By: Jeff Dahlia
Logitech Ice in San Jose, California was the site of the 2005 Pacific Division Rookie Tournament. Future stars from the Phoenix Coyotes organization participated in the annual round robin tourney against division rivals that included the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings and the host team, the San Jose Sharks.
The Coyotes went 1-2-1-1 in the tournament against their rivals and peers. They would open play with a win against the Sharks, suffer a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Kings, and be dominated by a Mighty Ducks team, who was without tournament MVP Ryan Getzlaf. They squared off against San Jose in the consolation game, but the Sharks proved to be too tough in front of a good home crowd.
"As a team, I think we played extremely hard," said Coyotes Assistant General Manager Laurence Gilman. "When we came into the tournament, we weren't sure what our skill level was going to be up front, but the guys put in a tremendous effort. We were in every game and from a management standpoint, we were really happy with it."
From a development standpoint, wins and loses generally do not tell the true story of the hard work and commitment the prospects put forth during tournament week.
"This tournament is all about learning," added Coyotes tournament head coach, Pat Conacher. "Our players are coming in here for experience and we want to see what they're made of. You always want to win the games you're in, but it isn't as important in this environment. This is tournament is all about eval uation and seeing where the players are at in their careers."
With that in mind, here's a look at how the prospects fared.
When you compare the Coyotes squad forward lines to the other teams, you can easily see that Phoenix was missing certain elements to effectively match up to that of their opponents. The Coyotes primarily had players up front who project as checking line or energy line forwards such as Jakub Koreis, Lance Monych, Randall Gelech, Landon Bathe, Aaron Gagnon, and Kevin Cormier.
Koreis fared the best out of this group of Coyotes in the tournament. He anchored the top line and worked hard down low in the offensive end, trying to create space for his linemates. Unfortunately, the timing and chemistry wasn't there for the line.
"Koreis worked very hard this tournament," analyzed Coyotes Director of Player Development, Eddie Mio. "He didn't have a goal, but he had a couple of assists. Jakub is Jakub though, he works hard, his character is great and he's a good young man for us. He is a young individual and you kind of not want to rush him ahead, but even he could of done a bit more. On the flipside, he was in your face and he kept coming back for more. He played a steady tournament. We might have wanted a bit more, but he was pretty steady.
"I would have liked to see [Monych] have a bit more touches with the puck as well as making himself a bit more of a factor in the offensive end," said Mio. "On another note, I thought his penalty kill was very good in this tournament. Lance is a good skater, he can keep up, but we need him to be a bit more physical. As a specialty guy, were going to take a good look at him. We always need good penalty-killers."
Skilled forwards like Roman Tomanek and Olivier Latendresse had an average showing, but for the most part were not that effective as the Coyotes failed to produce offense throughout the tournament. The bulk of the offense came from non-roster invitees Evan Schwabe and John Hecimovic.
As in Tomanek's case, Mio felt that a 2004-05 cut short to a shoulder injury might have worked against the gifted forward's psyche in the long run.
"I would have to say a below average rating because of his skill level," said Mio. "He is just starting to get back into the mix after two shoulder operations, so he could have been a little tentative out there."
To Gilman, the lack of offense had more to do with personnel than anyone's shortcomings.
"Unfortunately for us, three of our top forwards in Blake Wheeler, Enver Lisin and Dmitri Pestunov were unable to attend this tournament," he said. "If we had been able to have players of this caliber come in here, it would have given us a far greater chance to match up with the other teams' top prospects, who were in this year's tournament.
"Regardless, the players we had up front for us during this tournament did an admirable job."
The Coyotes iced the most talented and experienced defense in the entire tournament. It was a strong and gritty group who, at many times, kept the team in games.
Phoenix prospects who suited up included Keith Ballard, Joe Callahan, Logan Stephenson, Matt Jones and 2005 second round draft pick Keith Yandle.
While Callahan and Stephenson didn't do anything to hurt their reputations as good upcoming defenseman for the Coyotes, Ballard and Yandle played a great tournament, while Jones came out and stole the show.
Ballard showed just exactly what a year of seasoning in the AHL could do to bring along a players development. While his start in Utah last season might have been a little shaky, he was clearly a step ahead of the game at tournament at this level.
"He showed that he has clearly taken a step in his game and that he's gotten to a point where he should be competing for an NHL job," Gilman said about Ballard progression as a player. "He's a tremendous skater; he's got great hockey sense and great vision up the ice. If he comes into the camp at Phoenix this week and does exactly what he did out here in this tournament, he might just compete for a spot."
Yandle on the other hand, played a very good tournament when you consider last season he was playing against prep high school all-star squads at Cushing Academy. Yandle overcommitted a bit here and there, but for the most part he stood his ground. He projects as a very versatile and skilled defenseman, along the same lines as his teammate Keith Ballard.
At this point in his development, he is very "green," a termed generally used by management and coaches to indicate a player has the qualities and ability, but he has yet to refine and hone his craft. It wasn't mere coincidence that he started the scoring in the tournament for the Coyotes.
"Yandle, who is going to Moncton in the QMJHL, was a pleasant surprise for us," Mio offered about the new prospect. "I didn't think he would be that strong for us right away."
In his first four showings in a Coyotes sweater, Jones played hard all 60 minutes, stayed focused and played to his strengths. He was tough when he needed to be, he was positionally sound, he skated very well and he played a tight, disciplined game.
"We are very, very proud of the way Matt Jones progressed and developed while at the University of North Dakota," Mio said with a lot of conviction. "In my assessment, I think he had a great showing during the tournament. I think that management and a lot of the scouts felt the same way."
The Coyotes brought in two new prospective netminders for the tournament in Pier-Olivier Pelletier and former Philadelphia Flyers 2002, fifth round selection, Dov Grumet-Morris.
Pelletier started the tournament in net against the Sharks. It took the Quebec native some time to settle in, but when he was warmed up, there was barely a puck he couldn't stop.
"Pelletier started a little slow in his first game, but he worked himself into a comfort level and took over from the second period on," said Mio.
Pelletier is another "green" prospect, but the skill level and determination he brings to the Coyotes organization, is an earlier indication the scouts hit this selection dead on.
In his only game, Pelletier showed to be very poised. He worked well with his defense, kept square to shooter at all times, and picked up the puck very well through traffic. He was also very quick on his feet and with his glove.
"Pier-Olivier Pelletier went out there this past week and displayed the type of play that made our scouts want to give up a draft pick to get him in the second round at this year's draft," Gilman said about the 2005 second round draft pick.
Opposite Pelletier was Grumet-Morris. The Harvard grad earned an AHL contract with the Coyotes before he entered camp. He made his debut in the tournament as well, playing games 2 and 3.
He would lose his first game 3-2, in overtime to Kings and go on to endure a tough 5-2 loss to Anaheim.
Grumet-Morris played a tight game, working himself in well with his new team. He is another poised goalie who played well. He did a commendable job backstopping Phoenix and it will be interesting to see how he develops in the system.
"We were really happy with both of their play," Mio recapped about the newcomers in net. "These are two young kids who are going benefit from another year of development. Both young men are headed to leagues where the game is a bit more wide-open and they'll be able to see a lot of shots."
"From our perspective, I feel that we are much more broad-based in terms of the players we have," assessed Gilman about the depth of the Coyotes development system. "We have depth at forward, we obviously have some good young defensemen, and with David LeNeveu and Pier-Olivier Pelletier, we have two very good young goaltenders.
"We do feel that our strength over the next few years, whether at the NHL level or in the AHL, will be in our defensemen and goaltenders," said Mio.
Of the defensive front, the system is starting to reveal a lot of fruitful defensive prospects in Ballard, Jones, Callahan and even Yandle who will take time. That list also includes defensemen such as Matthew Spiller, Zbynek Michalek and Igor Knyazev, who were not eligible to attend the rookie tournament.
Between the pipes, the addition of Pelletier and Grumet-Morris only help a team that Mio depicted as "goalie poor" last year. With David LeNeveu far ahead in his development, the Coyotes do continue to add quality depth at this position.
While many might have wanted a couple more wins over this year and even the year before, it's the future that holds a lot of promise for an organization that is on the rise.
"When you start putting names like this together, we as a management team get pretty excited," said Mio. "I think the fans in Phoenix and San Antonio should be excited too. I don't want to get too ahead of ourselves here. There is a lot of work to be done, but as an organization, we are starting to feel as if we are moving in the right direction."