Vancouver Canucks have small group of defensemen and wingers developing in NCAA and Europe

By Larenzo Jensen

Ben Hutton - Maine Black Bears

Photo: Maine defenseman Ben Hutton played a strong sophomore season and led the entire team with 15 goals in 2013-14 (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

The recent parting of ways between the Vancouver Canucks and former President and General Manager Mike Gillis will no doubt have implications for their prospects, current and future.

While the near future will reveal what the Canucks strategy and presence is at the draft table in Philadelphia, it is noteworthy to review what was reaped during the Mike Gillis era. To be certain, what used to be a distinct European flavor within the system, filtered down to one distinctly North American. Just as the Brian Burke and Dave Nonis effect was felt on prospects far into the Gillis era, so too will he leave a lasting impression on the system several years from now with some of his following selections. Of note, the 2012 NHL Draft ushered in a heavier focus on NCAA players within the system, with size and grit being two main criteria.

NCAA

Mike Williamson, D, Penn State Nittany Lions (Big Ten)
Drafted 6th round, 175th overall, 2013

The former Leduc Oil King and AJHL Rookie of the Year may not have posted eye-popping stats this season with Penn State, but in a couple of respects it was a year of growth. After missing time due to a leg injury, Williamson adapted to his new environment and made progress as the season wore on. The Penn State team grew stronger, particularly after they earned their first Big Ten win. Williamson and the rest of the defensive corps became heavily relied upon, tethered by standout goaltending performances from Matthew Skoff.

The Nittany Lions saved their best hockey for the Big Ten tournament, buoyed by the raucous fans in the Pegula Ice Arena. They dispatched number-12 ranked Michigan in a wild overtime game, with Williamson making a couple of key shot blocks. Though they would later be ousted by the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in a 2-1 thriller in the semifinals, the team showed tremendous heart and character. In his season wrap-up press conference, head coach Guy Gadowsky singled Williamson out for his growth and improvements over the season. He credited Williamson as one of the two most improved players on Penn State’s roster during the 2013-14 season. Along with his defensive awareness and shot blocking, it appears he grew in another area, literally. Last season, he was listed as 6’2” and 187 pounds. The Penn State roster lists him at 6’3”, 206.

Ben Hutton, D, Maine Black Bears (Hockey East)
Drafted 5th round, 147th overall, 2012

Few Canuck prospects made the kind of strides that Ben Hutton did this season. No hint of the “sophomore slump” here, Hutton turned the cliché on its ear with a breakout season. He and teammate Devin Shore (DAL) were both named to the Hockey East First Team in March. Hutton was also recently awarded the Bob Monahan Award, given annually to the top defenseman in New England. He set a school record for goals by a defenseman (15), and became the first defenseman in Maine history to lead the team in goals scored. His torrid power-play production led all defensemen in the nation with nine markers, and was good for sixth in the nation amongst defensemen in points per game (0.83).

Although many think of offense first and foremost when talking about Hutton Maine coaches lauded his defensive acumen and pointed out that he and Brice O’Connor played most nights against the other team’s best players. Particularly on the penalty kill and during other defensive situations, Hutton’s importance was under-appreciated. Hutton’s great stick work and natural feel for the game were cited as reasons for his defensive success. He will be back with the Black Bears for the 2014-15 season, where they hope to retain their success on home ice, while improving upon their poor road record.

Patrick McNally, D, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2010

After the 2011-12 rookie season McNally enjoyed, it really seemed as if the sky was the limit. He posted 28 points in 34 games for the Crimson, it seemed like it would take something unearthly to derail him. Unfortunately for him, that ‘something’ would present itself, a University-wide scandal that kept him from playing all but seven games during the 2012-13 campaign. Of course, Canucks management said all of the right things, and McNally was determined to get back on track for the 2013-14 season. But those things never materialized, with questions surrounding his ability to return to the level he played at in his rookie season.

While nobody has thrown in the towel on McNally’s career in hockey, it is imperative that he show some signs of recovery. Missing playing time down the stretch to end the Crimson’s season certainly did not help his cause. He finished the season having played 20 games, with a goal and seven assists, and 12 minutes in penalty, a far cry from his rookie year totals.

The good news for Canucks fans is that he has a boatload of natural talent, and could rebound from two less than memorable seasons. There are rumblings that his relationship with head coach Ted Donato has been slightly soured. McNally did not play down the stretch, including their opening round loss of the ECAC championship against Yale. It is unclear if it was because of injury or due to being benched. A solid off-season of conditioning would do wonders, giving him the fresh start he so desperately needs for the 2014-15 season.

Matthew Beattie, RW, Yale Bulldogs (ECAC)
Drafted 7th round, 207th overall, 2012

With a few freshman lessons out of the way, Beattie was given more opportunity this season with Yale. The Bulldogs have had a deep squad the last few seasons, with head coach Keith Allain careful not to load too many minutes on his younger players. Therefore, Beattie was used sparingly in his first season with the Bulldogs, playing 15 games with no goals or assists. During the 2013-14 campaign, he played in 22 games, earning four goals and two helpers, with increased ice-time. Coach Allain obviously went with his best available players for the playoffs, though, as Beattie did not play in the ECAC opening round, or the quarterfinal against the sixth-ranked Quinnipiac Bobcats. Quinnipiac exacted a measure of revenge for the 4-0 loss the Bulldogs handed them in the 2013 Frozen Four final en route to becoming NCAA national champions.

Beattie represents the prototypical late round selection that the Canucks targeted over the last several years. Beattie, like other players that would be granted extra time to develop through the college system, have time on their side. With perpetual late round picks, you could say the Canucks were making lemonade out of lemons. Beattie’s rather cerebral approach to the game has been fostered through coach Allain’s slow-but-steady method afforded by Yale’s depth. As time marches, Beattie’s average stick-handling and speed may catch up to his on-ice awareness, and good size.

Jeff Costello, LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
Drafted 5th round, 146th overall, 2009, by the Ottawa Senators
Acquired in a trade with Ottawa in March, 2014

The latest prospect acquisition for the Canucks is a two-way, brawny forward that will empty the tank if you ask it of him. Some have used the word ‘intimidating’ to describe his presence on the ice. He was chosen to serve as team captain for the 2013-14 season, and although he had fewer points than in 2012-13, he set a career high in goals (13) and penalty minutes (73).

The number-two seeded Fighting Irish made it to the Hockey East semifinals after defeating Boston College in their best of three opening round. Costello managed an assist in game one against BC, as well as the eventual game-winner in the decisive third game. The Irish lost to UMass-Lowell in the semifinal game but still earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament. In the program’s 46-year history, six NCAA Tournament appearances have come under current head coach Jeff Jackson. For the second straight year, it would be St. Cloud State who ended Notre Dame’s post-season, 4-3 in overtime. Although he came up with a big goal in 2011 at the Frozen Four, Costello was unable to hit the score sheet against the Huskies.

It is too early to tell if Costello will ever get a chance to play for the Canucks, but if he gets the opportunity, it will be his hard-nosed style that earns him a shot. He would be best suited for the third or fourth line, where his forechecking and ability to grind in the corners could be utilized. He is effective at disrupting other players and their focus on the play and position of the puck. Add in his leadership ability, and the fact that he is a natural left winger and anything could happen.

Europe

Ronalds Kenins, LW, Zurich Lions (Swiss NLA)
Signed as a free agent, July 2013

The last free agent signing accredited to Mike Gillis, Kenins inherits the position formerly held by Anton Rodin, as Vancouver’s only European based prospect. He currently plays left wing, but he has played pivot in the past. He also has the distinction of being coached by two former Colorado Avalanche coaches, Bob Hartley during the 2011-12 season and Marc Crawford the past two seasons. He may have caught Canucks scouting attention after a strong 2012-13 playoff with Zurich. He scored four goals, four assists through 12 games, whereas he had managed 17 points through 45 regular season games.

The Lions, after winning their first two playoff series in seven game thrillers, are now poised to face the Kloten Flyers for the first time ever in the Swiss NLA playoff final. Kenins and the Lions survived both Lausanne and Servette, their opponents winning game six to force a deciding seventh game. Kenins has three goals and no assists thus far through 15 playoff games, but would surely trade personal achievement for a chance to take home the NLA cup.

While playing for Latvia at the Sochi Olympics, Kenins also gave Canuck fans a preview of what they can expect in the future. He showed good speed through the neutral zone, and has a physical element to his game. Head coach Ted Nolan gave him increased ice time as the men’s tournament progressed. He threw a hit on Matthias Bieber that sent the Swiss player and his stick flying. While he is not a monster physical specimen, he has decent size at 6’0” and 201 pounds, and he uses it well. Having played his entire career in Europe, it will be interesting to see if he makes the jump to North America in a bid to secure a pro contract.

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