Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Meanwhile, down on the farm...

Jets don't have brilliant prospects in St. John's, but lots of depth

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Their prospect cupboard isn't bare but the Winnipeg Jets do not have a wave of young draft picks ready to graduate from their AHL affiliate team in St. John's, N.L.

It is a somewhat deceptive reality because all of the franchise's top first-round picks since 2006 are either playing on or played for (in the case of 2011 first pick Mark Scheifele) the NHL team this season.

Do the names Bryan Little (2006), Zach Bogosian (2008), Evander Kane (2009) and Alex Burmistrov (2010) ring a bell?

"When it comes to our prospects, a lot are playing on our team right now," Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "That might seem like an interesting thing but our strength at the NHL level is our youth.

"We have three guys under the age of 22 playing on a regular basis. We're very pleased with the addition of Mark Scheifele into the organization. I think that he is going to be someone who in time will move into our young corps."

So there are literally no first-round, blue-chip leaders ready to bust down the door as they hone their skills in the AHL.

To combat the fact that the best players and team leaders on the St. John's IceCaps are not the young draft picks, the organization has done the next best thing -- stocked its farm team with depth.

And that's how a blend of more experienced players like IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray, centre Marco Rosa, winger Jason King and defenceman Brett Festerling have combined with younger, later draft picks like defencemen Paul Postma and Arturs Kulda and forwards Carl Klingberg and forward Spencer Machacek, along with acquired 21-year-old Patrice Cormier and free-agent rookie Jason Gregoire to give the IceCaps a winning vibe.

"Right from the beginning of the season with our lineup, the best players are going to play," said IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge. "It's not a matter of the highest draft pick is going to play, it's whoever is executing and playing at their top level is going to play.

"I know you've seen it in the past with different organizations where that isn't always the case. From my side of things, it's really good for the room. If a No. 1 draft pick or a fourth-round draft pick isn't playing the way he should be, then he's not going to play that night."

Though the makeup of the organization's prospects depth chart is somewhat skewed because Little, Bogosian, Kane and Burmistrov for the most part simply moved right into NHL duty, the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers don't appear to have been terribly successful beyond those high-profile picks.

The evidence is having traded away a pair of first-round picks for a 22-game rental of Keith Tkachuk in 2007 and that there are just two skaters on the IceCaps who are drafted by the organization between 2008 and 2010 -- rookie defenceman Zach Redmond and rookie left-winger Carl Klingberg.

What the IceCaps today have to offer is easy to spot.

At forward, certainly, the Jets are watching Cormier (who has played six games for Winnipeg and may return again), Klingberg, 21, and Gregoire, 22 closely.

Jaffray spent more than a month with the NHL team and was an asset. Ben Maxwell, just 23, was with the club for a time and 25-year-old Aaron Gagnon made his Jets debut just last week.

But it's at defence where St. John's has already helped the Jets, and will help in the future unless everything goes terribly wrong.

Don't lose sight of the fact that call-up Mark Flood, who has been with the Jets since the start of November, has performed so well that there seems no chance he would ever clear waivers to return to the AHL team.

And still the IceCaps boast of a quality defence that includes viable prospects like Postma, 22, Kulda, 23, Redmond, 23, all coincidentally seventh-round draft picks. Postma and Redmond are headed to the AHL all-star game this weekend.

As well, Festerling, 25 and acquired by trade from Montreal, and the recently injured Derek Meech illustrate that St. John's also has other blue-liners who have already given the Jets valuable minutes.

"If I look at Winnipeg, the organization knows it has guys who can log minutes there," McCambridge said. "So if and when injuries or trades become involved, they have that depth here.

"If I'm Winnipeg, that's a real nice feather to have, that we have some guys who can step in now and play some minutes.

"And Mark Flood, that's a great situation. He was a guy with an AHL contract last year and now he has an NHL contract. He's made the most of this. And that's important to us because it gives hope to AHL-contracted guys who are here now."

McCambridge was talking about the likes of former Moose Shawn Weller, former unsigned Atlanta pick John Albert, also a forward, and even free-agent defenceman Jason DeSantis, who have all excelled under McCambridge this season.

So while the depth of their draft picks might be suspect, the Jets, still in their NHL newbie stage, are pushing hard on the we're-on-the-same-page approach with their farm team, whatever its makeup.

"It's been really good for me, having previously worked with Zinger (assistant GM Craig Heisinger) and Claude (Noel, Jets coach)," said McCambridge, who was the assistant coach with the Moose the last two seasons. "And this has been really good, getting to know Chevy with each day and week that goes by. What's been really good this whole year has been the lines of communication.

"All that said, it's my job to develop these young guys and get the most out of them."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 C4

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