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As colleague Steve Peters has noted, the November edition of the PHNX Coyotes prospect report felt like the Euro edition — and a mouthful for readers, who had to memorize the pronunciations of EHC Red Bull München defenseman Maksymilian Szuber, IK Oskarshamn defenseman Emil Martinsen Lilleberg and Madison Capitols forward Miko Matikka.
It’s the holiday season so I kept it simple and closer to home with the December edition.
To check up on prospects Conor Geekie, Josh Doan and Cal Thomas, I spoke to Coyotes director of player development Lee Stempniak, Winnipeg Ice (WHL) coach James Patrick, Arizona State University coach Greg Powers, and University of Minnesota coach Bob Motzko, who has been in town all weekend to catch the Tier 1 Elite League National Midget Showcase that we highlighted on the PHNX Coyotes show after the Coyotes’ loss to Buffalo on Saturday.
I have also included some quick notes on the five Coyotes prospects who will be competing at the World Junior Championship in Halifax and Moncton, Dec. 26 to Jan. 5.
Coyotes prospect Conor Geekie
Likening one player to another is often an irresponsible analytical practice. No two players are the same so while they may share a few traits, there are more that they don’t share. Apply that grain of salt to what you witnessed at Mullett Arena when the Coyotes hosted the Buffalo Sabres and lanky center Tage Thompson on Saturday.
Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong was the Blues’ Director of Amateur Scouting when they drafted Thompson with the 26th overall pick in 2016. Armstrong saw the potential for the skill and production that Thompson is flashing with regularity this season, but he knew it would take time.
“With big men, it takes a little longer for them to grow into that frame, to learn how to see it, to develop their skating and to put all the pieces together,” Armstrong said.
You can go ahead and apply those same expectations to 2022 11th overall pick Conor Geekie.
Conor Geekie fan club where you at? 🙋♂️ pic.twitter.com/ByCOMJQX7s
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) July 8, 2022
Geekie is having a good season with 17 goals and 34 points in 28 games for the Winnipeg Ice, which owns the WHL’s best record at 26-4.
“He went back to juniors with a good attitude and he’s been pretty consistent throughout the year at getting points,” Stempniak said. “Earlier in the year, it was one point a game — a goal or an assist — but just recently he has come on more with having some bigger games offensively.
“I do think on the whole it’s harder for bigger players at times just to sort of have it all come together. The skating, growing into your frame, learning to use the size to your advantage, and adding strength is just harder, but with Conor, what’s exciting is he’s a big centerman who’s got a high hockey IQ and can make plays with the puck. He’s really slippery despite his size and he’s really clever.”
Where Stempniak and Winnipeg coach James Patrick agree is that there is another level for Geekie to reach in the WHL.
“There’s times where I feel he can play better, but I can say that about all of our players,” Patrick said. “I have high expectations for him and there have been periods where I think he is coming close to that.
“He has a really good shot, but even a little thing like hitting the net is such a big deal for him. I told him he has such a good snapshot that he will hurt goalies with it. He wants to be so exact with it, but if I look at his season he puts too many shots over the net so he’s got to really bear down on his shot to get more pucks on the net. When he puts pucks on the net and he stops on the net, he can be a very good player.”
Geekie has played the past half dozen games or so with new linemates Connor McClennon and Owen Peterson, a line that has helped him produce 12 points in his past eight games. He has also been effective playing the flank on the power play, but when Patrick and Stempniak really know that Geekie is on is when he is physically and emotionally engaged.
“He’s a great kid,” Stepniak said. “You love talking to him because he’s honest and candid and has always got a smile on his face, but sometimes maybe that’s reflected in his play a little bit.
“There was a game [development coach] Jeff Shantz was at recently where he took a pretty hard hit, didn’t see it coming, got up and went right back at the guy. It almost got him into the game a little bit more so it’s just about channeling that more and more. Part of that is maturity, but the other piece for me is making a conscious effort as he’s preparing for the game to find out what are some things he can do to sort of get him into that mindset. Maybe it’s getting in on the forecheck for a shift and getting a bump on a guy and that sort of sets the table for the rest of the game.”
Patrick said that Geekie is doing that more consistently this season than he was two years ago, and he is also playing a more direct game and has protected pucks better; traits that will translate well to the NHL.
“He’s 6 foot 4, he can skate, he makes plays and he is one of those guys where he probably gets three high-end scoring chances a game,” Patrick said. “There have been games where I have not liked his game but he still gets chances. The puck finds him or he goes to the right area.
“But 100 percent, he is at his best when he is physically engaged and he realizes that he can use his body and frame in so many ways. Just realizing his body strength will help him. He doesn’t have to run at kids. He has the size and the reach and the ability to separate guys from the puck and then hold onto it. He needs to realize that they can’t take the puck from him just by him turning his back and shielding them from it; almost playing keep away. He’s definitely better at that, but to understand that on a nightly basis is an area where you want to see a little more of it.”
Coyotes 2021 second-round pick (No. 37) Josh Doan has become a key part of the Arizona State penalty-killing unit. (Getty Images)
To outside observers, Josh Doan’s point production this season could indicate a step back in terms of development. Doan set high expectations when he led all NCAA Division freshman in regular-season points last season with 37 in 35 games. He has 15 (five goals) in 19 games this season for the Sun Devils.
“I think by Josh’s own admission, he probably would agree that he got off to a slower start this year than we would have liked,” Stempniak said. “That’s not to say he’s playing poorly, but he feels like he could have played better and watching him at times, it looked like he wasn’t driving play as much as he could for a player of his skill and his role on the team.”
There is some context to consider, however, and both Stempniak and ASU coach Greg Powers are aware of that mitigating factor.
“He’s getting a lot more minutes this year,” Powers said. “Him and Robert Mastrosimone are probably our best penalty killers. He didn’t kill last season so he was fresh, ripping and roaring and ready to go five-on-five and in other situations. Now he’s getting a lot of kill minutes because we’re taking too many damn penalties (third most in the nation) so he’s burning a lot of energy killing penalties and then he doesn’t have the same jump when he gets out there in other situations.
“That’s the danger. I’ve had teams where you don’t kill with your top guys. I’ve had teams where you do. Moving into the second half, the focus is going to be on more disciplined hockey so he doesn’t have to kill as much and then we’ve got guys like Benji Eckerle and Chris Grando that can eat some more kill minutes so maybe it’s Josh and Mastrosimone to finish kills and then we get him out there in a matchup situation at the end of another team’s power play. I think I can manage his minutes a little bit more effectively so he can produce more, and part of that is on me to do it.”
First goal-scorer at the brand new ASU rink? Josh Doan. 🤯
His dad Shane scored a ton of goals in Arizona as well
— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) October 15, 2022
Minutes aside, Doan could use a little more puck luck like he had in the first-ever game at Mullett Arena. He’s getting his chances, but the puck isn’t going in this year.
A play at New Hampshire in the team’s final game before the holiday break illustrates it. Doan had a tap-in at the side of the net that would have given his team a 3-0 lead and maybe cemented a two-game sweep that ASU ended up losing in overtime, but the puck bounced slightly and by the time he gathered it, the Grade-A chance had turned into what Stempniak called a Grade-C.
With a little more luck and more of a scorer’s mentality, Powers thinks that Doan could break out in the second half when the Sun Devils play 16 of their final 20 games at home, and still finish as a point-per-game player.
“Josh doesn’t love to shoot the puck yet,” Powers said. “He’s got an unbelievable release so we just keep ingraining in him: ‘Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it,’ but he’s so unselfish and he wants to make really good plays and he does make really good plays. He just needs to be a little bit more selfish.”
The other facets of Doan’s development are coming along nicely.
“Defensively, he leads our team in takeaways,” Powers said. “He’s got such a heavy stick, and he’s so strong that he’s hard to play against. And like I said, he’s developed into an elite penalty killer. He’s good on faceoffs, he wins every puck battle and he’s got such a long reach. He can eat pucks and if it’s on his tape, it’s down 200 feet every time on the kill.”
Stempniak said that it is apparent how much confidence Powers has in Doan.
“I just saw them play at UNH the other day and he’s their best player in my eyes,” Stempniak said. “A lot of stuff falls on him. He’s taking the big faceoffs. He’s the first guy on the penalty kill. He’s on the power play. It’s a lot, but over the last month to six weeks, his game has gotten better and he’s moving his feet more.
“Like a lot of guys, Josh needs to continue to work on his skating. One of his development goals is playing with more pace and moving his feet. That’s a big thing for us with Josh where if he’s F1 on the forecheck, he’s getting the puck stopped so his linemates can read off him and create more offensive-zone time.”
Coyotes prospect Cal Thomas
It’s easy to lose sight of Cal Thomas. He was a sixth-round pick (No. 171) in 2021, he has just three points (all assists), and as a 19-year-old freshman out of the USHL, he is playing third-pair minutes on a stacked Golden Gophers blue line that includes Buffalo Sabres’ 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson (No. 31), Anaheim Ducks’ 2019 second-round pick (No. 39) Jackson LaCombe, and LA Kings’ 2020 second-round pick (No. 45) Brock Faber, all of whom wear letters for Minnesota.
Talk to University of Minnesota coach Bob Motzko, however, and you’ll gain a different view of the soft-spoken but solidly built Thomas.
“There’s a volcano waiting to erupt in there,” Motzko said, chuckling. “When we came to Arizona, we knew that Logan Cooley was gonna get all the attention but we wanted to say, ‘Hey, you guys, you’ve got another prospect over here who’s pretty good, too.’ He’s kind of in the background now, but there’s going to be a day where he’s gonna contend for a spot. I just have a feeling.”
— Sioux Falls Stampede (@sfstampede) December 19, 2021
Thomas will never be known as an offensive defenseman. He’a a stay-at-home type who already understands gaps and positioning while using his well developed, 6-feet, 185-pound frame for physical play. But Stempniak and the Coyotes scouts see more potential because Thomas is a strong skater with vision and passing ability.
“It’s finding ways to support the rush and being a little bit more offensive that we’re targeting,” Stempniak said. “Make that first pass and then get your feet moving and be the fourth man in on the attack and just find more ways to touch pucks.
“I know he takes pride in playing well defensively and moving pucks but there’s times where he moves the puck and it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m done.’ You want to have him in the play more. He’s a good skater, he’s a smart player and he’s pretty calm with the puck so he makes plays. I think there’s another offensive part of his game that will come. He’s, by nature, a pretty quiet, low-key guy, but I think as he gets more comfortable in situations, he’ll sort of take a step on the ice as well.”
Motzko said that Thomas often defers to others, and that’s understandable for a freshman playing on a team that has legitimate national championship aspirations. A three-point weekend at Wisconsin just before the break offers a glimpse at something more.
“The three young freshmen D that we have are going to be guys that we’re gonna lean on heavily this year, but even more so in the future,” Motzko said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m not not sure I could ever have a D-corps like this again. We didn’t anticipate those three big guys coming back so it’s as strong of a D-corps as I’ve seen in college hockey in a long time, but Cal is going to have that light bulb moment and we’re gonna watch tremendous growth in his game.
“He might be under the radar now but I think in years to come he’s not going to be under the radar anymore.”
World Junior Championship participants
Five Coyotes prospects will be competing at the World Junior Championship in Halifax and Moncton, Canada from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5.
Forward Dylan Guenther was an expected participant for Canada, as was center Logan Cooley for the United States, but Quinnipiac forward Sam Lipkin was a bit of surprise for the US, both for his invitation and then for the fact that he was among the 14 forwards chosen for the roster.
“I don’t think he went in there with a spot to lose,” Stempniak said. “I think he had to earn it.”
Lipkin has been playing the wing with senior Skyler Brind’Amour (the son of Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour) at Quinnipiac where he is on the first power-play unit (net front). He will likely move to center next season.
Forward Julian Lutz, whom I wrote about in September, made the German roster.
The fifth participant is Slovakian forward Adam Zlnka, a Coyotes’ 2022 seventh-round pick (No. 204), who is playing for Sioux Falls in the USHL this season, but will play at Northeastern University next season.
“He missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL,” Stempniak said. “He’s a skilled player. He skates well and is good with the puck on his stick; he’s creative. I think a lot of it for him is he has just missed a lot of hockey and it’s a tough injury to come back from so he’s just got to play games.”
Top photo of Conor Geekie at a faceoff via Getty Images
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