The Vancouver Canucks are in their second season under GM Mike Gillis, who last year added Laurence Gilman (VP of Hockey Operations and Assistant GM), Dave Gagner (Director of Player Development) and Ryan Walter (Assistant Coach) to the staff. Under this new management and despite a historically poor drafting record, the Canucks have improved their prospect stock in recent years. The team’s depth at center and right wing is promising and although Sergei Shirokov remains a wildcard at left wing, his preseason performance was certainly eye-opening. There are worries about the lack of high-quality defensive prospects and although Cory Schneider is one of hockey’s most well-regarded young goaltenders, depth beyond him is limited.
Russian Sergei Shirokov, 23, once thought to be a long shot to come to North America, signed with Vancouver in the summer. A two-time World Junior Championship silver medalist, Shirokov surprised the Canucks by leading the team in preseason scoring with seven points in four games and made the team out of his first training camp. Despite this accomplishment, Shirokov’s lack of size and speed seemed to be found out in his first regular season NHL games and he was reassigned to Vancouver’s /teams/ahl” id=”HFlink” class=”HFlinkstyle”>AHL affiliate in Manitoba to further adjust to North America. This move seems to have been a success as Shirokov led the team in scoring with 10 points in his first 10 games. Shirokov is now back in Vancouver but is scoreless in four NHL appearances.
Prab Rai, a 2008 draft pick, possesses great speed and has used it to find success in junior. Rai, 19, scored 65 points in 61 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL in 2008-09 but there remain reservations regarding the player’s character after he walked out on the Prince George Cougars in 2006-07, apparently upset with the amount of ice time he was getting. The Canucks overlooked this transgression and the change of scenery has proved successful for Rai in Seattle, though he hasn’t kept up last season’s scoring pace early in the new season, scoring nine points in 13 games.
Pierre-Cedric Labrie, a 22-year-old who was signed by Vancouver as a free agent in 2007, has exceeded expectations in his first two seasons as a pro despite concerns about his skating ability. His size, at 6’2 and 212 lbs, makes him an effective player when in front of the net and he seems to have found a niche for himself at the AHL level. Labrie has one goal in 12 games thus far this season.
Ilja Kablukov, 21, a Russian who after joining Spartak Moscow this past summer has made it three teams in three years, is regarded as a solid two-way player. Kablukov was disappointing last season as he scored just four points in 42 games with Torpedo Nizhniy Novgorod. However, his move to Spartak has been beneficial, having already surpassed last season’s total with six points in 18 games.
2009 Vancouver pick Steven Anthony of the Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL is off strong start this season with 17 points in 16 games, including nine goals. Regarded primarily as a playmaker, there are reservations about the 18-year-old’s work ethic.
Tanner Glass, formerly a prospect of the Florida Panthers, has spent the majority of his professional career in the AHL but has found himself as part of the Canucks early in 2009-10 season. He is scoreless in seven games.
The shining light of Vancouver’s crop at center is Cody Hodgson. Thought to be a lock to make the team in 2009, Hodgson, 19, suffered a disappointing back injury in the offseason which limited his ability during training camp and he was subsequently reassigned to the OHL’s Brampton Battalion. Hodgson was advised to stay off the ice for a month. As such, he has yet to appear for Brampton this season.
Despite these setbacks, Hodgson has developed into an all-around player since Vancouver drafted him in 2008. His 92 points in 53 games in the OHL last year saw him receive a number of accolades including CHL Player of the Year and the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. An excellent skater who is strong on the puck, Hodgson also possesses leadership intangibles that have seen him serve as captain of the Battalion, alternate captain of the Canadian junior team and named the OHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player.
University of Minnesota sophomore Jordan Schroeder, although small in stature at just 5’9, represents one of the biggest talents in Vancouver’s prospect pool. Schroeder’s strengths are his vision and awareness, as exemplified by his 32 assists for the Gophers last year. He scored a total of 45 points in 35 games as a freshman, good for second on the team, and was recognized as the WCHA Rookie of the Year. The 19-year-old Schroeder has started this season slowly and is scoreless through four games.
Mario Bliznak, a 22-year-old Slovak who played junior in Vancouver with the Giants and spent last season in the AHL with Manitoba, may have third or fourth line potential in the NHL should he continue to develop. Bliznak’s strength is his defensive game. He posted a modest return of 16 points in 64 games in his first season as a professional. He has five points in 12 games with Manitoba so far in 2009-10.
Matt Butcher, a senior at Northern Michigan University, is a grinding center with limited offensive upside. While he may have potential as a role player down the line, his 32 points in 98 games in college suggest he is a player who will have difficulty making the step up to the pros. Butcher, 22, has been credited with one assist in three games this season.
Norwegian center Mats Froshaug, playing with Linkopings HC in Sweden’s Elitserien, at this point needs to show serious improvement in order to get back on the radar. The 21-year-old Froshaug scored just one point in his first significant contribution with the Linkopings senior team last year, playing 20 games.
Rounding out Vancouver’s crop at center is Taylor Matson. Matson, 21, who is regarded as a decent two-way player, played in the USHL with Des Moines before moving to the University of Minnesota. In his first season with the Gophers, Matson played just 13 games and registered a single goal. This year he has one assist in four games.
Grabner, 22, spent the last two seasons as a member of the Manitoba Moose after initially coming to North America from Austria with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. After scoring 48 points in 66 games for the Moose last season, Grabner was expected to make the Canucks out of camp this year. Despite being sent down before the beginning of the regular season, Grabner was recalled to Vancouver in early October and has registered five points in his first six NHL games. Grabner’s main asset is his speed and although his defensive ability needs work, his offensive upside is significant.
Hansen, one of a handful of Danes to have been drafted by NHL teams in recent years, has already made a mark at NHL level. Hansen played 55 games for Vancouver last season and scored 21 points. The 23-year-old is currently on injured reserve, but should contribute for the Canucks this season when back to health.
Eighteen-year-old Swede Rodin, currently playing for Brynas in his native country, is a solid winger with good skating and puck-handling skills. Rodin registered 55 points in 37 games for the Brynas junior team last season and has made the step up to the senior team this year, where he has one point in 13 games. Rodin possesses the skills and versatility to play a number of roles, including as a pure scorer or a checking line player but will need to continue his development before coming to North America.
Dan Gendur, 22, and Eric Walsky, 25, comprise the balance of Vancouver’s crop at right wing. Gendur was MVP of the Everett Silvertips in 2008 and while he possesses good speed, he failed to produce points in junior until his final season when he scored 84 points in 60 games. He played the majority of last season with Vancouver’s ECHL affiliate, the Victoria Salmon Kings, and has begun this season there as well, registering three points in five games. Walsky was signed as a free agent in March after splitting his four years in the NCAA between the University of Alaska-Anchorage and Colorado College. The Alaska native has begun his first full professional season as a member of the Manitoba Moose where he has three points in nine games.
Vancouver’s top rated defensive prospect is Yann Sauve of Saint John in the QMJHL. Originally expected to develop into a two-way defenseman, Sauve, 19, has struggled with the offensive side of his game. His point production has improved steadily each year in junior, including starting this season with 11 points in 13 games, but Sauve is projecting more as a defensive defenseman at this stage. His positioning and strength are his best attributes, but he will need to round out the other facets of his game prior to stepping up as a professional.
After completing his development in junior with the Everett Silvertips, 20-year-old Taylor Ellington signed his first pro contract in March of this year and has begun this season in the ECHL. Ellington is solid defensively and is very reliable in his own zone. There is nothing flashy about Ellington, but he has the ability develop into a defensive NHL defenseman down the line. Ellington has two points in six games for the Salmon Kings this season.
Kevin Connauton played 40 games as a freshman at Western Michigan University last year and scored 18 points. In the offseason, the Canucks suggested that 19-year-old Connauton would develop best in the WHL and he took their advice and is now playing with the Vancouver Giants, where he has adjusted well scoring 15 points in 16 games. While he is some way away from the NHL, he exhibits good playmaking skills from the blue line and is a strong skater.
Jeremy Price, 19 is a freshman at Colgate University in 2009-10 after spending last season with Nepean in the CJHL. An offensive-minded defenseman, Price recorded 41 points in 55 games last year. He is scoreless in four games with Colgate so far this year.
Two-way defenseman Peter Andersson has good size and a number of strong offensive attributes including a powerful shot. The Swede, now 18, played for his country at the World U-18 Championships and is playing his first season in the SEL where he is scoreless in five games.
Kris Fredheim, 22, and Michael Funk, 23, are the remaining defensive prospects in Vancouver. Fredheim is a senior at Colorado College and Funk is playing in Manitoba after being signed in June from Buffalo. Fredheim is certainly a project and his small size, at just 170 lbs, is something he will need to work on before stepping up. Funk played a handful of NHL games with Buffalo before he was released, but will most likely spend the majority of this season in the AHL. Funk has scored seven points in 12 games this season
With Roberto Luongo firmly entrenched in the starting role in Vancouver, Cory Schneider has consistantly displayed his strong ability in the AHL. Schneider, 23, was named the AHL Goaltender of the Year in 2009 and looks to have the makings of an NHL starter. Whether or not that is with Vancouver remains to be seen but in the meantime, Schneider will continue his impressive development in Manitoba, where he is 6-3-0 with a 2.41 GAA so far this season.
Joe Cannata and Morgan Clark, both 19, are the remaining goaltending prospects in the Vancouver system. Clark’s father, Ian, is the Vancouver goalie coach. Clark, at just 162 lbs, lacks size and should be considered a long shot to make the NHL. He is 7-3-1 with a .895 save percentage with the Swift Current Broncos this year. Cannata is a sophomore goalie at Merrimack and was formerly a member of the U.S. U-18 team. He has shown ample confidence and skill in his early college career. He is 2-1 with a .915 save percentage so far this year.