The Jets held their annual development camp this past week at the MTS Iceplex. It was a great chance for the team to get all (most of) their prospects together – particularly the most recent draftees – and give them an introduction to the Winnipeg Jets’ organization. For fans, it was an opportunity to see some great young players up close, and get a glimpse of the organization’s future.
Just how good is the Jets’ current group of prospects? Those who follow the NHL Entry Draft closely gave the Jets excellent reviews from their 2015 selections. Furthermore, TSN’s director of scouting, Craig Button, already thought the Jets had the deepest prospect pool going into the draft. Whereas some teams might only have 10 legitimate NHL prospects, it’s reasonable to say that the Jets have 20. That isn’t to say that all of them will turn into NHL players – it may take 20 good prospects to turn out 7 or 8 NHL’ers, but that only serves to further underscore the need for depth. For now, here’s a review of the best forward prospects in the organization.
Top-10 Forward Prospects
(1) Nikolaj Ehlers
Nikolaj Ehlers is an incredibly dynamic winger, who looks poised to be the most exciting player to wear a Jets uniform since Teemu Selanne. He has electrifying speed, great puck control, a sniper’s release, and good playmaking skills too. He tore up the QMJHL last year, averaging roughly 2 points per game – 101 points in 51 games – and also led the QMJHL playoffs in scoring with 31 points in just 14 games. Not only does Ehlers have star potential, but it’s hard to see him being anything short of a 1st line winger based on his complete package of skills, and impressive accomplishments to date. That said, while it appears that he has little to prove in junior hockey, that doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be playing in the NHL this year. Because he comes from the CHL, he isn’t allowed to play in the AHL this coming year, so the Jets will have a tough choice to make. He’ll get a long look with the big club – at least *9 games – and might find a home on the third line with big Adam Lowry, whose size and smarts would be a nice complement to Ehlers’ speed and skill. The good news from development camp is that Ehlers has gained 14 pounds; the bad news, he’s still just 175 lbs.
*Once a teenage player reaches 10 games, their NHL Entry-Level contract officially kicks in; as a result, it’s common to see NHL teams send players down before they reach 10 GP
(2) Kyle Connor
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the Jets Hockey Operations department were probably jumping for joy when they learned that Kyle Connor would be available with the 17th pick. Practically every major scouting service had Connor falling no lower than 13, and he was ranked as high as #5 going into the Draft. Like fellow Jets prospect, Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor has a very complete package of skills – tremendous speed, quick hands, a great release, and a dynamic element to his game. He loves to create off the rush, and is able to beat defenders one-on-one, or feather a pass to an open teammate. He played last season in the USHL, where he scored 34 goals and 80 points for Youngstown. While he does need to add size and strength, the same could be said for 90% of recent draft picks, and at 6’1, all he needs is a few years to fill out. He will start his freshman year in college this fall at the University of Michigan, which has produced other top Jets prospects like Jacob Trouba and Andrew Copp. He’s also a strong bet to make the US World Junior team. Expect to see him with the Jets in 2 years or less.
(3) Nic Petan
Nic Petan is an absolute scoring machine at centre ice. In the last three WHL seasons, he’s played 188 games and racked up 322 points – almost 1.75 points per game. He’s primarily a set-up guy, who controls the puck in the offensize zone until he can find a teammate set-up in the slot, or around the goal mouth. This past season, he played just 54 games and still pitched in 74 assists. He also suited up for Team Canada at the World Juniors, winning a gold medal, and tying for the tournament scoring lead with 11 points in 7 games. The main concern with Petanis his size – at 5’9, it may be difficult for him to match up against 6’1 – 6’4 defencemen – many of whom skate as well as him, and have no trouble muscling him off the puck. That said, Petan’s hockey IQ is nearly off the charts, and if guys like David Desharnais, Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau, and Nate Gerbe (only 5’5!) can play, there’s a good chance that he can too. Petan will turn pro this fall, and will likely spend the vast majority of the season with the Moose.
(4) Jack Roslovic
Some people felt the Jets went off the board when they selected Jack Roslovic 25th in 2015, but that likely isn’t the case. Roslovic is another skilled forward, with good speed, soft hands, a quick release, and excellent offensive awareness. He spent most of the past season on the top line of the US National Development Team along with likely 2016, 1st overall selection, Auston Matthews, and another high-end prospect, Matthew Tkachuk. (Son of former Jet, Keith). While some argue that his totals were inflated by having two very talented linemates, those who followed the team said that the line didn’t really start clicking until Roslovic joined them. He also helped the US win World Under-18 Championships this spring, scoring 6 goals in 7 games, including the critical, game-tying goal in the gold medal game against Finland. Roslovic will attend the University of Miami this fall, and will have a good chance at cracking the US roster at the World Junior Championships.
(5) Jansen Harkins
In keeping with the Jets’ wonderful 2015 draft, they managed to snag Jansen Harkins with the 47th pick, despite the fact that he was ranked in the first round by many/most scouting services. A centre iceman who stands over 6’1, Harkins is billed as a two-way player who competes hard and has good playmaking ability. Although scouts don’t see high-end offensive upside from Harkins – likely a 2nd or 3rd line option – he had a very strong season with the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, leading them in scoring with 79 points in 70 games. He has represented Canada internationally, winning bronze at the Under-18 World Championships this spring, and posting 5 points in 7 games, and gold at last summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament (also an under-18 tourney), where he put up a total of 6 points in 5 games. He will continue to develop in the WHL this fall, and will probably be in the mix for Canada’s World Junior team.
(6) Brendan Lemieux
Brendan Lemieux is the son of former NHL’er Claude Lemieux – once the most despised player in the NHL. (At least, in Detroit). Acquired in the Myers-Kane deal this February, he plays in Barrie of the OHL where he does more or less what his dad did – score goals (41 last season), and grate on the opposition (145 PIMs). While he doesn’t have big offensive upside like some of the other Jets prospects, with his size, grit, and finishing ability, Lemieux is the type of player who will probably fit somewhere in an NHL lineup, likely as a top-9 forward. Like Nikolaj Ehlers, Lemieux is just 19, so he won’t have the option of playing in the NHL. Chances are he’ll return to Barrie for one last season in the OHL, and may be in the running for a spot on Team Canada at the World Juniors.
(7) Erik Foley
Foley was another great get at this year’s draft – while most scouts had him pegged as a second round pick, the Jets managed to nab him in the third round at #78. Though he isn’t big at 6′, 185, he’s well built, with a powerful skating stride. He plays with speed and intensity, as he demonstrated at development camp – traditionally a low-intensity affair – when he drove wide, cut in, and barreled into one of the Jets goalie prospects. He also has a nice scoring touch, as he potted 27 goals last year in just 55 games with Cedar Rapids of the USHL. He is committed to Providence College for his freshman year, and will likely spend two or three seasons there before turning pro. He may also get a shot with Team USA at World Juniors this winter, though he may also have to wait until next year.
(8) Andrew Copp
To suggest that Andrew Copp is the Jets’ 8th best forward prospect says a lot more about the overall talent pool than about his skill-set. Copp is coming from the University of Michigan, where he was team captain in his junior (3rd) season. He has an interesting background, as he was previously a standout quarterback in high school who didn’t focus on hockey full-time until freshman year in college. In fact, during the time where he split his time between hockey and football, he was a part-time member of the US Development Program team, simply because he happens to be from Ann Arbor Michigan – the place where the team is based. However, he actually managed to make the US World Under-18 team, becoming the first player to ever play in that tournament without being a full-time member of the US Development program. He then played for the US at the World Juniors in 2014, where he was an assistant captain, and had a successful college season in ’14-15, being named to the Big-Ten’s second all-star team. He turned pro at the end of last season, and played for the Jets in the very last game of the regular season, recording 1 assist. He doesn’t have the same kind of offensive upside as the prospects ranked above him, but he has size – 6’1, 210 – plays a mature, well-rounded game, and may be the most NHL ready of any of the Jets prospects. If the team doesn’t sign any more free agents, it’s likely that Copp will be the team’s 4th line centre to start the season. He projects as an excellent checking-line centre down the road.
(9) Chase de Leo
A hair bigger than his Portland Winterhawks teammate Nic Petan, Chase de Leo is a versatile forward who can play any forward position. He has speed, skill, and tenacity, and one heck of a shot. He also happens to be best friends with fellow Jets prospect, goaltender Eric Comrie. While his lack of size is certainly an issue, he does have a very high compete level, and a strong work ethic. De Leo spent last season in the WHL, where he was third in team scoring with 84 points, and also suited up for the US at the World Juniors. Although he already skates well, he’ll need to become exceptional if he is to play in the NHL at a hair under 5’10. He will join the Moose this fall, and will likely spend a few years honing his skills in the AHL.
(10) Joel Armia
Joel Armia might be the modern day Viktor Kozlov. Big and skilled, with tremendous hands and a great release, and yet he doesn’t produce like you might expect. Some nights, he’s far and away the most dominant player on the ice, but at other times, he has a tendency to disappear. Barring a very strong training camp, he’ll begin his third year in the AHL, and while no one questions his talent, many wonder why the 16th overall pick in 2011 has only 1 NHL game under his belt thus far. He should be the most dangerous player on the Moose to start the year, and would be a great complement to a small playmaker like Nic Petan. If he gets off to a good start, expect him to be the first call-up should an injury occur to a top-6 foward.
HM – Michael Spacek
A fourth round pick -108th overall in the 2015 draft, Spacek is a creative player who can make a play and also finish one. While his stats from last season don’t overwhelm you – 12 points in 40 games – you have to appreciate the fact that the 17-year-old played against men in a pretty strong Czech league, and was stuck pretty far down the depth chart for much of the season. Conversely, when he played against his same-age peers at the World Under-18’s, he posted 5 points in 5 games. While he isn’t a can’t-miss prospect, he certainly has far more upside than the average 4th round pick. Spacek will likely suit up again for HC Pardubice in the top Czech league, and will also represent his country at the World Junior Championships this Christmas.
Coming up tomorrow, the top defencemen and goaltenders