Welcome to the 2015 edition of Top Shelf Prospects. As the summer progresses, I will be featuring each NHL team’s top prospects, following the order of the first round of the 2015 NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) —you can find all the articles here.
Because we already published an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in 2015, as my reports on them will not have changed — I will, however, link you to those articles. Instead I will focus on prospects that were acquired in past drafts, examining their progress and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of their respective NHL team. I will also choose one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the fourth round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a darkhorse to make the NHL.
For those wondering, the determining factors for defining who is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not set in stone, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
For the first time since the Jets returned to Winnipeg, the franchise qualified for the NHL Playoffs. It wasn’t easy though, as there were issues along the way, including losing the majority of their defence corps to injury in December, and the Evander Kane controversy in February, but the Jets persevered. A first round sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks might be a bit of a downer, but overall the Jets season should be considered a success.
While the Jets have lost Jiri Tlusty, Lee Stempniak, T.J. Galiardi and Michael Frolik this off-season, they also re-added their own “prodigal son” in forward Alex Burmistrov, re-signed Drew Stafford, and added Matt Fraser. The real improvement for the Jets though will come from their prospect pool which is one of the best in the NHL, and over the next few years will really pay dividends for the team.
2015 Players Drafted: Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Jansen Harkins, Erik Foley, Michael Spacek, Mason Appleton, Sami Niku, Matteo Gennaro
Graduates: Adam Lowry, Ben Chiarot, Eric O’Dell (age), Michael Hutchinson
TSP: Winnipeg Jets Prospects
Top Prospect: Nikolaj Ehlers, Left Wing
Born Feb 14 1996 — Aalborg, Denmark
Height 5.11 — Weight 163 [180 cm/74 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted by Winnipeg Jets in round 1, #9 overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
Nikolaj Ehlers had an incredible season with Halifax, putting up 101 points in 54 games. He also helped Denmark to their first ever World Junior Championship victory. He dispelled any doubts that his draft year output was due to playing with Jonathan Drouin (which wasn’t really true at even strength, but still persisted anyways) and proved beyond a doubt his status as a top prospect.
Nikolaj Ehlers is an absolutely fabulous skater. His speed is off the charts, and he has outstanding acceleration and great agility. He beats even the quickest of defenders one-on-one, and can take them wide and cut to the net. He is very solid on his skates and has a powerful stride that can fight through checks, hooks, and holds. Despite his size he has good balance and is very difficult to knock off the puck and this should only improve as he adds weight.
Ehlers combines that skating skill with great hands and he can score in close when he cuts to the net. His stickhandling ability is high-end and he can make moves and control the puck while at top speed. He is absolutely lethal off the rush, and if defenders back off on him to avoid being beaten by his speed, he can use the space to let go a great wrist shot which features an excellent release. His passing skill is also high level, and he has great vision and hockey sense to take advantage of that. Ehlers is willing to work in the dirty areas, and handles the puck well even in heavy traffic areas. He does need to work on adding muscle to his frame and getting better in making more muscular plays down low, on the cycle and in winning battles on the boards.
Ehlers also needs to work on his defensive game. Being out muscled in defending the cycle is part of the problem and will improve as he adds weight going forward. He also needs some coaching on positioning and reading the play though. This can certainly be taught though, and shouldn’t be a huge concern given the high end offensive potential that he has.
The Jets will likely give Ehlers at least a short tryout at the NHL level this year. He is at a level where he has dominated in junior, but is too young to go to the AHL due to the CHL/NHL transfer agreement, so every opportunity will be given to see if he is NHL ready.
Prospect #2: Josh Morrissey, Defence
Born Mar 28 1995 — Calgary, ALTA
Height 6.00 — Weight 185 — Shoots Left
Drafted by Winnipeg Jets – round 1, 13th overall 2013 NHL Entry Draft
It was another huge season for Josh Morrisey. He helped Canada to a gold medal at the World Juniors, got traded to Kelowna and helped the Rockets to the WHL title, and fell just one goal short of the Memorial Cup.
The key to Morrissey’s games is his outstanding skating ability. He is amongst the skating defencemen in junior hockey. His stride is fluid, and he has excellent top end speed both backwards and forward. His first step is quick, and he accelerates well reaching that top speed in just a few strides. His agility, edgework, and pivots are very strong and fluid, giving him excellent mobility, and allowing him to cover a lot of ice, whether it be opening up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone, skating the puck out of his own zone and through neutral ice, or covering up defensively against the rush or the cycle.
Morrissey is very slick offensively. He combines very good stickhandling with his great skating to carry the puck through the neutral zone and lead the rush at times. If not leading the rush, he can effectively join the play as a trailer, and has good instincts for jumping up on the rush. He also has great vision, and pin point passing skills both in starting the rush with a first pass, or in quarterbacking the play in the offensive zone. Morrissey has developed his slap shot over the past year, and it seems to be harder than it was in his draft year. He also knows how to keep his shot low shot low at key times and to get it on net despite the traffic in front, allowing teammates to get screens, rebounds, and tips. Morrissey also has a really good wrist shot, and an excellent release which he can use off the rush or if he can’t get the time to get his slapshot off. His hockey sense is top notch, and he almost always makes the right decision in the offensive zone. Morrissey has all the tools to be a high level offensive contributor from the blue line and a future powerplay quarterback if he continues on this path.
In his own zone, Morrissey just keeps improving. He plays an effective positional game, always keeping the opponent in front of him, and doing a good job to take away time and space. He doesn’t run around looking for hits, but has shown that when the opportunity presents itself he can be extremely physical, and throw a big check. However most of the time Morrissey is content not to gamble. Instead he plays smart positional defence and cuts off passing and shooting lanes, eventually forcing his opponent into a turnover, and quickly transitioning to offence. Morrissey could use more upper body strength however, and some time in the weight room will help him to win more one on one battles along the boards and in front of the net.
Expect to see Morrissey in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose, but it won’t be long til he is pushing for a spot on the Jets roster. He could be one of the first call-ups if the Jets have any injuries on the blueline.
#3 Prospect: Nicolas Petan, Centre
Born Mar 22 1995 — Delta, BC
Height 5.09 — Weight 172 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the 2nd round, 43rd overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2013 NHL draft
Petan had another monster year in Portland, putting up 89 points in 54 games and 28 points in 17 playoff games. He also made the Canadian National Junior Team, and scored 4 goals and 11 points over 7 games in the tournament, helping the team to a gold medal.
With more and more small players succeeding in the NHL, we can notice that a common theme that stands out, and allows these undersized players to continue to excel in the NHL is their skating ability. This is good news for Petan as his skating is well above average. While his top end speed is merely good, it is the rest of his skating ability that really stands out. He has a very good first step, and great acceleration. Petan’s ability to change pace quickly and good agility allows him to confuse defenders and beat them to the outside before driving the net. His great agility, and tight turns allow him to weave through traffic both with and without the puck. He is not afraid to go into those high traffic areas, and his skating ability helps him to fight through checks despite his size.
In the offensive zone, Petan has shown to be a multi-dimensional threat coupling great vision and playmaking skills with a good wrist shot and quick release. He creates scoring chances for linemates, but can also be a finisher when they set him up. He has a very high hockey IQ and always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and to make smart plays with the puck on his stick. Petan works hard in the corners and the front of the net and shows a lot of fight and grit despite his size. He is not intimidated to go up against bigger and stronger opponents.
Petan has also shown to be a reliable defensive player and often contributes on Portland’s penalty kill unit. He anticipates plays well and causes turnovers. His good hockey IQ allows him to steal pucks and transition quickly form defence to offence. He will of course need to bulk up to play in the NHL, and a transition to wing (like many smaller players) may eventually be in his future, but he does have the skills to succeed. Expect to see him making his way to the AHL ranks in 2015.
Super Sleeper: Connor Hellebuyck
Born May 19 1993 — Commerce, MI
Height 6.04 — Weight 200
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 5th round, 130th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
After putting up absolutely ridiculous stats in college, Hellebuyck went pro this year, putting up .921 save percentage in 58 games with the AHL’s St. John’s Ice Caps. He also played for Team USA in the World Championships and won a bronze medal, with an incredible .948 save percentage in the tournament. Overall, it was the type of season that continues to rocket Hellebuyck up the Jets depth chart.
At 6’4″ Hellebuyck takes up a ton of net, and is an imposing target for shooters. He gets out quick on his angles and is excellent positionally to take away as much net as possible. He has quick legs and uses his frame to cover a ton of net when he’s down in his butterfly. He also has a good glove to take away the top half of the net. Hellebucyk skates well meaning he’s hard to get around on a deke, despite how far he comes out to cut down angles. He also gets side to side quickly and tracks the puck well keeping him in position to make a save.
Hellebuyck also shows good poise, and maturity. He is calm and relaxed, and seems to shake it off even when a goal gets past him. He was a leader for U-Mass Lowell and helped the team to a berth in the Frozen Four in the 2013 season. While just a rookie he showed signs of that leadership ability with St. John’s last year. Hellebuyck could still use a bit more work on his rebound control, but this is something that he has done in the last couple years. He is also very quick at getting square to the puck and back into position when a rebound does go out.
Hellebuyck will go to camp trying to steal the backup job from Michael Hutchinson. He may end up back in the AHL, now with the Manitoba Moose, but he is coming and pushing for a spot. It won’t be long before the Jets are forced to find room for Hellebuyck on the NHL roster.
The Jets have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL. In addition to Hellebuyck, they also have Eric Comrie as a second high end goalie prospect. Forwards Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic and Jansen Harkins were added in the draft, while Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux came in the Evander Kane trade. They join a group that has Andrew Copp, Scott Kosmachuk, and Chase De Leo as depth. On the blueline there is Jan Kostalek, Ben Chiarot, Jack Glover, and Brendan Kitchon. The system is full of high end, high ceiling prospects, and is well stocked at every position.