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Arizona Coyotes prospect report: Checking on Jan Jeník, Victor Söderström, Anson Thornton

Craig Morgan Avatar
March 24, 2022

This is the fourth in a monthly, in-season series that will update the development of key Coyotes prospects.

When Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong discussed the team’s recent moves at a news conference on Monday, he made it clear that they were all about the organization’s future. With the passing of the NHL trade deadline, the future is what PHNX will be focusing on for the next four months, leading through the end of the regular season, the draft lottery, the arena, the draft and free agency.

With that in mind, here is the fourth edition of the PHNX Coyotes prospect report. We checked in on Tucson Roadrunners Jan Jeník, Victor Söderström and the Sarnia Sting’s Anson Thornton, all of whom play different positions and all of whom are at significantly different stages in their development.

Center Jan Jenik has 15 goals and 37 points in 44 games for the Tucson Roadrunners. (Getty Images)

Jan Jeník

Hours after I spoke to Coyotes development coach Alex Henry about center Jan Jeník, the Coyotes recalled him on an emergency loan from the Tucson Roadrunners. One day later, he was re-assigned to Tucson, but his stay with the Roadrunners could be short.

When you talk to Henry, you understand why.

“He still has some work to do,” Henry said. “It’s not like he’s a mature 25- or 26-year-old NHL player, but you see him hold guys off that are mature players at times and you see his game coming along. He’s one more step away. If he has a really big summer, I think he’s gonna be right there.”

Jeník, a 2018 third-round pick (No. 65), has always been an offense-focused player. In 54 games with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs over two seasons, he had 35 goals and 86 points. The Coyotes hope that his penchant for production can continue in the NHL (he has 15 goals and 37 points in 44 games in the AHL this season), but that has not been the focus with the Roadrunners.

“He’s never really thought the game from the defensive standpoint so when you start to throw these different circumstances at him, it takes some time,” said Roadrunners assistant coach Steve Potvin, who coaches the forwards. “He’s always been a player that’s just used his offensive instincts and his grit to get through the defenseman; to get to the next level. He did that and he surpassed the junior ranks. 

“He makes it very interesting with his size and his attributes offensively and his instincts, but to play in the NHL, if you’re not going to be a point-per-game guy, or if you’re not going to be real dynamic offensively, then then you have to be really good and strong on the defensive side of the puck and it’s not something that he thought a lot about over his junior career.”

That is changing.

“He’s fully aware that he needs to be committed to the D-zone and play over the top of the puck and underneath,” Potvin said. “It’s going to take some reps. It’s not natural yet. Until it becomes natural, he’ll need some time, but he is making progress. 

“When they start actually believing it, it starts to become part of their day-to-day and then they start to really get after it. He’s at the point now where he’s believing that’s what he needs to do to get to the next level and be a consistent player in the NHL. He’s starting to attack it.” 

That’s something to watch when Jeník gets his next cameo with the Coyotes. So is his position. It surprised a lot of Coyotes fans when the Roadrunners opted to play Jeník at center, but that is his natural position; the one that he has played for much of his career. The Coyotes still want to see him manage the game better, move pucks more quickly instead of hanging onto them, and continue to work on his defensive side, but much of his development right now is focused on being a center.

“Personally, I like Jan at center, but there’s always discussion when a player transitions from the American league to the NHL if they should be put on the wing for a little while. A lot of forwards go through that,” Henry said. “There is a tenacity and slipperiness to his game that could translate to a game on the wall as a wing, but I still see him as a center for a few different reasons.

“I think he carries speed fairly well, and he can support plays in the middle of the ice. Where we want to see him improve is to be better defensively, away from the puck and supporting plays on the defensive side. But I think he gets more puck touches at center and he’s played that position. He’s more comfortable there and I think he’s better served there.”

One area of Jeník’s game that will serve him well no matter where he plays is his gritty approach.

“I’ve had conversations with him, the staff in Tucson and (Coyotes director of player development) Mark Bell has had conversations with him about playing on that edge but not going over it,” Henry said. “He’s an emotional player and that edge is hard to find these days. If he can learn to balance not getting carried away with emotion, but controlling it, not distracting from his game, but distracting others from theirs, that could be a huge part of his game.”

It appears to be a part of Jeník’s DNA.

“I would hate to practice with him,” Henry said, laughing. “He’s tenacious and he hates to lose. It’s just the way some guys are geared. It doesn’t matter if you’re flipping a coin. It will bother them if they lose and they’ll want to go again. That’s Jan.”

Defenseman Victor Söderström has two goals and 12 points in 20 games for the Tucson Roadrunners. (Getty Images)

Victor Söderström

Söderström is skating again and that’s an important note for the 11th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. He has only played 20 games this season due to a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the lineup since Feb. 7.

The easy thing to do with Söderström is to judge his middling production (two goals and 12 points) and wonder if the potential that the Coyotes’ previous scouting staff saw in him is ever going to be realized. Will he ever be more than a guy who can run an effective power play? Production matters, especially for a player whose game is predicated on offense, but Henry said the overall picture is more nuanced.

“It doesn’t always end with numbers,” Henry said. “He is on track in a way because he’s still developing, he’s still young and the other facets of his game were the concentration; the focus to get him ready to play pro in North America because it’s a different style. He has continued that growth.

“What’s been tough for Victor is that there’s been some adversity this year with the (ever-changing) roster, who he has played with, his own game, some injuries and COVID. It hasn’t helped, but he has shown a few times now his ability to dig in and he’s going to have to continue to do that to continue growing offensively. I think he would admit he wants more and obviously, numbers are something that you’re evaluated on as an offensive player, but that’s not where it stops for me.”

One thing that Söderström worked diligently on in the offseason, and then again while he was out with this latest injury, was his body.

“Last year, he didn’t have very much strength to play the game. He was knocked off the puck pretty easily,” said Roadrunners assistant coach John Slaney, who coaches the defense. “This season, he seems to be able to protect a little bit more. When he has to move the puck, he’s been doing a better job that way. And then in situations without the puck, his compete level is up to another level. He’s understanding how strong he has to play against these bigger players and understanding how he has to defend.”

Coaches will often talk about the need for players to play at NHL pace, both in their physical actions and in their thinking. Slaney said that before the injury, he was seeing that from Söderström.

“At the beginning of the season when he came down from camp, he was playing at a way quicker pace,” Slaney said. “There’s times that he could actually move the puck quicker but I think he was always looking for the better option. He was starting to trend in the direction of breaking pucks out pretty quick. He definitely has NHL vision, it’s just a matter of being consistent.”

The question on everyone’s lips is this: When will Söderström be ready? It’s a complex answer, especially at a position that typically takes longer to develop due to its myriad responsibilities.

“I won’t say either way where he belongs,” Henry said. “He needs to show that he’s ready to earn a spot on the NHL roster and for any guy, it’s about consistency. You can’t just string together five games and think you’ve made it. You’ve got to go out and earn it every shift and I think he’s capable of doing that.

“Obviously, with him not playing games down the stretch here for a little while, he’s going to have to have a big month when he does get back to playing. He still needs to put on a little weight and a little bit of strength, whether that’s shooting more pucks or winning battles against some of the NHL players that he’ll be on the ice with. Those are two pretty good areas where if he improves then it will translate immediately.”

Söderström is expected to return to the Roadrunners lineup soon. It will be interesting to see if the Coyotes choose to let him play out the season in the AHL, away from the spotlight, or if they decide to give him another look at the NHL level before the regular season concludes.

Sarnia Sting goaltender Anson Thornton has battled an assortment of injuries this season. (Getty Images)

Anson Thornton

Ever since Anson Thornton signed a shocking three-entry-level contract with the Coyotes out of training camp, he has endured a non-stop string of challenges.

“He’s had a pretty whirlwind season overall when you think about it,” said his Sarnia Sting coach Alan Letang. “He gets drafted to our team in the U18 draft coming out of COVID, so he’s 18 coming into the league as a first-year goalie where really the only experience he has is playing midget hockey. Then he gets invited to an NHL rookie camp and from all reports just wows everybody and earns himself a three-year NHL deal. It’s pretty amazing. And then he comes back to start his rookie season.”

Unfortunately for Thornton, he has not had a consistent chance to build on that early momentum.

“You could almost write a book or a movie on how his season has gone,” Letang said. “When he came out of Arizona, he had some strains in his hip flexor and he had some groin issues. It comes from probably having a season off due to COVID and then when you’re a young player, a first-year player, you’re still learning to deal with the daily grind of every-day practicing, the daily grind of a three-game week. You’re juggling a new billet. You’re juggling new teammates, there’s a lot going on and maybe you don’t quite take care of yourself right off the bat and you have to learn what your body needs, when to get your rest.”

The overall numbers don’t tell the tale (4.08 GAA, .882 save percentage) but Letang sees more progress recently.

“I think in the second half of the season he has kind of turned the corner where he’s gained confidence, he’s understanding the league, he’s understanding the teams in the league and how to adapt based on who you’re playing.” Letting said. “When he’s on and when he’s tracking pucks, he makes hard saves look very easy and he’s not busy in the net where he’s sliding all over the place and having to make athletic saves. He has the capability to make those saves, but I think early on, he relied a lot on his athleticism. He’s doing a better job of managing and reading the ice now.”

Because he is a first-year goalie in the OHL, Thornton isn’t even the starter for the Sting. Benjamin Gaudreau has played 35 games to Thornton’s 21. That has allowed Thornton time to work with Sting goalie coach Franky Palazzese and the visiting Coyotes staff when he has been healthy.

Both Henry and Coyotes development coach Charlie McTavish have been in Sarnia to work with Thornton (McTavish was there this week) this season. Thornton has also worked with the Coyotes mental performance coach, Vince Lodato.

Because he is so young, and because goaltenders take longer to develop traditionally than any other position, the Coyotes are playing the long game with Thornton.

“I think he would admit that the first few months of the year there were some growing pains there,” Henry said. “To the kid’s credit, he started listening a little bit more and taking some help and he has worked through it. He’s playing some of his best hockey in the last couple weeks.

“When I went to talk to him, you could see that he was comfortable where he was. He was comfortable with his performance, comfortable with how he contributes to the team and comfortable digging in to overcome some of the adversity he had at the beginning of the year after being signed.”

Junior John Farinacci had 11 goals and 20 points in 29 games for Harvard this season. (Getty Images)

Prospect notes

  • John Farinacci returned to the Harvard lineup for the team’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Minnesota State on Thursday. Per a source, Farinacci missed the ECAC tournament because he tested positive for COVID. Harvard coach Ted Donato said before the tournament started that Farinacci, his nephew, had “been arguably our best player for the last month. We really could have used him that weekend.”
  • Top-ranked Minnesota State, which features recent Coyotes acquisition Nathan Smith, beat Harvard 4-3 to advance to the round of eight where it will face the winner of North Dakota and Notre Dame on Saturday. Farinacci had a late power-lay goal that pulled Harvard within a goal. Smith did not have a point in the Mavericks’ win.
  • Despite missing nine games, Dylan Guenther has climbed to sixth in the WHL points race with 79 points in 51 games. Guenther is fourth in the WHL with 40 goals.
  • Arizona State forward Josh Doan finished the season tied with Michigan’s Luke Hughes for the NCAA points lead among freshmen with 37. Doan did it in three fewer games than Hughes. Doan’s 25 assists led all freshmen and were tied for 16th among all classes in NCAA Division I.

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