Canucks AHL prospects season review

By Matt MacInnis

The Manitoba Moose season lasted 94 games this year with their 80-game regular season and then a 14-game playoff run which took them to the Western Conference Finals of the AHL playoffs. The Moose came third in the very strong North Division with a record of 44 wins, 26 losses, three overtime losses, and seven shootout losses. After eliminating the St John’s Maple Leafs and Rochester Americans in the first two rounds, the season came to a crashing halt as the Moose were swept by the powerful Chicago Wolves, backed by superstar prospect Kari Lehtonen.

However, the success of the Moose came off the backs of AHL veterans more so than Canucks prospects. Between the pipes Wade Flaherty carried the load of the goaltending duties in the playoffs. The blue line was supported by more experienced players such as Nolan Baumgartner, Kent Huskins, and, when healthy, Jonathan Aitken, although youth did play an important role on defense for the team. Up front only two prospects graced the top two lines (Ryan Kesler and Jason King), while Peter Sarno, Lee Goren, Josh Green, and Jeff Heerema accounted for a great deal of the team’s offense. The checking lines well full of younger Canucks prospects, most of whom stand little to no chance of playing in the NHL.

Goaltenders

Alex Auld: After Auld inherited the starting job for the Canucks as a result of Dan Cloutier’s injury in the first round of the 2003-04 NHL playoffs, most expected him to have a very strong AHL season and prove that he was ready to be a full-time NHL back-up. However, Auld split the starts in the crease with veteran Wade Flaherty during the regular season, ultimately appearing in 50 Moose games. He finished with a 25-18 record, two shutouts, a .909 save percentage and a respectable 2.56 GAA. Auld also competed for Canada in the Spengler Cup.

In the playoffs, Auld backed-up Flaherty for all but two games, both of were losses. Auld’s inability to secure the full-time starting job over an aging journeyman in Manitoba has some concerned about his potential at the NHL level. Auld had a solid, but unspectacular season that did not live up to lofty expectations. Observers indicate his lateral movement increased over previous seasons although his five-hole remains an area of weakness. Auld’s somewhat disappointing season was far from disastrous, but it may have dropped his potential down from a future full-time starter to a 1A-1B type of goaltender.

Defensemen

Kevin Bieksa: In his first full season in the AHL, Bieksa was undeniably the most pleasant surprise of all the Canucks prospects at the AHL level this season. Throughout his collegiate career, Bieksa was hailed as a physical defenseman, although he averaged roughly half a point per game throughout his time with Bowling Green. This season Bieksa surprised most observers by not only successfully adapting to the bigger and faster AHL with relative ease in his own zone, and managing to maintain impressive offensive output, with 39 points in 80 regular season games. The 24-year-old’s was one of the top defensemen on the Moose this season and often played on the top pairing.

Although Bieksa’s offensive numbers dipped during the Moose’s playoff run to the semi-finals, his defensive play was a major reason the team was able to make it so deep. At times, however, he did struggle. His play over the course of the season has certainly caused him to rise in the Canucks depth chart, particularly because of his ability to make the switch from the NCAA to AHL almost seamless. Overall Bieksa had a great season, capped by being named to the AHL All-Rookie Team and will most likely be on the Moose’s top pairing next season, perhaps seeing spot duty in the NHL if the Canucks are hit by injuries.

Tomas Mojzis: Mojzis remains a bit thin at 6’1, 192 lbs, but has shown signs of improving his defensive game as well as his already fairly skilled offensive game. This season Mojzis spent a great deal of time on a pairing with Joe DiPenta in a shutdown role, often facing opponents’ top scoring lines. He was able to post 30 points in 80 games while typically being forced to focus on his own zone. His two-way skills were evident and honed during the course of the regular season.

Mojzis managed to notch two assists and a somewhat surprising 28 minutes in penalties (he had just 62 PIM during the entire regular season). He also had an impressive +5 rating, the fourth best on the team. Having turned 23 in early May, Mojzis has now reached a pivotal time in his career. He did show advancement in his defensive game, but once again he must improve his game next season and show NHL potential to remain a legitimate NHL prospect.

Kiril Koltsov: Koltsov began the year playing with the Moose, and appeared to be making good progress with the team in his second AHL season. He was on pace to eclipse his previous season’s point total of 32 points with 17 points in just 28 games when he decided to leave the Moose and return to Russia. Most reports indicate that Koltsov’s play in his own zone was developing and that, overall, he was playing well. His decision to leave the team came as a major surprise. In Russia, Koltsov scored four points in 22 games with Omsk Avangard.

Forwards

Ryan Kesler: Kesler had a breakthrough season in his second professional season, his first full AHL year after he split time between the AHL and NHL last season. His rookie year raised questions about Kesler’s offensive ability, having scored just 11 points in 61 combined games in the two leagues, but this season he scored an impressive 30 goals and 28 assists for 58 points in 78 games. Kesler, always known to be a strong two-way forward, also had a +22 rating, second best on the team.

In the Moose 14-game playoff run, Kesler compiled nine points and was a key player throughout the post-season drive. Kesler cemented his spot in the Canucks’ lineup sooner rather than later with his good season and elevated his status as a prospect. He was recognized as the team’s MVP. This may be Kesler’s only full AHL season as he is expected to earn a spot with the Canucks out of training camp.

Jason King: The always inconsistent and enigmatic Newfoundlander returned to the AHL for the third time this season. King got off to a fast start to the season but then, as happened to him in the 2003-04 season, found his goal scoring slowed. Playing in just 59 games due to injury, King did score 26 goals, 27 assists (53 points), including 10 goals on the power play. King was also extremely disciplined this season, accumulating just 22 penalty minutes. Despite missing 20 games, King took the second most shots on the team with 212. Had he played the entire season, King was on pace for an incredible 284 shots.

King missed the entire post-season as a result of symptoms related to a concussion he received. This season King’s inconsistency and streakiness remained an issue, but this is not a particularly uncommon trait among many goal scorers, and it may be something Canuck fans simply have to accept. Kings appears likely to at least receive a shot at making the Canucks straight out of camp, and will see at least some ice time reunited with the Sedin twins if a major free agency signing is not made.

Nathan Smith: The former first rounder played a checking role on a depth line with the Moose this season. Never projected to be a dominant scorer, Smith was drafted because he was a low risk, “sure thing” prospect almost certain to be a third-line NHL player. Three years later, however, Smith appears to be in a dogfight to ever make the big show even in a fourth line capacity. With 16 points in 72 games, perhaps the most unsettling stat Smith put up this season was a -11 rating, not particularly impressive for a checker. The 6’2 center did not make tremendous strides since last season, although his defensive positioning was better and he seemed more confident on the ice.

Smith’s offensive production increased slightly in the playoffs with two goals, four assists for six points in 14 games. He played an important checking role and saw time on the penalty kill. The experience playing in big games will certainly help to make Smith an even more seasoned playoff competitor. When his teams have made the playoffs, since major junior, they have never failed to advance to the second round. Smith will return to the Moose next season and continue to battle for more ice time.

Brandon Nolan: The 21-year-old right winger got into 48 games this season with the Moose, compiling a total of 12 points. He struggled at times in his second professional season to make the adjustment from a scoring line player to an energy/checking line role. The St. Catherine’s native had troubles with consistency and sometimes struggled with his defensive zone coverage, although he did manage a +8 rating.

Nolan did not appear in the Moose line-up in the playoffs. After beginning the season fairly strong considering the limited expectations surrounding him, he dropped off. Nolan likely will remain a third line AHL player.

Tim Smith: The diminutive center split his time between the AHL and ECHL this season. While with the Moose, Smith appeared in just 29 games, and, contrary to the point-per-game rate he was able to keep in the ECHL, he scored just four goals while seeing limited ice time with the Moose, often buried on the fourth line. Perhaps the most telling stat for Smith was his meager shot total of 15, barely a shot every two games, which is indicative of the quality of ice time he received.

Smith will once again fight for AHL ice time next season. He has very little NHL potential, but could develop into an important player for the Moose in a few seasons if he is able to prove he’s able to score in the AHL.

Jesse Schultz: The 22-year-old right winger spent the entire season with Manitoba, appearing in 70 games. This was his second professional season, after he spent last year in the ECHL, following his signing as a free agent out of major junior during the summer of 2003. Known for his offensive talents and his uni-dimensional play considered the reason he was passed over in the NHL Entry Draft, he was able to put up 24 points while playing on the team’s third and fourth line during the season. His defensive play did improve during the course of the season.

Schultz scored five points in the playoffs. Although the free agent signee has shown positive signs of developing his defensive game, and appears to be a solid contributor to the Moose, he possesses very limited potential to be an NHL player. Schultz had a good season for the role he was required to fill, but did not demonstrate a high caliber upside.

Alexander Burrows: Signed by the Moose under an AHL contract, this was Burrows’ first season in the AHL. The feisty winger scored nine goals and 17 assists for 28 points in 72 games. He finished with a positive +3 rating and 26 points. Overall he put up respectable offensive numbers for a primarily third line player seeing no power-play action. At times Burrows played center, and, towards the end of the season, saw time on the penalty kill. Despite his reasonably successful season, Burrows is a career AHLer.

Future Outlook

Despite the successful 2004-05 season, the Moose face a number of challenges in being a competitive team next season. With the AHL veteran exempt player rule (players with more than 400 games of AHL experience), the Moose, and all other AHL franchises, will be permitted to dress only five veterans who have played 260 games in major competitive leagues (AHL, IHL, NHL, and European Elite Leagues). The Moose finished the season with nine such players on their roster. With Aitken and Huskins unlikely to be resigned, that still leaves the Moose two over the limit. The Moose hope that two of the remaining players (most likely Baumgartner, Goren, Green, or Heerema) will be playing in the NHL.

With expectations that Auld will be with the Canucks as a back-up, the goaltending issue is one of concern. Flaherty isn’t getting any younger, and his plans for next season are currently unknown. It is unclear whether the other Canucks goaltending prospects Matt Violin (who just completed his final year of NCAA eligibility with Lake Superior State) or ECHLer Rob McVicar are ready to take the starting job.

In a radio interview, Canucks GM Dave Nonis indicated there could be a number of new, young, faces playing in Winnipeg next season. Among those almost certain to be making their professional debuts are QMJHL prospects and teammates with the Halifax Mooseheads, FP Guenette and Marc-Andre Bernier. OHL defenseman Nathan McIver is poised to make the jump and should provide another gritty body on the blue line. Two Europeans who could be debuting in North America are under-sized Russian scorer Evgeni Gladskikh and big Finnish overage prospect, Markus Kankaanpera, a seven-year SM-Liiga veteran at the age of 25. Nonis is also on record stating that, when a CBA is in place, Koltsov will play where the Canucks want him to play.

With the potential for so many young faces on the Moose next season, the Canucks AHL affiliate could be in for a difficult season, but much remains to be seen as to the off-season movements and decisions of veteran players.

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