The Canucks had many of their top prospects spend time in the minor professional ranks this season, helping the team’s AHL affiliate the Manitoba Moose total 99 points on the season. The ECHL affiliate, the Victoria Salmon Kings, had their best season in the organization’s four-year history.
For the most part. the Canucks’ young prospects playing professional hockey lived up to or exceeded expectations, particularly considering many of them were in their first years out of junior. The good news for the Canucks is that every one of their top five prospects played pro hockey this season and all appear to be within another year or two of becoming NHL players.
The Canucks’ two young netminders both had strong seasons for their respective teams. Former Boston College stalwart Cory Schneider transitioned from collegiate hockey and after a very rough first couple of months had a remarkable turnaround that made him one of the better goaltenders in the AHL by the end of the season. Schneider finished the regular season with a 21-12-2 record, including three shutouts and very impressive 2.28 GAA and .916 save percentage.
Schneider’s strong play has created a dilemma for the Canucks. The Moose’s starting goaltender Drew MacIntyre turns just 25 this summer and had an equally impressive season. The organization needs to find minutes for Schneider to continue to develop but MacIntyre is a potentially valuable asset. It will be interesting to see if the organization hands the backup job to the MacIntyre in order to further Schneider’s development or if they will allow the two young goalies to battle it out for ice time.
The somewhat forgotten man between the pipes for the Canucks is Julien Ellis. Once considered among the top QMJHL goalies during his time with Shawinigan, Ellis has had a difficult time moving to pro hockey. This was by far his best season as a pro, however. Ellis played in the ECHL all-star game and posted good regular-season numbers, including a 24-11-5 record with a .908 save percentage. Depending on what happens with MacIntyre, Ellis may have earned himself a promotion to the AHL next season.
Due to a plethora of injuries at the NHL level, the Moose used 18 different defensemen this season. The best of the group played just two games with the Moose. After originally being assigned to the Moose out of training camp, Alexander Edler was quickly called back up to the big club where he stayed. The other top defensive prospect to spend time with the Moose this season was Luc Bourdon. The promising Shippigan, NB native showed elevated play this season and seemed to become a fan favorite. Sadly Bourdon lost his life in a tragic motorcycle accident on May 29.
One of the players who benefited significantly from the numerous injuries suffered by opening night Canuck defenders is Nathan McIver. The Summerside, PEI native played 43 steady games for the Moose, racking up 108 PIM during that time. The Canucks felt they needed more toughness, and McIver was more than willing to bring it. At this stage of his career, McIver is a reliable depth defenseman who probably fits as a No. 7 or 8 guy if a team needs added toughness in their line-up.
Another prospect benefited in a similar way as McIver. But for Daniel Rahimi, injuries enabled him to play the bulk of the season in the AHL. Rahimi appeared destined to toil in Victoria for his inaugural North American season, but ultimately played 41 AHL games and 19 ECHL, scoring five points in each league. Rahimi is a very big 6’2, 220 lbs and possesses incredible strength. Unfortunately his skating and puck skills are lacking and will likely limit him to a third-pairing type defender regardless of what tier of hockey he is playing.
The team had a handful of other fringe prospects playing professional this season as well. Zack Fitzgerald, Jim Sharrow and Shaun Heshka all spent the season with the Moose, with Heshka showing the most promise of the group as an offensive catalyst. Former training camp sensation Patrick Coulombe spent the season in Victoria, where he played very average and showed few signs of having NHL potential.
For the first time in recent memory, the Canucks’ primary farm team was stocked with forwards who show real NHL potential to start the season. The leading candidate was speed demon Mason Raymond, who appeared in 20 AHL games (17 points) and 49 NHL games (21 points). Raymond is a dynamic player who is expected to evolve into a full-time secondary scoring type player thanks largely in part to his speed.
When the Canucks traded for Colby Genoway midway through last season, it seemed to be an opportunity to land a scoring player for nothing. But Genoway responded by scoring just one goal in his 32 games with the Moose. He rebounded in a big way in 2007-08, scoring 15 times and tallying 49 points in 67 games to finish second on the team in points. He remains a long-shot NHL prospect, but appears to be a solid contributor at the AHL level.
Heading into training camp, the focus at the forward spot was between Raymond and Dane Jannik Hansen. The much-hyped winger scored 43 points in 50 AHL games, but was unable to get on the scoreboard in his five NHL contests. Overall Hansen had a solid developmental season set back slightly by an injury towards the end of training camp. Hansen has good potential to end up a full-time player with the Canucks by the end of the upcoming season.
2006 first-round pick Michael Grabner had a stellar rookie professional season with 22 goals and 22 assists. Grabner had experienced some difficulty dealing with physical play in junior and in some ways exceeded expectations this season because of his ability to produce offensively. His biggest assets are his speed and his skill while moving quickly, but consistency remains a major issue for the talented Austrian. Barring a significant development spurt in the off-season, Grabner will be back with the Moose next season.
Big grinder Pierre-Cedric Labrie was a positive surprise for the Canucks organization. The Baie-Comeau native was signed as a free agent during the off-season and arrived at Canucks Rookie Camp with many wondering who he was. Labrie earned a spot on the Moose netted seven goals and 11 assists (plus 108 PIM) in 67 games. Labrie’s skating is a major issue, but he does have a nose for the net and surprising soft hands in tight. The Canucks may have a sleeper of a depth player on their hands.
Not surprisingly, dangler Juraj Simek had a difficult time adjusting to the AHL. Simek has tremendous puck-handling skills, but lacks a well-rounded offensive game at this point. Described by Canucks scouts in the past as able to stick-handle in a phone booth, Simek scored only 17 points and will be expected to be much better this season. More time is needed to properly evaluate his long-term potential.
The Canucks had a pair of other prospects spend time with the Moose. Grinders Mike Brown and Rick Rypien played decently while with either the Moose or the Canucks, but remarkably at no point in time. Both are respectable fourth-line type guys who will fore-check aggressively and drop the mitts when called upon. Despite having less talent than his counterpart, Brown may have a brighter future than Rypien because of his size and ability to remain healthy.
Disappointing former second rounder Marc-Andre Bernier spent the entire season with the Salmon Kings. While his 48 points were a personal professional career high, it is apparent Bernier is no longer a viable NHL prospect.