Coyotes hope young forwards reverse recent history

Coyotes have struggled to identify top-six forwards in draft, but young talent offers hope.

GLENDALE, Ariz. – As training camp drew close while the contract impasse with Mikkel Boedker remained, there was palpable concern within the Coyotes’ fan base. Would this be another Kyle Turris situation?

A two-year deal on Saturday dispelled that concern, but only part of it. 

Boedker will take the ice when the team opens camp Wednesday at Arena, but there is still no guarantee he will live up to the potential that made him the team’s first-round pick and eighth overall selection in the 2008 draft.

That was one of the issues (among notable others) that finally led the Coyotes to cut ties with Turris and trade him to Ottawa. Unfortunately for Phoenix, it’s been a common thread with most of the team's top forward prospects since the move from Winnipeg.

While the Coyotes have done a laudable job in recent years, building a deep and talented blue line through the draft and their minor league system, the undeniable fact is that they have failed to draft and develop elite forward talent.

“When you look at Turris, Boedker, (Viktor) Tikhonov and Brett MacLean, who unfortunately had the health issues, you need some of those players to move into spots as front-line players, and unfortunately, that hasn’t happened for us,” general manager Don Maloney said. “I think Boedker is right there. Is he Patrick Kane? No, but he’s on the cusp of being an elite talent. Still, we’ve got to do a better job of identifying those dynamic players.”

Pore over the forwards the Coyotes have selected in the first two rounds of the draft since 1999 and you’ll mostly find a list of undelivered goods or missed opportunities. The team never came to a contract agreement with Blake Wheeler (2004, No. 5 overall) due to the ownership/bankruptcy situation, so he signed with the Bruins and has put up 36 goals and 105 points with the Jets in 128 games the past two seasons. 

Following an acrimonious contract holdout and a disengaged cameo in 2011, Turris (2007, No. 3) was traded to Ottawa, where he had 12 goals and 29 points last season. Peter Mueller (2006, No. 8) had a terrific rookie season but is currently out of the NHL, playing for a Swiss club. And, of course, the Coyotes traded Danny Briere (1996, 24th) just before new rules opened up the game for smaller players and made him a dynamic force whose high-water mark came in 2006-07 with 32 goals and 95 points.

Those are the better examples. Scott Kelman (1999, No. 15) Krys Kolanos (2000, No. 19), Fredrik Sjostrom (2001, No. 11), Jakub Koreis (2002, No. 19) and Tikhonov (2008, No. 28) are all out of the NHL, whether through injuries or a gross miscalculation of their abilities.

Part of the failures can likely be traced to poor scouting, part of them to bad luck and part of them to the simple reality that projecting 18- and 19-year-old players who have not fully physically developed is a crapshoot. But take heart. Martin Hanzal (2005, No. 17) panned out. And ...

“We’re finally at a point where we feel like we have more talent coming into our system,” Maloney said. “It’s not all NHL-ready yet, and you never know how players are going to develop, but I think we’re starting to get there.”

It’s no secret the Coyotes are looking for a top-six wing before the season begins. Three of their recent prospects will get a long look there: 2013 top pick Max Domi, 2009 second-round pick Chris Brown and 2011 second-round pick Lucas Lessio.

Domi (200 pounds) is already physically ready to play in the NHL and has shown the kind of creativity the Coyotes have lacked the past several seasons. Brown (6-2) has one of the best shots on the roster -- rookies or veterans -- and he scored 29 goals last year in the AHL. Lessio (6-1) is another big body who had 19 goals in the AHL last season. 

There is also excitement about the development of 2012 top pick Henrik Samuelsson and 2013 second-round pick Laurent Dauphin, both of whom appear destined for more development before they crack the NHL lineup.

Will any of them see time this fall?

“You never know how that will go,” coach Dave Tippett said. “But ultimately, when we start (the season) against the New York Rangers, we’ll put the best lineup that we can win with out there.”

Translation? The Coyotes will make a determination on their young players fairly quickly in camp and the preseason. And the safer bet is that they will deal from their position of strength – defense – for an established top-six forward while giving the younger guys a little more time to develop.

“You never, ever as an organization get hurt by waiting or being patient with young players by sending them back (to the minors or juniors),” said Maloney, noting the franchise’s error with Turris in that regard. “The record with force-feeding players into the league at 18, 19 years old is not good, and we’re living proof of it, so you have to be careful.”

If that means waiting on perceived potential, so be it. For the first time since the club moved from Winnipeg, that potential looks real.

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