The Winnipeg Jets and the NHL Draft

A Good Draft Pick

A Good Draft Pick

Check out another recent draft post here

The Winnipeg Jets are killing the draft. Killing it.

Everyone knows about Trouba, Scheifele, and Morrissey – all of whom look like great picks so far – but the Jets aren’t get enough credit for the picks they’re making outside of the first round. Whether it’s Adam Lowry – a potential power forward who’s easily the most hyped non-first rounder in the system – Scott Kosmachuk – a big-time scorer in the OHL – Nic Petan – one of the most skilled players in the entire 2013 draft (at pick #43!), or Andrew Copp – a 4th round pick they plucked from Michigan State who has the makings of a reliable NHLer – the young talent they’re assembling is impressive. I haven’t even mentioned Connor Hellebuyck, who was named NCAA goaltender of the year after posting absurd numbers that wouldn’t even make sense to you if I posted them. (Hockey db it, seriously, it’s stupid how good he was).

And what’s even more exciting is the way they’re developing that talent. They quite rightly decided to keep Scheifele in junior for two years after his draft in 2011, and the extra development time was crucial to his success. He needed time to gain size, strength, and overall maturity, and there’s no way to overstate the experience he got from carrying his team through the OHL playoffs, or suiting up for Canada (twice) at the World Juniors. And after Josh Morrissey finished a dominant WHL season in Prince Albert, (along with an appearance at the World Juniors), he was assigned to the AHL for the Ice Caps’ stretch run. Once there, he looked more like a seasoned vet than a teenager, posting 9 points in 20 games, and playing top-4 minutes against some very tough opponents.

On that note, the importance of this past season in St. John’s can’t be overstated. Beyond Morrissey, there were so many other positive developments that it’s hard to fully appreciate. Take a couple of holdovers from the Thrashers days – Eric O’Dell and John Albert. Each of them played key roles for St. John’s all year long, and down the stretch in the playoff run. O’Dell is a small’ish centre whose major weakness is his skating, but his skill and smarts should give him a shot to be a decent-to-good NHL’er. Albert is another smaller guy who really hit his stride this past season. After looking like a career minor-leaguer in his first two pro seasons, he suddenly broke out and scored 28 goals in only 63 games, and even got into 9 NHL games, scoring a nice goal on a breakaway in his very first game. Albert will likely be a fourth line centre at the NHL level, but to get that out of a 6th round pick in 2007 who looked to be going nowhere is yet another bonus. And then there was the unexpectedly huge season turned in by Brenden Kicthon – a player who was drafted in 2011 by the Islanders, went unsigned (apparently they thought he was no good), and then went unselected until the Jets picked him in the 7th round, 190th overall. All he did this past year was toss up 48 points, and make the AHL all-star game in his rookie season. Another example of a late pick blowing expectations out of the water.

I’d be remiss if I left out the Ice Caps’ de facto playoff MVP, Michael Hutchinson. Drafted by Boston in the third round in 2008 (around the same pick where Jonathan Quick was drafted by the Kings in 2005, fyi), the Bruins let Hutchinson go because of great depth in their minor league system, with Swedish standout Niklas Svedberg and 2012 first-round pick, Malcolm Subban. Hutchinson started the year in the ECHL, and prior to January, he got into only 1 AHL game. But when Ice Caps’ starter Edddie Pasquale got hurt, Hutchinson got his shot, and once he took the crease, he was loathe to relinquish it. He went on an absolute tear, winning 6 straight games in January. Then, he went on a separate streak in Feb/March, where he won 10/11, including 8 in a row. Still not satisfied, he guided the Ice Caps’ to the Calder Cup final, posting a stellar 12-9 record, with a 1.95 GAA and .938 save%. Only the AHL’s top team – the Texas Stars – were able to make Hutchinson look somewhat human. Expect him to win the back-up role for the Jets this season, and seriously challenge Ondrej Pavelec for the starting role.

Anyway, I could write about the Ice Caps’ season forever, it was that good. Point is, someone knows what they’re doing down there – and I’m gonna attribute most of that to Assistant GM Craig Heisinger.  The architect of the Manitoba Moose for many years, Heisinger is the man who rescued Alex Burrows from complete obscurity in the ECHL, stood firm on Kevin Bieksa when the Canucks wanted to ditch him, and oversaw the development of a number of key Canucks players like Kesler, Schneider, Edler, and others. This is the man we have overseeing our AHL op’s and professional scouting, and we couldn’t have a better guy at the helm.

The 2014 NHL Draft

The early portion of this year’s draft reminds me a bit of 2007. That year, there was no obvious big-name player, no absolute consensus pick. Patrick Kane was the likely choice that year, and he did go 1st to Chicago after they won the Draft Lottery to move up four spots, from #5 to #1. (Looking back it’s funny to think that he wasn’t the runaway choice for first, but at the time he was a bit of a late bloomer, and had a few scouts concerned due to his very slight build). James Van Riesdyk and Kyle Turris were ranked by most at #2 and #3, but more than a few people thought Turris could go #1.That’s a lot like this year, where Ekblad, Reinhart, and Bennett are all vying for #1, and depending on who’s picking, the results could be very different.

Another similarity is the type of players projected early. In 2007, 7 of the top 9 picks were forwards; that pattern is likely this year, as only Ekblad and Fleury are universally ranked in the top-10. Furthermore, you could even make some direct player comparisons between 2007 picks and 2014 projectees:

Karl Alzner went 5th in 2007, and compares in many ways to Red Deer defenceman Haydn Fleury. Both are big, smart, two-way defencemen who didn’t put up crazy stats in their draft year, though some scouts feel that Fleury has some upside he’s not yet showing. Fleury may not become a star, but most scouts see him as a safe pick, just like Alzner was in his draft year. That said, Fleury will probably go a little later than Alzner did – probably in the 7-10 range, as most people believe that Michael Dal Colle will go #5, right after the big-4 of Ekblad, Bennett, Reinhart and Draisaitl are off the board.

Sam Gagner went 6th – a small, but slick centre who tore up the OHL along with a high-end linemate, Patrick Kane. Well it just so happens that Danish-born prospect Nikolaj Ehlers posted some disturbingly large numbers this year as well, and rode shot-gun with an even more talented player you may have heard of named Jonathan Drouin. Like Gagner, he is also a small, slick foward, though he’s a bit more of a finisher than Gagner, and plays on the wing. Expect Ehlers to go anywhere in that 6-10 range.

Jakub Voracek went 7th – a big Czech forward with great hands who wasn’t necessarily a power forward.  Though he’s ranked a bit lower than 7th, Brendan Perlini has the potential to be just like Voracek – a taller player, though not a power forward, with great speed and a very good wrist shot. For what it’s worth, Nick Ritchie is projected to go right around where Voracek was drafted, though he’s bigger and stronger, and not as good a skater.

Who Will the Jets Pick?

The Jets pick at #9, and they can only hope that this draft is like 2007, where Logan Couture was selected by San Jose. (The Sharks actually traded up to get the pick, sending Vesa Toskala to Toronto in order to move up a few picks. Oops. Like, big oops.) Couture is arguably the best player from that draft after Patrick Kane, and does just about everything for San Jose. Interestingly, one prospect that compares to Couture, though without as much upside, is Jared McCann.  Each of them plays centre and hovers around 6 feet. Each is a good goal scorer and plays both sides of the ice. Each was hyped coming into the OHL and had very good rookie seasons when they were just 16-years of age; then each promptly disappointed the scouts in their draft-eligible season (usually the season before they turn 18), and fell down the rankings. McCann is projected to go a bit later – more in the 10-15 range – but I’d bet that he’s on the Jets radar, especially if they end up swapping with another team and drafting about 5 picks later.

With the consensus top-5 of Ekblad, Bennett, Reinhart, Draisaitl, Dal Colle (in some unpredictable order), the Jets will probably get a crack at one of the highly touted forwards – Virtanen, Ritchie, Ehlers, or Nylander, assuming that somebody takes the defenceman, Hayden Fleury, which is fairly likely. Of the forwards, Nylander has the most boom/bust – some say he is the most skilled player in the entire draft, but he isn’t big, isn’t a great skater, and most importantly, some scouts see him as a bit selfish. I’d guess that Virtanen and Ritchie will be off the board when the Jets pick given that they’re big, Canadian kids who skate well (especially Virtanen) and posted good numbers – those players tend not to fall down the draft, especially when the alternative is two small, European forwards, one of whom has “character issues”, and the other’s production is in question because he played with the best player in the CHL. (Ehlers, paired with Drouin in Halifax).

Based on what Chevy has been saying and doing since he got to town, i.e they like “character” guys, and they’ve been drafting almost exclusively from North America – I’d guess that Nylander probably isn’t high on their list. I also think that they’re pretty set at D, with a young d-core of Bogo, Trouba, and Morrissey, so I’m hopeful that they choose a forward instead of a D, (though Fleury does look good). If they do go forward, and stay at pick #9, I think they’ll probably be choosing between Ehlers and Perlini. Of those two, I’d take Ehlers, the far more skilled of the two. Craig Button had the Jets taking Ehlers at 9 in his mock draft, but I get the feeling that this year will have a lot more movement than what we’ve seen in recent years. There’s talk that the Panthers (#1 pick) and Islanders (#5) are aggressively gauging the value of their picks, and then there are teams just below, like Vancouver at #6, who are starting a rebuild and need to decide whether they’re going to simply dip their toe in the water or go all-in and commit to a rebuild (which might involve moving up in the draft and taking a franchise cornerstone like Bennett rather than just a good prospect like Virtanen or Nylander.)