Top 10 prospects
There will be plenty of decisions to be made in Vancouver over the summer, even if General Manager Mike Gillis claims there will not be many drastic changes after coming within one game of capturing the organization’s first Stanley Cup. Much of the depth that so ably aided in Vancouver’s success, especially at the forward positions, will see an overhaul. Restricted free agents Maxim Lapierre and Jannik Hansen are both likely to return, but less certain is the status of unrestricted free agents Chris Higgins, Raffi Torres, Tanner Glass, and Jeff Tambellini, who were all important players during the postseason run. While this still means Vancouver has seven of their top nine forwards under contract for next season, one area that could be stabilized is the rotating cast of wingers who flanked Ryan Kesler on the second line throughout the season.
On defense, the organization will face much bigger decisions because Christian Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa are both unrestricted free agents. With each of them topping a relatively weak crop of free agent defensemen, either could potentially earn top dollar on the open market. Both are also a high priority for Gillis, as Bieksa was one of Vancouver’s better defenders in the postseason and Ehrhoff, the Canucks’ leading scorer on the blue line, could be looking for a shorter term deal as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Sami Salo and Andrew Alberts are also unrestricted free agents, while Keith Ballard’s contract lasts four more years with a $4.2 million cap hit, so there will be plenty of action over the summer as Gillis tries to keep his vaunted blue line together.
Goaltending is set on paper, though it will certainly be a hot topic of discussion for the foreseeable future. The Canucks will again have the Jennings Trophy-winning duo of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider next season, though a trade is not out of the question. For all the vitriol sent Luongo’s way in the playoffs, he is still a franchise goaltender, or is at least paid like one, and would be difficult to move. Schneider would be the more likely goalie to trade, but the organization may not want to part with a potential starter given Luongo’s struggles. Eddie Lack could be called upon in case of injury, but will otherwise get starts with the team’s new AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.
The Canucks’ depth on defense was tested throughout the regular season and playoffs. GM Mike Gillis addressed the organization’s defensive depth during the 2010 offseason by signing 2008 draft pick Yann Sauve, adding free agents Chris Tanev and Lee Sweatt, and acquiring Ryan Parent from Nashville. All four of those players suited up for Vancouver at some point during the season as Christian Ehrhoff was the only regular defensemen to appear in over 70 games. The Canucks also boast several potential offensive defensemen in top blue line prospect Kevin Connauton and 2010 mid-round picks Patrick McNally and Adam Polasek.
While the defense or goaltending groups may not have any marquee prospects, the organization still has excellent upside among their top forward prospects. Cody Hodgson has struggled with injuries over the last couple years, but remains one of hockey’s top prospects with strong hockey sense at both ends of the rink and high skill level. He suited up for eight regular season games and 12 playoff games this year for the Canucks and could be the next top forward to graduate to the big club. Other forward prospects like the Jordan Schroeder, Sergei Shirokov, and Anton Rodin also possess a good amount of skill, though these prospects are also not without their questions.
The major weakness of Vancouver’s prospect system is up front, where the organization lacks depth beyond the aforementioned forward prospects. There are only eight total prospects slotted on the wings and only two prospects are natural right wingers. If the team’s top prospects like Hodgson and the 5’9 tall Schroeder are not locks to reach their potential, there are even more questions further down the ranks. Billy Sweatt, unsigned by Chicago and Toronto after graduating from Colorado College, has excellent speed but his gritty play and hands will be further tested at the NHL level. Prab Rai, another forward on the smaller side, lost his rookie season to injury. Power forward Steven Anthony and another 5’9 forward in Alex Friesen were each point-per-game players in their fourth year of junior hockey but will have to prove themselves again at the pro level.
The goaltending ranks are thin as well. Eddie Lack was a major reason for Manitoba’s success in the AHL last season, giving Vancouver a solid third-string option behind their tandem at the pro level. Beyond that there are two late-round draft picks with no pro experience, though both have had some recent success. College prospect Joe Cannata had a stellar 2010-11 season as a cornerstone of Merrimack’s best season since joining Hockey East, while Finnish prospect Jonathan Iilahti has had some standout performances on the international stage in the past two seasons.
Vancouver holds all seven of their picks heading into the 2011 draft, which will help shore up some of the depth issues after having no picks until the fourth round in 2010. The organization has made only 17 draft selections in the past three years since Mike Gillis took over as General Manager, a low number compared to other Western Conference contenders who have replenished pipelines through the draft like Detroit, with 20 picks in that span, and Chicago, with 25 draft picks.
Eight of the Canucks’ picks under Gillis have been from the CHL, with the organization clearly favoring the Quebec league, where they have selected three defensemen and four total prospects.
Schroeder and several mid-round picks have been taken from the college, high school, and Junior A leagues, though top defensive prospect Kevin Connauton ended up playing his post-draft year in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants before signing a pro deal.
Four draft picks have been selected out of Europe. With top players like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Mikael Samuelsson, and Alexander Edler in Vancouver, it is no surprise that the team has continued to mine talent in Sweden, where they have made three draft selections, which does not include free agent signing Eddie Lack.
Hockey Future’s staff mock draft result:
No. 29: Tomas Jurco, RW
The Canucks have drafted heavily out of the QMJHL in recent years and look to get in on the run of Saint Johns’ first round picks with Tomas Jurco. The Czech-born winger not only fills a need at right wing within the Vancouver pipeline, but also adds excellent goal-scoring ability to the team’s forward ranks. His excellent stick-handling and skating ability would instantly rank Jurco among the better offensive prospects in the organization.