Canucks CHL season review

By Matt MacInnis

The Vancouver Canucks currently have seven prospects playing in the Canadian Hockey League including two forwards, three defensemen and two goaltenders. Four of these players are playing in the WHL while the other three play in the QMJHL. Considering how infrequently the organization selects players from the OHL, it is unsurprising that they do not have anyone playing in that league at this time.

Among those playing in the QMJHL is Luc Bourdon, the team’s top prospect overall. Six of the seven players appeared in the most recent Hockey’s Future edition of the Canucks’ Top 20 Prospects, with Mario Bliznak being the only one to fail to make the list.

Luc Bourdon, D, 19
Drafted: 10th overall, 1st round (2005)

Bourdon played in just 30 games this season as a result of representing Canada at the World Junior Championships and a break to a bone in his lower leg. After starting the season with the Val-d’Or Foreurs, Bourdon was traded to the Moncton Wildcats during the WJC tournament. He finished the season with a cumulative stat total of three goals and 25 assists for 28 points in his 30 games, only 10 of which were spent with his new team. Bourdon was outstanding at the World Juniors and was subsequently named to the event’s all-star team. Bourdon demonstrated that he could play extremely well when put into a structured situation and performed like an elite prospect. He also, unfortunately, showed the occasional sign of inconsistency, turning over the puck and making poor choices several times. He did not play as well as hoped in general while in the Q. While with the Foreurs, Bourdon once again appeared to be trying to do too much to help the floundering team.

In limited action with Moncton, he did not perform to expectations and was usually outshone by QMJHL standout Keith Yandle (PHO). The move to the Wildcats, who are coached by former NHL coach Ted Nolan and will host this year’s Memorial Cup, was perceived to be a good one for Bourdon as it would force him to play a role in a team concept, but that did not materialize immediately before he went down with his injury. Bourdon is expected to return sometime after the first round of the playoffs and will be ready for the Memorial Cup.

Overall there is no question Bourdon has the capacity to be a top-pairing defenseman. He has very good two-way skills. His strong skating and mobility give him the ability to be both strong in his own zone and jump into the rush to contribute offensively. He has a big shot but may not have as strong of hockey sense as one would hope for in a defender of his mold. Bourdon hits hard and plays physically along the boards. His immediate future is unknown at this point. His spectacular play during training camp this season nearly landed him a spot on the Canucks roster. With the potential departure of Ed Jovanovski this offseason, a top-four spot is available, and GM Dave Nonis told HF during the WJC that they wanted Bourdon to join the team when he could fill a top-four role.

Conversely, another season at the junior level under the quality of coach of Nolan could only benefit him. The benefit of having Dion Phaneuf play as a 19-year-old in the CHL debunked the myth that top-caliber players won’t improve if they play what is perceived to be an extra junior season, and this may be particularly true for defensemen.

Julien Ellis, G, 20
Drafted: 189th overall, 6th round (2004)

After being the top goaltender in the QMJHL during the 2004-05 season, Ellis’ 2005-06 season has to be considered, if not a step backwards, a step to the side that likely did little to improve his stock in the organization. At the halfway mark of the season Ellis was showing respectable numbers, including a .908 save percentage and 3.08 goals against average. These stats took a nosedive in the last few months of the season as he ended the year with a .900 save percentage and a 3.45 GAA. Further compounding the slight drop in Ellis’ stock was an abysmal performance at the WJC tryout camp.

Although Ellis did not have a strong year, there is little questioning his impressive raw skills. Ellis is a bit under-sized for what appears to be the age of bigger goaltenders. He does, however, possess great quickness and unbelievable reflexes. His post-to-post speed is probably second-to-none in the Q and he has an uncanny ability to make saves when he appears to be out of the play. As he showed last season when he carried the Cataractes to the playoffs, he has the ability to single-handedly steal games.

It’s tough to forecast where he will play next season. He must be signed by June 1 and if he is signed and leaves junior, it is safe to assume that he will be playing predominantly in the AHL. It is unlikely he’d be pulled from junior with the potential of an overage year just to play in the ECHL. His raw ability almost certainly will get him a contract; it’s just a matter of if the team believes he can handle the pro game yet or not.

Alexandre Vincent, G, 19
Drafted: 114th overall, 4th round (2005)

Despite both being QMJHL goalies, the Chicoutimi Sagueneens’ Vincent has little in common with Ellis. At 6’4, roughly 200 lbs, Vincent is significantly larger than Ellis and has used his size well. Vincent appeared in 31 games, playing the backup role to Sylvain Michaud (NYI). Despite being a second goalie on the team, Vincent’s end of season numbers were very good, including an impressive 21-7 record, .913 save percentage and a lean 2.69 GAA. Also unlike Ellis, Vincent’s stats over the course of the last month of the season were very strong.

Vincent is a big goalie who possesses good reflexes for a big man and uses his frame very well to cut down the angles on opposing shooters. He continues to need to work on his rebound control and on his mental edge as he showed, especially last season, that he sometimes did not bounce back immediately from allowing a weak goal. He could, stylistically, be compared to current Canuck starting goalie Alex Auld, although Vincent has more raw athleticism. After not being the full-time starter for the Sags this season, it would be surprising to not see him return to the Q next season. The Canucks will give Vincent as long as he needs to develop with a pair of other talented young keepers likely in front of him on the depth chart.

Jannik Hansen, RW, 19
Drafted: 287th overall, 9th round (2004)

The 2005-06 season can be described as nothing but a true breakout year for the previously unheralded and greatly unknown Danish winger. The Portland Winter Hawk completed the season with exactly a point per game with 64 points (24 goals, 40 assists) in 64 games. This made him the highest-scoring rookie in the league, although the fact that he is 19 years old does take some of the shine away from the accomplishment. Regardless of his age though, Hansen adapted very quickly to the physical WHL and refused to back down from opponents, even getting involved in a few fights.

Although the 6’0, 190 lbs winger needs to bulk up, he stepped up to prove himself a legitimate prospect for the Canucks and one of the team’s top young forwards. As an import player, it is highly unlikely that Hansen will return to the WHL next year as he would be taking up both an import and an overage slot for the Winter Hawks. It is uncertain if Hansen has the offensive prowess to be successful at the professional level, but thus far he has shown the tools to be a second-line player. His demonstration of grit does indicate that he could also be adapted for more of a checking line role if he’s unable to put up the numbers necessary to stick on the top two lines.

Alexander Edler, D, 19
Drafted: 91st overall, 3rd round (2004)

The second European prospect that made his North American debut this season, Edler suited up for both the Kelowna Rockets and the Swedish World Junior squad. Edler has showcased his impressive offensive skill set throughout the WHL season, scoring 53 points in 62 games, fourth overall among rookies, and the top scorer for rookie blueliners. He was fifth overall in scoring among defensemen. However, despite having great size, the 6’4, 205 lber consistently showed that he needs to be more physical and use his gifted size. Overall his first season on this side of the Atlantic has to be viewed as a success, although it is clear that further work needs to be done and Edler continues to be a project.

Edler is an offensive defender with good skating, passing and offensive instincts. His defensive zone coverage improved over the course of the season although he is still timid at times on the ice and rarely initiates contact. Like Hansen, it’s improbable that Edler will spend another season in the WHL because of the limitations placed on import and overage players. He has the raw tools to blossom into a top four NHL defenseman with a few more years of development, but don’t expect him to be there as a 20-year-old. There is much work to be done with Edler before he’s ready to don a Canucks jersey, but such an impressive package of size, skating ability and talent is always of interest.

David Schulz, D, 20
Drafted: 254th overall, 8th round (2004)

After three seasons with the Swift Current Broncos, Schulz began the 2005-06 season with the Spokane Chiefs, only to be traded to the Saskatoon Blades around mid-season. He appeared in a combined 61 games, ending up with five goals and 23 assists for 28 total points, his most prolific offensive season of his junior career. He also compiled 95 penalty minutes and a +3 rating. Back in Saskatchewan for the playoffs, Schulz has two assists in two games as his Blades go against the Regina Pats in the first round of the WHL postseason.

Despite his improvement in the offensive zone this season, Schulz was not drafted to be a two-way defenseman and he never will be one. Much like fellow Canucks defender Nathan McIver, Schulz is working towards being a depth defensive defenseman at the NHL level if he’s ever able to reach that level. At 6’3, 200-plus pounds, he’s got the size and strength to fill his role, it’s a matter of improving his overall game at each level he reaches. It’s unclear if the Canucks plan on signing him before the June 1 deadline or not.

Mario Bliznak, C, 19
Drafted: 205th overall, 7th round (2005)

The third European playing his first season in North America, Bliznak had the lowest expectations and definitely had the least impressive season. It was clearly a learning curve for the young Slovak, who managed to contribute 21 points in 69 games with the Vancouver Giants during the regular season.

Reports before the draft indicated that Bliznak was more of a role player than a scorer so his lack of production in the WHL this season should not be considered a surprise or much of a disappointment. However, his all-around play was lacking at times and did not always show signs of having NHL potential. It will be up to the Giants organization to determine if Bliznak will return, although there has been nothing to indicate otherwise at this point. It will likely depend on if a high-profile European prospect indicates an interest in playing in the city.

Summary

Overall the Canucks prospects had an up and down season. Bourdon, Vincent and Ellis all had significant problems with their seasons, ranging from Bourdon’s injury, to Vincent’s failure to capture a starting role to Ellis’ awful showing at the World Junior Camp and weak last two months of the season. Edler and Hansen both had very good debut seasons, while Schulz was solid and steady throughout the year. If at least half of these prospects end up in a Canucks uniform down the road, it would be a successful crop.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.