Canucks AHL/ECHL prospects update

By Matt MacInnis

The Manitoba Moose, the Vancouver Canucks AHL affiliate, have had a very good season thus far, leading the North Division with a 20-11-1-2 record through 34 games, though the second place Grand Rapids Griffins have a few games in hand in pursuit.

Goaltenders

Rob McVicar
Drafted: 151st, 2002
Height/Weight: 6’4, 201 lbs

McVicar has played in all three of the ECHL, AHL and NHL this season, although he is yet to get his first start with the Canucks. He has been consistently bounced back and forth while Dan Cloutier was injured in an attempt to save salary cap space. To keep him closer, McVicar has been assigned to the Victoria Salmon Kings (ECHL) at times. He played in five games with the Salmon Kings, going 2-2 and posting a .880 save percentage. With the Moose, McVicar has a 3-3 record, including a 3.03 GAA and a .901 save percentage.

Despite his appearances as an NHL backup this season, the 23-year-old McVicar likely isn’t in the Canucks long term plans. The waiver wire acquisition of 24-year-old Maxime Ouellet makes it likely he will be in their short-term plans.

Defensemen

Kevin Bieksa
Drafted: 5th round, 151st overall, 2001
Height/Weight: 6’1, 195

Going into the preseason training camp, Bieksa was a popular choice to fill the Canucks No. 6 spot on the blue line, but an injury sidelined him for the latter half of the training camp and the first few weeks of the AHL season. He made it back to the Moose line-up for 20 games, compiling 16 points and 56 penalty minutes. Although it took him a few games to get back into game shape, he is fairly close to the form he showed last year that create the hype around this second-year pro.

Coming out of Bowling Green State, Bieksa was an unheralded prospect perceived to have a very limited shot at the NHL. He demonstrated he was more than advertised last season and this year his strong recovery from his ankle injury indicates that he may eventually play himself onto the NHL roster. Although it seems unlikely that Bieksa will ever be more than a third-pairing defender who also helps kill penalties, history has shown that he has the ability to step up to the level of competition. He was called up to the Canucks on December 19 and has played one game.

Brett Skinner
Drafted: 3rd round, 68th overall, 2002
Height/Weight: 6’1, 195

The first year-pro is having some struggles adjusting to the physical strength of AHL players, but otherwise is having a very respectable rookie season. Skinner, who emerged as one of the best defensemen in all of collegiate hockey last season, elected to leave Denver University after his third season. After 25 games with the Moose, he has two goals and eight assists for 10 points. His frame should enable him to get stronger and his skating is already at a level that could carry him to the NHL when the rest of his game rounds out.

Skinner has the potential to be a top four two-way defender, but may have some difficulties initially breaking into the league until he puts on more muscle to handle NHL-sized forwards. However, his movement and puck-moving skills should make the offensive transition to the big show much easier, particularly with the opened-up NHL.

Tomas Mojzis
Drafted: 8th round, 246th overall, 2001 by Toronto
Height/Weight: 6’1, 195

The 1982-born Mojzis is nearing the end of his time as a prospect under HF criteria, but has shown improvement over last season. Unfortunately he has been limited to just 16 games thus far, although his 10 points and +3 plus/minus rating reflect his strong play when in the line-up. Three of his four goals have come on the power play, and if he does end up in a Canucks line-up, he will almost certainly have a place on one of the power play units.

Mojzis has a lot of competition for the final few spots on the Canucks blue line. Due to Bieksa’s injury and the strong play of AHL veteran Nolan Baumgartner, the last roster spot went to Baumgartner. Furthermore, UFA signees Sven Butenschon and Jason Doig have inserted themselves between Mojzis and an NHL opportunity. Mojzis seems to have the skating and hockey sense to make it, but his still-improving defensive positioning needs further work to lead to a call-up.

Nathan McIver
Drafted: 8th round, 254th overall, 2003
Height/Weight: 6’2, 195

Another professional rookie, McIver has managed to get into 22 of the team’s 34 games, while being scratched a number of time as well. The defensive OHL stalwart has just two assists, but does possess a +6 rating, one of the best on the Moose. Many thought he would begin his professional career in the ECHL, so the fact that he appears to be sticking in the AHL is a great start for him.

McIver comes to the AHL with little fanfare. His hardnosed style has earned him 55 penalty minutes, but his defense-first approach doesn’t attract a great deal of attention. He has some skating struggles, both in terms of maneuverability and speed, and will need to dramatically improve that aspect of his game to move into the NHL. For the next few years, he will hone his craft with the Moose with hopes to evolve into a depth NHLer.

Forwards

Jozef Balej
Drafted: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2000 by Montreal
Height/Weight: 6’0, 190

Acquired in return for enigmatic Russian forward Fedor Fedorov, Balej has had a good start to his career in the Canucks system. In 33 games with the Moose this year, the 23-year-old Balej has 14 goals and 26 points, including four power play goals. He also has a +3 rating, which is really more of a sign of his line’s offensive success rather than his own ability to play a two-way game, which is still developing.

Balej has never lived up to the expectations that preceded him, but he likely represents the most offensively talented forward in the Canucks system, though that is not necessarily a deep compliment to him. Balej is going to need to further develop his offensive game, as well as shoring up the deficiencies in his two-way play. The Canucks don’t need him to be a Selke winner, they just need to be confident that he won’t be a defensive liability if he gets second-line type of minutes. He has received a call-up to the Canucks this season and has played one game.

Marc-Andre Bernier
Drafted: 2nd round, 60th overall, 2003
Height/Weight: 6’3, 218

The QMJHL graduate and first-year pro has struggled immensely this year. He has appeared in 16 games and failed to register a single point. The big-bodied forward has also tallied just seven penalty minutes. His performance has been all-around below expectations and quite simply not good enough. The former second-round pick must play more physically and start to register on the score sheet to salvage the season.

An enormous presence on the ice, Bernier is most effective when he is playing physically. It was apparent last year that Bernier needed to improve his skating, particularly his first step, in order to be a successful professional whether it be at the AHL or NHL level. It is, however, disappointing to find that he is this far below an ideal developmental curve.

Mike Brown
Drafted: 159th, 2004
Height/Weight: 6’0, 210

Another rookie to the AHL, Brown has certainly met the early expectations. The gritty checking winger already has managed to get nine points in 29 games. Last season, while playing for the University of Michigan, he had only eight points in 35 games. With 25 penalty minutes, he is playing with the physical edge that is expected of him.

Brown has good size and skating, and finishes his checks. He’s an aggressive forechecker who understands the importance of defensive-zone positioning. The Canucks like their third and fourth line to have strong skaters or aggressive checkers, so Brown fits that mold. He is expected to spend the 2005-06 season in the AHL, and likely will need another year beyond that before he is ready to take on a part-time or full-time NHL job if he develops as hoped.

Francois-Pierre Guenette
Drafted: 7th round, 222nd overall, 2003
Height/Weight: 6’0, 183

Guenette is starting to look like a player who may have peaked very early in his hockey career. Last year he put up the worst offensive statistics since he became a full-time QMJHL player. This season he was assigned to the Columbia Inferno of the ECHL, where he has put up 13 points in 22 games and is -10.

Guenette is a 6’0 pivot with acceptable passing and playmaking skills. Despite the fact that he scored 38 goals in his first full QMJHL season, he does not have great finishing skills. If he is going to become anything more than a career minor leaguer, Guenette will have to carve himself a niche as a highly effective forechecker.

Jason King
Drafted: 7th round, 212nd overall, 2001
Height/Weight: 6’1, 195

King has yet to appear in a game, still suffering the effects of a concussion from last spring. There are some reports indicating he may be able to resume skating soon, but it is impossible to forecast a return.

Brandon Nolan
Drafted: 4th round, 111th overall, 2003
Height/Weight: 6’1, 185

Nolan has split his game between the AHL and the ECHL this year. He started on the Moose roster and was demoted after 11 games (one goal, five assists). He has been much more effective offensively with the Inferno, putting up 14 points (five goals) in 10 games. The demotion to the ECHL has to be considered a step backwards for Nolan. If he wants to prove himself a viable NHL prospect, Nolan must get himself back into the AHL as soon as possible and find a way to stick in the league.

Jesse Schultz
Drafted: Free agent signee
Height/Weight: 6’0, 192

The 23-year-old free-agent signee has been one of the most consistent scorers on the Moose roster this year, tallying a very respectable 25 points in 36 games, including a team-leading 16 goals. He is third on the team in total points.

His offensive game has never been the problem with Schultz. He was left undrafted because he was labeled as a uni-dimensional player. In reality, the Moose don’t need him to be strong defensively as long as he is a leading offensive player. Schultz does not appear to have NHL potential, but he could be an AHL mainstay and earn the occasional call-up if he continues to be the top goal scorer on the farm team.

Nathan Smith
Drafted: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2000
Height/Weight: 6’2, 190

The much-maligned former first rounder continues to round out his defensive skill with the Moose. He has nine points in 20 games thus far, showing at least a limited degree of offensive ability, although nobody expects that he will ever be more than a fourth line center. Perhaps more importantly, it shows a significant improvement over the 2004-05 AHL season. Smith has played in one NHL game this year.

At 23, Smith is likely as good as he’s going to get at this point and is one of a number of players (including Lee Goren and Josh Green) looking to secure a fourth line spot permanently with the Canucks. He will likely get another few games by the end of the season if the injury bug bites the Canucks, and next year he will have to make a move to secure a permanent roster spot.

Conclusion

Overall it is clear that the Canucks prospect cupboard is pretty bare at the AHL level. It is very probable that the team will not get a single full-time NHL forward out of their forward group. The defense has three prospects with legitimate NHL potential, although time may be starting to run out for Mojzis. Bieksa’s call-up to the Canucks may be a permanent assignment if he is able to adjust as easily to the big show as he was the AHL. However, one game into his call-up, it is too early to assume he has made it.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.