The Winnipeg Jets have graduated more than a few prospects from the pipeline to the front line in recent seasons, from stars Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nik Ehlers and Jacob Trouba, to bottom-sixers Joel Armia, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp. Because of the quick rise of 2016 first-rounder Laine, the prospect cupboard isn’t as obviously strong as it otherwise would be, but there is still a lot of potential on the way up.
Each month, we will roll out a Winnipeg Jets prospect report, focusing on the play from noteworthy futures in the system, whether they be in the AHL, major junior or in Europe. For this first entry, we look at eight of the best prospects in the system, with their current outlook.
1. Kyle Connor, 20, LW
Drafted: First round, 17th overall, 2015
With the arrival of Laine just last year, the Jets added a 36-goal scoring rookie who looks like he could be the next big sniper in the NHL. Connor likely won’t be on that level, but he’s a sniper in his own right. Connor made the Jets out of camp last season, but wasn’t productive enough to stick past 20 games. He started slowly in the AHL, too, but scored 17 goals in his last 20 games to finish with a team-high 25 on the season in just 52 games.
Connor brings blurring speed, too, which is a natural fit in the young, quick modern NHL. The Jets were hoping he’d have an explosive pre-season to make the decision to keep him and slot him in on the second line easy, but he;s been help pointless with a minus-6 in five games. There’s no need to rush Connor, who remains the top prospect currently in the pipeline.
2. Jack Roslovic, 20, C
Drafted: First round, 25th overall, 2015
The top scorer on the AHL Manitoba Moose with 48 points in 65 games last season, Roslovic the playmaker made for a perfect match with Connor the sniper on the top line and had at least an outside shot to crack the Jets roster out of camp this season. But as he heads into his second pro season out of Miami University at Ohio, Winnipeg would be wise to let him season a bit longer in the AHL as the top-line centre on what should be an improved Moose squad.
3. Eric Comrie, 22, G
Drafted: Second round, 59th overall, 2013
In the NHL this season, 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck will play backup to free agent pickup Steve Mason, although the youngster should start more games than your standard No. 2. He is still the goalie of the future in Winnipeg, but after last season’s struggle, there is now a drop of doubt seeping in.
Enter Comrie, who is making his own case to be the team’s goalie of the future in the minors. Now 22, Comrie’s AHL numbers won’t immediately jump off the page at you, with a .907 and .906 save percentage in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively. But consider that in that time he’s played behind one of the league’s most porous defences — Comrie has been top four in shots against both years, and was second in 2016-17 with 1,533.
In the WHL, Comrie’s career best was a .925 save percentage and he was over .915 in all three seasons with the Tri-City Americans. With the Moose shaping up to be an improved team in 2017-18, Comrie needs to show that his numbers can come up as well.
4. Logan Stanley, 19, D
Drafted: First round, 18th overall, 2016
When Stanley was taken with Winnipeg second first-round pick in 2016, the 6-foot-7, 231-pound defenceman wasn’t a polished prospect, but more of a longer-term pick. He may not make the leap in time, but if the Jets ever ice a blue line that includes Stanley, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, oncoming forwards will be challenged to get around one of the biggest defence units in NHL history.
For now, Stanley is back where he should be in junior with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. The knock on the big guy is his skating and positioning, which he will get a lot of coaching on for what should be a strong Rangers team that pushes for a league championship. The big thing for Stanley this season is to stay healthy after he missed about half of the 2016-17 season with a knee injury, but still put up the same amount of points (17) as he did in his draft year.
It would be a cherry on top for the Jets to see Stanley representing Canada at the WJC later this year.
5. Tucker Poolman, 24, D
Drafted: Fifth round, 127th overall, 2013
Poolman was nearly out of hockey in 2011-12 and was passed over twice at the NHL draft before the Jets took a chance on him in the fifth round a few weeks after his 20th birthday. But today the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder is the most NHL-ready blueliner in the prospect pipeline, which he backed up with a solid training camp.
Fresh out of the University of North Dakota, Poolman will head into his first pro season, although it’s not yet clear whether it will be with the Jets or Moose. He’s surprised just about everyone with how strongly he’s pushed for an NHL spot, and there’s a sense that if he were a left-handed shot, the big league spot would already be locked down over Ben Chiarot.
“He’s had a really strong camp. He hasn’t had a dip and he hasn’t had a lull,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “The skill set is obvious. He’s big, he moves, he can shoot the puck and he’s shown nice hands to make some plays with it. But you don’t know until you get into the heavier going. But he handles it well.”
Poolman is also coming off surgeries on both shoulders, so durability is at least a concern, especially since he’s graduating from much shorter NCAA schedules. If he heads to the Moose, he’ll be the team’s No. 1, be given huge minutes, and likely would be the first call-up after an injury.
6. Kristian Vesalainen, 18, C
Drafted: First round, 24th overall, 2017
The Jets swapped picks with the Vegas Golden Knights to protect Tobias Enstrom from selection in the expansion draft, and still got a power forward with plenty of scoring potential at No. 24.
Vesalainen, 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, has spent parts of the past two seasons playing against men in Finland’s and Sweden’s top pro league, but he struggled to put up points against that competition with just nine points in 54 games. But against his peers, Vesalainen has been a beast.
He followed in the footsteps of Clayton Keller, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid by earning MVP honours at last year’s U18 tournament with six goals and 13 points in seven games. In the European junior leagues he’s spent time in, he’s regularly around a point-per-game player. Vesalainen will return to Europe for the coming season, so keep an eye on him there. It’s about time he starts producing more against stiffer competition.
7. Brendan Lemieux, 21, LW
Drafted: Second round, 31st overall, 2014
You better believe Claude’s son has some edge to his game. Lemieux has had a strong showing in the pre-season, getting a little bit of a look on the power play and getting eight shots in four games. He’s only gotten one assist, but if Lemieux does crack the NHL roster in the future, he projects more as a third- or fourth-liner than a top-end scorer.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound left winger scored 12 goals and had 130 penalty minutes in his first full AHL season last year, so he has to be careful to not become too much of a liability in the box. The knock on Lemieux is his foot speed, and he tried to work on that in the summer by dropping some weight. Two foot injuries slowed him last season (he played 61 games) so a complete, healthy AHL season would give us more of a measure on how much he’s improved.
8. Michael Spacek, 20, C
Drafted: Fourth round, 108th overall, 2015
Still very much unproven at the North American professional level, there’s a chance the Jets picked up a diamond in the rough with Spacek.
Now, before we get too committed to that thought, we want to see what Spacek does in the AHL this season. Winnipeg drafted the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder in 2015 after he played 40 games with Pardubice in the Czech Republic’s top league. He managed five goals and 12 points there, which isn’t bad for a then-17-year-old. For the past two years he was with the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL and exploded last season with 30 goals and 85 points in 59 games.
This season, Spacek will join the Moose where it’s hoped he’ll take on at least a secondary scoring role.
“He’s the type of guy that’s got really good poise with the puck,” Moose head coach Pascal Vincent said earlier this month. “He can create space for himself, (is good) at puck protection. I’d like to see him shoot the puck more, but that’s going to come. He’s got a great shot.
“He can adjust quickly to the speed of the game because he’s really smart. A very intelligent player.”