Canucks European prospects season review

By Matt MacInnis

The Vancouver Canucks had a total of 10 prospects playing in Europe in 2005-06. Of the group, 2002-drafted defenseman Kirill Koltsov is by far the most likely to ever come across the Atlantic to play in North America and have an impact on the Canucks. Six of the 10 European prospects were Russians playing in Russia. The team also had prospects in the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.

Denis Grot, D

(#55 – 2002 NHL Entry Draft)

During the summer of 2005, Grot finally left the Lokomotiv hockey system where he has struggled to earn ice time and make a name for himself. He did receive some top line ice time the season before with Lokomotiv, but his position with the club was never secure. During the summer he signed a deal with Moscow’s Spartak, which offered him the best option for significant ice time as the club has always been known for having modest finances and putting a lot of trust into youth. With Spartak, Grot quickly entered the club’s defensive rotation and became a regular top six defenseman. He hardly missed a game for Spartak, skating in 51 contests. Throughout, Grot was steady reliable, but not very noticeable. He did not make many mistakes, but did not really carry the games or impress with his slap shot.

Overall, he had a steady, but average season. The bright side is that he has finally spent a full season in the Super League. Still, he has not yet developed as much as hoped when he was selected so high in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Grot has potential and Vancouver would be well suited in signing the young prospect to a two-way deal and letting him develop further in the AHL rather than lose him.

Sergei Topol, RW

(#252 – 2003 NHL Entry Draft)

A project pick in 2003, Topol is finally starting to crack Avangard’s lineup, and no longer as an U20 player, but as an adult player (Russian teams are required to field at least two U20 players in each contest). The undersized, but skilled and quick forward spent most of the latter half of the regular season in the lineup on the fourth line and is part of Avangard’s rejuvenation through youth plan.

This season was a good building block, but Topol will really have to step up next season and earn a spot on the team’s top three lines and produce as he has shown to be capable of at the junior level.

Ilya Krikunov, C

(#242 – 2002 NHL Entry Draft)

While Krikunov may have tied the club’s lead in goals with 11, statistics alone don’t tell the tale. He again failed to move beyond the achievements of his strong rookie 2003-04 campaign and while last season some of his lack of production and ice time could have been attributed to the presence of NHL players, this season he no longer had that barrier. He should have stepped up in the now mostly NHL player free, and accordingly less competitive, Super League. Krikunov has impressive speed and puck handling skills. He also sees the ice well, though he does at times tend to over-handle the puck. This season he remained one of the club’s leaders in production, but continued to skate on the third line, not getting the promotion to the key and coveted top power play unit or scoring line spots.

This young forward has a wealth of potential, but there is now a concern that his lack of progress and even a step back in responsibility indicate that he has become overly comfortable with his situation with Khimik. What contributed to the situation is that reportedly there wasn’t much discipline in the Khimik organization under Czech coach Rjiga. Now that the club hired the well-known disciplinarian Petr Vorobiev from Lada, things will change and the new regime will either help Krikunov have a career season, or break him and make it clear that he is not a strong NHL prospect.

If Vancouver wants to further develop this prospect, the club should either bring him over to North America or leave him to Petr Vorobiev. At this stage, if the club can arrange to sign him and leave him for another season with Khimik with a guarantee of his arrival in 2007-08, it may prove significantly more beneficial than dropping the young player into unknown territory in Manitoba.

Kirill Koltsov, D

(#49 – 2002 NHL Entry Draft)

Koltsov enjoyed a career season this past year while skating for Avangard Omsk. He was amongst the elite Super League defensemen on a short list with very few names, including former NHLers Dmitri Yushkevich and Alexander Giroux. The young defenseman stood out at both ends of the ice, finishing the 2005-06 season in a four-way tie for the top defensive sniper position with 13 goals. It is the ease and effectiveness with which Koltsov quarterbacks the power play and joins the offensive rush that makes him so valuable in an opponent’s zone. Koltsov not only produces points, but also makes his linemates better, as he distributes the puck and forces the opposition to keep him in check instead of concentrating on the other four Avangard players on the ice.

As one of the top blueliners in Russia, Koltsov will represent Russia at the World Championships in Riga, Latvia. The 2005-06 season did not go to waste as some were worried. While before the young defender was considered a strong prospect and one of the top young blueliners in Russia, after this season, he is considered as one of the elite Russian defensemen outside the NHL. At this point, however, Koltsov has very little to gain from the developmental perspective if he remains in Russia. Financially, Avangard may make it more appealing for him in the short run, but Koltsov likely already sees the writing on the wall with the significant drop in talent in the Super League this past summer and the likely imminent departure of other talented players back to the NHL.

Konstantin Mikhailov, C

(#245 – 2001 NHL Entry Draft)

When drafted, Mikhailov was a young skilled prospect who did not hesitate to play defense and get his nose dirty. In some ways he may have had some qualities of Artem Chubarov. However, after a relatively strong 2002-03 season, Mikhailov has not been able to put the pieces together and continue his development. Part of the problem was likely his departure from Neftkhimik for more money with Dynamo. While with the less wealthy Neftkhimik, he had a guarantied roster spot and the trust of the coaching staff. He did not enjoy the same with Dynamo and the 2002-03 season was the beginning of the end for Mikhailov. Since then he has switched Super League teams three times and ended up in the Belarus professional league during the second half of the 2004-05 season. Since Belarus hockey enjoys the direct sponsorship of the government, the salaries there are actually quite impressive when compared to the cost of living, though nothing like in the Super League. Still, Mikhailov created himself a good situation with HC Gomel during the latter part of the 2004-05 season and returned to the same club for the 2005-06 campaign. He delivered another strong season for Gomel, though the club was bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

If given the right offer, Mikhailov will probably return to the Super League again next season. It has happened before several times when young Russian players would spend time developing in Belarus and then making an impact in the Super League. However, Mikhailov’s NHL future is very much in doubt. He first needs to prove that he can compete at the Super League level before any discussions regarding the NHL can even take place.

Evgeny Gladskikh, LW

(#114 – 2001 NHL Entry Draft)

Evgeny Gladskikh spent the 2005-06 season with Metallurg (Magnitogorsk). The young forward was part of the club’s immense depth, spending most of his time on the second and third lines. While at times skating at center, Gladskikh was again given the chance to spend the majority of the season in his natural right wing position. Interestingly, while Gladskikh’s point total appeared to decline yet again from the previous season, his responsibility and position within the club continued to increase. Still, the decline in production is a concern, since the young forward is a talented sniper with impressive skating and skill. This may be an indicator that the young forward may be reaching the limits of his club’s trust in his ability. As many other examples, Gladskikh may be well trusted to be part of the supporting cast, but may never be fully entrusted to take a leading role with Metallurg. Considering that he has honed his position as a strong second and third line forward for the third season now, it would be well suited for Vancouver’s management to either pull the trigger on this player or release him. This is the decision that is facing the Canucks this summer, as the club’s rights for this young player, as well as any other player drafted prior to or in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft expire this July.

Gladskikh has the potential to be a strong second line right wing in the NHL. He has the aggressiveness, skill and speed to effectively compete in the new NHL. He is, however, in a precarious spot where the young forward needs a push to become an established performer in the Super League. At this point he is a strong supporting cast member with many flashes of brilliance, but his inability to deliver game in and game out should be one of Vancouver’s main concerns.

Lukas Mensator, G

(#83 – 2002 NHL Entry Draft)

The diminutive 5’10, 165 lbs goaltender spent his season tending the net of Karlovy Vary HC in the Czech Extraligue. He appeared in 36 games and compiled an even 14-14-8 record including five shutouts. He earned a 2.09 goals against average and a sparkling .942 save percentage. Despite Mensator’s strong performance throughout the season, his team failed to qualify for the playoffs.

Despite posting some very impressive individual statistics this season, it’s difficult to see a future that includes Mensator playing for the Canucks. Currently the team has a number of reasonably young goaltenders in the professional ranks including Alex Auld, Maxime Ouellet and Mika Noronen. When you consider that abundance of goaltending prospects currently playing in North America in Cory Schneider, Julien Ellis and Alexandre Vincent, it’s improbable that the undersized Mensator will get much of a chance at an NHL contract. Mensator is facing a steep uphill battle.

Thomas Nussli, LW

(#277 – 2002 NHL Entry Draft)

After scoring nearly a point per game for Basel last season in the Swiss-B league, the 6’4, 220 lbs Nussi scored just nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in 43 regular season games this season in the Swiss-A league. He also collected one playoff point in his team’s brief series against powerhouse Davos, who eliminated Nussli’s team. Nussli did finish the season third in team scoring, playing for a team that interestingly enough had three former members of the Canucks organization on their roster at various points of the season including Adrien Plavsik, Harold Druken and 1993 first-round flop Mike Wilson.

Nussli continues to be a long-term prospect and needs to take a significant step forward next season refining his offensive skills if he’s going to remain on the radar. Now four years after his draft day, Nussli doesn’t have much going for him other than his tremendous size. The likelihood of him appearing in North America is very slim.

Juha Alen, D

(#90 – 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Acquired via trade)
Acquired in the same trade that saw veteran defenseman Keith Carney come to Vancouver and prospect Brett Skinner’s rights sent to Anaheim, Alen appears to have been a toss-in to the trade. At 24 years old, the 6’3, 210 lber has many the same characteristics of another Finn whose NHL rights are owned by the Canucks, Markus Kankaanpera. He’s got good size and fair skating as well as a rugged demeanor. He played 52 games for his hometown Ilves Tampere team in the Finnish league scoring 10 points and compiling 104 penalty minutes, second on the team to only former Canuck Jyrki Lumme, who returned to professional hockey this year after a two-year hiatus.

He’s big and mean, but does he bring anything to the table that isn’t offered by other members of the bottom half of the organization’s depth chart? At this point there is nothing to indicate that he has anything significant on players like Kankaanpera or any of the defensemen currently playing for the Moose. His willingness to come back to North America will obviously play a big role in if he is in the plans for the future, although he will never be more than a depth third-pairing or reserve defenseman at the NHL level.

Nicklas Danielsson, LW

(#160 – 2003 NHL Entry Draft)

Just two seasons ago it appeared that Danielsson might possess the offensive abilities to be a legitimate NHL prospect. Now, having spent the 2005-06 season toiling in the Allsvenskan (Sweden’s second-tier professional league beneath the Elite League), those abilities are under question. To Danielsson’s credit, he performed quite well during his 38 games with Almtuna, leading the team in scoring with 35 points. He showed a gritty side as well with 147 penalty minutes.

Danielsson signed a two-year contract which will bring him back to the SEL with Djurgarden. Having had a chance in the SEL in the past and not being able to take advantage of it, Danielsson must prove that he has improved and matured over a player and make it clear he belongs and can contribute at that level next season. The fact that Djurgarden inked him shows that they believe he has made improvements, but he will have to demonstrate that on the ice.

Conclusions

Overall, despite having a healthy number of European-based prospects, the Canucks have very few that are truly legitimate NHL prospects. Beyond Koltsov, none of them are likely to have significant impacts on the team, a sure-fire reminder of the team’s poor drafting in the past as their European-based prospects include second and third round picks as well as a handful of shot-in-the dark late round wildcards that have not panned out. With the changes to the signing rules for European draft picks, most teams will likely select fewer Europeans. If the Canucks draft record with Euros who elect to not come to North America for junior is any indication, this may be a good thing for the organization. It should be noted that WHLers Jannik Hansen and Alexander Edler were both drafted out of Europe and appear to be among the team’s top prospects.


Eugene Belashchenko contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.