The season ended suddenly and surprisingly for the Canucks at the hands of the Calgary Flames, a team that was not expected to do much of anything this season but whose undervalued prospect depth has quickly proven to be on track and capable. The Canucks on the other hand now find themselves in a transitional phase, with Daniel and Henrik Sedin showing signs of slowing down, but with a strong group of players coming up to bolster an experienced NHL core. The good news is that the bulk of the prospect pool enjoyed post-season runs during the 2014-15 season, with deep playoff runs in the AHL and OHL playoffs for some notable names.
As is annual tradition, Hockey’s Future hands out some awards to the Vancouver Canucks prospects pushing this season to rise in the ranks for the chance to claim hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, during the course of their careers.
Hardest Worker: Ronalds Kenins, LW, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)
Ronalds Kenins was one of the best surprises of the season for the Canucks. A prospect whom the Canucks identified as a free agent back in July 2013, Kenins played the last three seasons in the Swiss NLA before making his North American debut. He started the season way under the radar for most fans, but with 12 points in 36 games for Utica, it was clear that Kenins had an extra gear. Once he was called up to Vancouver in January, the Latvian never looked back. Kenins scored an admirable 12 points in 30 NHL games, making the most of limited opportunities.
Kenins is a player who skates to hit. Although he occasionally finds himself out of position or control, his lack of fear combined with his speed create a fearsome forechecker. He sustained a knee injury in the playoffs but Kenins did find the scoreboard again with a goal and an assist. He brings a lot of creativity and puck skill along with his skating ability and the Canucks could certainly do worse than having this player bolstering the bottom-six forwards next season.
Hardest Shot: Jared McCann, C, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
By the physics of it, Nikita Tryamkin might take this award. But the giant Russian has rarely hit the back of the net so far in his career. Thus we will acknowledge the excellent season enjoyed by Vancouver’s 2014 first-rounder, Jared McCann. He scored 34 goals in 56 games this season, a nice uptick from the two prior. He has a quick, accurate wrist shot and a high-level snapshot. McCann will have work to do to continue his scoring success at the next level, but this was a pleasant breakout season for the young man.
McCann is in a tough position with a crowded depth chart at center for next season. With a year of junior eligibility remaining, it is hard to see him cracking the Canucks lineup next fall despite his range of skills.
Best Defensive Prospect: Jordan Subban, D, Belleville Bulls (OHL)
The defense position is not a position of strength for the Canucks. It is a group deep in hard-nosed types but lacking a big-minutes utility player who can consistently drive play the right direction. The problem extends all the way to Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis, once dominant players who seem now to be in various stages of decline. Signing a middling force like Luca Sbisa to a big contract does little to change the urgency of adding some mobility and some offense to the back-end. What leaves the door open for Jordan Subban is the recent successes of players like Torey Krug, Jared Spurgeon and Sami Vatanen: smaller guys who can skate, defend and add value by scoring goals. They might not inspire much fear, but they are positive puck possession players. Subban in fact might have a more sturdy build than the aforementioned players.
Further, Subban certainly has the junior scoring record to show how comfortable he is with the puck, having scored 165 points in 253 games while operating as the primary driver of offense on his squads. There are obvious questions as to whether he will be capable of taking the puck away from NHL players. Having focused so much on scoring goals in his junior career raises questions about his dedication to preventing them. Still, with coaching and some pro experience he could potentially fit into a system that could really use a player capable of scoring from the defense position, opening up ice with puck control.
Subban signed an entry-level contract in May, certainly indicating that the organization is ready to see what he can add as a professional.
Fastest Skater: Nicklas Jensen, RW, Utica Comets (AHL)
The Dane is still fundamentally the fastest skater north-south among the prospects. Whether that ever translates to proving himself a better NHL player than Jannik Hansen, to pick a notable rival, is debatable. Jensen was just under a point-per-game throughout his OHL career with Oshawa, and it is not surprising to see him translate that offense to a respectable rate in the AHL. The knock on him is mainly that he does not use his good size to his advantage. He may be currently experiencing a run of bad luck in the playoffs, since he has been among the Comets’ top shooters throughout the season. With 24 games of NHL experience to his credit, Jensen has the tools to stick if he can figure out the grittier side of the game.
Prospect of the Year: Bo Horvat, C, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)
Horvat officially graduated from prospect status by Hockey’s Future criteria near the end of the season. It was an arrival of sorts, although his ultimate role with this organization is very much yet to be written.
Horvat enjoyed the season as the top of the prospect depth chart, but as a two-way, defensively responsible center, he will soon be pressed by one or both of Jared McCann and Brendan Gaunce as he puts his focus on some questions of major importance coming into next season. Is he capable of being a positive force if he plays second-line, rather than fourth-line, minutes at center? Can he outplay or out-produce conference rivals like Sam Bennett, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Chris Tierney or Mark Scheifele as those matchups arise next season?
By the advanced numbers, Horvat and his linemates gave up more than they produced last season. The improvements made were starting to show by the time of the playoffs, and showed in his four point effort against the Flames. In sum, Horvat is clearly an intelligent player who certainly looks like a capable NHL center in the making. His ultimate upside may rest on whether he has enough support around him to enhance that appearance favorably.
Most Improved: Cole Cassels, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
What is most impressive about Cole Cassels’s 2014-15 season versus the last is not so much his scoring totals, which remained consistent and thoroughly respectable. He is a well-rounded prospect who can protect the puck, shoot and pass, but has a noticeable physical presence too. Still, the player that emerged this season is one whom a coach probably would not identify with a major scoring threat at the NHL level. Rather Cassels has done wonders for his reputation with a tremendous display of checking ability in the post-season.
He has taken on these tough assignments throughout the season for Oshawa, but especially so during the playoffs, and notably so in taking on Erie’s Connor McDavid. Cassels was largely responsible for matching up with the teenaged phenom, and outscored him during the OHL Championship series. It was a high-profile triumph that will continue to be a talking point during the Memorial Cup and should help the 2013 third-rounder have an inspired summer and strong training camp.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Hunter Shinkaruk, Utica Comets (AHL)
Shinkaruk did not have a great rookie season, with 31 points over a full slate of 74 games for Utica. But the Comets are a playoff team, which in the AHL almost always means leaning on veterans, and Shinkaruk had some learning to do so ice-time was not a given. Given these obstacles, it is not surprising that his best month was April, nor is it surprising that his scoring success has continued into the playoffs. He is a volume shooter, a player who scored 49 goals in 66 WHL games the year before he was drafted.
The Comets relied heavily on veterans throughout the season, but Shinkaruk, along with Brendan Gaunce, showed that the youth present for Vancouver at the AHL level might be as good any organization’s. With this season of growth out of the way, the speedy wing should see his shooting percentage grow favorably, especially as his power play time increases.
Underachiever: Frank Corrado, D, Utica Comets (AHL)
The Canucks used ten different defensemen throughout the course of this season, with Luca Sbisa eventually playing the most games at 76. It is an aging group, one without much of an identity. Given all that, Corrado’s NHL work has to be a bit of a disappointment. He may be on the cusp of finding his role, but he has been in that position since making his pro debut in 2012. Corrado’s best month of the season was April, when he recorded six points in nine games prior to the playoffs. He has been held scoreless since, and while he is not going to be a scoring threat in the NHL, a little more demonstration of puck possession ability would be welcomed.
A restricted free agent, Corrado sits somewhere behind a top-five that is well-established. Players like Adam Clendening, Andrey Pedan, or even Jordan Subban or Evan McEneny might push Corrado since they offer seemingly more offensive upside. Corrado finds himself in the uncomfortable position of not having fully defined himself as either a physical presence or a puck-mover. While he combines most of the necessary attributes, he may have needed to do a little more this season to convince the organization he was worthy of a lineup spot.
Overachiever: Mackenze Stewart, D, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
The Canucks love having big players in the defense corps. Although the current group has some pedigree and durability to go with the big frames, size and strength are proving less important in recent seasons than skating and passing. As noted with Jordan Subban, even smaller defenseman produce a lot of value for their squads if one accepts that it is better to outshoot the opposition on a consistent basis. Signing Mackenze Stewart to an entry-level contract, as the organization did in May, seemingly runs counter to this philosophy.
Stewart is a massive young player, listed at 6’3, 240 pounds. He can shoot the puck a little, having scored at a decent clip in junior B, and chipped in ten goals over two seasons with Prince Albert, but mostly plays a simple, aggressive style. 114 penalty minutes in 2014-15 tells another story, and Stewart is an accomplished practitioner of the pugilist’s art. The league is slowly phasing fights out though, and thus there will be limited call for such demonstrative feats of brawn in the future. The Canucks felt apparently that there was enough upside to the rest of his game to sign him to an entry-level deal, and the 2014 seventh-rounder is to be congratulated for that.
Highest Risk/Reward: Jake Virtanen, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
In the salary-cap world, teams have to add top talent cheaply while they can. Thus the first-round pick becomes more precious than mere dollars, and obviously, the higher the pick the greater the inherent value. So Jake Virtanen, the sixth selection at the 2014 draft, represents a big bet made on his future, and as talented as he is, there is some question whether he will cover that bet.
The sixth overall pick of 2014 has shown that he has elite talents, but often makes plays that confound observers. His greatest asset is his shot, but he will look to pass in spaces where there is no option. He can skate and puck-handle but gets himself into corners. For Virtanen then, the risk is that bad habits formed as a third-year junior player and will engrain further with another year in the WHL. His size and strength are not the concerns if he turns pro in 2015-16, but a recklessness with the puck is. The Canucks have a tremendous asset in this player, both in his skill and his character, and will have to manage it with the utmost care.
Prospect of the Month
Chicago Blackhawks second-rounder Adam Clendening had an eventful season. The former Boston University standout had put in two productive seasons with the Rockford IceHogs but got his first taste of NHL action in November. In a brief four-game showcase he scored a goal and got an assist, but was sent back down to the AHL. In the end of January, he was traded to Vancouver in exchange for promising Swedish prospect Gustav Forsling. Clendening was not ever integrated fully into Vancouver’s scheme, but he has been solid for the Utica Comets. The leading scorer for Rockford in the 2013-14 season has scored timely goals in the playoffs for Utica. He has been shut down lately, but has three goals and an assist so far in the post-season. Clendening might rely on special teams and offensive zone starts to be a scorer at the NHL level, but it is too soon to write off the amount of success he has had so far in his professional career.