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Late-round picks playing key roles for Moose

by Colin Peterson | AHL On The Beat

The Calder Cup Playoff-bound Manitoba Moose have been powered by career seasons from Winnipeg Jets prospects like Mason Appleton, Sami Niku, and Peter Stoykewych. They represent the type of young talent that is taking over the AHL, and it’s the type of talent that has fueled the turnaround this season for the Moose.

However, this group of prospects have something else unique in common – they were all taken late in the NHL Entry Draft.

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

Appleton remembers sitting in BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, back in 2015, waiting late into the second day to find out where he was heading. The Green Bay, Wis., native was finally selected in the sixth round, 168th overall, by the Jets. 

“It was a really exciting day.  I was at the draft with my family, so to hear my name was really special. I wasn’t too sure when that was going to be, but I was happy when it was called, for sure.”

One round and 30 picks later, Niku heard his name called by the same team. He felt the same excitement as his new teammate, but the late selection also lit a fire within the young defender.

“Of course, it’s always nice when you get drafted, but I have to say I was a little bit mad because I was a seventh-rounder. I expect more.”

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

Fast-forward to the 2017-18 AHL season and those two draft picks have turned into two leaders of a successful Moose squad.  Appleton is on track to lead the Moose in scoring with 63 points (21 goals, 42 assists) heading into the final week of the season and Niku sits second on the team with 53 points (16 goals, 37 assists).  The pair were both named to the  First  All-Star Team and AHL All-Rookie Team, and Niku was voted the Eddie Shore Award winner as the league’s outstanding defenseman — the second rookie to win the honor in 60 years — while Appleton claimed the Dudley (Red) Garrett Award as the league’s top rookie.

Appleton and Niku didn’t have to look far for inspiration, as the Moose roster also includes players like Stoykewych, the last draft pick ever (seventh round, 199th overall in 2010) by the Atlanta Thrashers.

“Yeah, I’ll take all the credit for their success,” he laughed, “No, no, no. I can’t take credit for any of their doings. They’re both great players.”

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

After being drafted in 2010, Stoykewych played one season in the USHL before heading off to Colorado College. After four years and 139 games in the NCAA, Stoykewych turned pro and joined the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps for the last games of their 2014-15 season.

“People develop at different times, and players develop at different times. A lot of it has to do with where you come from, and the opportunity that you’re given, and the coaches that you receive along the way,” explained Stoykewych.  “There are so many factors internally and externally that really influence where you’re going to end up. Does a lot of that have to do with you and your drive and determination? Sure, but I think a lot of it also has to do with the people you’re surrounded by in junior, in college, in the minors, that really help you to get where you want to be.”

Since joining the organization, Stoykewych has continued his development, hitting new heights across the board with nine goals and 26 points through 67 games played this season. The third-year pro is driven to continually improve, and happy with the opportunity that being a seventh-round draft pick has afforded him.

“I don’t think it’s ever about trying to prove to people that they picked you in the wrong spot. I mean, people come from different leagues and there are hundreds of kids out there that are being scouted. The fact that they’re able to make those decisions is incredible in the first place. I think it just gets your foot in the door, so to speak, and once you become part of an organization you really just need to build your own brand as a person and as a player.”

During the month of February, another seventh-rounder came into the spotlight in goaltender Jamie Phillips (190th overall in 2012). Phillips was taken two rounds after current Jets starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and considered the experience a shock.

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

“It was more of a surprise than anything else. Not a lot of guys get drafted out of the OJHL, in Ontario. I honestly didn’t even know I was on the draft list and someone, one of my friends called me and told me.

“Winnipeg was the only team that spoke to me, and they had called me once. Just a brief phone interview, and that was it.”

Phillips became the Moose starter for an important stretch of divisional matchups due to injuries to the Jets’ goalies. Phillips posted a 6-7-1 record with a 2.76 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage in 16 appearances. The Caledonia, Ont., native was recently recalled by the Winnipeg Jets as the NHL club gets its playoff drive started.

When asked if he thinks a player’s draft position has an effect on their careers, Phillips responded, “Not really, actually, at all. At the end of the day, if you’re good enough it doesn’t really matter what round you go. There are first round guys that didn’t pan out, and there are last-round guys, you know like [Henrik] Lundqvist, that are playing in the NHL full-time and probably the best in the world.”

Appleton saw that once a player was on the team, where he was picked no longer matters.

“You’re more of a draft pick and a prospect before you get here, and then once you’re here… that kind of goes away. Everything settles down, especially this time of year, where you fall into your role and fall into where you should be playing,” said Appleton. 

“Now that I’m a pro, I don’t look at the draft pick side of it as much, and just see where I fit in and what I need to do to fit in around the other players I’m with. I think even with Sami, good example, he’s a seventh-rounder, but he came here and he proved that he’s definitely worthy of higher than that now. He’s been really good all season, so they’re not going to under-play him or do anything different just because he was a seventh-rounder.”

Meanwhile, Niku, despite the initial sting of being 198th overall, is enjoying his time in Winnipeg and is looking forward rather than back.

While all four players were late-round considerations, the Moose have benefited from their inclusion in the franchise’s prospect pool and vice-versa. It seems that the Jets have set themselves up with the infrastructure to help players thrive, no matter where — or when — they come from.