Led by standout performances from AHL veterans Jacob Markstrom, Dustin Jeffrey, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Cal O’Reilly, the Utica Comets hit the All-Star break in third place in the Western Conference but have games in hand on all competing teams. The Comets feature a combination of experience and young talent, creating a balanced roster that looks ready to push for a Calder Cup.
Despite the team’s overall success, first-round picks Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, and Nicklas Jensen have experienced their fair share of ups and downs as they adjust to the professional ranks. Even with the inconsistency that comes with most young players, the Vancouver Canucks have some promising prospects coming through the pipeline.
Joacim Eriksson, G, 24
Just as things were in the 2008 NHL Draft, Eriksson continues to play second fiddle to fellow Swede Jacob Markstrom. Though he has started 22 games in Utica to Markstrom’s 17, the latter has cemented himself as the number one starter as of late.
Still, that is not to say that Eriksson hasn’t been impressive in his own right. Sporting a 12-5 record to accompany his 2.38 goals against average and .914 save percentage, he has been solid, if unspectacular. In the second and final year of his entry-level contract with the Canucks, he finds himself in a logjam of young goalies behind Markstrom and Eddie Lack. As the year closes out, he will have to continue his solid play in order to secure a second contract with the Canucks or another NHL franchise.
Nicklas Jensen, RW, 21
Though the talented Dane has taken a slower developmental path since being drafted 29th overall in 2011, Jensen is inching his way closer to full-time NHL service. His 17 points in 27 games is only four shy of his AHL career high of 21 points in twice as many games last year.
In five games with the Canucks this year, Jensen registered no points and a -1 rating, but he should be in the mix for a middle-six role in 2015-16. Working on his consistency and his play away from the puck should go a long way towards doing just that. The skating, stick-handling, and shot are already there.
Alexandre Grenier, RW, 23
The 6’5 and 200 pound winger has quietly logged a very effective campaign for the Comets, notching six of his eight goals on the power play. That number leads the team, but he is making an impact as a playmaker as well, with eight helpers on the year.
Despite being one of the less-touted Canucks prospects, Grenier has proven to be a late-bloomer throughout his career. If he can continue to add muscle and progress offensively, Vancouver might have no choice but to include him in their plans going forward.
Hunter Shinkaruk, LW, 20
The adjustment to professional hockey is rarely an easy one, and Shinkaruk has not proven himself to be an exception to the norm. Coming off an injury-riddled 2013-14 season with the Medicine Hat Tigers, he made the jump to the Comets and has struggled out of the gate, with only 15 points to date.
Given his age, stature, and lost year of development in 2013-14, it’s hard to jump to conclusions about Shinkaruk. One positive note has been his penchant for scoring game-winning goals, as his four tallies rank 12th in the entire league. Look for his numbers to take a bit of a jump in the second half of the season.
Darren Archibald, LW, 24
Archibald has taken the long road to get where he is today. The gritty forward had a 16-game stint with the Canucks last year and showed that he could be an effective bottom six forward in the right situation.
Canucks General Manager Jim Benning has an affinity for players like Archibald who drive hard to the net, but it will only get more difficult to crack the roster as prospects like Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann mature. He must continue to play his role and contribute more offensively to separate himself from the pack.
Michael Zalewski, LW, 22
In the first year of his entry-level contract, Zalewski has not been a major force for the Comets. On a team that has plenty of talent and experience, he has tallied only four points, which has resulted in only 21 game appearances.
In his first year out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it’s unfair to draw major conclusions from this performance. That being said, Zalewski will likely have to show more in the second half of the season and in 2015-16 in order to work towards the bottom six role that he appears to be capable of.
Ronalds Kenins, LW, 23
A 6’0 and 200 pound winger from Latvia, Kenins has a shot at being a quality energy line player in the NHL. Combining strong acceleration and speed with his willingness to pay the price in the slot, Kenins is one of the more intriguing free agent signings by the Canucks.
Though 2014-15 marks the final year of his contract, it is Kenins’s first season in the United States. Given the expectation that players usually take time to transition to North American rinks, his production has been solid, with 12 points to show for his efforts. With an uptick in consistency, Kenins could earn himself another contract and some more time to grow in Utica.
Brendan Gaunce, C, 20
Though his skating may ultimately hold him back from being a second line center, Gaunce will undoubtedly carve out an effective role for himself in the NHL. As a 20-year-old rookie in the AHL, he ranks 7th on the team in scoring and continues to exhibit strong two-way play and strength on the boards.
Playing on the left wing has made the transition to pro hockey easier for Gaunce, but his future lies at center. His 6’2 and 200 pound frame cannot be taught, and his puck-handling skills are above average for someone his size. With solid depth at center at the NHL level, look for Jim Benning to let Gaunce develop at his own pace in Utica with the occasional cup of coffee in British Columbia.
Alex Friesen, C, 23
Friesen’s crash and bang style of play could one day find a place in the NHL, but the clock is ticking. At age 23, and with many other Canucks prospects working their way through the pipeline, he is falling down the depth chart. Despite good puck skills and solid poise in the face-off circle, his small frame has yet to withstand a full AHL season.
Frank Corrado, D, 21
Drafted in the 5th round of the 2011 NHL Draft, Corrado has ascended the ranks through a fairly thin defensive prospect cupboard. With an injury to Kevin Bieksa, he is currently enjoying another call-up to the big leagues. Corrado has established himself as the top call-up with his all-around game.
Jim Benning recently lauded the 21-year-old for his increased strength and confidence. Corrado makes a great first pass out of the zone and is winning more one-on-one battles than ever. It will not be long before he graduates as a prospect and he should make an immediate impact on the man advantage.
Andrey Pedan, D, 21
Standing at 6’4, the defenseman recently acquired from the New York Islanders offers an exciting blend of size, skill, and nastiness. Though he is a hard player to project, one thing that has definitely translated to the pro game is his attitude.
In 27 total games with Bridgeport and Utica, he has spent 93 minutes in the penalty box. Though scouts want to see that edge, Pedan has developed a habit of taking bad penalties that come back to bite his team. His eight points on the season indicate that he can contribute in other ways, but it remains to be seen whether he will realize his potential or slide into the role of enforcer. Defensemen take a while to develop, so this situation bears watching.
Peter Andersson, D, 23
In his third season in the AHL, Andersson has failed to stand out amongst his teammates. With solid offensive tools in his skating, puck-handling, and slapshot, it’s surprising to see that his production has been stagnant throughout his AHL tenure. In the final year of his second contract with the Canucks, time is running out for Andersson. Unless the light finally goes off, he may head back to Sweden in 2015-16.
Joe Cannata, G, 25
In one loss for the Comets, Cannata actually played well. However, the rest of his year has been spent in the ECHL with the Ontario Reign. There, he has posted a GAA of 1.98 and SV% of .925.
All of that being said, it’s a numbers game in net for Vancouver. Behind veteran Ryan Miller are Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom with top prospect Thatcher Demko on the way. At age 25, Cannata certainly isn’t old, but he will need to make a big jump in play to keep himself in the conversation for this organization.
Ludwig Blomstrand, LW, 21
The extremely fast Swede finds himself buried behind a barrage of forwards for Vancouver, as he toils away for the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL. A former 4th round pick with a strong frame, he has the potential to be a useful role player. He had a pretty successful career in the Swedish second-tier, but a middling ECHL performance has yet to push him up the depth charts. He will have another contract year to prove his worth at a higher level.
Dane Fox, C, 21
After putting up a big year with Erie as an overager -often playing on a line with Connor Brown (TOR) and Connor McDavid (2015)- Fox has been a solid contributor for the Kalamazoo Wings. He plays a mean style of hockey, and when paired with his quick release and hard shot, it is an attractive set of skills.
Given what we’ve seen from Connor McDavid, it is more than a little concerning that Fox’s best year (by far) came at his side. However, Fox has another year in his entry-level contract, and with some increased production at the ECHL level, he may find himself in Utica with a chance to impress.
Jeremie Blain, D, 22
With three partial AHL seasons under his belt, Jeremie Blain has never fully stuck, each time earning a demotion to the ECHL. Coming out of the offensively-minded QMJHL with a nice set of offensive tools, he has failed to make much of an impact at the professional level. Despite the apparent potential, he will need to work on his skating and defensive awareness to leapfrog some of the defensemen in the system that have surpassed him.
2015 World Junior Update and Prospect of the Month
The 36th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Thatcher Demko had a very strong performance for the US World Junior Team (1.74 goals against average and a .934 save percentage), starting in four of five games. Most notably he posted a shutout against eventual bronze medalists Team Slovakia and made 40 saves in a valiant losing effort against Team Canada.
Demko has returned to Boston College and picked up where he left off. The sophomore boasts a sterling 2.08 goals against average and .928 save percentage and will look to push the Eagles towards another championship run in the Beanpot Classic and Hockey East conference play.
2014 fifth-rounder Gustav Forsling of Team Sweden put together one of the most surprising performances of the tournament. With three goals and five assists in seven games, he elevated his game at the right time. Forsling was named to the tournament All-Star team. Forsling has not been so proficient as a rookie with Linköping of the SHL this season, but the first-year pro is making some good adjustments.
It has been quite a while since the Canucks have had a forward prospect with talent as tantalizing as Jake Virtanen. Since returning from injury, he has put up 31 points in 27 games for the Calgary Hitmen and scored four points for Canada’s loaded world junior team.
His play was stellar in January, highlighted by a two-game stretch in which he logged three goals and three assists. One of those goals was an end-to-end effort that was finished with a gorgeous toe drag and top-shelf wrist shot. Virtanen seems to be heating up at the right time for Calgary and is a very worthy prospect of the month.
Article written by Rob Patterson