Canucks Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Tim Bamford

On December 17, 2008, the Vancouver Canucks celebrated the career of their recently retired captain, Trevor Linden. While #16 will never again suit up for the Canucks, it may not be too long before there’s a player who projects to be much like the inspirational fan favorite. Heady praise indeed, but in Cody Hodgson, Vancouver have themselves a prospect who personifies the intangible qualities and character that are required in a captain, and it is the young forward who takes over from Cory Schneider at No. 1 on Vancouver’s prospect list.

As for Schneider, he still is considered one of the very best goaltending prospects in all of hockey and the fact that he has dropped to No. 2 has more to do with Hodgson’s rise rather than Schenider’s performance so far this year.

Vancouver can be justified in their excitement pertaining to Michael Grabner‘s excellent play this year and it likely will not be long until the Danish dynamo is skating with the big club. What is of concern is the stagnant development of 2006 first-rounder, Pat White, who has yet to effectively demonstrate his offensive talents at the college level.

Overall, the quality of Vancouver’s stable of prospects drops off significantly after the top five, and is populated mostly by who youngsters who project to be depth or role players at the NHL level.     

Top 20 at a glance

1. Cody Hodgson, C – 8.5B
2. Cory Schneider, G – 8.0B
3. Jannik Hansen, RW – 7.0B
4. Michael Grabner, RW – 7.5C
5. Yann Sauve, D – 7.0C
6. Taylor Ellington, D – 6.5C
7. Sergei Shirokov, LW – 7.0D
8. Ilja Kablukov, LW – 6.5C
9. Prab Rai, C – 6.5D
10. Nathan McIver, D – 6.0B
11. Mario Bliznak, C – 6.0C
12. Pierre-Cedric Labrie, LW – 6.0C
13. Alexandre Bolduc, C – 6.0C
14. Dan Gendur, RW – 6.0C
15. Daniel Rahimi, D – 6.0C
16. Julien Ellis, G – 6.0C
17. Shaun Heshka, D – 6.0D
18. Pat White, C – 6.0D
19. Matt Butcher, C – 6.0D
20. Charles-Antoine Messier, C – 7.0F

1. Cody Hodgson, C – 8.5B
Drafted: 2008 – Round 1, 10th Overall    

Finishing tied for fourth in OHL scoring, the Brampton Batallion star boasted an impressive 43 goals and 49 assists in 53 games this year. The 2008-09 season has been a coming out of sorts for Hodgson, as he has vaulted himself into a sphere occupied only by the very elite prospects. The highlight was his performance for Canada at the 2009 WJC, where he led the tournament in scoring with five goals and 11 assists in only six games. An intelligent player, Hodgson is a very good skater, strong on the puck and he possesses the offensive ability to be a first-line center. Beyond the skill package, however, Hodgson has consistently displayed strong leadership qualities and plays a spirited and combative game. Soon to turn 19 years of age, it may be another year before he is a mainstay for the Canucks, but at this stage of his career it appears that he personifies all that is required to be an NHL captain in the future.
   
2. Cory Schneider, G – 8.0B
Drafted: 2004 – Round 1, 26th Overall

With Roberto Luongo a fixture in the Vancouver goal for the foreseeable future, Cory Schneider has a formidable task ahead of him. However, if there is a prospect who is endowed with the talent to be a legitimate No. 1, it would be the Marblehead, Massachusetts native. Schneider’s numbers in his second professional season have been nothing less than sensational, posting a record of 24-6-1, a sparkling 1.85 goals against average and .930 save percentage. On Nov. 29, the young netminder made his NHL debut, filling in for the injured Luongo. While his numbers were less than spectacular during his brief time in Vancouver (2-4-1, 3.38 GAA, .877 save percentage), the Canucks are no doubt enjoying the enviable situation of having a goalkeeper who is dominating NHL shooters presently, and one waiting in the wings who has given every indication that he could do likewise in the future.   
 
3. Jannik Hansen, RW – 7.0B
Drafted: 2004 – Round 9, 287th Overall

Already a veteran of 57 NHL games, the crafty Dane is proving that he could play a key role for the Canucks in the not so distant future. With 21 points in 52 games and a +7 rating this season, Hansen is blossoming into a dependable, hard-working forward who is difficult to knock off his skates and is dogged in his pursuit of the puck. Already a popular figure in the Canuck dressing room, some of his teammates liken him to former Selke Award winner Jere Lehtinen. Only time will tell if Hansen can emulate that kind of success, but it’s safe to say that Hansen should continue his development at the NHL level — pretty impressive for a player who was selected 287th overall.  Currently Hansen remains out of the lineup after breaking his pinky in February.

4. Michael Grabner, RW – 7.5C
Drafted: 2006 – Round 1, 14th Overall

With a solid 26 goals in 54 AHL contests, Grabner is finally showing glimpses of being able to cultivate his natural offensive ability into tangible production. If the talented Austrian can maintain the level of consistency displayed so far this season, surely a call to the big club cannot be far behind. A dynamic player with the occasional penchant to dominate the offensive zone, his raw ability has never been questioned; now the speedy winger has significantly improved his defensive game as demonstrated by his +20 rating. Not a big player by NHL standards at 170 lbs., his success at the AHL level has mostly allayed previously held fears that he does not carry the upper-body strength to handle the rigors of the long NHL season. Thanks to his devastating ability to accelerate rapidly with only a few strides combined with his deft puck-handling skills, he projects to be a legitimate point producing winger for the Canucks.

5. Yann Sauve, D – 7.0C
Drafted: 2008 – Round 2, 41st Overall

Any player selected in the second round comes with high expectations, and while it is not fair to say that Sauve has failed to live up to those lofty standards, it must be said that he has progressed slower than expected. Blessed with imposing size and strength, Sauve is currently a -4 for the Saint John Sea Dogs on a fairly even team. His offensive game has not developed as quickly as hoped, with just 30 points in 61 games, so Sauve should be thought of as more of a project at this stage of his career. However, Sauve does offer an intriguing package, so if he can overcome some of his inconsistencies in his own zone and occasional shortcomings with the puck, he could yet establish himself as a second-pairing defenseman in the NHL — just don’t expect him in Vancouver for a few years yet.     

6. Taylor Ellington, D – 6.5C
Drafted: 2007 – Round 2, 33rd Overall

Big, strong and mean, Ellington projects to be a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman at the professional level. Currently in his fifth year with the Everett Silvertips in the WHL, the Victoria, B.C. product has a respectable 32 points in 69 games, a commendable improvement over last season’s point total of 14. He leads the team in defensive scoring in fact. What is of some concern is his -20 rating, fourth worst on the team. With 130 penalty minutes it’s clear that Ellington does not shy away from physical encounters, in fact in most cases he goes looking for them. He will never be confused for a dynamic two-way defender, but does stand a very real chance at establishing himself as a dependable rearguard because of his intensity and ornery approach to the game, in the same style as Jason Smith of the Ottawa Senators.     
 
7. Sergei Shirokov, LW – 7.0D
Drafted: 2006 – Round 6, 163rd Overall

It is difficult to say what, exactly, Vancouver have in their diminutive Russian prospect, Sergei Shirokov. The Canucks ability to fully assess his potential have been compromised somewhat as the player has not given any indication that he is interested in coming to North America. Although undersized at 5’10, 176 lbs., he has a remarkable skill set with natural playmaking instincts. Occasionally he gets outmuscled in the KHL by larger, stronger players, but his offensive package is too good to ignore. In 56 games for CSKA, Shirokov recorded an impressive 17 goals and 24 assists, an important improvement over last year, a season where scouts began to be concerned about a significant plateau in his development. His performance this year has mostly settled those worries, and is still projected to have a ceiling as a top-six forward at the NHL level.

8. Ilja Kablukov, LW – 6.5C
Drafted: 2007 – Round 5, 146th Overall

If Kablukov ever achieves an NHL career, it will likely be as a defensive specialist. With only one goal and three assists in 42 games with Torpedo in the Russian KHL this season, he has yet to show that he can be a reliable scoring threat. Despite his offensive shortcomings however, there is much to like about Kablukov’s game as he has developed a reputation as an attentive defensive presence on the ice and brings a strong work ethic to the rink on a regular basis. For Kablukov to warrant serious consideration for an NHL job, it is imperative that he adds some bulk to his frame and continues to improve on his skating ability, which is currently considered to be slightly above average.     

9. Prab Rai, C – 6.5D
Drafted: 2008 – Round 5, 131st Overall

Depending on whom you ask, in Rai the Canucks either have a prospect who is a dynamic skater with decent offensive upside, or an ordinary junior player who has little to no chance at securing NHL employment. To his credit, Rai has seems to have shaken off concerns about his character that has dogged him from his rookie year, and posted a notable 25 goals and 40 assists in 61 games for the WHL‘s Seattle Thunderbirds this season. The knock against the Surrey, B.C. native is that he often plays on the perimeter and is rendered ineffective along the boards or in high-traffic areas. Further, he does not seem to have the presence of mind to avoid putting himself in vulnerable areas on the ice and as a result he absorbs his fair share of contact — clean or otherwise — from opposing players. However, in today’s NHL, speed kills and the speedy Rai is one of the finest, most gifted skaters in all of junior hockey which will ensure continued attention from the Canucks brass.

10. Nathan McIver, D – 6.0B
Drafted: 2003 – Round 8, 254th Overall

The 2008-09 season has been a bit of a roller coaster for McIver, who was claimed off the waiver wire by Anaheim only to be sent back to the Canucks in early February. Devoid of much offensive ability, McIver thrives on the physical aspect of the game, initiates contact at every opportunity and is no stranger to the penalty box with 95 PIM’s and just one assist in his 36 career NHL contests. As a result of his one-dimensional nature, McIver can expect to be shuffled with regularity between the NHL and the minors unless he can improve on his ability to contain speedy forwards who look to take advantage of his lack of mobility and foot speed.

11. Mario Bliznak, C – 6.0C
Drafted: 2005 – Round 7, 205th Overall

The Canucks have an interesting prospect in Slovakian Bliznak. Tenacious and reliable, Bliznak tends to his defensive game with diligence and commitment. This season, he has appeared in 57 games for the AHL‘s Manitoba Moose, scoring 16 points and is +7 in his first professional campaign. A decent rookie season to be sure, but even more impressive given that most felt that his introduction to the pro ranks would be via the ECHL. While not the biggest or strongest of players, he has a knack of winning more than his fair share on battles along the boards and can effectively neutralize opposition snipers. He will never overwhelm with his offensive endeavors, but if his efforts in Manitoba are any indication, he projects to be a valuable role player for the Canucks in the future.  

12. Pierre-Cedric Labrie, LW – 6.0C
Drafted: Free Agent signing, 2007

Appearing in 56 games for Manitoba so far this season, Pierre-Cedric Labrie has recorded a modest five goals, nine assists and 71 penalty minutes. Now in his second professional season, Labrie didn’t make big strides past his accomplishments the prior year. He is spending the majority of his time on the third and fourth lines with the Moose. A grinding, up-and-down kind of winger, Labrie uses his ample size to good effect and is not afraid to engage physically, so it is likely that he will always have a role in the pro game, but his ability to parlay that into something more significant at the NHL level is compromised by his poor skating skills and limited ability with the puck.     

13. Alexandre Bolduc, C – 6.0C
Signed as a free agent, 2008

Signed as a free agent by the Canucks this past summer, Bolduc made his NHL debut on  Nov. 27 against the Calgary Flames. Over the following three months, the Montreal native has been moved with regularity between Manitoba and Vancouver, having appeared in seven contests for the big club, recording one assist and four penalty minutes. With Manitoba, the 23-year-old has 30 points in 51 games. Like many players who find themselves in the same hockey’s no-man’s-land as Bolduc has, he brings plenty of emotion and commitment with each recall, but he lacks the overall game which would keep him in Vancouver’s lineup on a more permanent basis.

14. Dan Gendur, RW –  6.0C
Drafted: 2007 – Round 7, 206th Overall

At first glance it may appear that the Victoria, British Columbia product is a marginal prospect. A closer look at Gendur’s potential however, suggests that he may have the raw talents to make him a bona fide prospect due to his above-average skating and strong work ethic. While patrolling the wing for the ECHL‘s Victoria Salmon Kings, Gendur has tallied a respectable nine goals and 28 assists in 48 games, good for sixth-best on the squad, in his first professional season. He has also played 10 games for Manitoba. But Gendur is a project and it will likely require two or three years of steady improvement before he is given an opportunity to skate with the Canucks.
        
15. Daniel Rahimi, D – 6.0
Drafted: 2006 – Round 3, 82nd Overall

There has never been any concern about Rahimi’s size — or his willingness to use it — but the big Swedish defenseman must improve upon his overall game. Having played in 53 games for the Moose this year, Rahimi has only recorded one goal, four assists and 40 penalty minutes. Apparently, his contributions have not been enough as the Moose recently chose to relegate him to their reserve list for the remainder of the season, meaning he can only be called up on an emergency basis as cover for injuries or suspensions. In any event, turning 22 in April, Rahimi is young enough that he has plenty of time to work on his shortcomings, notably his skating and lateral mobility so that he can force his way into contention for NHL employment.   

16. Julien Ellis, G – 6.0C
Drafted: 2004 – Round 6, 189th Overall

Ellis is in his third year with the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL, and has only made it to the AHL for 11 games over those three years. His numbers in the ECHL are good this year, recording a 9-7-3 record, .923 save percentage and 2.39 GAA in 18 games. A butterfly goalie, Ellis has sharp reflexes and good lateral movement, but he lacks the size to effectively challenge shooters. Recently, Ellis has wrestled more playing time away his partner, Todd Ford, but the reality of his situation is that his days are likely numbered in the Vancouver system. He could catch on elsewhere.

17. Shaun Heshka, D – 6.0D
Drafted: Free Agent signing 2006

Saskatchewan native Heshka has appeared in 65 games with Manitoba in the 2008-09 season, chalking up three goals, 17 assists, and a respectable +10 rating. The undrafted rearguard has been a valued contributor for the Moose this season. Heshka is a puck-moving, offensively-inclined defender, but his point totals regressed from last year. The 23-year-old is at the end of his entry-level deal.

18. Pat White, C – 6.0D
Drafted: 2007 – Round 1, 25th Overall

A first-round selection from the 2007 Entry Draft, White’s stock has fallen ever since the Canucks selected him with their 25th overall pick. Now a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, White only registered seven goals and nine assists in 35 games for the No. 16 ranked Golden Gophers. If there is a silver lining regarding White’s development it is that his production this season does represent an improvement over last year’s totals of six goals and four assists in 45 contests. However, for a player with a more offensive role, these statistics should be considered a disappointment. White’s accurate shot, ample skating ability and confident puck-handling skills mean that he does still have some upside, but he needs to find a greater level of consistency and add some muscle to his frame. White will be a junior in the fall.

19. Matt Butcher, C – 6.0D
Drafted: 2005 – Round 5, 138th Overall

Due to injury, the Northern Michigan forward has only played one game in the 2009 calendar year and just 14 on the season, recording two goals, three assists and 14 penalty minutes for the Wildcats. Butcher has two things in his favor. First, he has with NHL size at 6’2 and 205 lbs. Second, his father Garth was a 14-year NHL veteran so it is clear that he has the right genetic makeup to realize a big-league career one day. However, the younger Butcher does have some limitations to his game, particularly his offensive talents which may be adequate for the NCAA, but probably are not strong enough to answer the Canucks future attacking needs. The Bellingham, Washington product plays a similar game to his father, and as a result can be intimidating and generally unpleasant to play against. He is dependable in his own zone, and is one of the better face-off men in all of college hockey. As a result, Butcher may find that his best shot at the NHL is as a defensive and penalty-killing specialist.
 
20. Charles-Antoine Messier, C – 7.0F
Drafted: 2007 – Round 5, 145th Overall 

Much like Butcher, Messier has seen limited action this year, suiting up 10 times up for Chicoutimi, recording just one assist. Crafty and elusive, Messier’s game is all offense, but he is undersized by NHL standards at 5’10 and 176 lbs. He encounters difficulty against big and mobile defensemen, although it must be said that he can beat slower rearguards with with ease using his above-average speed to create space and time in the attacking zone. Like many offensively gifted players, he also has excellent hands, but ultimately he may be too one-dimensional to ever realize his NHL ambitions. He will need to be signed by June 1.