Vancouver Canucks Top 20 deep in blueline prospects

By Peter Prohaska
Photo: Vancouver Canucks first-rounder Jared McCann is pivotal to his team's playoff chances. (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Photo: Vancouver Canucks first-rounder Jared McCann is pivotal to his team’s playoff chances. (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

 

Vancouver has iced very good rosters for a long time now. Despite having not yet won the Stanley Cup, the Canucks accomplished a lot in the 2000s on the strengths of Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s puck possession skills, Ryan Kesler’s defensive game, the goaltending of Roberto Luongo, and teams that were composed from top to bottom with strong talents who could drive play. The Sedins will be 35 years old when the 2015-16 season starts, Kesler and Luongo are gone, and though the team has performed well this season, it is no longer among the President’s Trophy favorites. Management has not had the luxury of lottery picks to build around, but there are several prospects in the system who will help ease the transition to a post-Sedin era, whenever that arrives.

The Canucks had been the subject of some mockery in years past for poor drafting, but that reputation has changed somewhat. Successful seasons have meant missing out on blue-chip talents, but the Canucks have still managed to parlay assets into strong potential. The team has done a good job building down the center, stockpiling defensemen, and finding some talents in later rounds. All told, Vancouver should not see much of a decline if a few of their bets work out reasonably.
   
1. (1) Jake Virtanen, RW, 8.0D
Drafted 1st Round, 6th Overall, 2014

Virtanen’s shoulder surgery has dampened his production this season, but he still looks like a potential top-line winger at the next level. Over a point-per-game for the Calgary Hitmen since finishing his rehab, Virtanen has above average skills in his skating and shooting. A solidly-built teenager, Virtanen should be ready to test the waters as a pro next fall. Whether or not the Canucks find a roster spot for him remains to be seen, but he has the physical attributes and skills that suggest he could survive in a sheltered role in the NHL and produce soon on the power play.

2. (3) Bo Horvat, C, 7.5B
Drafted 1st Round, 9th Overall, 2013

Horvat is on the cusp of graduating as a prospect. As the season has gone on, he has looked more and more like the junior player out of London who wowed with his ability to read plays and check top talent. Although the NHL’s enhanced stats are not kind to the rookie center, Horvat is trending upward as the season progresses. And by the traditional measure, a -1 rating over 59 games of some tough assignments is encouraging. Though he might not be a leading scorer, Horvat already displays the kind of defensive conscience and opportunistic scoring that should make him a very solid second center for a good team during the heart of his career.

3. (9) Jared McCann, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st Round, 24th Overall, 2014

McCann’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have already clinched the Western Conference regular-season title, so his excellent production should be evaluated with the strength of his team in mind. He sits behind Sergey Tolchinsky (CAR) and Anthony DeAngelo (TAM) for third on the team’s points list, but McCann has helped to drive play for the Soo in many other ways.

Since he was described as a defensive center in the run-up to the 2014 draft, it is very encouraging for the Canucks to see McCann stepping up his scoring totals to this level. McCann now represents the key return from the Kesler trade, and getting him where they did in the draft represents excellent value. McCann’s strong season indicates that Vancouver has enviable depth at center in its prospect pool.

4. (2) Thatcher Demko, G, 8.0D
Drafted 2nd Round, 36th Overall, 2014

Demko was the top-ranked goaltender coming into the 2014 draft and though spending a high pick on a goalie does not always pan out, Demko is developing well at Boston College. His save percentage puts him in the nation’s top 20 and is slightly better than last year’s. As far off from playing in the NHL as Demko likely is, it had to cheer the Canucks to see him play so well against Team Canada at the WJC. This season Demko has been busy behind an inexperienced, albeit very talented, defense corps. Boston College should qualify for the NCAA Tournament and Demko’s consistency is a positive factor in that.

5. (10) Cole Cassels, C, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 85th Overall, 2013

Even taking Cassels’s age into account, he has proven to be a prospect of serious note in this second post-draft season. A top-15 scoring rank in today’s OHL merits some recognition and Cassels has been driving offense significantly for the Oshawa Generals. Cassels may not have the size or strength to play as a center in the pro ranks, but he is proving to be an underrated prospect. The OHL Coaches poll speaks volumes as to how Cassels is perceived in the league. He was voted second in the Eastern Conference in the categories of Smartest Player, Hardest Worker, Best Playmaker, Best on Faceoffs, and Best Defensive Forward. Such notice is testament to a very promising player.

6. (6) Nicklas Jensen, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 1st Round, 29th Overall, 2011

Jensen has great speed, but needs to develop another plus-skill to make himself a top-six winger in the NHL. Though he was not an offensive bust this season in the AHL by any means, he was not capitalizing on his chances and gave up a lot going the wrong way. Whether it is frustration or another factor, Jensen needed a bigger season to be inked into the Canucks’ lineup next fall. As it stands, it won’t take much for Jensen to earn back his some of the shine that has come off him during this middling season. A solid performance in the AHL playoffs coupled with a training camp that sees him make better decisions with the puck should see this talent back on track.

7. (5) Hunter Shinkaruk, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 1st Round, 24th Overall, 2013

Shinkaruk is in a similar situation to Jensen, but as a rookie making the tough transition to the AHL, he is more to be praised for his production thus far. Any player who scored at the rate Shinkaruk did as a junior – especially in his 49-goal pre-draft year – raises expectations for his offensive ability as a pro. The Comets are led by a veteran forward group though, something that has allowed Shinkaruk to focus on the details that CHL stars are not forced to attend to in many cases. All in all, it has been a solid year of development for the first-rounder, and patience with his track could still yield a top-six winger later in his pro career.

8. (NR) Adam Clendening, D, 7.0B
Acquired via trade with Chicago, March 2014

The Canucks have lacked a defenseman with Clendening’s offensive skills for a couple of seasons now. Though he is not a complete player, Clendening’s passing ability should help the power play and the transition game as he grows more comfortable at the NHL level. The rookie has yet to show the vision he did with Rockford, and he needs to earn the power play time to showcase it. Currently Clendening is having difficulty forcing his way onto the roster.
 
9. (7) Brendan Gaunce, C/LW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 26th Overall, 2012

Gaunce is a very similar prospect to both Horvat and McCann, and if he can reach his full potential, the Canucks may be one of the strongest teams at the center position in the league again. His AHL production is modest, but hardly a discouraging sign for a 21-year-old. Yet another rookie that has helped Utica to the top of the division, Gaunce brings a very solid understanding of his position. His eventual upside may be limited within the organization, and he does not project as a top-six player, but Gaunce’s strengths make him a worthy asset and a very solid prospect.

10. (NR) Ronalds Kenins, LW, 6.5B
Free agent signing, July 2013

Ronalds Kenins’s path to the NHL was highly unusual. He played a big role for Ted Nolan and the Latvian national team during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but the Canucks deserve a lot of credit for getting him signed well in advance of the games.Vancouver signed the Latvian-born Swiss league checker to a free agent contract in July 2013, then loaned him back to his Swiss club, ZSC.  After another solid season in the NLA, Kenins came to North America for the 2014-15 campaign, making his debut with the Utica Comets and being summoned for duty in Vancouver in the end of January of this year. More amazing than that career trajectory is Kenins’s obvious ability to play a positive role at the NHL level already. His speed, size and anticipation are all assets now, even if he has other areas of the game that he must figure out or be limited by them.
 
11. (13) Frank Corrado, D, 7.0D
Drafted 5th Round, 150th Overall, 2011

Corrado has been a hard player to get a read on during his brief career. He was a good enough junior to earn an invite to Team Canada’s World Junior Selection Camp, but did not make a national squad. The production was decent too, and even though he does not project as an offensive threat, Corrado has been a contributor to his team’s scoring at every level. It may just be a matter of time before the Canucks decide that Corrado is a solid option for a bottom-pairing, or he may just not do enough to distinguish himself. Either way, Corrado looks like he can be a good pro, but like almost every defenseman he needs more time to figure out the NHL game. He does not have the size or the skill to force his way onto the Canucks now, but he looks to be a safe option with marginal upside in the future.
 
12. (14) Alexandre Grenier, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd Round, 90th Overall, 2011

Grenier has been one of the most effective players this season for Utica. He has the size and the skill level that give the sense that he could play in an NHL top-six role. Grenier’s offense is still somewhat limited though, and much of it has come on the power play. If he can use his growing strength in combination with his offensive instincts, he may yet carve out a role. Grenier has been better this season than last, and will compete for a spot with the Canucks in the fall.

13. (4) Nikita Tryamkin, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd Round, 66th Overall, 2014

Teams will always chase a dominant defenseman of the Chara mold, and Tryamkin qualifies by his frame at least. With players of his height and size, the dexterity required for the position is a rare quality. Tryamkin seems to have some of that agility, but has not yet put it all together. The good aspect of Tryamkin is that he already has a lot of professional experience, with over 150 KHL games played already. While he has not become an offensive standout, he has become a dependable defenseman at a young age for a team whose top scorer had just 30 points in 60 games. Whether or not Tryamkin decides to try North America still remains to be seen, but he seems committed to Avtomobilist for the duration of his contract.

14. (NR) Andrey Pedan, D, 7.0D
Acquired via trade with New York Islanders, 2014

Pedan is a defenseman who has established himself as a physical presence at the AHL level. He has enough skill with the puck to be remain in the conversation going forward. The 2011 third-round pick relishes contact, but as he matures, Pedan has shown more and more efficiency with his zone play. He has some shooting ability as well. In all, Pedan is a player who needs a bit more apprenticeship before he is an NHL-level asset, but could easily be a depth defender with some grit, some offense, and some upside as he simplifies and refines his game.

15. (NR) Evan McEneny, D, 6.5C
Signed as Free Agent, September 2012

McEneny has been a big part of the success enjoyed by the Kingston Frontenacs thus far this season. The 20-year-old leads the defense in points and primary assists. The Vancouver brass sprung at the chance to sign McEneny after he went undrafted in 2012, and are now beginning to see that bet pay off. The OHL veteran has puck skills, size and defensive ability. The Frontenacs will be the beneficiary of his presence on the blueline during the playoffs and the team looks like a true contender for an OHL title.

16. (18) Jordan Subban, D, 7.0D
Drafted 4th Round, 115th Overall, 2013

Subban is destined to be a famous prospect because of his name. He has a smaller frame, though, than P.K. does but offers an interesting offensive facet of his own. Subban has been one of the OHL’s top defense scorers during his entire four-season junior career. This season he leads his Belleville Bulls in both goals and points by a decent margin. It goes without saying that his offensive skill is not guaranteed to translate to the pro level, but the Canucks are no doubt looking forward to seeing what Subban can accomplish and a contract announcement should be forthcoming. To return to the OHL Coaches Poll, Subban was voted the Best Offensive Defenseman in the Eastern Conference after finishing third and second the two prior years. Subban also won notice for Hardest Shot and best shootout shooter, a skill that may not be useful in the NHL much longer but certainly speaks to his dynamic ability with the puck on his stick.

17. (16) Ben Hutton, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th Round, 147th Overall, 2012

Ben Hutton will no doubt appreciate the memories from the University of Maine, a hockey team that will be missing Hutton and Devin Shore (DAL) next season already. Signed after his junior season ended to an entry-level contract, Hutton is a defenseman who can score goals. At least, he did that all through college, and should be able to do it again with Utica once he reports. Hutton has a solid pro frame already, and while adjusting to the pro game will take some work, he should be an impact player at the next level.

18. (12) Joacim Eriksson, G, 7.0D
Free agent signing, 2013

Eriksson is a goaltender who is yet to establish his ability level in North America. Strong stats in the SHL tend not to correlate strongly with AHL performances, and Eriksson’s struggles over the last two seasons bear this out. His save percentage has tended to be just below average for the AHL. The soon to be 25-year-old has time to figure out the game, and one should never count a goalie prospect as finished, given the many surprising successful starters in the NHL these days. His future may not be with the Canucks however.

19. (NR) Kyle Pettit, C, 6.5C
Drafted 6th Round, 156th Overall 2014

Despite a lack of offense, Pettit is a skilled center who takes pride in playing a sound defensive style. The OHL Coaches Poll had Pettit as the third-best defensive center in the Western Conference and he was also voted second most underrated player. While it is true that Pettit’s offensive output for the Erie Otters is very low, his role has not been a scoring role, a job best left to 2015 Draft prospects Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome. Pettit’s success this postseason in carrying out his checking assignments will be very telling for his future. He has the size and the awareness to advance his career, but his true value will have to be established in outcomes.

20. (NR) Anton Cederholm, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th Round, 145th Overall 2013

Cederholm is a defenseman who pays little attention to the offensive side of the game, but understands his role as a safe option and plays it well. That said, he does have nine goals and nine assists for Portland this season. Though the Winterhawks are loaded with talent, it is a good indicator that Cederholm has tallied some points despite being tasked with a lot of minutes and tough assignments. The Rögle product has played for Team Sweden internationally since he was 15, and participated in the 2015 World Juniors. He is an aggressive defenseman with excellent technical skills who projects to be a middle-pairing defenseman at the highest level.