly remains a prospect of interest for the Jets.
Sami Niku, D, JYP (Liiga)
Niku had a decent season in 2014-15, having to wait to hear his name called at the draft after being ranked higher by several agencies notwithstanding. As a first-year pro, the offensively-adept defenseman struggled to score but improved defensively as the season progressed. The lanky defenseman has already surpassed his totals from last season, and as the Liiga’s 2015-16 season goes on, one would expect even more production. JYP is a middle-table squad but its blueline is a position of strength, leaving Niku with limited assignments at times. Despite these struggles, he possesses enough skill to remain relevant as he develops physically. While not guaranteed a spot, Niku could also provide value for Team Finland at the WJC.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Ivan Telegin, C, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Telegin is a Jets prospect in name only at this point, not technically under contract anymore but more likely considered ‘defected.’ He missed the entire 2013-14 season with a concussion and was a depth forward the next season, albeit at the KHL level. Telegin does have skill and good size, and though he projects strictly as NHL depth, the talent is there to sustain a pro career. Thus far in the KHL season, Telegin is playing more minutes and taking more face-offs. It is encouraging to see him recovering his career, even it is not that likely to affect the fortunes of the Winnipeg Jets in any significant way.