Canucks 2008 system audit

By Matt MacInnis

The Canucks have long had a poor drafting record, which has resulted in extremely few impact players over the past two decades.  More recently, the team has had some young players make the transition from prospect to NHL player.  This year the Canucks have five players under the age of 24 who they recently drafted (highlighted by Alexander Edler and Mason Raymond).  There are two more players in Alex Burrows and Rick Rypien that the organization has found as unrestricted free agents.

Today the Canucks have decent depth among players who meet HF’s qualifications for prospects.  However, they are far from the top of the league when it comes to organizational depth and likely will factor into the bottom third of the league with the probable graduations of Jannik Hansen and Raymond later this season.

Goaltending

Several years ago, the depth in the system between the pipes looked very strong with Boston College standout Cory Schneider, QMJHL star llis-plante”>Julien Ellis and Alexandre Vincent.  However, since that time, Vincent never signed a contract with the organization and his now toiling in the Central Hockey League’s Odessa Jackalopes.  Ellis has failed to live up to expectations and will likely spend the bulk of this season with the Victoria Salmon Kings in the ECHL.  Schneider, on the other hand, was one of the best goalies in the AHL last season and may have challenged for the backup job in another city that doesn’t have a starting goaltender expected to play upwards of 75 games this season.

Schneider is an elite goaltending prospect with the potential to be an above-average starting goaltender in the NHL.  Because of the presence of Roberto Luongo with the Canucks, Schneider is typically seen as trade bait to bring in the much-sought after top-six forward the Canucks have been pursuing for three years.  However, the reality of the matter is there isn’t a long history of goaltending prospects yielding a significant return.  Schneider is a mature and extremely poised netminder who doesn’t let bad goals get to him.  A very technical goaltender with good size, Schneider’s superior positioning often makes impressive saves look routine.  If the Canucks are unable to re-sign Luongo at the end of next season, the goaltending may not be at elite status, but things should be well in hand with Schneider.

Despite a promising QMJHL career with Shawinigan that included being recognized as the league’s top goaltender one season, Ellis has never reached his potential.  At least part of the blame for that has to fall upon the significant knee injury he suffered in his final junior season. He has never regained his top form since then and, coupled with concerns about his conditioning, has subsequently spent the overwhelming majority of his time in the ECHL.  Ellis had a shot at earning the backup job behind Schneider in the AHL out of camp after a solid 2007-08 campaign, but another injury has sidelined him for the first month or so of the season. 

The other goaltender in the system is goalie consultant Ian Clark’s son Morgan.  A heavily criticized selection that seemed like nepotism during the summer months, Morgan has acquitted himself respectably early in the WHL season with Red Deer.  At 5’11 and just 160 lbs, Clark is small for a professional goaltender and certainly didn’t look good during the pre-season camps.  Obviously Clark will receive excellent coaching from his father, which should help him develop.  At the end of the day, any seventh-round selection is a longshot, and Clark is no exception.


Defense

Although the team has used second round picks each of the past two years on defensemen, the team lacks significant depth at the position as an organization.  Most recently the team picked Yann Sauve 41st overall.  Sauve was a previously highly touted Q prospect whose offensive game failed to materialize during his draft year, resulting in a significant fall on draft day.  Sauve is off to an improved start thus far this season, scoring .66 points per game.  Whether or not Sauve is able to contribute offensively at the NHL level remains to be seen, but even if he’s unable to round out his game, at 6’3 and over 210 lbs, Sauve has NHL size and is solid in his own zone.  The Canucks can likely count on him to develop into a player for them in the future, but it’s difficult to project what kind of contribution he will make.

The other sound defender is Taylor Ellington.  The solidly built Victoria native is a defensive defenseman with a reputation for playing a safe game in his own zone.  Ellington does struggle at times with his decision making while controlling the puck and needs to improve his skating, but these are issues the team hopes will be ironed out with further development in major junior hockey this season in Everett.  Ellington had a fairly disappointing training camp but remains an important piece of the Canucks’ future puzzle due to a decrease with Luc Bourdon’s tragic passing and Nathan McIver being claimed by the Anaheim Ducks off waivers.

Next on the depth chart is the big and tough Swede, Daniel Rahimi.  The 6’2, 220 lbs progeny of Swedish and Iranian parents, Rahimi is surprisingly soft-spoken for an imposing presence who plays as rough and tumble on the ice as he does.  Rahimi is purely a defensive defenseman with very limited puck skills.  He lacks foot speed and isn’t the most mobile player.  Despite his skating shortcomings, Rahimi is the kind of steady, powerful and aggressive player that many teams want to have on their third pairing.  Rahimi will never be a star at any professional level, but he is a good depth player and an unpleasant guy to play against.

The club has a handful of fringe prospects playing in the minor pros currently.  The most notable of this group is probably Shaun Heshka, a free agent signee who has shown good skating and confidence carrying the puck.  Slightly undersized, Heshka has been described by some as a poor man’s Kevin Bieksa.  While that may be generous, Heshka has underappreciated talent and could become a specialty seventh defenseman with more seasoning.

The next likely to see minutes at the NHL level, even if it’s almost certainly going to be due to significant injuries, is Zack Fitzgerald.  A tough, mean defenseman with limited skill set who knows to play within his means, Fitzgerald brings toughness to any lineup.  Overall Fitzgerald is an example of good asset management by previous GM Dave Nonis.  Fitzgerald may be a depth AHL player with fringe NHL potential, but he was acquired for FP Guenette, who spent his North American pro career in the ECHL and has subsequently transitioned to the Italian League.

Another minor league transaction by the organization saw Jim Sharrow come to the Canucks in exchange for enigmatic forward Jesse Schultz.  Sharrow is a primarily offensive blueliner who has never really been able to put up impressive numbers as a minor pro while maintaining defensive responsibility.  At this point Sharrow appears destined as a career in the minor leagues.

Last among this group is Patrick Coulombe.  The pint-sized St. Fabien, Quebec native impressed the organization with an exceptional 2006 training camp and has failed to live up to that performance since.  During a seven-game stint with the club in 2006, Coulombe was clearly physically overmatched and registered just one assist.  Coulombe spent last season in the ECHL and was reassigned to Victoria once again early this season.

The final prospect in the Canucks group is Kris Fredheim.  The Campbell River, BC born prospect is who is now in his third season with Colorado College.  After a solid developmental year last season, Fredheim will look to build upon that success and continue to round out his overall game.  At 6’2, 185 lbs, Fredheim still needs to bulk up before he’s ready for pro hockey, but he has most of two years to take care of that.

Left Wing

One young man stands clearly alone at the top of the Canucks depth chart on the left wing.  Raymond is by far the most impressive prospect in the team’s system along the left side.  Blessed with remarkable breakaway speed and hands that are still learning to catch up to his legs, Raymond is an exciting player with the ability to bring 20,000 fans to their collective feet every time he gets the puck in space.  Playing this season the team’s second line after developing some pre-season chemistry with Pavol Demitra, Raymond has four points in the team’s first seven games.

The other three prospects who consistently play left wing in the system are all long shots, although for very different reasons.  Sergei Shirokov is a talented Russian player off to a tremendous start with CSKA in the KHL (16 points in 18 games).  Unfortunately it’s increasingly unclear if the 5’10, 175 lber is truly interested in coming to North America to please, regardless of what he told the Canucks prior to the team selecting him.

Pierre-Cedric Labrie continues to surprise.  An unknown free agent signing out of junior last year, Labrie put up respectable numbers for the Moose as a rookie and now has four points in five games to kick off the 2008-09 campaign.  A big winger with deft hands around the net, Labrie has significant skating issues to overcome but seems able to produce at the AHL level despite his weaknesses. 

Prab Rai is another lightning-fast skater in the system.  A lightning rod of controversy during the 2006-07 season when a dispute with the Prince George Cougars resulted in Rai being moved to Seattle where he has played quite well.  Rai has a reputation as a player who doesn’t go into the physical areas of the rink, but is putting up results early this season with eight goals and an assist in 13 games. Despite Rai’s explosive speed and finishing abilities, being a bit of an outside player and concerns around the well-roundedness of his game make Rai a boom or bust prospect.

None of these players should be considered locks to make the NHL at any point, but they have both showed significant strides in the past season and a half.  In particular, with the formation of the Continental Hockey League, it seems improbable that fans will ever see Shirokov in a Canucks uniform.

Center

The Canucks have a real mixed bag at center, headlined by tenth overall pick in the 2008 Cody Hodgson.  The Brampton Battalion captain wasn’t able to make the Canucks out of training camp, but showed real signs of promise.  He’s off to a good start in the OHL despite a brief suspension.  In the bigger picture, Hodgson shows every sign of being an above-average two-way second-line center man who brings quality character and leadership to any team.  Hodgson is a complete package, on and off the ice, bringing intangible assets that every organization covets.

After Hodgson, the talent pool drops off noticeably and is mostly stocked with potential defensive centers who have varying abilities to help out on the score sheet.  The most prominent of this group has to be Patrick White, the team’s first-round selection from 2007.  White had a difficult freshman season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers last year, but is expected to see more minutes in more situations as a sophomore. 

Next on the depth chart is Ilya Kablukov, a rangy Russian pivot who played exceptionally well during the Canada vs Russia junior series.  A defensively responsible young player, Kablukov showed a real desire to compete when many of his teammates appeared to have mailed it in.  Kablukov is playing with Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo in the KHL this season, but has registered just one point in 16 games.  One positive aspect of where he’s playing is that former Canuck Artem Chubarov is a teammate.  The two can play very similar games and Chubarov should be a good role model.

Despite all playing in different leagues, Matt Butcher, Mario Bliznak and Mats Froshaug will likely find themselves competing against each other if and when they make it to the pro ranks in North America.  Bliznak is the only one currently in the Moose pipeline and as acquitted himself well thus far with three points in five games.  A player with a knack of stepping it up in big games, Bliznak is a steady young player who rarely creates a scoring chance for the opposition.  Butcher has shown the ability to score in the BCHL and to a lesser extent in collegiate hockey, although his offensive game relies heavily on overpowering opponents.  At 6’2 and a little over 200 lbs, it’s improbable that Butcher will be able to out-muscle NHL-sized defensemen.  He does have a solid two-way game and possesses good enough skating and size to make it as a depth forward in a few years if he continues to develop. 

Froshaug received a lot of attention for a sixth round pick simply because he was a “Thomas Gradin pick” – the Canucks highly vaunted Swedish scout.  The early reports on Froshaug sound similar to Bliznak’s several years ago.  He’s a slightly undersized center with a reputation of having a two-way game and decent but unremarkable offensive skills.  Froshaug is playing with Linköping of the Swedish Elite League this season.

The organization also possesses a couple of extreme long-shot centers in their system who possess solid offensive skills.  Taylor Matson and Charles-Antoine Messier are both small pivots touted as primarily offensive players who have yet to truly showcase their skills.  Matson will see limited minutes as a freshman with the Gophers this season, but this is a make-or-break season for Messier.  Unfortunately, he is yet to get into a single game due to injury.  Messier will need a strong season in order to earn a pro contract.

Right wing

The right wing may be the most intriguing position for the Canucks organizationally.  The team possesses one pure goal scorer, two solid two-way prospects and one fighter who can skate and fore-check.  Jannik Hansen is the most proven asset as he currently is a member of arguably the best third line in the NHL alongside Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows.  Of course, Hansen has just 22 NHL regular season and playoff games under his belt.  Hansen is a good two-way player who has demonstrated surprising grit and toughness when necessary. 

Dan Gendur may one day develop into a third or fourth line multi-use player like Hansen appears on track to become.  Gendur’s offensive abilities were showcased last season as an overager, and now he will likely spend 2008-09 in Victoria proving he can score at the professional level while honing his defensive game. 

The single biggest question mark in the system has to be Michael Grabner.  A dynamic skater with natural finishing skills, Grabner is wildly inconsistent and can disappear for lengthy periods of time.  That said, he’s a threat every time he touches the puck and possesses both the speed and raw talent to create his own scoring opportunities.  Grabner will either be an NHL scoring line player or a career minor league player as his skill set simply doesn’t translate to a checking role. 

Rounding out the group is fighter/fourth liner Mike Brown.  Sticking with the big club right now due to waiver issues, the team opted to keep him over Matt Pettinger, a surprising decision that ended up costing them Pettinger when Tampa Bay plucked him for free off waivers.  Brown has good north-south speed and is a capable pugilist, but that’s the extent of his proven value.

Conclusions

Overall it’s clear that the cupboard, while not entirely bare, is certainly not well-stocked.  The team possesses only a few potential impact players and only a couple more with legitimate NHL potential.  The team has a plethora of middling prospects that seem destined as careers in the minor pros or European leagues barring significant development. 

However, the team has received some surprising players in the recent past.  Few expected Kevin Bieksa or Hansen (furthermore Burrows and Rypien) to evolve into quality NHL players.  Unfortunately it appears the Canucks will need to rely on more surprising developments in the coming years if the organization is going to be successful.