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. The cut-off for prospects is typically 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: Arizona Coyotes Prospects
The 2016-17 season was a bit of a disappointment for the Coyotes. Once again they failed to take the next step and begin to move up the NHL standings. In an attempt to change things going forward, general manager John Chayka has made a number of off-season moves to try and improve the club. He sent long-time starting goalie Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames ahead of the NHL Expansion Draft. He also acquired Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks to shore up the Coyotes blue line. Chayka also added Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to give the team an experienced centre and new number one goalie. The organization also waived good bye to long-time Coyote Shane Doan, marking a new beginning for the franchise. The team also has a new head coach in Rick Tocchet.
2017 Draft Picks: Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Filip Westerlund, MacKenzie Entwistle, Nate Schnarr, Cameron Crotty, Noel Hoefenmayer, Michael Karow, Tyler Steenbergen, Erik Walli-Walterholm
Graduates: Christian Dvorak, Jakob Chychrun, Brendan Perlini, Lawson Crouse,
Top Prospect: Dylan Strome
Center — shoots Left
Born March 7th, 1997 — Mississauga, Ontario
Height 6’3″ — Weight 194 lbs [191 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in the 1st round, #3 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft.
The third overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, it was hoped that Strome could make the Coyotes out of camp last year. He got in seven NHL games, but was generally ineffective with just one assist and so the decision was to send him to the World Junior Championships, as well as have him re-join the Erie Otters of the OHL.
Strome dominated other players of the same age. He put up 75 points in 35 OHL games, scored 34 points in 22 playoff games as the Otters won the OHL Championship, and was the Memorial Cup MVP (in a losing effort) with 11 points in five games. At the world juniors he had 10 points in seven games. While many are down on Strome for not making an NHL impact and ending up back in junior, it should be remembered that he was only 19 years old. This is no reason to downgrade him as a prospect, he’s still an elite blue chipper.
Dylan Strome’s skating has been a source of criticism in other reports, but it is something that is a bit overblown. He shows a relatively smooth skating stride once he gets going, but his first few steps are choppy. A good skating coach can help Strome improve in this area. His top end speed is decent, but his acceleration and first few steps could really use some improvement. In terms of agility and edge work, Strome has the ability to beat defenders one-on-one in the cycle game or off the rush, and he also has the power and balance to fight through checks, and he is hard to knock off the puck.
While its true that there are issues here, they are also issues that can be fixed. In fact, there have already been some improvements in this aspect of his game. Strome will likely never be a speedster, however, he should be more than good enough to be an effective NHL player.
A versatile forward, Strome spent some time at all three forward spots over his first two OHL years. He played almost exclusively at centre the past two seasons, and this is likely his position in the pros. Strome has an outstanding wrist shot, and a great release. He also has very good hands in tight and can be a real sniper. Strome also has the ability to be a play maker with great vision and passing skills. He has good size and uses it to protect the puck in the cycle game. Strome is great at working down low, extending plays and waiting for the opening to take the puck to the front of the net. He can also wait for for a linemate to get open and make the tape-to-tape pass.
Strome has high-end hockey IQ, and seems to make the right play with the puck on his stick, or can find openings in the defense to set himself up for a one-timer. He is not afraid to battle for loose pucks in the corners. If he wins the battle he can quickly get the puck to an open teammate. With his size, he is not afraid to drive the net.
Strome is outstanding on face-offs, and is one of the best in the OHL. His defensive game is decent. However it would be improved if Strome can work on his first few steps. He commits to back checking. Strome supports the defence down low. He is willing to do whatever it takes to win games.
Dylan Strome has the size and skill to be a potential top line centre in the NHL. He is NHL ready now, and all indications are that he will make the Coyotes roster this fall. While he still has room to grow, he will begin taking the steps needed to be a franchise centre. Being insulated behind Stepan will be a great benefit to Strome as he grows and develops.
#2 Prospect: Clayton Keller
Centre — shoots Left
Born July 29th 1998 — Swanson, Illinois
Height 5’10” — Weight 168 lbs [178 cm/76 kg]
Drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in the 1st round, #7 overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft
After being a 7th overall pick one year ago, Keller had an outstanding season. He put up 21 goals and 45 points in just 31 games for Boston University, before signing his Entry Level Contract and going pro at the end of the season. He then joined the Coyotes and did not look out of place at the NHL level, with two assists in three games. Keller also succeeded at the international level with 11 points in 7 games at the World Juniors, and seven points in eight games at the Men’s World Championships.
Keller is a quick skater with an outstanding first step and an ability to accelerate extremely quickly. He darts into openings in the offensive zone, creating space to get a pass and get off a quick shot. Keller’s ability to change speeds on the rush can create nightmares for defencemen. He also has excellent agility and the edge work necessary to weave through traffic and create scoring chances. The exceptional skating often allows Keller to gain a step on defenders, and force them into taking penalties to prevent him creating a scoring chance. Keller needs to add muscle to his frame going forward though, as he can get knocked around by bigger defenders at this point. He needs to strengthen his core in order to improve his balance and be more effective in the corners and in front of the net.
Keller can be a pure sniper. His snapshot and wrist shot are lightning quick, heavy and deadly accurate. Keller has a nice arsenal of shots, as he also has a good one-timer, and a strong backhand. He uses his skating skills to make plays with the puck on his stick, creating passing lanes where he can set up a teammate with a tape-to-tape pass. Defenders have to respect his speed, and when they back off to protect the net, he can pull up to use the defender as a screen and fire it on net, or to create an opportunity to set up a teammate.
Keller’s is a smooth stick handler. He can beat defenders one-on-one both on the rush, and in the cycle game. He extends plays allowing his teammates the time to get open. His hockey sense is extremely well developed and he makes smart plays with the puck on his stick. Keller has excellent vision, and can thread a pass through the tiniest of openings to set up a teammate for a scoring chance. He also has a knack for avoiding defenders and getting open to unleash his shot.
Keller may be undersized, but that doesn’t hurt his defensive game at all. He is strong in the face-off circle. He reads the play extremely well and cuts down passing lanes and creates turnovers with his quickness. Once that happens Keller can transition to offense extremely quickly. Despite his size he’s willing to play a gritty game and backchecks well, but could again use added core strength going forward.
Keller will be expected to make the Coyotes out of training camp. He may start out on the wing, while adjusting to the NHL game. Expect him to eventually move back to the middle where he can be a dynamic offensive force. With Strome, Keller, and Christian Dvorak, the Coyotes future at centre looks very bright.
#3 Prospect: Christian Fischer
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born April 15th, 1997 — Chicago, Illinois
Height 6’2″ — Weight 214 lbs [188 cm / 97 kg]
Drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2nd round, 32 overall, at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Fischer turned pro and had a solid rookie campaign with the Tucson Roadrunners in the AHL. He put up 20 goals and 47 points in 57 games. He also got an opportunity in the NHL, picking up three goals in seven NHL games.
Fischer is a very good skater. He has a long and powerful stride. This generates good speed, but it is his quickness and acceleration that really put him on another level. Fischer also has the strength and balance to fight through checks, to win battles on the boards, and to take punishment but still make his way to the front of the net. His agility and edgework is decent but could even be a little bit better.
Fischer has very good size, and knows how to use it. He plays a power forward style, driving the net, getting in quickly on the forecheck, and battling for loose pucks along the boards. Fischer has the soft hands to finish in front of the net, but also has a powerful wrist shot and quick release. His one timer is also extremely powerful and effetive. Fischer has good hockey sense. He finds openings in the defence to get his shot off. When playing the cycle game, he protects the puck extremely well, using his body and positioning to shield the puck from defenders.
Fischer has decent passing skills, but he isn’t one to often thread the needle through an extremely tight lane to set up a teammate. Instead he finds openings and makes the smart, safe play to keep possession and keep the cycle going in the offensive zone. He plays a straightforward north-south game, and don’t expect Fischer to show off a wide variety of dangles or make too many highlight reel type of plays, but he is effective when playing that power game.
Fischer plays his gritty, physical game in all three zones. He does not take a shift off, and back checks effectively, supporting the defence down low. He works hard to be well positioned as well. Fischer takes away passing and shooting lanes. Fischer was often used as a penalty killer in junior. His two-way game is already at an advanced stage for a player his age.
Fischer needs a bit more development to refine certain areas of his game, but remains a top prospect. He should start the season in the AHL with the Roadrunners. Expect to see Fischer get a few call-ups this year. He projects to make the NHL full-time in 2018-19
#4 Prospect: Kyle Wood
Defense — shoots Right
Born May 4 1996 — Waterloo, Ontario
Height 6’5″ — Weight 223 lbs [196 cm / 101 kg]
Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the 3rd round, #84 overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Arizona Coyotes in March 2016
Wood had an outstanding rookie season with Tucson. 14 goals and 43 points would be impressive production for a rookie forward in the AHL. However, Wood put up those numbers as a defenceman. He made the AHL all-rookie team, and was the league’s rookie of the month in October.
Wood is a very good skater for his size. He shows decent speed in both directions, as well as good acceleration. His agility and edge work allow him to maintain good gap control and keep attackers to the outside in most situations. He can sometimes struggle with very quick attackers, but handles most forwards well off the rush. His balance is very good and he is strong on the puck.
In his draft year Wood had just 12 points. Many scouts saw him as a defense only defenceman who wouldn’t bring much of an offensive game. That has changed over the last three years. Wood’s offensive game has taken off, and gets better each season. He has an impressive slap shot. It is a bomb from the point, and Wood understands how to get the puck through even when challenged by shot blockers. He also has a good wrist shot and release.
Wood is not just about a heavy shot. He can do it all from the point. He shows good poise with the puck, keeping his head up, quarterbacking the play and finding the smart pass. Wood shows excellent passing skill on the back end, with the ability to get passes through tight openings. He walks the line to create bigger passing and shooting lanes. Wood starts the transition game with a good first pass as well.
His defensive game remains strong. The 6’5″ defender is willing to throw big hits if attackers come down his side of the ice with their head down. Big and strong, Wood battles hard in front of the net and in the corners. He also uses his long stick to cut down passing lanes, and is not afraid to block shots.
Wood is knocking on the door of an NHL spot. Expect to see him given a real opportunity to make the Coyotes out of training camp. If he is not NHL ready in October, he is very, very close. He will either be a full-timer to start the season, or a mid-season call-up who grabs a spot and does not look back. Wood may be a third pairing player to start, but expect him to be a top four defenceman in time.
#5 Prospect: Pierre-Olivier Joseph
The Coyotes drafted Joseph in the first round, 23rd overall at the 2017 NHL Draft. Since no meaningful games have been played since the draft; I will not be rewriting the report. You can find it here.
#6 Prospect: Nick Merkley
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born May 23rd, 1997 — Calgary, Alberta
Height 5’10” — Weight 185 lbs [178 cm / 84 kg]
Drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in the 1st round, #30 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Merkley finished his WHL career with another solid year with the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL. He put up 23 goals and 63 points in 63 games. He also put up six goals and 19 points in 17 playoff games. The numbers aren’t the type to blow anyone away, but they are decent production for the former first round pick.
Merkley is a very good skater with a solid stride. He has a low centre of gravity, and good lower body strength which gives him great balance and strength. He is very difficult to knock off the puck, and wins board battles. Merkley has very good speed and acceleration as well. He has the ability to change speeds and very his approach, which can make him tough to handle for defenders. Merkley’s agility and edge work make him extremely elusive, and he can beat defenders to the net, both on the rush and in the cycle game.
Merkley is listed at 5’10” and size is the major knock against him. Despite the size, Merkley isn’t afraid to go to the net, and to battle in the dirty areas of the ice; fighting for pucks in the corners or battling in the front of the net. He is also willing to drive the net both with and without the puck. With his excellent balance, and good lower body strength, he is hard to knock off the puck.
He has solid offensive skills including very good vision and passing ability. Merkley sees the ice very well, and can thread a tape-to-tape pass through the smallest of openings. Merkley has high-end hockey IQ and almost always seems to make the smart play with the puck on his stick. He uses good stick handling and puck protection in the cycle game to extend plays and wait for his teammates to get open.
While Merkley is more of a play maker than a goal scorer, he also has an accurate shot and good release. He started to use that shot more and the results are seen in his increased goal totals. He could still stand to shoot the puck more though. Mekley could add some upper body strength to make his shot harder though, as it is just a bit above average in that department.
Merkley is tenacious in the backcheck and uses his hockey IQ to anticipate plays and create turnovers. He gets the transition game going very quickly when he does steal pucks or intercept passes. He is willing to block shots and works to provide back pressure and support down low. Again more upper body strength would help him to contain opposing forwards down low in the cycle game. Merkley is the type of high-energy player who never takes a shift off and competes hard in all three zones, and is the type who will quickly become a coaches’ favorite.
Expect to see Merkley in the AHL this season. There is some offensive skill in his game, but it is doubtful that Merkley will ever be a top-line player. He will need a couple years to continue to refine his game, and adjust to the increased speed of pro hockey. He could become a solid second or third line winger in time.
Sleeper Prospect: Connor Garland
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born Mar 11 1996 — Boston, MA
Height 5’8″ — Weight 163 lbs [173 cm / 74 kg]
Drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in round 5, 123rd overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Make no mistake, Garland is not the Coyotes 7th best prospect. He is our top sleeper, or best player drafted in the fourth round or later.
After an outstanding junior career, Garland had a rough introduction to professional hockey. In his first season with the Roadrunners, he had just five goals and 14 points in 55 games. It raised questions as to whether or not the undersized winger would be able to translate his game to professional hockey.
Garland is an great skater. He is fast, and has the first step quickness and acceleration to reach that speed quickly. He can use a change of gears to elude defenders. Once Garland gets a step on a defenceman, he drops his shoulder and accelerates to the net. He also has very good footwork. Elite edge work, and outstanding agility make Garland very elusive and tough to stop one-on-one. Defenders must back off to respect both his speed and his elusiveness. This opens up passing and shooting lanes for him. Garland must add lower body strength though. He was strong on the puck in junior, but got pushed around a lot in the AHL which really hurt his offensive production.
In junior Garland played bigger than his size, winning battles on the boards, and controlling the puck in the cycle. However this did not translate well in his first AHL season. He could not seem to be able to stay on his feet long enough to make plays.
A cerebral player, he is a great play maker with outstanding stick handling. Able to handle the puck in a phone booth, Garland can beat defenders with a wide variety of moves. He also has great passing, and superb vision. Garland can find a teammate with a tape-to-tape pass, when others would not see the lane. He can make outstanding saucer passes, and can feather the puck through the tiniest of openings. He needs time and space to make things happen though, and just couldn’t seem to find that time and space against bigger opponents as an AHL rookie.
Garland plays a committed game at the defensive end. He back checks hard and uses his quickness, hockey IQ and anticipation to break up plays. While he is undersized, he never backs down from a board battle. The will is there, but this is another area limited by his dimunitive size.
Garland will need to have a better second season in the AHL in order to increase his stock as a prospect once again. Up to this year, he has scored everywhere he played. If he can make the adjustments to be a little stronger, as well as adjust to the fact that the game is just played much faster at the AHL level, he still has many of the high end skill to be a sleeper prospect.
The Coyotes saw significant graduations in Dvorak, Crouse, Perlini and Chychrun last year. They also saw Anthony DeAngelo, and Laurent Dauphin traded away this summer. Even with all those losses, this is a group that remains incredibly deep. Up front they also have Ryan MacInnis and Jens Looke; and then added key prospects in MacKenzie Entwistle, and Nate Schnarr on draft day.
At the backend, Cam Dineen had a disappointing season. He must bounce back from the injury filled year but still has high end talent. Kyle Capobianco and Dysin Mayo are intriguing prospects. 2017 picks Filip Westerlund, Cameron Crotty, and Noel Hoefenmayer provide depth. In net, Adin Hill had a strong season in Tucson, and Marek Langhamer has proven dependable as his back-up.
Main Photo via Getty Images