Had the NHL lockout not come to pass, it certainly would have been an interesting training camp in Penticton this season for the Vancouver Canucks. They have graduated a number of players over the past five years, leaving only a couple of select, higher-tier prospects to mature and come of age. With Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler still on the shelf after surgeries, it was shaping up to be an impromptu game of musical chairs to fill the holes left by Kesler’s and Edler’s convalescence.
Overall, the Canucks prospect depth is strongest on the back-end, including their depth in goal. Decidedly, it has not always been this way, with Vancouver being infamous for being a “goalie graveyard.” But patience, solid coaching and development, not to mention some excellent free agent signings, have bolstered their defensive depth. There is good reason, though, why Mike Gillis and Laurence Gilman used all but one of their 2012 draft selections on forwards, with a focus on size and grit.
Unfortunately, this is the largest area of concern for the Canucks. As mentioned, they addressed some of the need via the 2012 draft, but their NCAA newcomers, Wesley Myron and Matthew Beattie, still need several years of growth to be considered NHL ready. Former Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings camp invitee Darren Archibald is the top left wing prospect playing professional hockey. The current Kalamazoo Wings (ECHL) left wing has been consistent and earned team Rookie of the Year honors. He split time between Chicago Wolves and Kalamazoo, and is off to a good start this season. The potential RFA is playing for a new contract in 2012-13.
The 2012-13 season should be an interesting one for Bill Sweatt. The very speedy Illinois native has demonstrated bottom six potential. His defensive play has improved, as has his puck possession. The former second-round pick was solid for the Canucks in pre-season play last year, and could draw more attention from Alain Vigneault because of the style of play he embodies. Improving his strength could push him over the top.
Ludwig Blomstrandt slots in behind Sweatt, with more of a fourth line outlook. His two-way game has been praised, and some have coined him a poor man’s Jannik Hansen. His offensive numbers do not jump out at you, but that seems more indicative of the role he has been asked to play with Djurgarden's J20 team. His speed could get him to the NHL, and although lanky, he’s got a 6’1 frame to build on.
Steven Anthony, who also plays for the Kalamazoo Wings, hopes to build off a 20 point season (34 games), his first as a pro. Considered more of a playmaker, the 2009 seventh-round pick needs to continue to improve his game to shake any lingering questions over his work ethic.
Every time Jordan Schroeder is mentioned, the words “smart hockey player” inevitably follow. Embarking on his second season with the Chicago Wolves, Schroeder is waiting for his chance to prove to the Canucks coaching staff that he has the vision, speed, and passion to become a regular pivot in their lineup. Although it is uncertain when that opportunity will be, he needs to stay ready, as it will undoubtedly present itself.
Having returned to the Belleville Bulls for his third, perhaps final, season in the OHL, Brendan Gaunce appears right on target for his development. Working more closely now with Canucks staff on his skating, he looks to improve on an already excellent skill-set. In fact, his defensive game and face-off ability are almost NHL ready. He seems a lock as a future checking center for the Canucks.
Joseph Labate is a tall, lanky left-shooting center entering his sophomore season with the Wisconsin Badgers. He will be looking to add speed to his first few strides. A finalist for the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award in 2011, Labate has excellent hockey sense and should see an increase in ice time this season.
Alexandre Mallet, though just drafted, is a model of perseverance, and as such, displays excellent potential as a future Canucks center. A hard-nosed, gritty player, with some offensive skills in tow, Mallet appears to give the Canucks something that has been in sparse supply. He will begin his pro career in the AHL with Chicago in 2012-13.
Prab Rai is hoping for an injury-free season with the Canucks ECHL affiliate in Kalamazoo after missing the entire 2010-11 season. In his pro debut in the 2011-12 season, he managed two goals and four assists through 24 regular season games. With some of the learning curve and rehabilitation from his injury out of the way, Rai will be counted on to continue his progress, improving upon last seasons’ totals.
The Canucks rewarded Alex Friesen in May, 2012 with a three-year, entry-level contract following his fifth and final season in the OHL. Playing for the stacked Niagara Ice Dogs, he compiled 71 regular season points in 62 games. He carried that pace into the playoffs, with eight goals and 14 assists in 20 games as they reached the OHL finals. It will be interesting to see how his tenacious game translates this season in Chicago with the Wolves, where he has opened his year with two assists in four games.
Stefan Schneider saw limited ice-time in a defensive forward role during the 2011-12 season with the Chicago Wolves. He recorded four goals, five assists, and was minus-11 with six penalty minutes through 43 games. He was also used sparingly during their first and only playoff opponent, the San Antonio Rampage.
Nicklas Jensen and his agent felt playing against the men of the Swedish Elite League would be best for his development. Thus far with AIK, Jensen leads the team with eight goals and is tied for the scoring lead with 11 points in 16 SEL games. A potential top-six scoring forward, Jensen's development appears to be right on schedule.
Zack Kassian has made a solid debut with the Chicago Wolves after a summer of intense physical training, some of which was alongside the Sedin brothers. Although only a small sample size, he has four goals and five points in eight games. His intense training did not diminish his rough and tumble enthusiasm – he leads the team with 20 penalty minutes.
Alexandre Grenier was the second-leading scorer for the Halifax Mooseheads during the 2011-12 regular season. He also added four goals and 12 assists in 17 playoff games, where he was a minus-two, with 19 penalty minutes. He was tendered a contract offer by Vancouver in June 2012 before signing to play pro hockey with EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.
Anton Rodin performed modestly during his pro North American debut. As a rookie, he netted 10 goals and 17 assists playing in 62 games for the Wolves. Suffering a late season injury, he was unable to participate in their playoff series versus San Antonio. Although he has skated in a top-nine role so far in 2012-13, Rodin has yet to crack the score sheet through seven games.
Another longer-term project, Pathrik Westerholm played alongside his twin brother Ponthus with Malmo in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan league. He managed six goals and three assists in 43 games to go with a minus-four rating. Pathrik (six points) and Ponthus (five points) ranked first and second in scoring for Malmo’s U20 team in the SuperElit playoffs through five games. Pathrik Westerholm is skating in the Allsvenskan again in 2012-13, this season with BIK Karlskoga.
Kellan Tochkin split time between the Prince Albert Raiders and Medicine Hat Tigers in his fourth WHL season. He was on a point-per-game clip with the Raiders following the trade, but was derailed by a season-ending wrist injury. He has opened the 2012-13 season with the Central Hockey League's Missouri Mavericks, scoring three goals, two assists through his first four games.
Kevin Connauton had a solid inaugural season with the Wolves in 2011-12, and seems to be picking up right where he left off in his second campgain. Though it is early, his plus-minus rating is even better early in the 2012-13 campaign, which is exactly what the organization wishes to see. He has the offensive tools, and with continued absorption of the defensive aspects of the game, Connauton will find himself patrolling the Canucks' blue line.
As a freshman, Patrick McNally really arrived on the college scene with Harvard. He was a finalist for the ECAC Rookie of the Year award, notching 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 34 games. Amongst Crimson defensemen, he finished second in points, and certainly has garnered positive attention amongst Canucks' management.
Despite seeing a dip in his offensive numbers in his second full SEL season with Frolunda, Henrik Tommernes still managed improvement in his defensive game. Finishing minus-17 in 2010-11, he improved last season to a healthy plus-11. He pocketed five goals and nine assists, with 36 penalty minutes in 44 games. He had a solid playoff outing as well, co-leading the team in points with one goal and three assists through six games.
Splitting time between the Wolves and Canucks last season, Chris Tanev continued to solidify his standing as a future NHL regular. He re-joined the Canucks in February, and played straight through the post-season. His trademark cool, poised defensive game kept him there, with about as mistake free hockey as a young defensemen can display. He finished with two assists and two penalty minutes, to go along with a plus-10 rating in 25 regular season games.
Making a seamless transition to pro hockey, Frank Corrado had a cup of coffee with the Chicago Wolves following his third season with OHL Sudbury. He had one assist and was plus-one in four regular season games with Chicago. He then appeared in two playoff games against San Antonio, where he was not a liability, registering neither points or penalty minutes. He was a plus-26 in 60 games with Sudbury, tops on the team. Sudbury's captain this season, Corrado scored seven points in three games last week to earn OHL Player of the Week honors.
Yann Sauve continues his steady, if unspectacular defensive play with the Chicago Wolves. During his second pro season, he led Wolves defenders with 78 penalty minutes in 73 games, with a respectable plus-six rating, adding three goals and six assists. He has only skated in three games with the Wolves so far in 2012-13.
As a junior, Jeremy Price was the leading scorer amongst Colgate Raider defensemen. He scored two goals, 21 assists in 36 games and was minus-six with 33 penalty minutes. He helped propel them to the ECAC conference semi-finals with his solid two-way play and strong first pass out of the defensive zone. In addition to Price, the Canucks drafted another college defenseman in Ben Hutton, a freshman at the University of Maine.
Adam Polasek’s first season of pro hockey, like so many others, had its ups and downs. He scored one goal, and had eight assists to go with a plus-eight rating in 46 games with the Chicago Wolves. Polasek was a healthy scratch during their playoff series with San Antonio, in favor of one-time Flyers’ prospect Ryan Parent. He opened his 2012-13 season with Kalamazoo.
Peter Andersson played his second pro season in Sweden, where he was loaned from Frolunda to Allsvenskan regular season champion Orebro. He finished with five goals and one assist, with a plus-one rating in 30 regular season games. The 6’4 defender is now suiting up with the Wolves in Chicago, and so far has not looked out of place.
Recently signed to a three-year entry-level contract with Vancouver, Evan McEneny played the 2010-11 season with the Kitchener Rangers during his first OHL season. He had four assists and was minus-five with 14 penalty minutes during 44 games regular season games. Last season, he was limited to two games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Though undrafted in 2012, the Canucks still saw enough to tender a contract in September. He has three assists through his first 11 games for Kitchener this season.
Now in his second season with the Chicago Wolves, Eddie Lack is certainly starting off on the right track, with an early winning record. He was re-signed by Vancouver in August to a two-year contract after sharing duties with veteran Matt Climie in 2011-12 for the Wolves. He finished the season 21-20-3 and four shutouts in 46 games, compiling a 2.31 goals against and .925 save percentage. He is 4-2-0 through six starts with a .910 save percentage and 2.74 goals against average in 2012-13.
Joe Cannata was rewarded for his hard work during his four-year collegiate career at Merrimack with the Warriors. He was given his pro hockey debut, stopping 38 of 40 shots for the Chicago Wolves in a 4-2 win over Peoria in April. He appeared in 36 of 37 games for the Warriors in 2011-12, going 17-12-7 with two shutouts. He also had career bests in goals against (2.18) and save percentage (.925). He helped the Warriors finish with back-to-back winning records for the first time in school history. Cannata signed a two-year entry-level contract with Vancouver in March, 2012 and will begin his pro career with Kalamazoo.
David Honzik should have no lack of motivation this season with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. Not only will he be competing for the starters position with his junior team but also for an entry-level contract with the Vancouver Canucks. Thus far, Phillipe Trudeau has been entrusted with the bulk of the starts, with backup duties belonging to Alex Bureau. Honzik will need something fortuitous now to help him recapture the spotlight and press for a contract.