The Canucks’ AHL affiliate is off to a great start with 20 wins and seven losses for a healthy lead in the North Division. The Manitoba Moose have an impressive team this season led primarily by veterans like Jason Krog, Michel Ouellet, Mark Cullen and Jason Jaffray. All of those players this season have had stints with the Canucks, with Jaffray seeing the most time with six games and counting.
Despite the prominent veterans and a couple of prospects courtesy of the Dallas Stars, the Canucks do have a number of prospects with big expectations or playing key roles on the Moose. Some of them are having very stellar seasons while others are perhaps not fully living up to the hype. However, it’s also difficult to place a value on developing in a winning system. Many pro sports experts have said that nothing is worse for a young player than getting used to losing.
The single prospect Canucks fans – and the organization – had their eyes on heading into the season had to be top prospect Cory Schneider. Following his amazing second-half of the 2007-08 campaign, big things were expected of the American goaltender. And he was on while with the Moose. He posted a 10-1 record, 1.37 GAA and .945 save percentage –– overall outstanding statistics. Canucks MVP Roberto Luongo has been sidelined with a groin injury, forcing the Canucks to bring Schneider up to the NHL where he has not looked out of place to date.
After an impressive 2007-08 season, Michael Grabner was pegged as a prominent contributor to this year’s Moose offense. While Grabner’s goal production is up early on (10 goals so far compared to 22 last year), he has just six assists. He’s currently on pace to score more goals but end up with roughly the same amount of points. Grabner has had an up and down season where he has been invisible for a few games before exploding for the next couple. Grabner continues to show the rare talent to create and convert chances by himself, an offensive talent the Canucks currently lack at the NHL level. His development this season has not been as significant or consistent as anticipated. It would be unfair to say he has regressed, that’s simply not true, but some may be disappointed that his progress has not been as great as one would hope from a prospect playing their second full professional season.
Three other young forwards have made meaningful contributions to the Moose early in the season. The most surprising of the trio is Mario Bliznak. Two years ago few expected Bliznak to ever get a professional contract following a couple mediocre seasons with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. Bliznak not only got that contract, but made the Moose in his rookie season and is averaging a point per game with 12 points in 24 games so far. Perhaps most impressively he is a +10 on the year (second on the team), a stat not particularly surprising considering his penchant for steady two-way play. Bliznak has had an impressively well-rounded start to his debut season. He rarely fails to pick up a defensive assignment, plays his position well and still manages to contribute offensively.
Pierre-Cedric Labrie continues to put up decent numbers as a pro hockey player. Labrie has evident skating issues but provides good size, decent toughness and respectable hands for a big guy. His skating must improve if he hopes to be a meaningful offensive player at the professional level but for a player who arrives with little fanfare, Labrie has certainly surpassed expectations by immediately becoming a reliable AHL-caliber hockey player.
Alexandre Bolduc has played an important role on the Moose’s checking lines and earned a brief call-up to the Canucks. However, that short stint was largely unsuccessful as Bolduc was not effective. Fans should not be disheartened by that brief tenure. Bolduc has played a very good defensive game in Winnipeg. At just 23 years old, Bolduc has been an astute free agent signee by the organization. He is a meaningful NHL prospect who needs to regain his confidence and continue to develop his aggressive forechecking game. Bolduc won’t become more than a fourth liner if he makes the big show, but the current version of the Canucks has shown fans the importance of having quality checking lines.
Shaun Heshka and Daniel Rahimi have had relatively quiet seasons. For Rahimi, this is a good thing. A big, mean and physical defensive defenseman, Rahimi is the kind of defender who you really don’t want to notice on the ice. His two biggest deficiencies, skating and discipline, have improved significantly and he has become more of an asset as the season progresses. With just six points on the year, Heshka’s offensive production has dropped, although the full-time return of Nolan Baumgartner as changed the necessity for Heshka to contribute offensively. Fringe prospect Zack FitzGerald is a solid +8 with 71 penalty minutes. Throughout the year he has been steady in the Moose zone while dropping the gloves when needed.
The Canucks 10th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was the Brampton Battalion’s Cody Hodgson. The talented two-way center has exceeded early expectations by dominating the OHL with 42 points in 23 games. Hodgson was Hockey’s Future’s November Prospect of the Month and will play a significant role on Canada’s World Junior team. Hodgson not only is looking to be quality value at No. 10, but is making a good case to put himself on even footing with prospects taken ahead of him.
The Canucks seventh-round pick in 2007 Dan Gendur has spent the majority of the season with the ECHL Victoria Salmon Kings. In 22 games Gendur has five goals and 18 assists and has played an important role with the club. Gendur’s foot speed helps his linemates break through the neutral zone although he hasn’t fully showcased his shooting ability. Gendur has proven himself a worthy professional hockey player in his first year out of junior and would be playing in the AHL under most organizations. However, he’s been stuck in the numbers crunch caused by the very strong Moose line-up.