Goaltending and defense the strengths of Vancouver Canucks minor league system

By Larenzo Jensen
Chris Tanev - Chicago Wolves

Photo: Defenseman Chris Tanev has been one of the best blueliners at both ends of the rink for the Chicago Wolves thus far in 2012-13. (courtesy of Zuma Press/Icon SMI)

 
Considering that the Chicago Wolves have played the fewest games in their conference to this point in the 2012-13 season, they are enjoying a modicum of success. Though currently sitting in 10th spot, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks is still within striking distance of a top five seeding.

Although no one is predicting they will pull past the Grand Rapids Griffins for the Midwest Division top seeding, they could be in the mix to make some noise in the Western Conference. Similar to last season, the team has had to rely on strong team defense due to putting only a limited number of pucks into opposition goals. On the upside, they have not had many crippling injuries and are playing winning hockey of late after an inconsistent November they would probably like to forget.

AHL

Eddie Lack, G, 24

While it is still relatively early in the season, it appears the Wolves are looking to pace the workload for Eddie Lack, and by extension have given veteran Matt Climie a majority of starts in Chicago. Statistically, Climie has a slightly more favorable save percentage and goals against average, though it is Lack who boasts a stronger win-loss record (7-4). The lackluster numbers that Lack has managed thus far, which include a 3.00 goals against average and .899 save percentage, could be related to a minor injury. Canucks management indicated that he had a minor hip flexor injury that he initially tried to play through. Noticing that his condition failed to improve, they decided to give him some time to rest and heal and he has yet to return to the lineup. Moving forward, Lack will be looking to improve his consistency, which should be made a lot easier given the removal of any nagging injuries. This summer, Lack signed a two-year, $1.5-million contract with the Canucks. They are hoping that, barring a continuation of the current lockout, that Lack will be ready to back-up Cory Schneider next season.

Jordan Schroeder, C, 22

The 2012-13 AHL season did not start particularly well for Schroeder, who managed only one assist in his first five games with the Wolves. The knock on him was that he was having trouble in traffic and going to the net, given his diminutive stature. But those concerns are starting to evaporate as the season progresses, as Schroeder has picked up the pace of late. He has definitely turned things around, now tied for first in team scoring, with eight goals, 10 assists for 18 points in 28 games. The Prior Lake, Minnesota native was projected early in the year to push for third line pivot duties for the Canucks, with Ryan Kesler still recovering from multiple off-season surgeries. With the inconsistencies that have plagued the Wolves this season, it is apparent that Schroeder’s skill and offensive ability are sorely needed in Chicago. He has shown a proclivity for strong play with open ice, with excellent acceleration and stick-handling when given space. He has found his groove and is right back on track to mimic last season’s numbers; it will be interesting to see if Schroeder is able to keep his momentum. Even though an abbreviated NHL season looks doubtful at this point, should it come to pass, the Canucks would certainly need help with Ryan Kesler’s expected return date continually being pushed back.

Yann Sauve, D, 22

Yann Sauve will never be confused with fellow Canuck defensive prospects Kevin Connauton or Frank Corrado. With rather limited offensive upside, Sauve still provides a measure of what Canucks defensive coaches look for in their players. The former 41st overall selection in 2008, has played in 12 games this season with Chicago, with one assist and a plus-two rating, coupled with six minutes in penalties. Noted to have NHL ready strength, Sauve now has to focus on reducing the number of gaffes when transitioning from the defensive zone, particularly his first pass. Sauve may never live up to the offensive potential he displayed prior to being drafted, but still has the size and tools to be an effective sixth or seventh defenseman. The fact that he has been viewed as a long-term project might play into his favor, given that he was stifled by a motor vehicle-involved accident at the start of the 2010-11 season. He was subsequently shifted around frequently between the ECHL, AHL, and NHL. If Sauve reaches the NHL, it will definitely be via the path less traveled.

Anton Rodin, RW, 22

Another second round pick by the Vancouver Canucks (53rd overall, 2009), Rodin is on track to emulate his offensive totals from last year. The speedy, lanky two-way forward seems to be making a full adjustment to pro hockey. In the final year of his entry-level contract, Rodin has been making an effort to add some muscle to his frame. In the past, he had difficulty with some upper body workouts due to (undiagnosed) injuries with his shoulders. With that apparently behind him, Rodin has renewed his dedication to the forecheck and tough play in the corners. His trademark is good stickhandling, and he has been praised for his willingness to initiate physically and ability to read the play. Much like the rest of the Wolves team, Rodin showed some inconsistency early in the campaign and has been a healthy scratch at times, accumulating on goal and seven assists in 21 games. If he continues his progression, Rodin is likely to earn a spot in the Canucks lineup as a third line winger, with top six potential. Continued attention to building muscle mass will be paramount to reaching his future goals.

Kevin Connauton, D, 22

Wolves’ management did right by Connauton pairing him with veteran Nolan Baumgartner, who is now an assistant coach for the Wolves, during their 2011-12 campaign. The smooth skating, offensive minded defenseman has all of the raw tools, particularly on the power play, but benefitted from instruction on the defensive aspects of the game. Connauton will still need further seasoning at the AHL level with the hopes that he continues to round out this aspect of his game, but he has been one of the Wolves' most noticeable defensemen this season due to his willingness to shoot the puck and throw his weight around. Thus far, he has garnered two goals, seven assists for nine points through 28 games, which is a bit of a drop from last season’s production. Interestingly, he ranks third on the team in penalty minutes, with 44. It is evident that he misses the luxury of having Baumgartner alongside him, as he has earned a team-worst minus-11 rating, though that can partially be attributed to the Wolves erratic play. But the Canucks organization are rightfully high on Connauton’s future, he has the makings of a top four blueliner and power play specialist.

Peter Andersson, D, 21

The Kvidinge, Sweden native was selected by the Canucks in 2009 with a 5th round pick and has not looked out of place this season with the Wolves. He has played in 16 games, scoring once, with an assist for two points and a minus-one rating. The 6’4 defender displays some solid skills across the board and has good hockey sense. The only knock on him is that he does not always make the simple play when in possession of the puck, but he is otherwise quite competent, especially his positioning. Considering the fortune the Canucks have had with their later round draft picks from Sweden, Andersson could in time prove to be a steady, solid presence in front of the net. He also owns a hard slapshot and some offensive upside.

Zack Kassian, RW, 21

Kassian seemed absolutely thrilled to be heading to the Chicago Wolves on loan from the Vancouver Canucks, and that excitement looks to have reverberated throughout his game. In 27 games with the Wolves, he has accrued six goals, 12 assists for 18 points, with a minus-one rating. He continues to play a strong, physical game, which in turns opens up room for his linemates to operate. His total of 59 penalty minutes is good for the team lead, and he has not shied away from any challenges. The Wolves have used Kassian throughout the lineup from the third line to playing wing on the top unit with veterans like Andrew Ebbett and Brett Sterling. Already owning pro size and speed, he has playmaking ability that often goes unnoticed. Much like Bob Probert of Detroit Red Wings fame, those same hands of stone that chuck knuckles can also turn soft when stickhandling on breakaways and penalty shots.

Chris Tanev, D, 23

If the NHL players were not locked out this season, Chris Tanev would be playing for the Vancouver Canucks. Though some players shrink back after a productive call-up to the parent club, Tanev has not regressed playing for the Wolves whatsoever. In fact, the late-blooming Tanev spent the off-season training with Gary Roberts, adding some much needed muscle mass. Known primarily as a pass-first type defenseman, he worked on his slap shot as well, in hopes of becoming more of a threat in the offensive zone. Through 27 games, he has scored twice, adding nine assists for 11 points to go along with a healthy plus-six rating. Last season, he had no goals and 14 assists and a plus-12 rating with the Wolves before his 25-game tenure with the Canucks. Once the NHL resumes play, it seems inevitable that Tanev will stick with the Canucks in a third pairing capacity.

Darren Archibald, LW, 22

After splitting time between the ECHL and the AHL last season, Archibald appears to be finding his groove with the Wolves. While there is still plenty of development ahead of him, he has easily surpassed his production from 2011-12. Last season he scored once in 20 games with the Wolves, with no assists and a minus-two rating. Thus far, he has notched six goals with no assists and a minus-one rating despite a relatively limited role through 11 games with the Chicago Wolves. His comfort level is also reflected in his shot totals, and he has already surpassed the 23 shots he mustered in 20 games last season, firing 32 pucks on net so far this season. The 6’3, 212-pound winger might have found the opening he needs to stick with the Wolves.

Bill Sweatt, LW, 24

The speedy winger has put up decent numbers through 22 games, but much like the rest of the Wolves team, he could be performing better statistically. With four goals, four assists and a minus-one rating, he is off pace from last years’ production. That said, it would be erroneous to judge Sweatt solely upon his offensive output. He really excels in the defensive aspects of the game, due in part to his excellent on-ice vision and awareness. Combining his great back-checking ability and anticipation with some added bulk could be Sweatt’s ticket to getting more than just pre-season action with the Canucks.

Alex Friesen, C, 21

Friesen signed a three-year, entry level contract with the Canucks in May, 2012. Now learning the pro game with the Wolves after playing five years with a stacked Niagara Ice Dogs team (OHL), Friesen is adapting with some success. In his first 20 games with the Wolves, he has no goals, two assists, and an even plus-minus rating. Listed at 5’10, 186 pounds, Friesen also has 20 penalty minutes, and has not been shy about carrying over his rugged play-style to the pro game. The 2010 sixth round pick of the Canucks will continue his development in Chicago, and should be a regular fixture in the Wolves lineup for the foreseeable future.

Stefan Schneider, C, 23

Another one of Mike Gillis’ free agent signings, the towering Schneider brings size, character, and sportsmanship to the Wolves. At this point, though, he is more of a role player, used sparingly thus far by Chicago’s coaching staff. He has played three games, with no goals and no assists, with a minus-one rating, and two penalty minutes. The Vernon, BC native, who is listed at 6’5, 214 pounds, also skated eight games with Kalamazoo with a goal and an assist. He will need to refine the defensive areas of his game in order to earn more ice-time, but he has physical attributes that just cannot be ignored.

Joe Cannata, G, 22

Cannata, the Canucks sixth round pick in 2009, looks to be another solid goaltending prospect for the club. Though he has spent the majority of his first pro season with Kalamazoo, he helped the Chicago Wolves close out 2012 with a bang. Cannata helped guide the Wolves to a 3-2 win over the Abbotsford Heat, making 14 stops in his first AHL start of the season. During his five games with the Wings, he posted a 3.62 goals against average, with 2 wins, 3 losses, and a .892 save percentage. Cannata is a very technically sound goaltender, with above-average hand-eye coordination. With Eddie Lack’s continued progress, Cannata could see regular duty for the Wolves as early as next season.

ECHL

Alexandre Mallet, C, 20

Joining the pro ranks this season, Mallet has certainly helped infuse a physical element to the Wolves style of play. Though he enjoyed a breakout season offensively in his final season with the Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL), he is still learning the ropes at the pro level. In 13 games, he has yet to register a point, and has a minus-four rating with a modest seven penalty minutes. He has found more consistent ice time in the ECHL, where he has scored three goals and four points in 11 games for Kalamazoo. He has some size at 6’1, 203 pounds and a relentless work ethic, making him rather popular with his teammates. Canucks management will surely be keeping an eye on this diamond in the rough, hoping that he builds momentum and adjusts to the rigors of hockey at the pro level.

Prab Rai, C, 22

The former fifth round pick of the Canucks has begun his first full season of pro hockey, after returning from a back injury for a 24 game debut with the Kalamazoo Wings in 2011-12. Much like Darren Archibald, Rai has displayed more of a comfort level through the first seven games of the season. Last season, he averaged a little over one shot per game, compared to the nearly four shots a game he is averaging this season. He has scored once, with no assists, a minus-one rating, and two penalty minutes before again being knocked out of the lineup due to injury. Known for his speed, Rai will need to work on getting to the dirty areas while dealing with traffic in an attempt to be a more complete player.

Steven Anthony, LW, 21

After suffering a head injury nearly a year ago, Anthony returned to the Wings lineup in 2012-13. In his first pro season, Anthony compiled eight goals, 12 assists for 20 points in 34 games, and was plus-eight with 28 penalty minutes. His season was cut short and he also missed the ECHL playoffs due to injury, but did spend some time with the Canucks AHL affiliate in Chicago without appearing in a game. Anthony is still looking to rediscover his scoring touch in the ECHL this season, having scored only two goals and eight points through 28 games so far with Kalamazoo.

Adam Polasek, D, 21

Adam Polasek is currently playing in his second pro season. Though some thought he might be a fixture in the Wolves lineup, it appears his time with the Wings is allowing him more opportunity to work on the offensive side of his game. Always known as a strong, reliable defenseman with a true hard-hat and lunch-bucket attitude, he has shown flashes of offense, too. In 31 games with the Wings, he has posted four goals, four assists, an even plus-minus rating, 31 penalty minutes, and 34 shots on goal. Polasek will need continued attention to foot speed to truly prosper. With a lot of defensemen in the Canucks system, he will be given lots of time to mature his game. The only question moving forward will be whether he does it at the ECHL level or with the Wolves in the AHL.

CHL

Kellan Tochkin, RW, 21

Currently playing in the Central Hockey League with the Missouri Mavericks, Tochkin is in the final year of an entry level contract he signed with the Canucks in July, 2009. In 22 games with the Mavericks, he has six goals, six assists for 12 points, an even plus-minus rating, and 14 penalty minutes. Tochkin’s biggest asset is his puck-handling ability, but he has been criticized for his skating technique. The 5’10, 175 pound winger will most likely need to have a torrid run and earn a look at a higher level of play to be offered a new contract with the Canucks.