Winnipeg Jets prospect report: A pipeline still full of intriguing talents

With the 24th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, the Winnipeg Jets selected Kristian Vesalainen. (Bruce Bennett/Getty)

The Winnipeg Jets are, still, a young team on the rise and building towards a brighter future. And if you look at their pipeline of prospects, there are a number of players to get excited about.

To start, the AHL’s Manitoba Moose is a much more skilled and depth-filled roster than they were last season, with a few players who project as NHLers and some who could even earn a cup of coffee if the injury bug hits the big club this season.

Further down, the Jets also have some intriguing talents in the OHL, the Finnish Liiga and even the USHL, where another impressive goalie is quietly excelling as the best stopper in that circuit.

Here’s a look at some of the top prospects at various levels of development:

AHL

Tucker Poolman, 24, D
Drafted: Round 5, 127th overall in 2013
Season to date: 3GP | 0G | 0A | +1

On a deep Jets defence that has every NHL spot spoken for, Poolman was able to crack the lineup out of camp in a depth/security role, which is quite the accomplishment for a player fresh out of the NCAA and in his first professional season. The fifth-round pick took great strides in three years with the University of North Dakota, nearly doubling his point totals from Year 1 to Year 3. He averaged 15:40 of ice time in the three NHL games he got into this season.

Reason for optimism…

There’s nothing negative to be drawn from Poolman’s demotion to the AHL. On the contrary, he will play a significant role with the Manitoba Moose in a big-minute role to get up to pro speed.

Poolman’s journey to this point has been an improbable route after going undrafted to an NHL team as an 18- and 19-year-old before the Jets took a chance on him with a late-round pick in his third year of eligibility. He went from the low-minors NAHL, to the USHL and earned a scholarship. Now he’s on the cusp of the NHL, and another year or two of fine-tuning with the Moose could end with him in a top-four spot on the Jets blue line.

Michael Spacek, 20, RW
Drafted: Round 4, 108th overall in 2015
Season to date: 8GP | 0G | 3A | +1

Drafted out of Pardubice in the Czech Republic, Spacek came to North America the following season and scored 139 points in 120 games across two seasons with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels — he even got a taste of the AHL at the end of last season and got an assist in four games.

In his first full pro season, it was hoped Spacek could add at least a depth scoring dimension to a team that was in the bottom half of AHL offence last season. He got off to a fine start with three assists in eight games, but hasn’t played since Oct. 27 when he took an awkward hit along the boards.

Mason Appleton, 21, W
Drafted: Round 6, 168th overall in 2015
Season to date: 3GP | 2G | 8A | +5

It’s fitting that the team leader in assists is the guy with “apple” in his name. Appleton has been a revelation as another player fresh out of the NCAA since moving on from Michigan State. He had 31 points in 35 games in his last season with the Spartans, but has stepped right into the AHL producing at a level you’d expect to see from a veteran.

Maybe part of that is because Appleton is playing with two vets: Michael Sgarbossa and Buddy Robinson.

“I’m playing with two really good linemates and we complement each other well, so that helps,” Appleton told the Winnipeg Free Press. “I’m definitely getting more comfortable in the league, the pace is slowing down a little for me and the systems are coming more natural. I’m not having to think as much out there, just kind of making the reads and just playing hockey at a fast pace.”

At six-foot-three and 193 pounds, Appleton has a size that projects well for his NHL future and he’s using that size as a strength so far. The challenge for him, as any pro rookie, will be maintaining this level of performance over the demand of a full-season schedule.

Jack Roslovic, 20, C
Drafted: Round 1, 25th overall in 2015
Season to date: 13GP | 6G | 8A | +3

The Jets’ top prospect on the AHL team right now, Roslovic was a leader on the Moose last season alongside Kyle Connor. When it came to talking about who would earn a call-up first, it was always between those two, but Connor’s goal-scoring potential gave him the inside track. Should the Jets need another forward call-up, Roslovic figures to be next on the list.

He’s picking up right where he left off last season, leading the Moose in scoring and sitting tied for sixth in the AHL early in the season. He managed 48 points in 65 games last season, but is on pace to eclipse that total by a wide margin in 2017-18. This is another build-up year for Roslovic, who will be counted on in a big role as the top-line centre for the Moose, and will hopefully get him one step closer to landing a full-time NHL spot.

Chase De Leo, 22, C
Drafted: Round 4, 99th overall in 2014
Season to date: 13GP | 1G | 4A | -1

De Leo has just one goal (a game-tying marker late in a game against Belleville), but is top-20 in the AHL in shots, so the hope is his percentages rise and he can get back to approaching 20 goals in a season. It’ll be important to see progress in De Leo’s game in his third AHL season, since he went from 19 goals down to 14 from Year 1 to Year 2 and is now struggling to put it in the back of the net through nearly a quarter of Year 3.

Sami Niku, 21, D
Drafted: Round 7, 198th overall in 2015
Season to date: 13GP | 1G | 6A | -3

Just two years after being picked in the last round of the NHL draft (14 picks away from the last in the draft), it’s amazing to see the impact Niku is having with the Moose in his first season as a North American pro. He’s a good skater and smart puck-mover, but certainly needs to add weight and strength before making any serious push for a spot full-time on the Jets. Nonetheless, he’s been a key player in the Moose’s top-four and increasingly looking like a diamond in the rough. Niku certainly has the potential to be an NHLer one day.

Eric Comrie, 22, G
Drafted: Round 2, 59th overall in 2013
Season to date: 4-3-1 | 2.39 GAA | .924 SP

As Connor Hellebuyck thrives in the NHL this season in his bounce back from a down year, Comrie is reminding everyone that he too is going to be pushing for a spot on the Jets roster in years to come. This season, Comrie is behind a much better Moose defence and his numbers have so far recovered considerably. His save percentage has gone from .906 last season to .924 this season, while his GAA has dropped from 2.96 to 2.39.

Comrie had an underrated season in 2016-17 in facing the second-most shots of any AHL goalie. Currently facing the eighth-most shots, he should enjoy a much better season on a much-improved Manitoba squad and be squarely on the radar for the Jets crease after Steve Mason’s contract expires following next season.

FINNISH LIIGA

Kristian Vesalainen, 18, LW
Drafted: Round 1, 24th overall in 2017
Season to date: 18GP | 4G | 7A | +2

At six-foot-three and 209 pounds, Vesalainen has the size to compete with men right now and is doing so in Finland’s top league. The reason the Jets drafted him 24th last summer (which they were able to do after swapping picks with Vegas) was because of the vast potential he’d flashed. The reason Vesalainen didn’t go earlier, however, is that while he excelled against players his own age (he won MVP honours at the U18 tournament), he didn’t show too much in a level or two up. He showed flashes in his draft season, but also struggled with consistency.

Vesalainen bounced between a few teams last season and after a falling out with Frolunda of Sweden’s SHL, he landed on loan with Finland’s HPK, for whom he tallied just one point in nine games. He’s continuing on with HPK this season and has so far been a much more productive player. We should expect to see him in the AHL next season.

OHL

Logan Stanley, 19, D
Drafted: Round 1, 18th overall in 2016
Season to date: 15GP | 4G | 8A | -3

A giant blueliner at six-foot-seven and 231 pounds, Stanley was drafted as a long-term project prospect who still figures to have a few AHL seasons ahead before an NHL spot becomes a reality. He’s coming off a year where he faced his first bit of adversity, missing most of the season with a knee injury before returning just in time to help Windsor win the Mastercard Memorial Cup.

He may be a minus player so far in the OHL, but amazingly no one on his first-place Kitchener Rangers team currently holds a plus rating — the team as a whole has scored just six more goals than it’s allowed.

This figures to be a huge year for Stanley, who will likely make a push for a Team Canada roster spot at the world juniors after playing in the summer showcase. Not known for his offence, Stanley already has four goals for Kitchener this season, which is just one away from his career-high in major junior. He’s a big minute-eater for the Rangers, which will challenge him against all of the league’s top players.

Stanley will be playing for the OHL on that league’s two-game leg of the Canada-Russia Series (you can watch the first game Thursday night on Sportsnet) and was named an assistant captain.

USHL

Mikhail Berdin, 19, G
Drafted: Round 6, 157th overall in 2016
Season to date: 4-3-1 | 1.97 GAA | .948 SP

Drafted out of Russia’s junior MHL after a sensational season, Berdin crossed the ocean to join the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede and has taken more steps forward in his career. Berdin was second in the USHL with a .925 save percentage in 31 games last season and would have played even more had he not sustained an injury that forced him to miss 15 games — 14 of which the team lost.

If he stays healthy this season, Berdin has the potential for a monster season. Already he leads the USHL with an outstanding .948 save percentage and has faced the most shots of any goalie in the league.

Berdin played for Russia in the second game of the WHL leg of the Canada-Russia series and helped his country rebound from a 7-0 loss in Game 1 with a 29-save effort, plus a penalty shot, that led them to a 4-3 win. Look for him as a potential starter for Russia at the world juniors.