Strong prospects in all positions a new trend for the Vancouver Canucks

By Curtis Coulter
Brendan Gaunce - Vancouver Canucks

Photo: Vancouver Canucks prospect Brendan Gaunce played center as a junior but has been even more effective as a winger during his pro career (courtesy of Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

A long awaited injection of youth has finally come to the Vancouver Canucks franchise after years of competing with a mostly veteran lineup. Bo Horvat was able to stick with the big club for the 2014-15 season and Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann and Ben Hutton have earned their way onto the roster for the 2015-16 season. With solid options at all positions the Canucks prospect pool is as strong as it has been in a decade or longer and the future looks extremely bright for the organization.


Left Wing

Not a lot of homegrown talent has come from the Canucks system in recent years but one bright spot was free agent signing Ronalds Kenins. Kenins displayed a feisty and gritty style during the 2014-15 season that earned him the trust of his teammates and coaches and the adoration of the fans. Kenins was demoted to the Utica Comets to start the 2015-16 campaign to make room for the youngsters, but is sure to be a call-up option at some point during the season once he gets healthy. In the meantime Kenins will help a much younger Utica team as they try to replicate their successful season from a year ago.

Hunter Shinkaruk is clearly the Canucks’ best prospect at the left wing position and the 2015-16 season will be his opportunity to prove that he is ready for the next level. After a decent rookie season in 2014-15 with the Utica Comets, Shinkaruk will be looking to add to his point totals and improve his all-around play, especially without the puck. If he can find his offensive flair from his junior days and improve his defensive responsibilities then Shinkaruk should be able to make his way into a Canucks jersey sooner than later.

Last season Ludwig Blomstrand had a 33 goal campaign with the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL and had hoped to secure a spot with the Utica Comets for the 2015-16 season. However, Blomstrand failed to crack the Comets roster to start the season and will likely remain with the Wings unless the Comets require help to cover injuries at some point in the season. If he cannot increase his value this season then he is likely done as a Canuck prospect.

Matthew Beattie will continue his NCAA career with Yale for the 2015-16 season and it will likely be his last chance to earn himself an entry-level contract with the Canucks. Beattie has been underwhelming since being drafted in the seventh round in 2012 and has struggled to score points at the collegiate level. Beattie is a very long shot to remain in the Canucks system past this season.

Mackenze Stewart has been a bit of a surprise recently. He was converted from a defenseman to a winger to greater utilize his physical attributes and use his big body as a grinding forward. Never shying away from the tough areas and displaying a solid ability to fight, Stewart will be a fan favorite and a great teammate for the young group in Utica. His overall upside may be limited but if he can hone his checking skills he could one day be a useful thirteenth forward with the Canucks.

Center

The strength of the Canucks prospect pool recently has been the fine group of centers. Canucks management is hopeful that one of Jared McCann, Cole Cassels or graduated prospect Bo Horvat can evolve into a legitimate first line center. With the Sedin twins’ careers winding down someone from this group will be the successor to the top line. With Horvat a permanent member of the Canucks, the top center in the system is now Jared McCann. McCann was able to crack the opening night roster for the Canucks and has not looked out of place so far in the early going of the 2015-16 season. An addition of youth to the team is exactly what the fan base and Canucks management team has been seeking for a few years now. McCann forced the hand of management to demote the likes of Linden Vey and Ronalds Kenins based on his solid preseason play.

Another highly touted center in the Canucks system is Cole Cassels. Coming off a fine junior career with the Oshawa Generals, Cassels has turned pro and joined the Utica Comets to start the 2015-16 season. His smart two-way game should earn him the trust of his coaches and Cassels will likely be used in all situations. Once the growing pains of being a young pro are behind him, Cassels should become a leader with the Comets and continue to mature into a solid all-around player.

Converted center Brendan Gaunce is coming off a fine rookie campaign with the Utica Comets in 2014-15 and is looking to improve his offensive output and all-around game for 2015-16. In a system now flush with center prospects it is up to Gaunce to separate himself from the group and prove to management that he has the makings on an NHL center. Gaunce has the size to compete with the big western conference centers in the NHL, but will need to better utilize his big frame and display more of a physical edge in order to advance himself to the next level.

Dmitry Zhukenov is new to the system and is an intriguing prospect for the Canucks. Little was known about the slight Russian scorer when he was drafted by the Canucks in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. Fortunately Zhukenov committed to coming over to North America to learn the game on the smaller ice surface and joined the Chicoutimi Saguneens of the QMJHL for the start of the 2015-16 season. He has done well so far in the early season and has near a point per game to show for his efforts. Time will tell but Zhukenov has the potential to be a legitimate scoring threat in the NHL someday.

Another intriguing center is young Kyle Pettit currently with the Erie Otters of the OHL. Pettit has been over-shadowed in recent years by the likes of Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome so it has been difficult to assess his overall offensive upside. Pettit has shown strong defensive abilities however, and that may be the path that leads him to the professional ranks. His big frame and strong shut-down prowess are very attractive attributes to most NHL teams and if Pettit can develop a bit more of a scoring touch then he is very likely to secure NHL employment at some point in the not too distant future.

Sliding down the depth chart a bit are centers Alex Friesen and Joseph Labate. Friesen is entering his fourth professional season with the Canucks farm system. The diminutive Friesen may not be in consideration for an NHL call-up, but can still provide some offense for the Comets in 2015-16. His future with the franchise is cloudy at best beyond this season and it is squarely on Friesen to prove he is worth a contract extension. Labate is currently trying to break into the Comets line-up after being a healthy scratch so far in the young AHL season. His big frame makes him an enticing prospect but as a rookie his opportunities may be limited with Utica this season. He may be better suited in a bigger role with the Comets’ ECHL affiliate in Kalamazoo. With the Wings he could play bigger minutes and ease into the professional game without having to watch from the press-box most nights.

2013 free agent signing Dane Fox will pick up where he left off with the Kalamazoo Wings for the start of the 2015-16 season and hope for a chance to get up to Utica. Fox showed that he can score at the ECHL level and could be an effective producer at the AHL level as well, if given the chance. His NHL upside seems to be limited at this stage in his development however, and he may be viewed as a career minor leaguer moving forward.

Rounding out the center prospect pool is Adam Gaudette, currently with the NCAA’s Northeastern University. Coming into the organization via the 2015 draft, Gaudette is a hard worker with some good offensive tools. He is a long-term project and will need a few seasons in college before the Canucks can get an accurate assessment of what they actually have in the young center.

Right Wing

2015 first-round selection Brock Boeser joins what has been a very small group of right wing prospects for the Canucks in recent years. Boeser is a dynamic offensive forward with decent size for an 18 year old. He has joined the NCAA’s University of North Dakota for the 2015-16 season and has already had an impact with his new club scoring five goals and two assists in his first ten games and leading the squad in shots on goal. Boeser’s upside is huge and if he continues on his current developmental curve then the Canucks will have a future top-six scoring forward on their hands in a couple of years.

Another prospect with high expectations is Jake Virtanen. The young winger has already made a name for himself with his physical edge and blazing speed. Virtanen thrives on being a hard hitter and the fans in Vancouver are going to adore this player as he grows into a dominating force on the wing. Able to crack the Canucks roster to start the 2015-16 season, it is now on Virtanen to show management that he is ready to handle the rigors of the NHL schedule and provide some secondary scoring in the process. Virtanen may experience a few growing pains as a 19 year old NHL forward but he will certainly mature and refine his game to where he can contribute to the offense on a nightly basis. The future is bright for Jake Virtanen and he will surely become a fan favorite in Vancouver.

Beyond the big two of Boeser and Virtanen are Nicklas Jensen and Alexandre Grenier, both of whom started the 2015-16 season with Utica. Both Jensen and Grenier have something to prove to Canucks management as they try to make their way onto the Canucks roster. Close, but unable to hang onto a spot with the big club, the window of opportunity to become NHL players may be closing on both these prospects unless fairly significant improvements are made to both of their all-around games.

Lukas Jasek, a late-round selection at the 2015 draft, has a long road ahead if he is to ever become an NHL player. He displays plenty of skill and determination but until he leaves his homeland and learns the North American style it will be difficult to assess his overall long-term potential.

Defense

The Canucks have a nice group of defense prospects but most of them are best suited for bottom-pairing, shutdown type roles. One exception has emerged in youngster Ben Hutton, who blew away management during training camp and the pre-season to the point where Frank Corrado was made expendable and subsequently lost to Toronto via waivers. Hutton was not expected to fill a top six role for at least another season or two so his emergence has been a pleasant surprise for the Canucks. Hutton displays maturity well beyond his years and has been a key contributor offensively so far in the young 2015-16 season. If Hutton continues to develop and improve in both ends of the ice he could very well be playing on the top pair in Vancouver in a season or two. At worst Hutton looks like a legitimate top-four NHL defenseman moving forward.

Behind Ben Hutton is a solid group of young defensemen playing with the Utica Comets for the 2015-16 season. Andrey Pedan, Jordan Subban, Ashton Sautner, Evan McEneny and Anton Cederholm will all be vying for minutes with the Comets for the next couple seasons. Pedan is the only one of the group that is not a rookie, so there will be growing pains for some of them this season. Subban has good offensive instincts and displays flashes of brilliance with the puck but it will be his defensive game that needs work if he is to advance beyond minor pro. Pedan, Sautner, McEneny and Cederholm all have the makings of solid two-way or shut-down defensemen but will need to hone their offensive skills and solidify their defensive responsibilities to ever move beyond Utica.

Among the CHL prospects are Guillaume Brisebois, Carl Neill and Tate Olson, all of whom were drafted in the 2015 NHL entry draft. Brisebois displays strong two-way tendencies and leadership qualities while Neill and Olson have been producing points in the early going of the 2015-16 season while being responsible defensively as well. Still a few years away from serious NHL consideration, the CHL prospects all have some upside and possible NHL futures.

Nikita Tryamkin remains the lone defense prospect not playing in North America and the hulking rearguard is once again playing in the KHL for the 2015-16 season. His massive frame and cannon shot give him some of the key assets that make a physical shutdown defenseman. Once he gets to North America the Canucks can re-evaluate the big Russian’s future potential.

Mike Williamson rounds out the defense group as the only NCAA representative among them. Williamson’s career has been stunted so far due to injury but the book has not been closed on him yet. He could have a strong season in 2015-16 and get his name back in the mix with the other young pros in the system. Ben Hutton gives hope to other young NCAA prospects in that they can emerge from college ready to step into the NHL in some cases, although that is very much the exception not the rule.

Goaltending

It begins and ends with Boston College’s Thatcher Demko as far as goaltending prospects go. Widely considered one of the world’s best goaltending prospects, Demko has lived up to the hype so far in his young career. Mature for his age and owning some of the best attributes a goalie can possess, Demko is being touted as the future starter for the Canucks. Aside from Jacob Markstrom, there is no other player currently standing in Demko’s way, and Markstrom’s long term status with the Canucks is unclear at best. The future belongs to Demko, and the starting job will be his for the taking at some point over the next few seasons. It would be in the Canucks’ best interest to add a few other bodies to the goaltending pool in the next few drafts, if for no other reason than to add an element of competition for Demko moving forward.