Centers headline Vancouver Canucks junior prospect pool

By Larenzo Jensen

Hunter Shinkaruk - Team WHL

Photo: Hunter Shinkaruk scored the game-winning goal in the series-clinching win over Russia in the finale of the Subway Super Series (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

November was a month that several Canucks junior prospects will not forget for some time, with the brisk winds of trade blowing in the OHL, relocating several of the players.

It is not too difficult to discern a pattern as far as the Vancouver Canucks drafting has been concerned. The team has eight players currently playing in the CHL, with most of them selected in the 2013 NHL Draft. Interestingly, all of the prospects are either playing center or defense. The organization placed an emphasis on restocking the pipeline at center, using considerable resources to accomplish this. The trading of top goaltending prospect Cory Schneider highlighted this, bringing in the pick used to draft highly touted Bo Horvat with the ninth overall selection in the draft. You would be hard pressed to identify another period of time where the Canucks put so much emphasis on the pivot position or on the selection of junior players in general.

OHL

Miles Liberati, D, North Bay Battalion
Acquired: 7th round (205th overall) in 2013

There is nothing quite like making a trade to raise a few eyebrows, and that is just what London Knights General Manager Mark Hunter did. He announced November 19 that Miles Liberati was traded to the North Bay (formerly Brampton) Battalion in exchange for overage defenseman, Zach Bell. At the time of the trade, Liberati had played in 22 games for the Knights, recording a goal and three assists, with a plus-five rating. He had 18 minutes in penalty, which was nearly the amount he had recorded in 42 games last season. The trade comes at an interesting time for North Bay, as defenseman Steven Duda announced his intentions to quit hockey. The move could be good for Liberati's development, as the Knights welcomed back Nikita Zadorov from the Buffalo Sabres for the remainder of the season. Zadorov's return would likely have put a restriction on the amount of ice time in store for Liberati. The smooth skating 18 year old has started his tenure with the Battalion with a plus-one rating through four games. He expressed his excitement with the new opportunity, and the blueliner hopes to fill a puck-moving role with the team with power-play time.

Bo Horvat, C, London Knights
Acquired: 1st round (9th overall) in 2013

Center Bo Horvat certainly could not have scripted a better start to the 2013-14 season with the Knights. The strong, bullish center leads the team with 37 points. Through 25 games, he has 12 goals, 25 assists, and a plus-17 rating. He was also one of three Canucks prospects chosen to represent the CHL in the Subway Super Series, where he scored one goal.

His strong start to the regular season campaign may silence some of the critics that pointed to his relatively mediocre regular season in 2012. Of course, everyone knows how he performed throughout the OHL playoffs, earning the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the OHL Playoffs MVP. However, to focus purely on Horvat's offensive endeavors would be shortsighted. His play without the puck deserves just as much attention, as it is truly one of his strengths. He plays with determination, at times as if it may be the last game he ever gets to play. He also displays acumen the faceoff circle, winning the lion's share of the draws, while tying up the opposing centerman during key defensive zone draws. He may have more development ahead of him, but Horvat's path to the NHL becomes clearer with each passing day.

Jordan Subban, D, Belleville Bulls
Acquired: 4th round (115th overall) in 2013

Rexdale, Ontario native Jordan Subban continues to play a vital role in the Belleville Bulls defense. The offensive-minded, right-shooting defenseman has five goals, 19 points over 28 games. Speculation abounds whether he will actually ever suit up and play in the NHL, but he certainly has carved out his niche on the Bells’ blue line. A very intelligent player, Subban anticipates well and approaches the game at a cerebral level. While there is obviously much for Subban to learn about the nuances of being a defender, his offensive skills speak for themselves. The Bulls have played a large number of their games thus far away from home, to the detriment of their overall record, which is 7-18-2-2 after 29 games. Only the Niagara IceDogs (129) and the Peterborough Petes (134) have allowed as many goals as Belleville (129). Subban will need to lead by example at this point, and hopefully continue growing his defensive abilities, if the Bulls are to have any success this season. With Brendan Gaunce being dealt November 26, more than a few eyes will be on Subban to see if he also becomes trade bait in exchange for more picks.

Evan McEneny, D, Kingston Frontenacs
Acquired: Free agent signing, September 2012

It would appear that Vancouver Canucks defensive prospects are in demand in the OHL at the moment. Just as the North Bay Battalion made a move to bring in Miles Liberati from the London Knights, so too have the Kingston Frontenacs moved assets to obtain Evan McEneny. Toronto Maple Leafs legend and Frontenacs GM Doug Gilmour sent defenseman Dylan DiPerna and their 2015 second round draft pick to the Kitchener Rangers in exchange for McEneny, Kitchener’s second round selection in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection. In 15 games with the Rangers this season, he compiled two goals, seven points, and a minus-11 rating in addition to 23 penalty minutes. The offensive reargaurd will bring some much needed experience to the Frontenacs blue line, as well as a puck-moving mindset. Thus far, McEneny has played five games with Kingston, registering an assist and a plus-five rating.

Cole Cassels, C, Oshawa Generals
Acquired: 3rd round (85th overall) in 2013

Cole Cassels, while always being very responsible defensively, has rewarded the Oshawa Generals coaching staff with offensive production due to increased ice time. The Canucks in turn rewarded Cassels with an entry-level contract on December 4. Now in his third season with the Generals, the Columbus, Ohio native is producing over a point per game. While Cassels has been known to set up teammates, he is finding the back of the net at an accelerated rate this season. In 24 games this season, he has scored 12 times and added 16 assists. He is tied for the team lead with eight power-play goals. Obviously very involved in the play, he is on track to eclipse his penalty minute totals from his first two seasons with the Generals, already possessing 43 through 24 games. Currently, Cassels is out of the lineup with a lower-body injury. Cassels’ return cannot come too soon for Oshawa, as his elevated play was doubtlessly one of the reasons the Generals have built a comfortable points lead atop the East Division in the OHL.

Brendan Gaunce, C/LW, Erie Otters
Acquired: 1st round (26th overall) in 2012

Prior to a blockbuster trade to the Erie Otters, Gaunce led the Belleville Bulls in scoring. Despite a heavy road schedule to start the season, he opened the season at a higher clip than last season. Through 22 games, he had 10 goals, 16 assists, and a minus-five rating. The Bulls were nonetheless near the bottom of the OHL and traded the team captain to Erie. In return, Belleville received winger Stephen Harper, as well as four picks in the OHL Priority Selection – Ottawa's second round pick in 2014, London's second round pick in 2016, Kingston's third round pick in 2015, and Erie's third round pick in 2016.

Gaunce is also very responsible defensively, and is strong in puck battles along the boards. His attention to detail in the faceoff circle does not go unnoticed; Gaunce is a strong two-way player that will likely center the Canucks third line in the future. For now, he will be content to help the Erie Otters challenge for the OHL championship and a Memorial Cup berth. Gaunce was held off the score sheet during the Super Series, but in four games since joining Erie, he has scored one goal, two assists with a plus-six rating.

WHL

Hunter Shinkaruk, C/LW, Medicine Hat Tigers
Acquired: 1st round (24th overall) in 2013

Hunter Shinkaruk may not be having quite the start to the 2013-14 season that he wanted, but it is by no means a poor one. The Medicine Hat Tigers forward is averaging near a point per game, with five goals, eleven assists through 18 games. With players such as Curtis Valk and Trevor Cox putting up some excellent numbers this season, Shinkaruk may not have to shoulder as much of an offensive load. Considering his plus-minus rating finished last season at minus-13, his current minus-two rating is palatable. Shinkaruk was chosen to represent the WHL in the Subway Super Series, where he scored the series clinching goal for Canada in the final game.

No matter the statistics, he possesses several NHL-ready qualities, as well as offensive instincts that just cannot be taught. The 24th overall selection of the 2013 draft has a strong competitive edge to him and is willing to pay the price to score goals. He has the hands to turn defenders inside out, and the speed to keep even the best of them on their heels. Shinkaruk will need to add some bulk to his frame and time to round out his defensive game, but it appears it is a matter of when, and not if, he reaches the NHL.

Anton Cederholm, D, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 5th round (145th overall) in 2013

Cederholm seems to be making the transition to North American hockey quite seamlessly. The Helsingborg, Sweden native whom the Canucks acquired with their fifth round selection in the 2013 draft, has fit in nicely on a strong Portland Winterhawks defense corps. The defense first mentality Cederholm brings with him has garnered a nice statistical start to the 2013-14 season, with a goal and eight points through the first 28 games. He also has 35 penalty minutes and a plus-12 rating. The 6'2, 209-pound left-shooting defenseman plays an excellent shutdown role, and has good mobility. His strong body positioning and desire to stick to his man always gives his goaltender a chance to make a save or extra time to move laterally across the crease. He has NHL ready size, and looks to be a nice fifth round addition for the Canucks, who always have room in their defensive stable for shutdown specialists.

Other Notes

At a quick glance at some of the Canucks other notable prospects, Nicklas Jensen is still trying to find his groove with the Utica Comets. Having recovered from a pre-season upper body injury, Jensen has two assists and a minus-four rating through 14 games. Stymied so far offensively, he has only 31 shots on goal. Alexandre Grenier has been a pleasant surprise for the Comets, though, sitting third on the team in scoring with five goals, 12 points through 20 games. Comets starting goaltender, Joacim Eriksson, is doing his best to help his team win. Despite a 4-9-1 record, he sports a 2.99 goals against average as well as a .899 save percentage. Defenseman Frank Corrado has been allotted more time to develop his game with Utica, and he has two goals, three assists through 20 games this season. Both of his goals were scored on the power play. Finally, Anton Rodin's return to Brynas in the SHL has been a relative success. Through 26 games, he has scored nine goals, 16 assists. He leads the team’s forwards in ice time and ranks second on the team in points.

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