Defensemen lead the charge in Coyotes top 20

By Andrew Sykes
Photo: A sublimely talented puck-moving defenseman, Connor Murphy has battled the injury bug for much of his career and must prove he can stay healthy in order to be a viable NHL prospect. (Photo courtesy of DJ Powers/HF)

At the 2009 and 2010 NHL Drafts, the Phoenix Coyotes used their first-round picks on two defensemen they hoped would become the back-bone of their franchise for years to come. That hope seems to have quickly turned into a reality as both Oliver-Ekman Larsson and Brandon Gormley have undergone a rapid development that has put them on the cusp of the NHL at their young age. Joining them in the top 10 are five other blueliners giving Phoenix one of the best core of defensive prospects in the NHL.

Up front the Coyotes are much weaker with winger Brett MacLean leading the way as the organizations best forward prospect, but additions such as 2011 second-round pick Lucas Lessio and the 2011 Hobey Baker Winner Andy Miele have things on the upswing.

In net, Mark Visentin appears to be the goaltender of the future and the pressure for him to be just that has become much more imminent with the departure of franchise goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

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

Although he wasn’t able to stick with the Coyotes throughout the entire season, Ekman-Larsson enjoyed a successful first year as a North American pro. The club’s top prospect ever since he was selected in the 2009 draft, the smooth skating Swede appeared in 48 games in Phoenix and another 15 games with San Antonio in the AHL. At times he struggled with the physicality of the NHL and had lapses with his defensive zone coverage, but there were also many moments where he displayed the elite skill-set that has made him one of the top defensive prospects in all of hockey.

The learning curves in which Ekman-Larsson endured through his first professional season in North America will most certainly be used positively. He was able to see what life is like on both sides of the spectrum as he spent time in both the NHL and AHL; something that will undoubtedly give him a better understanding of what it will take for him to stick with the big club on a full time basis for the upcoming season.

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

Ekman-Larsson’s firm hold as the franchise’s best prospect has started to loosen thanks to the continued impressive development of another young defenseman in the system. Brandon Gormley was the club’s first-round draft pick a year after Ekman-Larsson and is also on the fast-track to play in the NHL at a young age. After suffering a knee injury early in his 2010-11 campaign, Gormley bounced back to anchor the Moncton Wildcats blue line and once again claim his stake as one of the best rearguards in all of the CHL. To this point, Gormley appears to be the total package as he is strong both offensively and defensively, has good size and strength, and brings a high level of maturity and leadership beyond his years.

The knee injury last year caused Gormley to miss the chance to play in the World Junior Hockey Championships but he should be a lock to be on the squad this year, but there is also the possibility that the 19-year-old could be playing in the NHL instead.

3. (2) Brett MacLean, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2007

MacLean has been Phoenix’s best minor league player the past two seasons and it finally earned him a taste of his first NHL action this past year. The sniping left-winger was called up for 13 regular seasons games with the big club and scored his first NHL goal in his first game. The goal came on a power-play which is something that MacLean specializes in thanks to his uncanny knack for finding the back of the net.

MacLean has some deficiencies in his skating and quickness but it is yet to hold him back from producing offensively. He has the ability to find open ice and set himself up in the perfect spot to receive a pass and then has the quick and soft hands needed to finish the play. The 22-year-old is in good position to crack the Coyotes line-up due to the fact that the team doesn’t really feature a scoring left-winger outside of the aging Ray Whitney. MacLean has the capability to be the guy the Coyotes are searching for to provide some scoring punch as a second or third liner on the left side.

4. (4) Chris Summers, D, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2006

The 23-year-old Summers is coming off his first full year as a pro after playing in 75 games last year in San Antonio. The former University of Michigan captain was a consistent performer all season on the blue line and it resulted in him being called up for his first two NHL games.

With just 10 points in those 75 games with the Rampage, Summers wasn’t much of a factor offensively but it wasn’t enough to deter the Coyotes management from liking what they saw. His good size, excellent skating, and poised two-way play has put Summers very much into the mix to crack a spot on the opening night roster.

5. (5) David Schlemko, D, 7.0B
Acquired as a free agent in 2007

Undrafted out of junior, David Schlemko has turned himself into not just a good pro hockey player, but a good player at the NHL level. Schlemko’s offensive prowess earned him 43 games with the Coyotes in which he performed exceptionally. The 24-year-old scored four goals and added 10 assists for a 14 point total that was good enough for fifth on the team in defensemen scoring despite playing in only half of the games. Had he not suffered a concussion he very well may have finished second behind all-star Keith Yandle.

After returning from the concussion Schlemko scored his first ever NHL playoff goal in game four of the Coyotes first round series against the Detroit Red Wings. With his ability to produce offense from the back-end, particularly on the power-play, Schlemko figures to be in the Phoenix lineup come opening night in October.

6. (7) Maxim Goncharov, D, 7.5C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2007

Goncharov was another defenseman that got his first taste of the North American game as he played in 61 games as a rookie on the San Antonio blue line. The 22-year-old was the club’s second highest scorer among defensemen and became a fan favorite because of energetic, fast-paced style of play.

Of all the organization’s minor-league rearguards, Goncharov turned in perhaps the most pleasantly surprising seasons of them all. He has excellent size, is a good skater, and has a cannon of a shot. Although he is likely to start the season with the new AHL affiliate in Portland, look for the young Russian to get the call-up at some point during the season.

7. (NR) Connor Murphy, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2011

2011 first-round pick Connor Murphy makes his debut in the rankings at number seven. The son of former NHL defenseman Gord Murphy, Connor spent his draft year playing with the U.S. Development team and despite a serious injury that shortened much of a season, he still showed his tremendous all-around ability as a defenseman. His strong showing at the World Under-18 Championships caught the eye of general manager Don Maloney who selected the young American as Phoenix’s 1st round pick at this year’s NHL draft.

Following the draft, Murphy decided to pass up playing at Miami Ohio University, instead choosing to sign with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL. Unfortunately, for the Coyotes and the Sting, Murphy once again caught the injury bug recently when he injured his knee at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp. The 18-year-old underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and his rehabilitation is expected to last anywhere between two to four months.

8. (9) Mark Visentin, G, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2010

Visentin is the first of two goalies to earn a spot in the top 20 and as the club’s 1st round pick in 2010, he is without question the number one goaltending prospect in the organization. The 19-year-old is coming off a whirlwind season that saw him play in the gold medal game for team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships as well as helping to lead his Niagara Icedogs to the conference finals in the OHL playoffs. His efforts in for the Icedogs earned him the OHL goaltender of the year award, announcing his presence as one of the top goaltending prospects in all of hockey.

Visentin will return to his junior team in Niagara where he figures to once again compete for a championship, but perhaps more importantly he will have the chance to avenge last year’s crushing gold medal defeat for Canada at the World Juniors.

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

Yet another first-year pro who played in San Antonio, Stone quietly put together a fine season as a rookie blueliner. The 21-year-old played the same steady game that made him one of the WHL’s best defensemen as a junior player. Having gone over the 60 point mark in his final two junior seasons, Stone’s 13 points with the Rampage were certainly far less than he can be expected to produce in the future. With his intelligent puck-moving ability and adept power-play skills, look for Stone to improve upon those totals in his second AHL season.

10. (6) Viktor Tikhonov, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 1st round, 28th overall, 2008

Once one of the organizations top youngsters, Tikhonov continues to fall down the ranks of Coyotes prospects. Tikhonov played in 61 games with Phoenix during the 2008-2009 season but hasn’t been able to get back to the big club and has struggled through the last two years split between the KHL and the AHL. While it wasn’t a great year in terms of offense, the past season did see Tikhonov play a sound two-way game and maybe now the young Russian feels comfortable being more of a checking winger rather than trying to force himself into being a scorer.

The upcoming season appears to be a make-or-break season for Tikhonov as the Coyotes re-signed the 23-year-old to a one-year-contract, so September’s training camp will be the most important of Tikhonov’s career as he will need to produce a good season and contribute to the big club if he hopes to have his contract renewed.

11. (11) Ethan Werek, C, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with New York Rangers, August 2011

Werek was acquired in a deal that sent the Coyotes 2010 second-round pick Oscar Lindberg to the New York Rangers. In return Phoenix got the slick two-way center who played his junior career with the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL. Twice a 30-goal-scorer in the league, Werek brings a high skill-level to the table with both a goal-scoring and playmaking ability. He also brings a great work ethic and is tenacious as a forechecker and a backchecker.

Although his skating might hinder him from being a first or second line center in the NHL, Werek’s skill and grit makes him a very good prospect at center. The 20-year-old should be one of the few rookies up front for the Portland Pirates this year and he will be hoping to make an impact offensively for a minor-league system starving for some firepower.

12. (NR) Lucas Lessio, LW, 6.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 56th overall, 2010

The Coyotes second-round pick at this year’s NHL draft, Lessio was one of five Oshawa Generals who heard their name called on draft day. In what was his rookie season with the OHL club, Lessio scored 26 goals and totaled 54 points playing alongside some very talented players. At 6’1 and 200 pounds Lessio has a strong, athletic build and possesses impressive natural strength. With good hands, speed, puck-handling and shot, Lessio is a tremendously gifted offensive player with all of the tools of a top-notch offensive hockey player.

The 18-year-old was an invitee to Canada’s Summer Evaluation Camp for the World Junior Championships and although he seems to be a long-shot to crack the roster, the chance that he could score 30 or even 40 goals in his second OHL season is very much a possibility.

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

A big, physical power forward with the University of Michigan, Brown is entering his junior year where he will now be looked at as one of the programs veteran leaders. A second-round pick in 2009, Brown has been a solid contributor through his first two seasons with the Wolverines and was a member of Team USA’s bronze medal-winning squad at last year’s WJHC.

While he hasn’t quite put up the numbers that one might expect from a second-rounder, Brown is a very reliable two-way forward who often goes up against the opposing team’s top line. He is a very physical player who effectively uses his size and strength in all areas of the ice, but a boost in his offensive production over the next two seasons will go a long way in determining if the 20-year-old will be more than just a defensive grinder as a pro.

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

Szwarz continues to climb the Coyotes prospect depth chart thanks to his excellent career as a junior. The captain of the Saginaw Spirit set career highs in goals, assists and points this past season showing that he has some skill to go along with his tenacious defensive game. While not overly large, the 20-year-old has a very strong build with tremendous core strength and stability. He is hard to separate from the puck and plays with a tireless determination with and without the puck.

Szwarz has all of the qualities of a future third or fourth line NHL winger. He is the type of player that anyone would want on their team because he plays with such vigour and is always there to step in for a team-mate regardless of the size of the opponent. It shouldn’t take long for Szwarz to endear himself to the Portland Pirates fans as he is destined to be a fan favourite.

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

A big-body winger, Lane made a consistent effort at being more of a physical presence in his second year with the Brampton Battalion. Although his offensive numbers were right on par with the numbers he put up in his rookie season, Lane upped his penalty minutes total from 52 to 113. The 19-year-old used his 6’2, 194 pound frame to punish the opposition along the wall and on the fore-check becoming more of an assertive player for head coach Stan Butler.

With 17 and 18 goals in first two junior seasons, Lane now needs to take the next step offensively and become more of a dominant player in the range of a 25-30 goal-scorer.

16. (NR) Andy Miele, LW, 7.0D
Free agent, April 2011

A scoring-machine during his four year collegiate career, the Coyotes were ecstatic when they were able to sign the 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner. After scoring 24 goals and totaling 71 points in just 39 games as a senior with the Miami Ohio Redhawks, Miele took home the coveted trophy awarded to the top college player in the nation. As undrafted player, Miele’s monstrous senior season has put him on everyone’s radar; a far cry from when he was constantly overlooked during his draft year.

The diminutive but highly-skilled forward is most easily compared to Tampa Bay Lightning star Martin St. Louis. St. Louis is around the same size as Miele and was also a small, high-scoring collegiate player who was passed up in the draft. While the comparison is certainly a lofty one, Miele has the talent and the determination to play in the NHL and prove to a lot of people who thought he was too small to make it that they were oh so very wrong.

17. (17) Jonas Ahnelov, D, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 88th overall, 2006

Ahnelov has battled injury ever since coming over from Sweden and his stock as a prospect as fallen considerably. After playing just 11 games in 2010, Ahnelov came back to play in 42 games with San Antonio this past season. At 6’3 and a strong 200 pound frame, Ahnelov has good size and can get an almost scary head of steam going when he reaches top speed. He loves to initiate contact which has contributed to his string of injuries over the last few years. Anhelov signed a contract with MoDo in the off-season and will be playing next season in the SEL.

18. (20) Brett Hextall, C, 6.0B
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2008

A speedy forward at the University of North Dakota, the Coyotes recently signed their 6th round pick in 2008 to a pro contract. Hextall, who is the son of former NHL goalie Ron Hextall has been one of the top performers for the college hockey powerhouse in all three of his seasons with the Fighting Sioux. Brett is a very chippy player who is always in the middle of the action and is tenacious on the forecheck. His high-energy level and excellent speed makes him a disruptor in all areas of the ice but he also has the ability to slow his game down and become a threat to score in the offensive end.

Hextall has been utilized on the power-play throughout his collegiate career and has ranked among the leaders in the Hockey East conference in power-play goals the last two years. This ability coupled with his speed and grit has moved the 23-year-old up the depth chart despite the fact that he was a sixth-round draft pick, and if he continues along with his progression, he has the chance to become a 3rd or 4th line energy player in the NHL.

19. (18) Justin Weller, D, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2009

A 20-year-old defenseman who has played his junior career with the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL, Weller is coming off a season in which he took big steps towards becoming a good pro player. Always rock solid defensively, Weller saw his low offensive output increase from his first three seasons. With career highs in goals, assists, points, penalty minutes and plus/minus, Weller was apart of an excellent defense core in Red Deer. His physical, stay-at-home game was the perfect compliment to the club’s more offensive blueliners such as Alexander Petrovic (FLA) and Matthew Dumba, as he was able to establish himself as a quality defender capable of playing a smart puck-moving game.

Weller is the type of player who knows his limit and always stays within himself. Not one to take many chances, his role is to separate the puck from the puck-carrier and clear the zone. He has the size to play physically and also possesses good enough mobility to skate himself out of danger.

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

After an outstanding season with his junior team in Quebec, Domingue makes his way into the top 20 as the second best goaltending prospect in the Phoenix system. A big, 6’3 goalie, Domingue posted a sparkling 37-12-3 with the Quebec Remparts, backstopping his team to the third-best record in the QMJHL. In the process he caught the eyes of Hockey Canada and was one of four goalies invited to the program’s Summer Development Camp for the upcoming World Junior Championships. An impressive combination of size and athleticism, the 19-year-old will hope to have a strong first half to his season as he vies for one of the two goaltending spots on team Canada.