Phoenix's season ended in disappointment, missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a lockout-shortened season, but there were some positive signs for the future. The Coyotes' American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine had a young team, but one that progressed as the season went along. In his first year as head coach of the Pirates, Ray Edwards led his team to the AHL's Calder Cup Playoffs.
The Portland Pirates earned the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. A young, inexperienced team had two-goal leads in the first and third games, but ultimately was swept out of the playoffs by the Syracuse Crunch, the affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"You have to keep things in perspective with our group. I think we learned a lot in this series. Our young players learned a lot," said an optimistic Edwards following the conclusion of his team's playoff run.
Two of the most promising prospects are wingers Chris Brown and Lucas Lessio. Brown has more seasoning, having played three years at Michigan and experienced international competition at the World Junior Championships for the Bronze Medal-winning USA squad in 2011. Lessio finished his major junior career in April before joining Portland.
Brown, a second round pick in 2009, played with the US National Development Program in Ann Arbor before matriculating to the University of Michigan where he played for the legendary Red Berenson. The Flower Mound, Texas product notched 34 goals in three seasons with the Wolverines before forgoing his senior season to sign with the Coyotes. Brown is a big, physical wing who can add power up front.
This was his first year playing professional hockey. He played in 68 regular season games and three playoff games with Portland. He got a taste of the NHL, playing in five games with the Coyotes. Brown tallied 30 goals for Portland, including one in the playoffs. When talking about the highlights of the season, Edwards emphasized the significance of Brown scoring so many goals in his first season. "We had a first year player score 29 [regular season] goals," said Edwards when listing some of the positives of the season as a whole.
Lessio, a second round draft pick in 2011, only played in eight AHL games following the conclusion of Oshawa's season in the OHL. He scored a goal and added three assists, including two in the playoff series. The Maple, Ontario native missed roughly half of his team's games during the OHL regular season with an injury. The left shot winger found the back of the net 89 times during his OHL career. Taking Lessio in the second round could end up being quite the steal for Phoenix. He can bring the physicality needed to be a power forward while at the same time having the hands and craftiness to work his way around traffic. He really uses his body well especially to gain possession of the puck.
"Lessio's a second round pick for us. He'll turn pro next year. These experiences are valuable to him. He's a guy who you project to play in the NHL some day. It's important to get him into these situations and important to get him some seasoning," said Edwards.
In his short time in Portland, Lessio left the coaching staff with a solid first impression as he earned his way into the lineup for the post-season. "He earned a spot in the lineup [for the playoffs]. He earned that from his last few games of the regular season. I have to give him a lot of credit. You may see him back here in Portland, if he doesn't stick with the big club."
Taking nothing away from their fine seasons in the AHL, forwards Andy Miele and Alexandre Bolduc are the perfect examples of "4A" players. They are terrific AHL players, but can't make it happen in the NHL.
Miele led the Pirates in points with 20 goals and 36 assists for 56 points in 73 games played. The 24 year-old out of Miami University is just too small, and not fast enough to be an effective player at the next level. Phoenix gave him a shot in both the last two seasons, but the Green Pointe Woods, Mich. native is scoreless in eight career NHL games.
Bolduc had his best season as a professional, leading Portland in goal scoring with 25. However, his success did not translate to the NHL where he went scoreless in 14 games for Phoenix. Born in Montreal, he was originally drafted by St. Louis in the 2003 draft. After being unable to excel in juniors, the Blues didn't sign him. From 2005-2011, Bolduc played in the Vancouver system. He has two goals and three assists in 62 career NHL games.
Chris Conner has had some success in the NHL, but has seen his career losing some of its luster. The former Michigan Tech Huskie has 18 career NHL goals, but his size and inability to consistently get open has limited his success. His greatest strength is his work ethic and tenacity. He had 40 points in the AHL this season, but will most likely be a player who bounces back and forth between the parent club and the farm team if he stays with Phoenix.
Blue line has potential
The strength of the Phoenix system, at least in the AHL, is clearly on the back line. Defensemen Michael Stone, David Rundblad and Brandon Gormley are all 22 years old or younger with the potential to be significant contributors at the next level. All three possess the ability to move the puck up ice and step into the offense. However, the three young blue liners all have some deficiencies in their game.
Stone has the most potential, having played in 40 NHL games this season. He notched five goals and four assists during his time in Phoenix. The Winnipeg native had six goals and 23 helpers for Portland. The Coyotes drafted him in the third round of the 2008 NHL Draft out of Calgary of the WHL. Stone plays a physical game, and has a heavy shot, but often makes poor decisions with the puck. Blind passes and indecisiveness are negatives that he will need to grow out of. Stone could be a very solid player at the next level, but needs to become more consistent and mature as a player.
Rundblad has trouble containing players, especially when the opposition goes wide. Like Stone, he is gifted offensively. The Swedish-born defender was taken in the first round of the 2009 draft by St. Louis. He tallied 10 goals and added 30 assists for Portland this season. In eight games in Phoenix he had trouble in his own end, going -5 in the plus/minus category.
Brandon Gormley was drafted by the Coyotes in the 2010 first round out of Moncton in the QMJHL. This was his first full year in the AHL and he performed admirably. The Prince Edward Island native had seven goals and 26 assists including one goal and two assists in three playoff games. Gormley still needs to get better in the defensive zone for him to be a viable option to guard the Coyotes blue line.
In critiquing his team's playoff performance, Edwards talked about the need for his defense to work on growing and doing the little things. "We didn't do some of the little things like keep the puck in at the blue line," said the coach.
Some other defensive prospects to keep an eye on include Mathieu Brodeur. The Montreal native was drafted in the third round of the 2008 draft by the Coyotes. His third professional season was by far his best. Former Michigan defender Chris Summers got a cup of coffee with Phoenix and had a steady season for Portland. The 25 year old is an imposing, stay-at-home defender with little offensive upside. Russian Maxim Goncharov who Phoenix took in the 2007 draft has yet to show an ability to stay poised and responsible in his own end.
Visentin fights injuries
Former first round pick Mark Visentin battled injuries during his first professional season after four years with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL. The 20 year old showed promise in his final season in juniors in 2012 by going 30-9-2 with a 1.99 goals against average and a .926 save percentage. He was 15-12-1 with a 2.98 GAA and .903 save percentage with Portland before injuries put a damper on his rookie campaign. Visentin is clearly the goaltender with the most upside.
Chad Johnson went 2-0-2 with a 1.21 goals against average and a .954 save percentage with the parent club in Phoenix, but struggled with rebound control and positioning for stretches in Portland. The former Penguins draft pick could play a key role in the organizational depth chart if he is retained.
First-year pro Mike Lee out of St. Cloud State split time between Gwinnett in the ECHL and Portland. He posted respectable numbers in both places, and if he continues to improve, the Roseau, Minn. native could have a future in the organization.
Coach Edwards certainly believes in the system the organization has in place. Portland was a young team with a first year head coach that could be a building block for future success in Phoenix.
"I think, as a group, we accomplished a lot this year, especially with our young players. It's important for an organization to grow your young players and we really did that this year. When we look back at the year, I think there will be a lot of positives. We had a lot of young players grow."