We are two months into the NHL season, so we have also gone through a solid chunk of the American Hockey League (AHL) season. There have been plenty of impressive prospects making an impact in the minors, but in this edition of ramblings, I want to highlight three that are ready to take on regular NHL minutes.
It is understandable that some of these teams simply have a logjam of players at the NHL level, not leaving enough room for their prospects to get enough minutes for their development. However, when I decided on this trio, depth charts were considered, and they would impact their NHL club positively if called up full-time.
Ville Heinola, LHD, Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets)
Heinola has become one of the NHL’s most intriguing prospects, not just due to his upside. The Finnish defenseman has seemingly entered into limbo with the Jets organization. He has played just 27 NHL games over his first four seasons with Winnipeg so far despite being a 20th overall pick and producing at a solid rate in the minors.
Some say he may still be a defensive liability at the NHL level due to his net-front presence, but he has been one of the best U-22 defensemen in the AHL this season, including his defensive game.
Mix that with his well-known offensive upside and ability to run the point on the powerplay, and the questions begin to pile up as to why the Jets still have him sitting in the minors.
To give Winnipeg the benefit of the doubt, they already have a plethora of left-handed defensemen at the NHL level. That list includes Josh Morrissey, Brenden Dillon, Dylan Samberg, Nate Schmidt (who plays the right side), Kyle Capobianco, and Logan Stanley. Although that is a solid group, Heinola has a clear advantage over most of them.
Without including Morrissey, the other five left-handed defensemen have combined for just eight points in 65 games. Yes, points are not everything when it comes to the blueline, but Heinola in the lineup could give the Jets some extra production from the point outside of just Morrissey and Neal Pionk.
In the two short clips included above, you will see two examples of Heinola’s (#34) offensive abilities. The first is how he can join in the rush creating chances, and the second is his ability to quarterback the powerplay.
The one thing going against Heinola is that in his limited playtime in his NHL career so far, he has never posted average or better possession numbers, with his best rate being 47.44 CF% last season in 12 games.
So there are pros and cons to his game which the Jets see, but with the upside he holds, they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they do not at least give him an extended run of games to see if he has truly made strides forward.
If not, they may look to see what the trade market for him looks like. As Michael Guthrie from jetswhiteout.com said, “The Jets need to avoid the sunk cost fallacy. Having assets for the sake of having assets is only good for hoarders….” They have a valuable piece on their hands that looks like he is ready for a run in the NHL, whether that is in a Jets uniform or elsewhere.
Jakob Pelletier, LW, Calgary Wranglers (Calgary Flames)
During the off-season, I thought Pelletier would be an opening night lock for the Flames. With all that they lost (then regained) over the summer, it seemed like he would be a great candidate for the bottom six.
However, Pelletier is yet to play an NHL game. So far, through 18 AHL games, he has scored nine goals and 21 points to place him second in Wranglers scoring. On top of that, Pelletier has been the most valuable U-22 forward in the entire league, according to Thibaud Chatel’s model, which I showed above.
At just 5’9” and 161 lbs, there are some size concerns. Still, the league moves away from that being relevant season after season. Jérôme Bérubé, head scout for HockeyProspect.com, describes Pelletier as a “smart, competitive, versatile forward that projects to be able to play in a middle-sox role at the NHL level.”
He has a goal-scoring touch and knows how to find the dangerous areas on the ice. That’s why I think he could be a good fit on Calgary’s second line alongside Nazem Kadri and Andrew Mangiapane. The current left-winger on that line, Dillon Dubé, has nine points in 23 games so far. Although the line has above-average possession numbers, pushing Dubé into the bottom six could benefit him and the team overall.
Calgary only has three skaters on their roster that are 25 years old or younger. Adding Pelletier into the lineup could give them the jolt of energy to turn around their underwhelming season so far.
Cam York, LHD, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philidelphia Flyers)
The most experienced player on this list, Cam York, is in a bit of a different situation. The 2019 14th overall pick has played 33 games with the Flyers so far, with 30 of those contests coming during the 2021-22 season.
To the general public, a lot of people would’ve assumed York was a shoo-in to be on the Flyers’ blueline at the beginning of the 2022-23 season, but he is yet to play an NHL game this year. This could be more due to the current state of the Flyers and their expected tank this year than their actual view on York’s talent.
He has been able to thrive in the AHL with 12 points in 17 games played, putting him on pace for 51 points over 72 contests. Add in the fact that he is getting to play almost 21 minutes a night, according to Pick224, and it would seem that Philadelphia’s front office is making the right decision to let him marinate in the minors.
This does not change the fact that I think he is ready to be a mainstay for the Flyers’ d-core. In his NHL stint last season, York was the only Flyers’ defenseman that played 25 games+ and post an xGF% above 50% (50.48%). As a young defenseman, he will still have kinks in his game, but his overall hockey sense and strong skating show the bright future he has in the black and orange.
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