Coyotes system audit, Part 1

By Jeff Dahlia

While the Phoenix Coyotes have struggled out of the gate, there remains excitement centered a quartet of prospects who remain on the 23-man roster. To their credit, netminder David LeNeveu, defensemen Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek and forward Fredrik Sjostrom, are playing prominent roles at their respective positions.

Why the excitement?

This is somewhat uncharted ground for the Coyotes. They have had their fair share of prospects move up in the past, but not this many all at once.

The team traded for Ballard in 2003 and Michalek this past August. Ballard spent last season in the AHL with the Coyotes then affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies. Michalek came over from the Minnesota program, where he saw time with the Wild at the NHL level, but also had a productive campaign with their AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros.

“We were just fortunate that some of the trades we executed worked out,” explained Coyotes GM Michael Barnett. “You see two players in [Keith] Ballard and [Zbynek] Michalek, who were drafted by other organizations, but are now key important pieces in our team.”

As for Sjostrom and LeNeveu, they have spent the last two years in the Coyotes development system. Sjostrom actually saw the majority of his action with Phoenix during the last NHL season in 2003-04, while LeNeveu, a former second round pick, is a true rookie with the team due to injuries.

“Sjostrom is a first rounder and he has put his time in at the American League level,” Barnett said. “He is an offensively skilled player and we’re looking forward to watching his development of his skills and eventually work his way into a top six spot.

“David LeNeveu is a very solid draft pick for us, considering where we picked him up. He has the numbers to support his skill at the NCAA level and owned a host of records for goaltenders during his two years at Cornell. We identified that he had the work ethic that told you he wasn’t going to be satisfied unless he was getting better each and every week. That is what he has been doing over the last couple of years in our system and he’s going to have a real bright future.”

Although the four were slotted to have big roles with San Antonio in the AHL, Coyotes Assistant GM, Laurence Gilman, who also doubles as the Rampage’s GM, couldn’t be more pleased for the players’ progress.

“They were all so impressive in training camp and they went on to earn spots with the Coyotes,” Gilman said. “The fact that they are all in the NHL is a testament to their development.”

While they’ve made the NHL, none of the four have been able to make a big impact statistically. Leneveu has played three games, going 0-2-1 with a 3.30 GAA and .870 save percentage. Sjostrom, Michalek and Ballard each have just one point on the season.

How much they learn in their time with the club is crucial, however.

“Every year you would like to introduce a couple players into your NHL roster because that is how they learn to play at the major league level,” Barnett explained. “At the same time, you can’t rush prospects in fear that they don’t immediately perform and lose confidence. You shouldn’t really bring them up to just watch. They need to play and they need the minutes so they continue to grow and gain confidence from time played.”

In this case, the four are seeing a significant minutes and making a positive transition. Whether they stay another week, another month or for the entire season, it’s a welcome sight to the management group.

Building from the blue line

When you look past the four prospects playing up with Phoenix, there is still some good talent in system these days. Slowly but surely, an outline of the future for the Coyotes is starting to appear.

“We think we have a very good mix of talent and hopefully we can continue in that direction,” said Barnett. “We also have at least a half of dozen prospects in San Antonio who we think are likely going to be members of our NHL roster in the not too distant future.”

Having realized the growth of talent entering into the system, Barnett went out and stabilized the NHL roster. In a two-front approach, the move would enable the team to have a young talented team in Phoenix, while at the same time, it would give other prospects time to grow in the system.

“It was critically important to us to establish a roster in Phoenix as we came out of the work stoppage,” said Gilman. “The big team needed to be successful, which would put less pressure on our farm team and enable our younger players to play consistently in the AHL.”

Running the team’s top development affiliate in San Antonio, Gilman is pleased with the move. He feels it will only help the prospects in the long run.

“They will all get the chance to see the ice in all different types of circumstances,” Gilman explained. “They need to be out there when we’re protecting a lead late in the game, when were looking to get a go-ahead goal or even in special team situations.”

The Rampage welcome in forwards Randall Gelech, Kiel McLeod, and Martin Podlesak, all of whom Gilman is anxious to see play and develop this season.

“Martin Podlesak has faced the adversity of that injury string,” Gilman said. “Regardless, we are still happy with his development and we see him as a future NHL player. We also have Randall Gelech who’s a good two-way right-winger and Kiel McLeod, who possesses a tremendous amount of size, has an NHL shot and does extremely well on faceoffs.”

Also playing alongside these three are forwards Jakub Koreis, Lance Monych, Frank Lukes, and newcomer Tim Jackson. San Antonio will also have the services of defensemen Matthew Spiller, Matt Jones, and Joe Callahan.

Coupled with Ballard and Michalek who are up with the club, the Coyotes strength is definitely at defense.

“We knew that the foundation of a team is built from the blue line out,” said Gilman. “I think having Ballard, Michalek, Spiller, Jones and Callahan, you have a great nucleus to build upon.”

Part II will take a look at how the Coyotes were able to resurrect their drafting and development system and how’ll they anticipate they’ll meet the future demands of an evolving NHL.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.