With the Vancouver Canucks entering something of a mini-rebuild, they have built up a pipeline of extremely talented young centers that are nearly on the cusp of being ready for the NHL. While the NHL squad’s top talent is slowly aging and settling more into the latter stages of their careers, the Canucks have many players who are going to be considered cornerstones of the franchise waiting just on the other side.
With the last several Stanley Cup winners building teams from the net out and down the middle, the Canucks have emulated that by having one of the better goaltending prospects in the NCAA and one of the deepest groups of center prospects in all of hockey. If all holds true to plan, the Canucks will have a formidable group for many years to come at the NHL level, and it could be the backbone of their return to prominence.
The Canucks left wing group remains thin. They do have Hunter Shinkaruk at the top, who is entering his rookie season with the Utica Comets. After that there is not much in the way of top-shelf talent. Shinkaruk will no doubt have his growing pains in 2014-15, but he remains a legitimate top-six forward for the Canucks to develop.
Past that comes a slew of grinders and bottom-six forwards. Darren Archibald has already seen time with the Canucks at the pro level in that role, as has former collegiate player Michael Zalewski. Both are suiting up for Utica this season and are expected to provide the team with energy.
Added to the mix of energy forwards was Latvian free agent signing Ronalds Kenins. A member of the Swiss National League A team ZSC, Kenins participated in the Sochi Olympic Games and the World Championships with Latvia. He embraces the hard-working attitude that has become synonymous with the Latvian hockey program in recent years. He has two goals and three points in eight games with Utica and should be an interesting addition to watch moving forward. He is still just 23 years old as well.
Although excelling at the ECHL level, Ludwig Blomstrand continues to find it difficult to break into the AHL lineup. The former 2011 fourth round selection played 47 games with Kalamazoo of the ECHL and has started there for 2014-15 as well.
The real core of the Canuck system remains it’s diverse and talented group of centers; they have also added a few pieces over the course of this last season which make it even stronger. The two top men in the system are taking steps into the AHL this year, which is exciting for Canucks fans as the next wave gets ever closer. Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce have been staples of the next wave for a few years now, and both are now playing professionally. The former first round selections are going to encounter a fair share of growing pains and a steep learning curve this season. Horvat in particular has had his struggles already this season, as many expected him to make the Canucks out of camp. However, he was upstaged by trade acquisition Linden Vey. Patience is key with both Horvat and Gaunce, and seasoning in the minors is not a bad thing. Both players have a lot of talent and leadership and it would not be surprising to see them get their chances and call-ups sooner rather than later.
Vey, who already had his first taste of NHL action with the Los Angeles Kings, came over at the 2014 Draft in exchange for the Canucks’ second round selection. He was immediately thrust into a top-six role with the Canucks and has not looked out of place. The slick playmaking center has seven points in 13 NHL games and along with Nick Bonino has helped make up for the absence of Ryan Kesler. Vey has shifted to wing in order to allow Bonino to center the second line, but do not be surprised to see him move back at some point if Bonino struggles.
Further down the pipeline the Canucks added to their already stellar center depth by drafting Jared McCann with their 2014 first round pick. McCann is a great two-way addition to the system, and you can see the mentality of the Canucks front office to build down the middle with McCann, Horvat, Gaunce, and potentially Vey or Bonino. McCann has been excellent with the Soo Greyhounds so far in 2014-15 as well. Another solid CHL center is Cole Cassels, who has been tremendous for Oshawa this year and is also wearing a “C” for the Generals.
Past the top tier in the Canucks pipeline at center there are a number of energy players. Kellan Lain filled in briefly in the NHL last season but will be primarily a member of the Utica Comets this year along with fellow lower-line center Alex Friesen. Alexandre Mallet has started the year with Kalamazoo in the ECHL, and alongside him is rookie Dane Fox. Both players are down with the Wings for playing time purposes as the Canucks and Comets have an excess amount of centers.
Recently drafted power forward Kyle Pettit is a very raw prospect who will be playing Eerie Otters for at least a few more years. Finally, Joseph Labate is in the midst of his own long-term development path as he enters his senior year with the University of Wisconsin.
The big addition to the small right wing group of the Canucks is Jake Virtanen. The rough season the Canucks had in 2013-14 gave them the opportunity to draft high, and they selected one of the WHL’s most hard-working and offensively-gifted talents. Virtanen is coming off a huge season with the Calgary Hitmen where he had 45 goals and 100 penalty minutes. His blend of skill and tenacity is going to be something Canuck fans will enjoy for years. He remains in the WHL for this season and has been scoring at a near point-per-game pace thus far.
The remaining pair of right wingers in the pipeline are Nicklas Jensen and Alexandre Grenier, both of whom are playing in Utica. Jensen, a former first round pick, had an outstanding camp but just missed out on making the Canucks’ 2014-15 squad. However, he still has the outlook of a potential top-six forward. Grenier shows a lot of potential as a top-nine power forward given his size and aggressiveness. Both are off to fantastic starts for the Comets.
While there are many defensive prospects in the pipeline for the Canucks, few of them have the talent that the team will need to establish a strong long-term blue line from within. Most of the system is filled with bottom-pairing defenseman or NHL hopefuls. They do have a number of potential shutdown defenseman though, but few are puck elite puck-movers.
Frank Corrado and the Swedish duo of Henrik Tommernes and Peter Andersson are currently suiting up for the Utica Comets. Corrado had an extended look with the Canucks last season that bordered on 20 games, but the team has pushed him back down to the Comets for more seasoning. Andersson brings good size and shutdown ability while Tommernes likes to play the role of a shifty puck mover. Both have helped strengthen the Utica blue line in the last two years but it remains unseen whether or not they have an NHL level game.
In the CHL, Jordan Subban remains an extremely exciting and athletic young defenseman. His offensive game seems to be rounding into fine form, and albeit undersized he is scoring at a point-per-game pace with the Belleville Bulls to start the year. He may be a puck mover to watch moving forward within the organization. 2013 selection Miles Liberati will play another year for North Bay in the OHL, and his fellow 2013 draft mate Anton Cederholm will also play another year for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL.
2014 draft selections Gustav Forsling and Mackenze Stewart enter the mix. Forsling takes his big shutdown game to the SHL with Linkoping, where he has looked fairly good thus far. Stewart jumps in for his third season with the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL. He also plays primarily as a shutdown defenseman.
In the NCAA the Canucks have Patrick McNally. After an unbelievable freshman year with Harvard, McNally was tied to the 2012 cheating scandal at Harvard. He looked flat last year in his 20 games and will look to return to his former near point-per-game form of 2011-12. Also in the NCAA is Ben Hutton, looking to build on an exceptional 2013-14 with University of Maine, and Mike Williamson who is entering his sophomore year with Penn State.
Finally, a 2014 third round selection, and one of three defensemen selected by the Canucks, is Nikita Tryamkin. The massive 6’7” defenseman is in the midst of the KHL season with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg. As a 19 year old, Tryamkin was very solid with Yekaterinburg last year and will be looking to build upon that. He has been a regular in the KHL since he was 18, which is very impressive. Overall the defensive pipeline has improved with the recent draft, but they remain a thin blue line in terms of top-end potential.
The Canucks took a huge step in boosting the talents of their goaltending ranks with the selection of Thatcher Demko in 2014. Considered one of the best goaltenders in the draft, the Canucks picked him up in the second round. The big butterfly-style net minder was great for Boston College last season and has continued his performances into 2014-15, where he holds a .929 save percentage and a goals against average under 2.00 through the first six games. While the Canucks have two decent, yet older, goaltenders at the pro level, the addition of Demko makes the forward-looking projection in goal much more sound. Demko has all the makings of a potential future starter.
In the pro ranks Joacim Eriksson remains with the AHL’s Utica Comets. His backup from last season, Joe Cannata, has been pushed down to the ECHL’s Ontario Reign for more playing time. Cannata has been stellar with Ontario, with a .958 save percentage and a 1.81 goals against average through five games. Eriksson has been equally strong with Utica in his first five games but is now splitting playing time with former first round selection Jacob Markstrom, who has been stellar. He might be hard pressed to overtake the talented Swede.
Follow Jason Lewis on Twitter at @SirJDL