Canucks Top 20 prospects

By HF Staff

With the 2004 NHL Entry Draft over, the Vancouver Canucks pipeline of prospects looks much deeper, and while a great deal many of the Canuck prospects already in the fold have taken large leaps forward in their development over the past year, a great many still disappointed. While once Fedor Fedorov, Nathan Smith, and Justin Morrisonn were thought to be Canucks of the future, their futures look dimmer than ever. On the other hand, others like Brett Skinner, Evgeny Gladskikh, and Markus Kankaanpera were hardly on the radar for some last year, and now they seem integral parts of the pipeline.

Quick Glance at the new Top 20

1. (G) Alex Auld
2. (C) Ryan Kesler
3. (D) Kirill Koltsov
4. (C) Ilya Krikunov
5. (G) Corey Schneider
6. (LW) Evgeny Gladskikh
7. (D) Brett Skinner
8. (RW) Marc-Andre Bernier
9. (D) Tomas Mojzis
10. (RW) Brandon Nolan
11. (D) Denis Grot
12. (C) Brandon Reid
13. (LW) Fedor Fedorov
14. (C) Francois-Pierre Guenette
15. (G) Lukas Mensator
16. (D) Markus Kankaanpera
17. (D) Kevin Bieska
18. (RW) Jesse Schultz
19. (G) Julien Ellis-Plante
20. (G) Mike Brown

Key: Ranking – Name (Position) – Age – Team (League)

#1 – Alex Auld (G) – 23 (Jan. 7th, 1981) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)

When the Canucks traded for Alex Auld from the Florida Panthers for a second round pick in 2001, Brian Burke proclaimed that they had acquired the goaltender of the future for the organization. And this time he meant it. Three years later, Alex Auld has spent enough time in the American Hockey League, and has shown himself at the NHL level to the point that Canucks management have no reason to continue playing him in Manitoba. Auld is expected to backup Vancouver Canucks starting goaltender Dan Cloutier in 2004-05. His AHL statistics likely do not do justice, as Auld was often the only bright spot on an otherwise dismal Manitoba Moose club.

There is a great deal of question, however, in regard to how much Auld is ready for. While he has shown twice now in the NHL postseason that he can handle elite shooters and skaters buzzing around his net, he has yet to have the opportunity to show if he can be a consistent performer in the NHL. This will be the true test for him, as if he can show that he is able to be a strong presence in the net over a full season in the NHL, there would be no reason to doubt any longer the Auld cannot be a future starting goaltender.

#2 – Ryan Kesler (C) – 19 (Aug. 31st, 1984) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)

It came as a bit of a shock when on August 18, 2003, Ryan Kesler was signed by the NHL club. Only a scant month and a half had passed since Kesler was drafted, and he was expected to remain at Ohio State University for at least another season. Canucks management at the time was saying that he was going to play in Manitoba of the AHL, and that he may even see some time with the NHL club. As incredulous as this sounded at the time, it appeared to be exactly the case.

Kesler split the 2003-04 season with the Vancouver Canucks and the Manitoba Moose, playing 28 games in the NHL, and 33 games in the American League. While Kesler did not score a great deal, he did show two very important things: that he belonged in the NHL, and he could handle both leagues physically. Kesler displayed a great deal of smart, responsible play that endeared him towards Canucks head coach Marc Crawford all throughout his stints with the NHL team. Also of note was that Kesler took a mid-season break from the Moose and Canucks to play for the gold medal-winning Team USA at the U-20 World Junior Championship tournament in Finland. There he scored 3 goals, no assists in 6 games, one of those goals being a pivotal goal against Team Canada in the gold medal game.

It is doubtful Kesler becomes a big scorer, but a key, energetic checker that could be a big part of any NHL club seems a very likely future for him. Before he was drafted, scouts compared him to former Calgary Flame Joel Otto. If Kesler could reproduce Otto’s career, he could potentially be a huge part of any postseason success the Canucks may have in the future.

#3 – Kirill Koltsov (D) – 21 (Jan. 27th, 1983) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)

Silky-smooth hands, can stickhandle in a phone booth, makes moves that most couldn’t dream of, Kirill Koltsov is arguably the most skilled Canucks defensive prospect since Mattias Ohlund, Koltsov’s stickhandling and puck movement from the point is far beyond any Canuck prospect in years. A dynamic, creative player with the puck, Koltsov reminds some of a young Sergei Zubov, a fellow Russian, in terms of how he can play the puck from the blueline. However, like a young Sergei Zubov, Koltsov has trouble figuring out what’s going on his own zone. For a defenseman, this can be bad news. For him, he is improving, though it’s taking a while. Koltsov’s defensive play absolutely must improve if he is to make the NHL. He has the offensive zone to quarterback the Vancouver Canucks power play right now, but until a coach can feel safe when putting him on the ice, he will continue to toil in the American League.

One unique dimension to Koltsov’s game which many do not associate with smaller Russian skilled players is grit and a physical game. Koltsov, while not a punishing player at his size, is still a very hard competitor that if not afraid of going to war in the corners or seeking big hits. Still, his size will put him at a large disadvantage when facing bigger players, but if he can keep that fiery attitude on the ice, the size problem will be diminished.

Koltsov is likely only one or two more years away from the NHL.

#4 – Ilya Krikunov (C/RW) – 20 (Feb. 27th, 1984) – Voskerensk (Russian SuperLeague)

Another offensively skilled Russian, Krikunov’s in many ways is a stereotypical Russian forward in so much that his shooting, passing, and skating skills are all in very good standing when stacked up against his North American counterparts. But his defensive game needs a great deal of work, again just like many other standard Russian forward. But Krikunov is not just all skill, and he has displayed several things that are not what you would consider standard along with the average Russian skilled forward that comes over to North America. His level of maturity off the ice is quite impressive, and he holds himself accountable on the ice very quickly. While he is a terrific shooter, he does enjoy sharing the offensive load and becoming more of a playmaker at times, concerned about setting up teammates for goals rather than trying to go through players and score himself.

General Manager David Nonis on a trip during the 2003-04 season to Russia compared Krikunov to a Russian version of Brendan Morrison, and proclaimed he was only two years away from the NHL.

#5 – Cory Schneider (G) – 18 (March 18th, 1986) – Phillips-Andover (USHSE)

With more well-known players on the board at the time the 26th overall pick in 2004, new Canucks GM Dave Nonis went with red-haired, fresh-faced Cory Schneider out of Phillips-Andover Prep School. Coming into the draft, many considered goaltending to be the least of the Canucks’ worries with Alex Auld, though it was generally acknowledged that the depth in the organization was pretty poor in this regard. Nonis insisted that Cory Schneider was very high up on their draft charts before the draft, and like every other manager that day, were amazed their guy fell to them.

Despite some of the hand-wringing by fans wanting the latest offensive stud, Cory Schneider does have the tools to be a very impressive player at the NHL level, and perhaps ignored in all this is that the Canucks have never drafted a goaltender of note in their 34-year history. With Schneider, along with other Canuck-drafted goaltender prospects in the system, there remains perhaps the best hope for a successful goaltender coming out of the Canucks system in years.

#6 – Evgeny Gladskikh (LW) – 22 (April 26th, 1982) – Magnitogorsk (Russian SuperLeague)

This time last year, Evgeny Gladskikh was not a very well known commodity for the Canucks. Expected to break out offensively, Gladskikh did not comply in 2002-03, and left scouts and fans alike wondering if this guy was ever going to take the next step in his development. Now, Gladskikh is considered to be one of the top prospects in the entire Canucks organization, and perhaps the top potential scoring line player in the organization.

Going from 4 goals and 11 points in 42 games in 2002-03 to 13 goals and 26 points in 47 games in 2003-04, Gladskikh broke out offensively in a big way, becoming one of the top scoring threats for Magnitogorsk of the Russian SuperLeague, the top professional league in Russia as well as outside of North America. Possessing an innate sense around the net, he is a goal scorer first and foremost. If he makes it to the NHL, it will be on the strength of his goal scoring. This isn’t to say Gladskikh is a one dimensional player, but he certainly will never be a checker.

It’s possible he comes over to North America in 2004. A possible one-way contract demand will make Vancouver very wary about signing him, and it is unlikely that Gladskikh will have a great future in the NHL if he does not spend at least some time trying to learn the North American game in the American League.

#7 – Brett Skinner (D) – 21 (June 28th, 1983) – University of Denver (NCAA)

Drafted in 2002, Skinner has shown signs of brilliance, but never a consistent effort over an entire season since his BCHL days. That is, until 2003-04, when the University of Denver defenseman posted 7 goals and 30 points over 44 games, playing consistent two-way hockey all year long.

A standout offensive talent on the blueline, Skinner is capable in his own zone too. A big red flag some may put up is his size, but he will have time to bulk up before he turns pro, and while he is not big, he certainly isn’t short, and is not short on grit. Offensively, he’s got the passing, the shot, the skating, and the poise of a future NHL power play quarterback.

Likely another year or two away from the NHL, Skinner is perhaps the most improved Canucks prospect over the last two years, and maybe the most sure-fire blueline prospect in the pipeline.

#8 – Marc-Andre Bernier (RW) – 19 (Feb. 5th, 1985) – Cape Breton Eagles (QMJHL)

In an organization like Vancouver where skating is valued at a premium, Marc-Andre Bernier was a unique pick. While no longer as slow as he was on his draft year, Bernier is still not a very quick player. What he gives up in speed, however, he more than makes up in size. A big body presence, Bernier does what you’d expect of most power forwards: protect the puck well, hit hard on the forecheck, and spend a lot of time scavenging for rebounds in front of the opposition net. Good at whacking in rebounds and being a pain in the behind to defenseman everywhere, the majority of Marc-Andre’s goals are four-footers.

Bernier will play the 2004-05 season with fellow Canuck prospect, Francois-Pierre Guenette, with Cape Breton of the QMJHL. Following that season it’s likely he seeks a professional contract with the Canucks. His potential likely lies as a second line power-forward, though he must improve his skating if he wants to take full advantage of his scoring potential.

#9 – Tomas Mojzis (D) – 22 (May 2nd, 1982) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)

Drafted originally by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the eighth round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Mojzis was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for American League journeyman forward Brad Leeb. This is one that the Leafs GM at the time, Pat Quinn, would probably like to have back, as Mojzis has since looked like a solid NHL prospect.

While Mojzis actually scored 21 goals and 70 points in 62 games for the Seattle Thunderbirds, as well as racking up 126 penalty minutes that same year, it was not until the Vancouver Canucks 2003 training camp where most people became familiar with the young Czech. An absolutely phenomenal camp nearly put Mojzis onto the Canucks roster; if not for the incredible depth the NHL team has, he may have made it. Vancouver Canucks head coach Marc Crawford raved about him and fully expected him to be NHL ready by the time the 2004 training camp rolled around.

However, the 2003-04 season after that camp seemed to go downhill for Mojzis. An injury riddled year held him to only 18 points through 63 games for Manitoba. It is expected that next season Mojzis will be ready to take a much bigger role for Manitoba, but with the setback last year, it seems that he is one more year away from the NHL.

#12 – Brandon Nolan (RW) – 20 (July 18th, 1983) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)

Nolan started the 2003-04 season playing for the Columbia Inferno of the ECHL scoring 5 goals and 15 points in 19 games before being promoted to Manitoba of the AHL. Since then, he scored 7 goals and 17 points in 48 American League games and hasn’t looked back since. A strong winger with a good shot, Nolan is a goal scorer with some bite to his game. He loves to get in on the forecheck and use his body to gain position around the net. There is enough of a combination of grit and talent here for Brandon to make the NHL in a couple years, but first he’s got to start making a name for himself in Manitoba.

Next year may be his chance in Manitoba, and it’s likely he’ll play the full season there as a top six forward for the ailing Moose. He has proven in the past to be a big-time scorer, scoring 36 goals in the regular season for the Oshawa Generals, as well as scoring 10 goals and 17 points in just 13 games in the 2002-03 Generals playoff run. If he can rekindle his scoring ways in the pros, it’s possible one day that Nolan becomes a scoring forward in the NHL, but he’s got a long ways to go.

#11 – Denis Grot (D) – 20 (January 6th, 1984) – Lokomotiv (Russian SuperLeague)

While originally drafted in part for his offensive skill, Grot has yet to show much offensively in Russia. Considered so far a disappointment in terms of scoring, Grot has more than made up for that by playing some very good, gritty defensive hockey. A regular now in the Russian SuperLeague, Denis has made more playing time for himself by simply not making mistakes and improving his value to his club, Lokomotiv, game after game. It is worthy to note that while he has not improved his scoring a great deal, he is still very young in Russian mens league and his offense simply may take time to mature as he matures.

With spaces opening up in Manitoba, Grot is a good bet to be signed by the Canucks in the 2004 offseason and be brought over to the Moose to fill holes and see how he fares in North America.

#12 – Brandon Reid (C) – 23 (Sept. 3rd, 1981) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)

Once a star QMJHL scorer for Val-d’Or, Reid has beat the odds by already becoming a very good player in the American Hockey League, a place where small scorers face more difficulties than in Major-Junior. On perhaps a team with lesser depth at forward than the Vancouver Canucks, it’s reasonable to suggest that Brandon Reid could already be an NHL regular.

For two seasons now, Reid has only enjoyed a cup of coffee or two in the NHL, though a year ago it was expected he would make the Canucks roster with ease. Following the end of the 2002-03 season where Reid played 7 games, scoring 5 points in that time, Reid was expected to be a lock for full-time duty on the NHL club. Instead, Reid came into training camp in September of 2003 overconfident, and found himself back in the American Hockey League. Worse yet for his standings on the Canucks depth chart, rookie Ryan Kesler shot past Reid, and now he is the fifth centerman on a the team.

But the 2003-04 season wasn’t a failure by any means for Reid. While he didn’t make the NHL club, he came out guns blazing for the Moose and lead the team in points by the end of the season. Still not receiving a shot, Brandon made threats in the offseason of 2004 to seek a contract in Europe, which he followed through with in signing in Hamburg in the top league in Germany. A disappointment to Canucks management to say the least, Nonis called it a backwards step for Reid, and his standing with the club remains uncertain. What does remain certain, however, is that Reid does have the ability to play in the NHL right now on plenty of teams in the league. Whether or not that will happen in 2004-05 or the coming years after that remains to be seen.

#13 – Fedor Fedorov (LW) – 23 (June 11th, 1981) – Manitoba Moose (AHL)

Some words used to describe Fedor Fedorov in the last several years: big, mean, talented, headcase. While the first three words might entice the most, it is the last one that puts a large, ominous cloud over Fedorov. He is almost certainly the Canucks most purely talented prospect. He is a tremendous shooter, size, skill, and hands. He can stickhandle in a phone booth and turn a goaltender or defenseman inside out with tremendous dekes. While all that would make the average fan salivate with thoughts of him as a first line NHL player, it is his public spats in the newspapers with former Canucks head honcho Brian Burke, the breaking of curfew and subsequent suspension in Manitoba, and the constant superstar attitude in a role-player’s league that most seem to recall when you say the name ‘Fedor Fedorov’. His lackadaisical work ethic and seemingly tunnel vision on the ice, often times ignoring the pass to take the shot, are his only problems on the ice.

There is so much talent in Fedorov that it’s almost impossible not to stay at least intrigued by him, however. He has improved a great deal in terms of his on-ice results from his rookie season in Manitoba. Scoring 23 goals in 58 games is quite impressive for a sophomore in Manitoba, and he has played 15 NHL games already, though with only 2 assists to show for them.

Rumors continue to swirl around Fedorov, either being used as trade bait to have the Canucks acquire a player to help their NHL roster, or perhaps seeing Fedorov going to play in Europe and give up on an NHL career, or at least an NHL career in Vancouver. If he could only put a consistent effort in over a full season in the American League, it’s likely that most of his off-ice antics would be forgiven.

#14 – Francois-Pierre Guenette (C) – 20 (Jan. 18th, 1984) – Cape Breton Eagles (QMJHL)

While most NHL teams avoid big scorers with small bodies in the QMJHL, the Vancouver Canucks don’t seem to mind them. With the recent successes of Brandon Reid and Jason King, the Canucks have had a bit more success than most other teams at picking the best of these types of players in the later rounds. Drafted in 2003 after a huge season with the Halifax Mooseheads, many criticized the pick as it was felt that Guenette overachieved last year, scoring 87 points up from 13 points the year previous in the Q, and that it was unlikely that he could do it again. He proved the doubters wrong however, scoring 85 points the following year for Cape Breton, placing within the top 10 scorers in the league.

But again, like with Brandon Reid and Jason King, there are concerns about Guenette’s size. A mid-sized player, he plays even smaller than he is, and is not strong enough yet to play in a professional league. Size aside, his puck skills are solid, and his skating is very good. He can both make the fine pass or snipe home a nice goal.

In the offseason, Guenette ought to focus on getting as strong as possible. With roster places opening up in Manitoba of the American league, there is reason to believe that Francois-Pierre could be found next year in the AHL. Perhaps more likely, however, is that Guenette plays in the ECHL or as an overeager in the QMJHL for one more year before making the step into the American league.

#15 – Lukas Mensator (G) – 19 (Aug. 18th, 1984) – Ottawa 67’s (OHL)

Virtually any goaltender from the Czech Republic, at some time or another in his career, will be compared to the great Dominic Hasek. Mensator does resemble him in terms of how he looks in the net and the style he plays the most. A small goaltender, Mensator is lightning quick with his limbs, still very young with a great deal of potential, and a good attitude about accepting criticisms, improving his game, and being in general a very coachable player.

During the OHL offseason in 2003-04, Mensator signed a contract with a team in the Czech Republic and questions swirled about his commitment to becoming an NHL player. There is little doubt about it that with Alex Auld being promoted to the backup position for the following season, the 2003-04 Manitoba Moose needed a starting goaltender, and he very likely could have had it, putting him directly in the pipeline of the Canucks. For whatever reason, however, he decided to go home to his native country and play hockey there. While it could possibly be just for the one year because of the potential NHL lockout, it likely would not have affected him if he wanted to play in the American league as either a starter or a backup goaltender.

If Mensator shows interest in coming back to North America and furthering his NHL career, so long as he doesn’t hit a wall in his development back home in the Czech Republic, Mensator could improve his ranking. Until then, there remain some doubts.

#16 – Markus Kankaanpera (D) – 24 (April 27th, 1980) – Jokerit Helsinki (FNL)

Drafted way back in 1999, Markus Kankaanpera has flown under the radar. However, last season playing for Jokerit, he broke through as a player and was one of the top defensemen for his team. Like many other Finnish hockey players, he plays a tough, hard-nosed game that endeared him to NHL scouts. In the past season for Jokerit, he scored 6 goals and 12 points in 55 games, but perhaps the most interested statistic is the 101 penalty minutes he collected, tops for his team. Standing at 6’1, 191 pounds, Kankaanpera is not a big defenseman, but makes up for his lack of size with his surly attitude on the ice. His skill with the puck in Finland is decent enough, but it may not be enough in North America, and this keeps him towards the bottom of the ranking.

Kankaanpera is yet another young Canuck prospect who may benefit from the talent leaving in Manitoba of the NHL and he may get his first North American contract this offseason, though as with many other slightly older prospects in Europe, he may feel his NHL prospects are slim, and may prefer to live as a local hero in Helsinki, and in his native country. Still, money talks, and Kankaanpera would likely be ready to make a difference for the Manitoba Moose right away given his more mature age and play on the ice compared to other Canuck blueline prospects.

#17 – Kevin Bieska – (D) – 23 (June 16th, 1981) – Bowling Green University (NCAA)

Just completing his senior year in college, Kevin Bieska is headed for the Manitoba Moose. He played four games with the Moose towards the end of last season and impressed. With the exodus of talent on the Moose, particularly on the blueline, it’s almost certain that Bieska will receive regular minutes with in the AHL next year.

A sound positional defenseman, Bieska has always been a calm presence with the puck on the blueline. He is a smart passer and seems to make the right decision with the puck in tough situations, putting his fortunes with the glass rather than up the middle of the ice. In the offensive zone, Bieska has a powerful shot and is a competent playmaker. What holds him back most of all is his skating and his size. Not a small man, but not a large one, Bieska likes to play an aggressive game and this may be harder to do in the AHL and NHL where the players are a good deal bigger than they are in collegiate hockey. Bieska is not strong enough right now for the NHL, and it will be vital for him to put on a great deal of muscle in his time in Manitoba. His skating is not dreadful, but it is not much better either. His agility in particular keeps him prone to being beaten on the outside or recovering from mistakes on the ice.

Much will depend on next year for Bieska. If he can continue his improvement from college onto the professional scene, there may just be the NHL in his future yet, though it will likely be as a depth defenseman.

#18 – Jesse Schultz (RW) – 21 (Sept. 28th, 1983) – Columbia Inferno (ECHL)

The smallish forward was not drafted, but signed by the Vancouver Canucks following the 2002-03 season, his last with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL. After proving himself as a top scorer in the Western Hockey League, Schultz began to make his mark in professional hockey. Through 52 games for the Columbia Inferno, Vancouver’s farm team in the ECHL, he scored an impressive 27 goals and 48 points. He also played two games in the American League with the Manitoba Moose, scoring 1 assist in two games.

As with Bieska and several other Canuck prospects, holes on the farm team will likely put Schultz into the Manitoba Moose roster next year, but he’s probably ready for it anyway. Thought of as a good goal scorer who plays like a sparkplug but can get overmatched physically, Schultz could be a sleeper in that he is not all that short at 6’0, or that small at 192 pounds. However, if he does expect to be successful next year in Manitoba, he’ll have to bulk up. The talent is there, but his lack of size holds him back.

#19 – Julien Ellis-Plante (G) – 18 (Jan. 27th, 1986) – Shawnigan Cataractes (QMJHL)

Slated as one of the top goaltenders out of the QMJHL for the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Ellis-Plante slipped down to the sixth round before he was taken. Ellis-Plante was considered to be perhaps the most technically sound butterfly goaltender to be drafted in 2004. A butterfly goaltender to the bitter end, he relies on his technique and his positioning, though he does have quick limbs which he uses wisely and efficiently. The 2003-04 season saw Ellis-Plante put up 32 wins in 59 games as the starting goaltender for the Shawnigan Cataractes and opened the eyes of many scouts.

Along with Cory Schneider taken in the first round of 2004, and Alex Auld, Rob McVicar, and Matt Violin already in the system, Ellis-Plante adds to a group of goaltending prospects that went from only ‘so-so’ to ‘excellent’ in one weekend.

Ellis-Plante will remain with Shawnigan for two more seasons before exploring his options as a pro. This young man is definitely one to keep an eye on for any who enjoy watching Quebec goaltenders. He has the size, technique, and positioning to be considered as perhaps a future starting goaltender in the NHL.

#20 – Mike Brown (RW) – 19 (June 24th, 1984) – University of Michigan (NCAA)

Born in Northbrook Illinois, Mike Brown was perhaps the quintessential Canuck draft pick: fast, strong, and hard working. What Brown lacks in skill, he makes up for with a numerous array of intangibles including, as mentioned, a work ethic that is second to none. A take-no-prisoners attitude on the ice, he willingly gives up his body to make plays; though it is often the opposition that feels like they gave up theirs, as Brown is tremendous hitter, able to make players pay the price on the forecheck or in open ice when they have their heads down. His hitting is aided by two traits: a stocky, balanced skating stance that keeps his center of gravity low and level, as well as tremendous speed on his blades.

Aside from his hitting and his speed, Brown does not have a great deal else to offer, though he is quite young and improving. Not a puckhandler in the least, Brown’s goals are usually the two to four foot variety. His offensive skill in general seems to be lacking in numerous areas, but he has never been a skill player.

He has the intangibles that are in high demand to be a character winger in a team’s bottom six forwards. But it’s his skill level, particularly with the puck, which holds him back, and puts him behind 19 others on this list. Still, with his age, he could find his stock improving over time.

Sukhwinder Pandher and Jay Thompson contributed to this article. Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.