The Winnipeg Jets had many of their prospects in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose during the 2015-16 season. As a result, that team struggled, but several players made great strides toward a potential promotion to the NHL. The team also had several players – but especially the electrifying Nikolaj Ehlers – get quality minutes in the NHL. Though growing pains are part of the Jets’ approach to team-building right now, the prospect pool is also full of top performers in their own age groups.
Most notably, Kyle Connor had one of the best seasons among all NHL prospects this year. He led the NCAA in both goals and points as a member of the Michigan Wolverines, and was nominated as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
The annual Hockey’s Future Prospect Awards serve to highlight some of the season’s more impressive players.
Hardest Worker: J.C. Lipon, C, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
J.C. Lipon has never been the biggest guy on the ice, standing at 6’0, but his work ethic and compete level allow him to thrive in even the highest leagues of hockey. Lipon is always hard on the puck and never turns down a battle along the boards. His speed and elusiveness also give him the ability to create and join offensive rushes. He’s racked up over 100 penalty minutes in each of his last five full seasons. The dues he has paid over the last few seasons paid off in the form of nine games with the Jets. Whether he remains part of the picture in Manitoba remains to be seen, but his effort level cannot be questioned.
Best Defensive Prospect: Josh Morrissey, D, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
Josh Morrissey was given somewhat unrealistic expectations coming out of junior, and unfortunately that caused some critics to define his 2015-16 season as a disappointing one. However, Morrissey remains the Jets’ best defensive prospect by a long shot. He has tremendous vision and sense, and uses that to excel in effectively breaking the puck out. He is a stalwart on the power play as well, and should see some more NHL time next season.
Fastest Skater: Kyle Connor, C, Michigan Wolverines (NCAA)
Kyle Connor was the Jets first first round pick in 2015, and he has already exceeded expectations. An integral reason for his success this season came as a result of being an excellent skater. Connor has great lower-body strength and uses it for some powerful first three strides. He can also reach top speeds which allow him to create separation, time, and space.
Prospect of the Year: Kyle Connor, C, Michigan Wolverines (NCAA)
Kyle Connor is not only the Jets’ prospect of the year, but could easily be the NHL’s prospect of the year as well. He had an outstanding freshman season at the University of Michigan, scoring 35 goals and 71 points in 38 games, both of which led the NCAA. He was honored as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the NCAA’s Top Player. Connor signed an entry-level contract with the Jets, and should be an early Calder Trophy favorite for the 2016-17 season.
Brendan Lemieux had yet another terrific season in the OHL, scoring 32 goals and 62 points in 45 games. He also worked on being a more disciplined player, drastically lowering his penalty minutes. After his fourth OHL season, the 20-year-old should spend most of the 2016-17 season with the Manitoba Moose. Lemieux is the total package, playing an intense and physical game, while also having the ability to be a game changer with his nose for the net.
Most Improved Prospect: Austen Brassard, RW, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
The 2011 fifth round draft pick struggled in his first two professional seasons, unable to find his offensive touch. However, in 2015-16, Brassard became one of the top scorers on an offensively deficient Manitoba Moose team. While Brassard remains unlikely to crack the Jets’ roster next year, he may have earned the right to be one of the first on the list of call ups.
Overachiever: Brenden Kichton, D, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
Brenden Kichton once again found the offensive flair that has made him a very intriguing prospect. Although he led the Moose in points with 41, he continues to show some holes in his defensive game. So, while fans may be calling for him to see some NHL time, it likely is not on the horizon.
Underachiever: Jimmy Lodge, C, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
The 2013 third round pick looked to be a solid prospect coming out of the OHL in 2014-15. However, he had a rough first season of professional hockey. In 44 games with the Moose, Lodge added just three goals and six points. He was sent down to the ECHL’s Tulsa Oilers, where he scored just one goal and eight points in 13 games. He will try to resurrect his old self next season.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Connor Hellebuyck, G, Manitoba Moose (AHL)
As a 22-year-old, Connor Hellebuyck has developed quickly and given the Jets a desirable problem of having too many good goaltenders. Hellebuyck got into 26 games for the Jets this year, and another 30 with the Moose.
The risky side with Hellebuyck is that he has the talent to be an NHL starter, but remains a number two to Ondrej Pavelec. His development may be hindered by sitting out too many games as a backup.
On the other hand, Hellebuyck has the potential to be an elite goaltender in the NHL very soon. His .918 save percentage – while a smaller sample – was equal to that posted by Jonathan Quick, Devan Dubnyk, Steve Mason and Martin Jones to name a few. If they Jets can find a way to handle his ice time the right way, they could have a reliable backstop for the foreseeable future.
Prospect of the Month
No surprise here. Kyle Connor is once again the Winnipeg Jets Prospect of the Month. Connor finished his freshman season with nine goals and 14 points in his last six games. Unfortunately, Michigan was eliminated in the NCAA Tournament with a 5-2 loss to eventual national champion North Dakota.
Later, Connor missed out on winning the Hobey Baker award by losing out to Harvard senior and erstwhile Nashville Predators prospect Jimmy Vesey. Connor led the NCAA in goals and points, and was more than deserving of the award.
Finally, on April 11th, Connor signed an entry-level contract with the Winnipeg Jets, meaning he will likely start the 2016-17 season in the NHL. He should begin the year as one of the Calder Trophy favorites after an incredible freshman season.