AHL affililate for Vancouver Canucks chocked with grit and character

By David Thicke
Photo: In his first full professional season, Cody Hodgson not only remained relatively healthy, but appeared to have finally overcome the back problems that plagued him over the past few years. (Photo courtesy of www.ontariohockeyleague.com)


The AHL affiliate for the Vancouver Canucks, the Manitoba Moose ended their season with 43 wins and 93 points, fifth in the Western Conference, and good for a fifth seed in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The Moose were able to help supply the Canucks all year with call-ups to help replace the numerous injuries to their defense corps but still managed to make the playoffs. The team showed plenty of character, winning their first playoff series against the Lake Erie Monsters by coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the seven-game series. Manitoba faced the Hamilton Bulldogs in round two only to suffer a heartbreaking triple overtime loss in game seven of the series. This is the last season for the Manitoba Moose, as it is currently known that Vancouver will have different arrangements regarding their AHL affiliate for next season.

The Victoria Salmon Kings, an ECHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, finished the regular season with 68 points which was good for seventh place in the Western Conference. They beat the Bakersfield Condors 3-1 in the first round then swept the Utah Grizzlies 4-0 in the second round only to be swept themselves in the Conference Finals 4-0 by the Alaska Aces who eventually won the Kelly Cup Championship.

Forward

Mario Bliznak, C, 24

Bliznak continued to improve his tight checking style of play this past season for the Moose. The 24-year-old was called up to the Canucks in November where he scored one goal with a plus-one rating in four NHL games for Vancouver. The young Slovakian scored 11 goals along with 16 assists and a plus 14 rating (Second best on the Moose) in 74 AHL games. In Manitoba’s two playoff series, the checking forward only contributed one goal with one assist and an even rating while playing a big role on the penalty kill during 14 AHL playoff games.

Bliznak will become a restricted free agent and the Canucks will have to decide whether to re-sign the checking centerman to another contract.

Cody Hodgson, C, 21

Hodgson was able to remain healthy most of the 2010-11 season after undergoing back surgery last year which severely limited his playing time to just 24 OHL games. The rookie center was called up to the Canucks on multiple occasions throughout the season managing to score one goal along with one assist and a respectable plus-one rating in eight NHL games. The talented offensive forward scored 17 goals with 13 assists and a minus-13 rating in 52 AHL games for the Moose. The 21-year-old struggled at times with the defensive side of his game but he was the quarterback of Manitoba’s power play where he managed four goals. Hodgson impressed the Canucks enough in his rookie professional season to warrant being assigned to Vancouver for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Canucks made the Cup Finals with the young center playing a third and fourth line role where he contributed an assist with a minus-four rating in 12 NHL playoff games. Though Hodgson has failed to capitalize on his numerous scoring chances he has nonetheless gained valuable experience.

Hodgson has two years left on his contract and will have an excellent chance of making the Canucks out of training camp as a third or fourth line center if he can continue to remain healthy while gaining muscle to his frame. He needs to show that offensive creativity and his two-way game that made him a first round draft pick in 2008.

Prab Rai, C, 21

Rai was assigned to the Manitoba Moose on September 27, 2010 then to the Victoria Salmon Kings on Oct 22, 2010 and back to the Moose on November 30, 2010 but he never played any games with either team. The 21-year-old lost the whole season to a back injury. He has two years remaining on his entry-level contract.

Stefan Schneider, C/D, 21

Schneider improved his play as a defensive center who could shut down the opposition’s top forwards without taking many penalties and became an important part of the penalty kill for the Moose. The 21-year-old scored just two goals with two assists and a minus-two rating while registering only nine penalty minutes (one five minute fight major) in 47 AHL games. The 21-year-old sustained a hand injury that kept him out of the lineup for about one month but he was a healthy scratch at times early in the season. The 6’4 215 pound centerman was also used as a defenseman on several occasions when the Moose had injury problems or defensemen called up to the Canucks. He would only play in three games for Manitoba during their two seven game playoff series but was not able to contribute to the score sheet while playing the penalty kill with an even rating.

Schneider has two years left on his entry-level contract to improve his offensive skills as a center while continuing his work on the penalty kill and defensive checking role. The rookie center will continue his professional career in the AHL next season but his versatility to play both center and defense may earn him a third or fourth line role with the Canucks in the future.

Jordan Schroeder, C/RW

Schroeder showed some good offensive skills in his first full AHL season with the Moose. The 20-year-old versatile forward scored ten goals (three of them on the power play) with 18 assists and a minus-seven rating in 61 AHL games. The rookie forward would only score one goal with six assists and a plus-one rating while playing every game (14) of Manitoba’s two playoff rounds. The 5’8 175 pound playmaker lost six weeks to a high ankle sprain in December, 2010 but showed his toughness by returning two weeks early from the injury and played well even while suffering some lingering pain. The smallish forward must continue to add muscle to his frame in order to play at the NHL level.

Schroeder has two years left on his entry-level contract to show the Canucks that he can be the "Franchise" offensive player who they drafted 22nd overall and he must improve his offensive consistency. The young centerman will probably start the coming season at the AHL level on one of the top two forward lines.


MacGregor Sharp, C/LW, 25

Sharp was traded on February 28, 2011 to the Vancouver Canucks with Maxim Lapierre for Joel Perrault and a third round selection in 2012. The 25-year-old forward had been playing for the Syracuse Crunch where he scored six goals with seven assists and a minus-seven rating in 50 AHL games. Sharp was immediately assigned to the Moose who loaned him to the Abbottsford Heat in exchange for defenseman Keith Seabrook (CAL) on March 3rd, 2011. The journeyman forward was only able to score one goal with one assist and a minus-five rating in 17 games for Abbottsford. He needs to add more muscle and play more aggressively on the fore check to play at the NHL level.

Sharp will become a restricted free agent and the Canucks will have to decide whether to re-sign the speedy forward to another contract.

Sergei Shirokov, LW/RW, 25

Shirokov improved his offensive and defensive game while adjusting to the North American style of play in his second full season with the Moose. The durable 25-year-old Russian forward scored 22 goals with 38 assists and a plus-seven rating in 76 AHL games. The young Russian was called up once to Vancouver during the season where he would score once with a plus one rating in a two game NHL stint. The feisty winger played both seven-game playoff series for the Moose where he scored seven goals along with three assists and an even rating. He impressed the Canucks enough that they added him to their Stanley Cup playoffs roster even though the winger has yet to see any playing time; it is an experience to be cherished.

Shirokov will become a restricted free agent but the Canucks will definitely re-sign the shifty, offensively skilled winger to another contract. He could possibly make Vancouver’s roster out of training camp as a third or fourth liner who adds some scoring and playmaking skills to their lineup.

Billy Sweatt, LW, 22

Sweatt showed his offensive abilities and speed in his rookie season with the AHL Moose. The durable winger scored 19 goals with 27 assists and a minus-nine rating while playing all 80 AHL games. The 22-year-old U.S college player scored one goal along with five assists while playing in all of the two seven-game playoff series for Manitoba. The industrious young winger showed consistency but needs to improve his defensive game in order to become a complete two-way player in the NHL.

Sweatt has two years left on his entry-level contract that he signed last summer. The Canucks will probably assign the winger to the AHL for another year of seasoning but he could see some NHL action on the third or fourth lines as a possible replacement for injured forwards during the coming year.

Aaron Volpatti, LW, 26

Volpatti showed aggressive forechecking, vicious hits, and a grating agitating streak during his first full season for the Moose. The tough rookie scored two goals along with nine assists but a minus-seven rating and 74 penalty minutes (ten fighting majors) in 54 AHL games. The 26-year-old who played four years at Brown (ECAC) was recalled by the Canucks on December 12th, 2010 where he would score his first NHL goal along with an assist while playing to a minus-one rating and 16 penalty minutes (two fighting majors) in 15 NHL games. He missed out on three NHL games after suffering a rib injury and was replaced in the Canucks lineup. The tough winger was assigned back to Manitoba on February 10th, 2011. The physical winger would play only 12 playoff games for the Moose after receiving a two game suspension for leaving his feet on a vicious check during Game 4 of the first round series against the Lake Erie Monsters. Volpatti scored one goal with a couple of assists and 36 penalty minutes (one fighting major) for the 12 AHL playoff games. He obviously impressed the Canucks enough for them to recall him on May 13th, 2011 to experience the Stanley Cup playoff for Vancouver but has yet to see any playoff action.

Volpatti has one more year left on his contract to try and make the Canucks as a physical fourth line agitator. He has a chance out of training camp this coming year to make Vancouver’s roster or be assigned to the AHL to start the season.


Defense

Kevin Connauton, D, 21

Connauton had very good offensive numbers for a defenseman in his rookie season with the Manitoba Moose. The 21-year-old scored 11 goals with 12 assists but a minus-11 rating and 51 penalty minutes (one fighting major) in 73 AHL games. The offensively skilled defenseman was given plenty of time on the Moose power play where he could be the set-up man but also showed a heavy shot from the blue line. The young defenseman was given time as the shutdown defenseman late in the season as his defensive game showed remarkable improvement. Connauton suffered a lower body injury forcing him to play only six games of Manitoba’s two seven-game playoff series. The young defenseman only scored one goal but it was a shorthanded tally.

Connauton has two years left on his entry-level contract to continue improving his defensive game while showing that he can run the power play and provide offense from the backend. The skilled defenseman could make the Canucks out of training camp this coming season but it wouldn’t hurt his development if Vancouver assigned him to the AHL.

Taylor Ellington, D, 22

Ellington has had a very difficult second year at the professional level. The 22-year-old was assigned to the Moose but didn’t see any game action before he was sent down to the ECHL Salmon Kings. The defensive defenseman would only have three assists in 14 ECHL games before suffering a season ending concussion and is still not symptom-free. The second year defenseman has missed out on a chance to move up in the Canuck’s depth chart this season as Vancouver has suffered many injuries on their defense corps.
Ellington has another year left on his entry-level contract to show the Canucks that he can play at the professional level while remaining healthy and concussion free.

Yann Sauve, D, 21

Sauvé started out his rookie professional season being struck by an automobile in downtown Vancouver while attending the Canucks’ training camp. The rookie defenseman suffered a severe concussion which kept him out of hockey until he was assigned to the ECHL Salmon Kings for conditioning on November 24th, 2010. The 21-year-old was re-assigned to the Moose on December 16th, 2010 to start his first AHL season. The rugged physical defenseman scored three goals with 11 assists while having a solid plus-five rating and just 24 penalty minutes (two fight majors) in 39 AHL games. The 6’3 220-pound minute muncher showed such solid play that he was recalled by the Canucks on three occasions to help replace some of Vancouver’s injured defensemen. The rookie would play in five NHL games this season as a call-up for the Canucks and had a solid minus-two rating for his experience. The big defenseman would play in 13 playoff games for the Moose but could only contribute an assist with a minus-two rating. Sauve’s confidence has grown all year but he needs to continue working on moving the puck quickly up the ice and improve his offensive potential.

Sauve has two years remaining on his entry-level contract to show the Canucks that he can be the two-way defenseman they drafted 41st overall in 2008. He will probably start the coming season in the AHL while giving Vancouver plenty of depth at the defensive position, should more injuries arise this coming season.

Chris Tanev, D, 21

Tanev has to be the Canucks’ story of the year. The rookie defenseman plays with the poise of an NHL veteran while displaying puck-moving skills and quick tape-to-tape outlet passes. The 21-year-old first-year professional started the season with the Moose where he would score one goal along, eight assists, and a plus-five rating in 39 AHL games. He would get called up to the NHL for much of the season where he would remain until he was injured by a vicious check from behind by Kyle Cliffford (LAK). After missing three games, he was re-assigned to Manitoba to make salary cap room for returning defenseman Alex Edler.

The rookie helped the Moose in playoffs by scoring one goal along with two assists and an incredible team leading plus-seven rating while playing on the top defensive pair for the Moose. The Canucks were impressed enough by his play that they recalled him to replace more injuries to their defense corps for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tanev filled in more than adequately on the Canucks’ blue line for two playoff games in the third round against the San Jose Sharks. He would get inserted into the lineup over veteran Keith Ballard in the biggest game of his short professional career, game five of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins with the series tied at two games each. The rookie was error free for 12-plus minutes of ice time that he received while making some smart outlet passes and even setting up Tanner Glass for a scoring chance.

Tanev has two years remaining on his entry-level contract but the Canucks could use this smooth, patient and slick skating defenseman to fill possible holes to their defense corps, as four of the starting defensemen are unrestricted free agents at the July 1st, 2011 deadline. He will most likely make the Canucks defense corps out of training camp this coming season.


Goaltending

Eddie Lack, G

Lack was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team in his first year in North America while stealing the starting goaltender position for the Manitoba Moose from Tyler Weiman. The 23-year-old Swedish net minder posted great numbers during the regular season where he finished in the top five in all categories. The 6’5 195 pound goalie had a record of 28 wins with 21 loses and 4 shoot-out loses but a stringy goals against average of 2.26 with an incredible .926 save percentage and five shutouts. The rookie goaltender elevated his game even more for the Moose during their playoff run when he started 11 games, posting 1.99 goals against and a save percentage of .932 and two shutouts. The big quick goalie impressed the Canucks so much that they recalled him for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the experience of the NHL and as a back-up in case of injury to Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider.

Lack has another year remaining on his entry-level contract to show the Canucks that this season’s numbers in the AHL were not a fluke. He will have to continue to improve his technique and fitness level to push for a chance to play in the NHL for Vancouver.