Welcome to the 2017 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. During the summer, I will feature a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. 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.
I will link 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 2017-18 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 a dark horse to make the NHL. 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old is the cut-off for prospects. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Winnipeg Jets Prospects
A familiar problem plagued the Winnipeg Jets last season. Their goaltending just was not good enough. A high powered offence led by Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and super rookie Patrik Laine had the Jets finish 7th in the NHL in goals for. They finished 27th in the NHL in goals against. Goalies Connor Hellebuyck (.907 save percentage); Michael Hutchinson (.903); and Ondrej Pavelec (.888) did not make enough saves. The Jets biggest off-season move is an attempt to strengthen that weakness as they have added Steve Mason, formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers, as a free agent. They have also tried to shore up the defence, signing Dmitry Kulikov, formerly of the Buffalo Sabres.
2017 NHL Draft Picks: Kristian Vesalainen, Dylan Samberg, Johnathan Kovacevic, Santeri Virtanen, Leon Gawanke, Arvid Holm, Skyler McKenzie, Croix Evingson
Graduates: Patrik Laine, Josh Morrissey, Connor Hellebuyck, Nic Petan, Joel Armia, Brandon Tanev, Julian Melchiori (age)
Top Prospect: Kyle Connor
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born December 9th, 1996 — Shelby Township, Michigan
Height 6’1″ — Weight 177 lbs [185 cm / 80 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1st Round, 17th overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
After a monster freshman season at the University of Michigan, where he was a Hobey Baker Award finalist, much was expected when Kyle Connor made the jump to the pros. He was not ready for the NHL. Connor had just two goals and three assists in 20 games. The Jets gave him plenty of time with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and he excelled with 25 goals and 19 assists for 44 points in 52 games.
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. This is one area he should work on this summer. He does not shy away from physical contact. However, with added strength he would be even more effective.
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 stick handles 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 over the last couple of years. This opened up his game, and kept defencemen guessing. He still maintained the ability to be an excellent play maker 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 at Michigan, but as a young player has not done that much in the pros yet. 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 heads to training camp, on the heels of his impressive AHL performance and looking to crack the lineup on a full-time basis. He will compete with players like Michael Sgarbossa, Marko Dano, and Brandon Tanev for a spot on the roster. If he can crack the top nine (and he should), the Jets likely keep him up. However, if he’s slated for fourth line duty or the press box, expect to see him back in the AHL, playing big minutes and waiting for a spot to open due to injury. Either way, it won’t be long before Connor makes an NHL impact.
#2 Prospect: Kristian Vesalainen
The Jets drafted Vesalainen with the 24th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Vesalainen. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#3 Prospect: Jack Roslovic
Center — shoots Right
Born January 29th, 1997 — Columbus, Ohio
Height 6’1″ — Weight 182 lbs [185 cm / 83 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1st round, #25 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Roslovic spent just one year at Miami (Ohio), before signing his entry-level contract and going pro last season. He had a solid year with the Manitoba Moose, putting up 13 goals and 48 points in 65 games. This is excellent AHL production for a junior aged player. He also played in the World Juniors, helping Team USA to the gold medal, though he only had two assists in the seven games. He even got to experience his first NHL game.
Roslovic has a very strange skating stride, that is very hard to describe. It almost looks like he is skating bow-legged. Yet, despite this less than textbook stride, he gets very good speed, and quick acceleration. He is able to beat defenders wide off the rush. The unique stride also gives him a low centre of gravity, which allows Roslovic to fight through checks and protect the puck. His edge work and agility are also very good and he is able to beat defenders with quick cuts, and stick handle past them. He is able to stop and turn on a dime. This really helps him to protect the puck. He can beat a defender in the cycle game to create an opportunity to set up a play, get off a shot, or take the puck to the net.
Roslovic is more of a play maker than a goal scorer. He has very good passing skill, excellent vision, and the hockey IQ to make the smart plays. When he does give up the puck, he often darts into an opening, looking for a give and go from a teammate. Roslovic has extremely good stick handling ability, and the soft hands to make skilled plays in tight areas. This creates the room for him to open up passing lanes. Roslovic has a decent release, but his shot could add power and he could use it more often. His hands are good in close to the net.
Roslovic likes to play a dump and chase game and has the speed necessary to get to pucks in the corners, or to pressure defencemen. Previous knocks on Roslovic centred on his physicality. There were times he was not always physical, or fully engaged in a battle for a loose puck. There were times when he is willing to play a fearless style, digging for pucks, holding on to the puck an extra second and taking the hit to make a play, or getting to high traffic areas. However there were other games when he shies away from the contact. This seems to be a thing of the past. As Roslovic has added muscle to his frame, he has become much more consistent in playing a gritty game, night in and night out.
Roslovic’s defensive game shows the same tendencies as his offensive game. He has improved his consistency and his engagement. He is involved in the play, and willing to work in his own end of the rink. Roslovic can be a very effective 200 foot player.
Roslovic should be with the Manitoba Moose to start the season. Just 20 years old, he has plenty of time to continue rounding out his game. Working on his shot, and shooting more often; continuing to get stronger; and just rounding out his game will be goals for the year.
#4 Prospect: Tucker Poolman
Defense — Shoots Right
Born June 8th, 1993 — East Grand Forks, Minnesota
Height 6’3″ — Weight 210 lbs [191 cm / 95 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 5th round, #127 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Poolman finished up his third year with the University of North Dakota, scoring seven goals and adding 23 assists for 30 points in 38 games. The defenceman had a successful career with the Fighting
Sioux Hawks, including being part of the 2016 National Championship winning squad. He signed with the Jets this summer, and now turns pro.
Poolman is a very good skater for his size. He has good speed and acceleration in both directions. He also has very good lateral agility, edge work and pivots. This allows him to cover a lot of ice, and to keep the play in front of him. He also has good lower body strength. Poolman is strong on his skates, wins battles on the boards, and clears the front of the net.
While defence is the strength of Poolman’s game, there is some offensive potential there. He has an absolute rocket of a shot from the point. He will need to work on making sure he finds the shooting lanes to get it on net though. Poolman is also a very good passer. He starts the transition game, making strong passes to streaking forwards. He also can make plays at the point on the power play. Poolman has become more confident in joining the rush, and does so from time-to-time. He picks his spots, and does not get caught up the ice often.
Poolman is very strong in his own end. He maintains good gap control, and keeps his man to the outside. He has strong positioning, keeping himself between the puck and the net. While Poolman is not a big hitter, he wins battles on the boards, and clears the front of the net. Poolman is also not afraid to block shots. He reads the play extremely well, and creates turnovers with his strong anticipation. Poolman is very good on the penalty kill. Once he gets the puck, Poolman transitions it up the ice quickly.
Poolman comes to camp without any pro experience, and right defense is one tough nut to crack when it comes to the Jets roster. He also had two shoulder surgeries at the end of last season, and there is some question if he will be 100% for September camp. While he is already 24, Poolman needs to play more games and big minutes. He should not be in the NHL if he is going to be in the press box. Expect to see him playing for the Manitoba Moose this season. If he plays well, he could progress through the system quickly.
#5 Prospect: Sami Niku
Defense — shoots Left
Born October 10th, 1996 — Haapavesi, Finland
Height 6’0″ — Weight 168 lbs [183 cm / 76 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 7th round, #198 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Niku had a strong season with JYP playing in Finland’s top men’s league. He put up five goals and 27 points in 59 regular season games and a goal and six points in 15 playoff games. The team finished third in Finland. He also had a goal and three points in eight Champions Hockey League games. Following the season, Niku signed an entry-level deal with the Jets. Niku was part of the 2016 Finnish World Junior team that took home the gold medal.
Niku is another strong skater. His stride is long and smooth, giving him good speed and acceleration. This is also true about his backwards skating. His agility and pivots are particularly strong. Niku can change directions on a dime, allowing him to avoid forecheckers, or to stay with his man. He also transitions quickly from offence to defence and vice-versa. Niku could stand to add muscle to his lower body though, in order to be a little stronger on his skates.
Niku has a powerful shot from the point. He uses his lateral agility to walk the line, opening up shooting lanes to get that shot off. Niku understands how to keep it low, and on net, in order to give teammates opportunities for rebounds, deflections and tips. He is also a strong play maker. Niku has good vision, and good passing skills. He can skate the puck out of danger in his own end, as well as start the transition with a good pass. Niku has even been known to lead the rush, showing good stickhandling skill, and the ability to beat defenders one-on-one.
Niku is undersized. He can get pushed around on the boards, and struggles to clear big forwards in front of the net. He needs to add muscle in the next few years, especially as he transitions to the smaller sized ice surfaces. Niku has a quick stick, and can pokecheck the puck away from opponents. He is also very smart in his positioning and anticipation. While he will likely never be a bruiser, he can be an effective defender if he gains that additional strength.
Niku comes over to North America this year. He will likely begin the season with the Manitoba Moose. Expect Niku to spend at least a year in the AHL, though he may get some call-ups due to injury.
#6 Prospect: Eric Comrie
Goalie — Shoots Left — Catches Left
Born July 6th, 1995 — Edmonton, Alberta
Height 6’1″ — Weight 180 lbs [185 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2nd round, #59 overall at the 2013 NHL Draft
Comrie started for the Moose last season, putting up a 2.96 goals against average and .907 save percentage over 51 games. He also earned a role as a goaltender for Team Canada at the World Championships, but did not get in any games.
Comrie has decent size and good technique as a hybrid goalie. He has very good lateral movement and gets side to side quickly and efficiently. He reads the play well and shows excellent puck tracking as he is rarely caught out of position. His quick legs do a great job of taking away the bottom of the net. He also has a very quick glove hand which helps him to take away the top portions.
Comrie plays a very aggressive style and comes out far to cut down angles and take away net from shooters. He has excellent backwards skating which allows him to do this and recover if a forward tries to deke him to the net. Like many young goalies, he does need work on his rebound control and this is the biggest issue in his game today. It has shown some improvement. He recovers quickly and square up to rebounds which does help him, however the rebound control must also still improve.
With Mason and Hellebuyck taking the goaltending roles in Winnipeg, Comrie will likely spend another year developing in Manitoba. He should be the first call-up if there are any goaltending injuries.
#7 Prospect: Dylan Samberg
The Jets drafted Samberg with the 43re overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Samberg. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
Sleeper: Michael Spacek
Center — shoots Right
Born April 9th, 1997 — Pardubice, Czech Republic
Height 5’11” — Weight 190 lbs [180 cm/86 kg]
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 4th round, #108 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Spacek had a breakout season for the Red Deer Rebels. He had 30 goals and 85 points in 59 games. He was even better in the playoffs with four goals and 12 points in seven games. Spacek got in four games for the Manitoba Moose, and also represented the Czechs at the World Juniors.
Spacek is a decent skater with good acceleration and speed. He also has strong agility and good edge work. Spacek can change directions quickly and weave through traffic. He is very elusive, and while he is undersized, he has a really knack for deftly dodging opponents looking to make a big hit. Spacek will need to get stronger in the pros, to improve his strength on the puck. A low centre of gravity helps him, but he will still need a bit more in the pros.
Spacek controls the puck well, slowing things down and looking for openings. He is a very good stick handler and protects the puck extremely well. Spacek works well controlling the play down low and playing the cycle game. He has very good hockey sense and makes smart plays. Spacek uses his vision and slick passing skills to set up teammates if they get open for a good scoring opportunity. He also has the patience to make the simple play and keep possession if the pass is not there.
Spacek also reads the defence well, and can sneak into openings when he doesn’t have the puck. He has worked to develop his shot, and has a good release now. He is also willing to get to the front of the net without the puck.
Spacek is responsible defensively. He reads the play well and is rarely caught out of position. He supports the defence on the back check, but lacks the size and strength to handle bigger forwards. Red Deer used him on the penalty kill where his ability to create turnovers was a real plus.
Spacek heads to the pros this year. Expect to see him playing for the Manitoba Moose for a year or two before he gets a real shot in the NHL. He is a bit of a project.
The Jets had the third best ranked system in last year’s TSP series. With seven players who were considered prospects one year ago now graduated, they are likely to slip a bit this year. Still it shows the remarkable depth of the organization that there are some quality players who have not been mentioned above. Jansen Harkins, Brendan Lemieux, Eric Foley and Chase de Leo are legitimate prospects. The Jets also added Santeri Virtanen on draft day. The defence also has Logan Stanley, Nelson Nogier, and Luke Green. Jonathan Kovacevic and Leon Gawanke were added at the draft. Mikhail Berdin is further down the goalie depth chart.
Main Photo: WINNIPEG, MB – OCTOBER 27: Jets Kyle Connor (81) handles the puck during the NHL game between the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars on October 27, 2016 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg MB. (Photo by Terry Lee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)