Returning to the playoffs is always a positive, but for the Vancouver Canucks a somewhat lackluster series against the rival Calgary Flames ended the season far too soon, leaving the franchise and its fans a palpable sense of arriving at a kind of crossroads. The double trends of a declining veteran group and a rising young group mainly composed of prospects must meet in the middle soon for another chance at a Stanley Cup. On the other hand, the Canucks’ teams of the 2000s etched a worthy place in team history, and with new management in place the future group of players looks strong enough to establish its own identity down the road. Adding another strong draft class over the weekend is of real importance.
Strong drafting helped the AHL affiliate Utica Comets get all the way to the Calder Cup Final where they fell in a close series to a strong Manchester Monarchs team, affiliated with the Los Angeles Kings. There is little need for a rebuilding in British Columbia, but the gap between what its best players were and what its best prospects will be creates a lot of uncertainty for next season. Good goaltending, an experienced defense corps, and forwards who are still capable of superb play, especially on the power play, can get a team a lot of points in today’s NHL. For the Canucks to continue to thrive among the elites of the western conference, the franchise will need a little of that good luck that those other teams seem to have.
Top Ten Prospects
1. Jake Virtanen, RW
2. Jared McCann, C
3. Thatcher Demko, G
4. Cole Cassels, C
5. Brendan Gaunce, C/LW
6. Hunter Shinkaruk, LW
7. Adam Clendening, D
8. Ronalds Kenins, LW
9. Nicklas Jensen, RW
10. Frank Corrado, D
The Canucks have been the Sedins’ team for over a decade now, but the twins are slowing down some. They are no longer the elites of the conference but Henrik’s passing and possession skill still compare favorably, even if Daniel’s finishing skill might see him fade first. Replacing two players of that skill level is a difficult challenge but putting some supportive pieces in places will ensure that the transition is smooth when the time comes.
The team appears somewhat out of balance at times, but the Canucks have committed to keeping veterans in the lineup and easing rookies into games. The team was still in the playoffs after all, and has many options for plugging a few roster holes. The Canucks are a tough team physically and play with intensity, but cannot expect to win games puck-chasing. The team needs more blueline possession than it gets at times too. It can add some interesting prospects in Florida this weekend. Some of those prospects will send a clear signal about the direction of this team.
The Canucks have a crowded crease with Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack. Jacob Markstrom, the 31st overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, has now settled into a consistently high level of play in the AHL that suggests he is ready for more NHL starts. Add to that group young Thatcher Demko and it’s clear that the only worry is finding a way to parlay the surplus into other kinds of assets. Joe Cannata helps stabilize the minor leagues, which is crucial depth to have.
From a prospect perspective, the strength of the Canucks is down the middle. Recently-graduated Bo Horvat and Jared McCann project as top centers, and McCann might have the better offensive potential of the two. Cole Cassels and Brendan Gaunce have also played center well in their careers but might be better deployed as versatile wingers at the NHL level. Players like Joseph Labate and Kyle Pettit must continue to improve their skating ability, but both think the game at a high level and provide the depth chart with strength in the right places.
The AHL experience of several wingers is also beginning to accumulate and that should result in a player or two who brings upside from a limited-minutes role, in the form of Jensen, Alexandre Grenier or Alex Friesen. Ahead of that group, Hunter Shinkaruk and Jake Virtanen are both wingers with top-line potential, and might find chemistry with one of the young pivots at some point. If not, the acquisition of 2011 first-rounder Sven Baertschi has already paid dividends at the AHL level, and the young Swiss is looking more like he will deliver on some of his early promise.
The defensive depth chart is not so strong. With a lot of money committed to Luca Sbisa, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa, the Canucks are reliant on some aging and increasingly ineffective players on defense. Chris Tanev is an underrated player and the value of experience at the position goes without saying, but the prospect depth lacks one to inspire confidence. Newly-signed Jordan Subban could bring an offensive flair but will need some seasoning to assess his ability to work his own zone against professional opposition. The others, almost to a man, play a more simple style of game. The group lacks exposure now and has come along slowly. The depth is fine, the lack of offensive upside after AHL star Adam Clendening might pose a problem.
Recently, the Canucks have begun to repair an historical reputation for poor drafting. It is a trend that might be expected to continue under General Manager Jim Benning, whose career in hockey is built in part on his considerable successes as a scouting director. The Buffalo Sabres drafted and developed plenty of NHL players over his tenure, while his results with the Bruins also speak volumes. Canucks Head Scout Ron Delorme has a long track record with the Canucks, and the Canucks have been doing some things right in recent years, but positive production in developmental leagues is only part of the picture. If the hype of 2015 turns out to be true, the Canucks need a player or two of immense value in this draft just to keep up with the conference. A focus on players with defensive value in recent years acknowledges the fact that the skill level has gone up in the league, but strength in character and body still has its role in winning.
Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Results
Although the front office has changed in recent years, the scouting staff has mostly not. Thus, we expect the Canucks to make a safe pick at this spot, selecting an athletic and amply-framed defenseman out of the WHL in Brandon Carlo. As noted above, the Canucks could use more skill and puck-moving ability in their blueline group. Taking the best player regardless of his position goes without saying, but Carlo has some pedigree and experience that suggests he could be a value pick at this slot. Carlo’s skating is rated well. His poise with the puck and offensive awareness are areas that need work, but his overall ability makes him a solid bet to play in an NHL team’s top-four. His AAA program, the Colorado Thunderbirds, did a good job with developing Minnesota Wild 2013 second-rounder Gustav Olofsson for one, and Carlo has benefited from good coaching as well. Carlo played in the 2015 World Juniors with Team USA and that endorsement should also inspire confidence.