Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf NHL Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted this year. There have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed.
What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2016-17 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Winnipeg Jets Prospects
The Jets came into 2015-16 looking to build off the franchise’s first ever playoff appearance (since moving back to Winnipeg). Unfortunately the season did not go as planned. The Jets once again found themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time. They also ended up trading away fan favorite and captain Andrew Ladd at the trade deadline. There can be no bigger signal of a changing of the guard on the team. The Jets have plenty of young talent on their team and in the system. Its time for them to make their marks. The identity of this team is quickly changing.
There were some bright spots last season. 2011 Draftee Mark Scheifele took major steps forward in a breakout season that legitimizes him as a top-six centre. He is very close to becoming a true top line centre as well. With 78 points, Blake Wheeler had the best season of his career. He is most likely to take over the captaincy with Ladd gone. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck got some time in the net. He was the Jets best goalie last year, providing more hope for the future. Last year’s top prospect, Nikolaj Ehlers, had a solid first season in the NHL, especially since he was still a teenager at the start of the year. Following the season, the Jets got great news when they moved up to second overall in the NHL Draft.
Winnipeg Jets Prospects Scouting Reports
Top Prospect: Patrik Laine
The second overall pick in the 2016 Draft, Laine is not only the Jets top prospect; he is one of the top prospects in hockey period. As we had an extensive pre-draft scouting report, and no meaningful games have been played since the draft, I will not be re-writing it. If you wish to read the pre-draft report, you can do so here.
#2 Prospect: Kyle Connor
Centre/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born Dec 9 1996 — Shelby Township, MI
Height 6’1 — Weight 177 lbs [185 cm / 80 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in Round 1, 17th overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
After being the Jets first round pick last season, Kyle Connor had a monster year as a freshman at the University of Michigan. He scored 35 goals and 36 assists for 71 points in just 38 games. Connor was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award; and in many analysts minds, including this writer, should have won the award.
Connor is an outstanding skater, with excellent speed, first step quickness, and great acceleration. He also has extremely good stick handling ability, and can make plays while moving at close to top speed. He is extremely agile, and uses this and his stick handling ability to terrify defenders off the rush. His ability to change speeds is yet another weapon that he can use to beat defenders wide, or to slow things down and open up passing and shooting lanes. Connor could use a bit more strength and balance so that he can be better in board battles and at protecting the puck down low on the cycle game. He does not shy away from physical contact. However, with added strength he would be even more effective.
Kyle Connor is an excellent play maker who has the vision to spot the open man, and the skill to make tape-to-tape passes through tight areas. He is extremely poised with the puck on his stick and can slow the game down and wait for a seam to open up to make that pass to a teammate. He stickhandles well in traffic and avoids defenders. Connor also shows a very good wrist shot and release. Most importantly he learned to use that shot as more of a weapon this year. This opened up his game, and kept defencemen guessing. He still maintained the ability to be an excellent playmaker in the process. Connor has good hockey IQ, usually making the smart pass, and also looking to get open when he doesn’t have the puck.
Connor is also developing a good two-way game. Connor back checks hard, supports his defense down low and has a very good understanding of positioning. He was used to kill penalties from time to time. Connor is able to read the play well, and anticipates well, using an active stick to cut down passing lanes. Connor is not afraid to block shots either. He has also worked at improving his face-off skills.
Connor decided to leave Michigan and signed his entry-level contract with the Jets. He will come into training camp looking to capitalize on his outstanding college season, and earn a spot in the NHL. He should be given a real opportunity to show if a summer of getting stronger has paid off. Even if he starts in the AHL, Connor could see some time as an injury fill-in. He will be a full-time NHLer, and an effective one, before too long.
#3 Prospect: Josh Morrissey
Defense — shoots Left
Born Mar 28 1995 — Calgary, ALTA
Height 6’0 — Weight 195 lbs [183 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by Winnipeg Jets in round 1, #13 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Morrissey had a solid first AHL season, after turning pro last summer. He scored three goals and 19 assists in 22 games for the Manitoba Moose. The 20-year-old defender seemed to get better and better as the season went on. He even earned a call-up, playing his first NHL game.
The key to Morrissey’s games is his outstanding skating ability. He is amongst the best skating defence prospects out there. 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. Morrissey’s agility, edgework, and pivots are very strong and fluid, giving him excellent mobility, and allowing him to cover a lot of ice. He can open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone, skate the puck out of his own zone and through neutral ice, or cover up defensively against the rush or the cycle.
Morrissey is very slick offensively. He combines very good stick handling 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. He also has great vision, and pin point passing skills. He is effective 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 couple of years. He does not have the absolute rocket some other defenders have, but his shot is good. 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. This allows 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 slap shot 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 this will force his opponent into a turnover, and quickly transitioning to offence.
He struggled a bit with the speed of the AHL game at the start of last season, but seemed to adjust quickly enough and was very good by the end of the year. 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. This seemed to be an issue in his first pro season.
Quality defencemen take time to develop. It would not be a surprise to see Morrissey spend another season honing his game before being NHL ready. Expect Morrissey to get a few call-ups this year, and be ready to break in full-time in 2017-18.
#4 Prospect: Connor Hellebuyck
Goalie — shoots Right
Born May 19 1993 — Commerce, MI
Height 6’04 — Weight 207 lbs [193 cm / 94 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets, in round 5 #130 overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
After an outstanding 2014-15 season that saw him play for Team USA at the World Championships, Hellebuyck might have had an even better 2015-16. He was excellent at the AHL level, with a 2.49 goals against average, and .922 save percentage behind a team that was pretty weak, generally speaking. He also earned some time with the bigh club, getting in 26 games with a 2.35 goals against average and .918 save percentage. All in all, Hellebuyck performed the best out of all three goalies who regularly took the net for the Jets, and it was only his non-waiver status that saw him end up back in Manitoba last year.
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. Hellebuyck 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.
Poise and Maturity
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. Over his two year’s he’s shown that leadership ability with St. John’s and Manitoba. Hellebuyck has really improved his rebound control, and has brought it to an NHL level. There is still some room to improve to take his game up a notch. He is also very quick at getting square to the puck and back into position when a rebound does go out.
If all things were equal, Hellebuyck should be on the Jets roster, and be given an opportunity to take over the number one spot this year. The Jets still have a log jam in the crease, with Ondrej Pavelec‘s contract running down, and Michael Hutchinson re-upping with the team. Would they carry three goalies? Can they find a way to create space on the roster for Hellebuyck? This is really what is standing in his way right now.
#5 Prospect: Nic Petan
Center — shoots Left
Born Mar 22 1995 — Delta, BC
Height 5’9 — Weight 179 lbs [175 cm / 81 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in round 2, #43 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Petan had a very good first season in the AHL, with 32 points in 47 games. Injuries to a number of Winnipeg forwards meant that he also got an extended NHL audition. He could only produce six points in 26 NHL games though. He seemed overwhelmed at times in the NHL. This is not unusual though, especially considering that he is just 20 years old.
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 going up against bigger and stronger opponents.
Petan has also shown to be a reliable defensive player. He often contributed on Portland’s penalty kill unit during his junior days. While he did not spend much time on the penalty kill during his first year of pro hockey, but could develop that ability. Petan 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. His biggest detriment is a lack of size. Petan can be outmuscled when trying to defend down low against the cycle game.
Petan is likely looking at another season in the AHL. He will need to continue to adapt to playing against bigger, stronger forwards at the pro levels. Petan has the talent to succeed in the NHL, but he will need some time to develop.
Super Sleeper: Jan Kostalek
Defense — shoots Right
Born Feb 17 1995 — Prague, Czech Rep.
Height 6’1 — Weight 196 lbs [185 cm / 89 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in round 4, #114 overall, at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Jan Kostalek was another one of the talented group of Jets prospects who moved up to the pro ranks last summer. He had a largely forgettable first season with Manitoba, but there were some moments of brilliance scattered in. His adjustment to professional hockey has not been smooth, but there is still a lot of potential there.
Kostalek is a strong skater and projects as a two-way defender going forward. He moves well in both directions, with a good first step, good speed, and strong acceleration. Kostalek has excellent agility and edge work. His pivots are crisp, allowing him to quickly transition from offence to defence and vice-versa. He could stand to improve his core strength, so that he will improve in board battles and clearing the front of the net. It would give him more balance as well.
Kostalek did not put up huge points for Manitoba, but there are some skills there. He has a strong first pass and starts the transition game. He can also avoid fore checkers and skate the puck out of danger. In the offensive zone, he can use his quick feet to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes. His shot has decent power, though he could stand to get it on net more often. There is some offensive talent here. Last year he was mostly focused on playing a solid defensive game. Expect his point totals to increase when his offensive abilities are unleashed. While he likely won’t be a first pairing power play type of player, he could have a role on the second unit.
Kostalek is a good defender who uses his skating ability and is very difficult to beat one-on-one as a result. He maintains good gap control and forces defenders to the outside. Kostalek can play a very physical game. If a forward is attacking him with his head down, he will lay him out with a big hit. He is also willing to battle in the corners and clear the crease.
Kostalek needs to continue to work on his positioning and defensive instincts. He can sometimes lose his man when he is playing away from the puck. He has to avoid a tendency to puck watch and lose his man. Kostalek also has to make sure he does not get out of position when looking for those big hits.
Kostalek is still a bit of a project. He must get stronger, and work on improving some of the little things in his game. Expect him to spend at least a season, and more likely two at the AHL level. There is some pro potential here, and improvement should be expected in the coming years.
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 Jack Roslovic, Jansen Harkins, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux, Michael Spacek, and Chase De Leo add real depth. It would not be a surprise if a couple of those forwards make an impact at the NHL level over the next few years. On defence the Jets have added Logan Stanley, Luke Green, and Jacob Cederholm in this year’s draft. They add to an already deep group that includes Morrissey, Kostalek, Jack Glover, and Tucker Poolman.