A quick reminder that all top 10 candidates must be no more than 25 years old as of October 7, 2015. The lists consider all skaters in that age group who have played in fewer than 40 NHL regular season games, with 25 games being the cut-off among netminders.
If you have stuck with this project from the beginning, six long weeks ago, you had probably figured out sometime yesterday who the number one organization is in terms of prospect cache. The Winnipeg Jets were never a bottom-feeding team, although their history of missing the playoffs gave them many, many picks in the top half of the first round. That said, half of their top ten were not even first round picks, and one of the five that was, was not drafted by the Jets. Like Detroit and Chicago in days gone by, the Jets simply scout well and draft for talent even in the later rounds. This system not only has a fantastic seven players in the Hockey Prospectus Top 100, including two in the top 20, but we could go at least 20 deep before we would run out of players who would make top ten lists in weaker systems. In honor of that depth, instead of profiling only three sleepers on the Jets, we will shine a light, even if only a muted light, on all of those talented players who would otherwise be forgotten in hockey’s top system.
- NIkolaj Ehlers, LW, Halifax (QMJHL) 5-11”, 162. 9th overall, 2014
- Josh Morrissey, D, Kelowna (WHL) 6-0”, 186. 13th overall, 2013
- Kyle Connor, C, Youngstown (USHL) 6-1”, 183. 17th overall, 2015
- Nic Petan, C, Portland (WHL) 5-9”, 165. 43rd overall, 2013
- Connor Hellebuyck, G, John’s (AHL) 6-4”, 195. 130th overall, 2012
- Jansen Harkins, C, Prince George (WHL) 6-1”, 183. 47th overall, 2015
- Jack Roslovic, C/RW, USNTDP (USHL) 6-1”, 187. 25th overall, 2015
- Chase De Leo, C, Portland (WHL) 5-9”, 178. 99th overall, 2014
- Scott Kosmachuk, RW, John’s (AHL) 5-11”, 185. 70th overall, 2012
- Joel Armia, RW, St. John’s (AHL) 6-3”, Trade: Feb. 11, 2015. Originally: 16th overall, 2011 (Buffalo)
Players likely to lose eligibility
- Andrew Copp, C, Michigan (Big 10) 6-0”, 188. 104th overall, 2013
- Brenden Kichton, D, St. John’s (AHL) 5-10”, 185. 190th overall, 2013. Originally: 127th overall, 2011 (NY Islanders)
- Julian Melchiori, D, St. John’s (AHL) 6-1”, 190. 87th overall, 2010
- Jimmy Lodge, C, Mississauga (OHL) 6-1”, 166. 84th overall, 2013
- Jan Kostalek, D, Rimouski (QMJHL) 6-1”, 181. 114th overall, 2013
- Eric Comrie, G, Tri-City (WHL) 6-1”, 167. 59th overall, 2013
- Brendan Lemieux, LW, Barrie (OHL) 6-0”, 206. Trade: Feb. 11, 2015. Originally: 31st overall, 2014 (Buffalo)
- Pavel Kraskovsky, C, Loko Yaroslavl (MHL) 6-4”, 187. 164th overall, 2014
- Michael Spacek, C, HC Dynamo Pardubice (Czech) 5-11”, 187. 108th overall, 2015
- Tucker Poolman, D, North Dakota (NCHC) 6-0”, 170. 190th overall, 2013
- Erik Foley, LW, Cedar Rapids (USHL) 5-11”, 185. 78th overall, 2015
On top of the system is one of the most electrifying prospects in all of hockey in Danish sensation Nikolaj Ehlers, who has a very good chance to end up as the most talented player to ever emerge from that Scandinavian nation. A beautiful puck carrier, Ehlers has a non-stop motor when his team is on the offensive. He gets high marks for both agility and stick handling. A very dangerous player, the only way he could be consistently stopped in juniors was by drawing a penalty, which he did with frequency. While some will cluck their tongues at his habit of coasting on occasion, when he is on, he is generally the most electric and threatening player on the ice. Although he is skinny, he has enough strength to combine with his slipperiness to make it work. He will be given every opportunity to make the Jets out of camp, with the backup plan being a season in Europe as the NHL-CHL agreement prevents him from playing in the AHL.
Just behind Ehlers in the Jets’ collection of elite prospects is Kelowna blueliner Josh Morrissey. While it is tempting to attribute his evaluation to the Kelowna connection, most of his development actually occurred with Prince Albert, as he was only traded to Kelowna last December. A dynamic defender with a winning pedigree (he already has a WJC Gold, and has been both a Memorial Cup and Calder Cup finalist). Morrissey is a fantastic skater who enjoys joining the rush and is often heavily involved in the offensive end. He also demonstrates a very high panic threshold, allowing him to take the responsibility of moving the puck out of his own end. Morrissey has high end vision and makes strong passes in all three zones. While an offensive blueliner, the former first rounder is not reckless, as he avoids unnecessary risks with the puck. Despite underwhelming size, he has been known to play physically and has a strong point shot, hinting at the skill set to play on the power play down the line.
Next up we have Kyle Connor, another electrifying forward taken in the first round, in his case, this past June. The Michigan commit is a high end skater and stickhandler. He absolutely dominated in the USHL for two seasons with Youngstown, leading the league in scoring as an 18 year old after finishing as the runner up at age 17. He needs to add strength, although his frame suggests that it will come with added maturity. He can produce as both a shooter as well as a playmaker, and the main question surrounding his development with the Wolverines is whether he will line up as a center, or on the wing. Either way, he projects as a top six player at the highest level.
Perhaps more divisive in terms of his placement in the Jets’ system is WJC hero Nic Petan. An elusive skater who dangled his way to high end point totals for Portland of the WHL, he is a mesmerizing stickhandler at his best. Playing on a consistent competitor with Portland, he was surrounded by more talent than is common in the junior leagues and, as such, has an anomalous scoring profile in that his point totals are extremely heavily weighted towards assists, a trend that has grown with each passing year. Having graduated from the CHL, he will have to prove that his small size will not stand in his way in the professional ranks.
Even though the Jets graduated one of the top rookie netminders in 2014-15 in Michael Hutchinson, they still have one of the better prospects at the position in Connor Hellebuyck. After leaving U.Mass-Lowell after two stellar campaigns, Hellebuyck took to the AHL game very well, monopolizing the crease in St. John’s as a rookie. Although blocked in Winnipeg this year, between his size, positioning, composure and a strong showing for Team USA at the recent Word Championships, he is considered a favorite for one of the spots on the Under-23 team at next year’s World Cup.
The final two Jets prospects in the Top 100 were two-way forwards taken in the most recent draft. Although Jack Roslovic was a late first rounder and Jansen Harkins was selected 22 picks later, we had Harkins as the better prospect in our draft rankings and maintain that belief today. That said, both are fine prospects. Harkins lasting until the 47th selection made him one of the steals of the draft. An intelligent and responsible pivot, he is strong in all facets of the game. More a playmaker than a shooter, the Prince George Cougar has a solid shot that he keeps low and a keen hockey mind. His numbers are strong as is, but would be far more impressive on a stronger roster.
Roslovic was often overshadowed on the USNTDP by 2016 eligibles Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk. A strong U-18 tournament solidified his place in the scouting landscape. A very energetic player with a high-end motor, Roslovic was one of the more versatile forwards available in this year’s draft. Like Harkins, Rsolovic is very smart and displays it with great situational awareness in all three zones. Heading into his freshman year at Miami University, he will get the chance to show what he can do as top dog after earning his first round slot through work as a supporting winger.
A teammate of Petan’s with Portland, Chase De Leo is similarly undersized. While Petan is the playmaker, De Leo is the sniper, having scored 39 goals for the Winterhawks in each of the last two seasons. He has a very quick trigger on his shot with a snap shot that feels like a one-timer in its suddenness, which makes for a nice parallel to his shifty and quick skating. Although he was a top scorer in the WHL, he plays an agitating brand of hockey, which could help him find a role as an energy player in the pros.
Some might say that Scott Kosmachuk should be a sleeper instead of a top ten player, but his OHL pedigree and skill set which still came to the fore in his rookie season in the AHL suggests a future middle six NHL role. Versatile and very intelligent, Kosmachuk’s strongest tool is his shot, a weapon which enabled him to score 49 goals in his final season of junior hockey – after topping 30 markers during his previous two seasons – and which saw him assigned to the point on St. John’s power plays. The Jets AHL affiliate (which has since relocated to Winnipeg) should be stronger this year, giving Kosmachuk a better brand of teammate to develop alongside and allowing him to post stronger numbers.
The final top ten slot belongs to Joel Armia, one of the more significant returning pieces from the big Evander Kane deal last season. A former first rounder of the Sabres, Armia has been slow to produce to the levels expected in the AHL, with his point totals relatively stagnant after two seasons. Rangy, with soft hands, a little more consistency in his game will see him be considered for one of the first callups to Winnipeg in the case of injuries to their forward corps.
As mentioned above, the Jets have many other prospects who would make the top ten on other organizations. While we have not ranked the next 11 players, each has at least one trait that suggests a strong likelihood of future NHL ice time.
In net, past Hutchinson and Hellebuyck, Eric Comrie is a fine puck stopper. The half-brother to Mike Comrie was a stalwart for Tri-City in the WHL over the past four seasons and has tremendous lateral agility. He may be better served by a season in the ECHL to ensure that neither he nor Hellebuyck are underused.
Blueliners of note are Brenden Kichton, Julian Melchiori, Jan Kostalek and Tucker Poolman. The first two are AHL veterans who both profile as bottom pairing types in the NHL. Kichton is more offensively oriented, while Melchiori is more of a stay-at-home type, although that is by proclivity instead of skill limitations as he is surprisingly quick on his skates.
Kostalek has displayed an intriguing two-way game with Rimouski as he sees the ice very well and packs a strong shot that can be a weapon from the point. After three QMJHL seasons, he is ready for the professional game. Poolman is a collegian at North Dakota. A late-bloomer, he, too, has a good point shot and has above average mobility.
On the wings are Brendan Lemieux and Erik Foley. Both skaters carry the common Winnipeg trait of above-average hockey intelligence as well as offensive instincts. Lemieux is the son of Claude Lemieux, and plays a game very reminiscent of his old man’s. He goes east-west as much as he does north-south and scores at a high clip while playing an otherwise highly agitating, physical style. Foley was a good offensive player in the USHL and heads to the defending NCAA champs in Providence to hone his puck possession skills at a higher level. Although listed as a winger, he has plenty of experience as a center.
The natural centers of note further down the Jets’ system are Jimmy Lodge, Pavel Kraskovsky and Michael Spacek. Lodge was the only offensive talent on a poor Mississauga squad last season. If he can learn to trust his teammates more and avoid trying to force plays his plus puck skills will blossom. His defensive game is a bit of mystery as well. Pavel Kraskovsky is a very agile skater for one so tall. He plays a responsible two-way game, with the above-average offensive vision and passing coupled with attentive play in the defensive end. After a strong season in the Russian junior leagues, he should receive significant KHL ice time this year. Finally, Spacek is another in the mold of undersized, smart players with good puck skills that the Jets enjoy collecting. Although many expected him to be a top two round selection earlier in the year, a subpar WJC dropped him down draft boards before the Jets selected him in the fourth round. Spacek has committed to Red Deer of the WHL for this season to acclimate to the North American game.
Between the heights of their top prospects and the miles and miles of depth at all levels of the system, the Jets are full money for the top spot in the Hockey Prospectus 2015 prospect rankings. With the wealth of high hockey IQ players featured here and the youth still dotting the NHL roster, Winnipeg has many of the hallmarks of a team that will build off their first ever playoff appearance since setting up camp in Manitoba and growing into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in the next few seasons.
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We hope you have enjoyed reading the top ten series as much as we have enjoyed writing them. Many thanks are due (in no particular order) to the entire prospect team – David, Dennis, Craig and Benoit, for their hard work over the summer when it would have been easier to relax outside with a cold beer. This series would not have been possible without them.