Canucks AHL/ECHL prospects season review

By Matt MacInnis

The Vancouver Canucks had 12 prospects appear in the AHL and ECHL during the 2005-06 season. The Canucks had nobody playing in the minor leagues this season who project to be significant impact players, but did have several prospects who could end up playing for the Canucks consistently in the future, the most prominent of those players being Kevin Bieksa. The minor league crop that finished the season as a part of the organization (Brett Skinner (ANA) and Tomas Mojzis (STL) were dealt at the trade deadline) was far from impressive and an awakening that the team can expect little true help from the farm ranks in the immediate future.

Goalies

The only Canucks goaltending prospect to appear in games for their AHL farm team was Rob McVicar, a 2002 fifth round pick. McVicar played just 337 minutes for the Moose, compiled a modest 3-3 record, including a 3.03 goals against average and a respectable .901 save percentage. McVicar spent a great deal of his season travelling between Victoria and Vancouver and Winnipeg and Vancouver. He spent some time serving as the backup goalie for the Canucks, but only actually got on the ice for a few minutes in the NHL. The Canucks kept him in Victoria, playing for the ECHL’s Salmon Kings in case he was needed at short notice. McVicar’s season can’t be seen as significantly progressive because he spent the majority of the time in the ECHL, and was unable to step into a full-time backup role for the Moose.

Defensemen

The top prospect to play for in the AHL for the Moose on defense was Bieksa, who earned a spot in the Canucks line-up after just 23 AHL games, where he scored three goals and 20 assists. Bieksa was in the midst of battling for a spot on the Canucks opening-day line-up when he went down with an ankle injury in training camp. Once he recovered he was placed with the Moose, where he started out a bit rough around the edges, but fairly quickly regained his form from late last season. Bieksa ended up playing very solidly in the NHL, although he was scratched for the remainder of the season in early April as the team found itself in a tight playoff race and Coach Marc Crawford elected to go with the more experienced Eric Weinrich.

The other prospect playing on the Moose blue line was professional rookie Nathan McIver. McIver played in 66 games in the AHL this season, scoring seven points, but amassing 155 penalty minutes. Although McIver isn’t a flashy player, he is one who gets the job done and by the midway point of the season, he was spending most of his ice time in a top-four role. McIver has even been used on the Moose’s top pair with Bieksa during the AHL playoffs. Considering the relatively low expectations for any eighth-round pick, McIver’s rookie season was a tremendous success, but he will have to continue to refine and enhance his game, especially his mobility and ability to make the first pass, if he’s going to take his career to the next level.

Forwards

The highest-rated Canucks forward prospect who played for the Moose was Jason King. King missed the first half of the season, still suffering the lingering effects of a concussion he sustained late in the 2004-05 season. But once he came back, King didn’t appear to have much rust. He stepped right back into the thick of things, scoring 33 points in 36 games, right in line with his production rate in previous stints in the AHL. Considering the post-concussion syndrome he experienced throughout the summer and early this season, King’s quick return to form is a positive sign for the Canucks and King, but King will be 25 by the time training camp rolls around, and he needs to prove that he is an NHL-caliber player if he’s going to stay with the organization beyond next season.

Acquired in the Fedor Fedorov trade, Jozef Balej played in 39 games for the Moose before suffering a freak accident where he essentially skated into the butt of his own stick when it was caught in a rut causing some internal damage. He did score 14 goals and 15 assists with the Moose and appeared in a single NHL game, capturing his first point as a Canuck. Despite an early prognostication by doctors that his playing career may be over, Balej fought through the difficult and potentially dangerous internal injury and returned to the Moose line-up in the second round of the playoffs. His dedication and desire to get back on the ice is a very positive sign of his work ethic.

The most surprising performance by a Canucks prospect in the minor leagues this season was definitely Jesse Schultz. After scoring just 24 points during the 2004-05 season, Schultz led the Moose in scoring with 37 goals and 30 assists. The biggest knock on Schultz is his poor skating, which he has overcome to now be successful in the AHL, but a smooth transition to the NHL with that difficulty is unlikely, although not entirely possible. The real issue Schultz faces going forward, despite his great AHL performance, is that there isn’t likely to be a spot on either of the Canucks’ top two lines anytime soon and he isn’t enough of a checker or grinder to fit appropriately into a depth role. Schultz, to his credit, has improved every season and has been successful at every level he’s reached.

Former first-rounder Nathan Smith continued to be a complete disappointment. He played in just 20 AHL games (and one NHL appearance) due to injuries and was unremarkable when he did play. His lack of upside when drafted was justified because he was a “safe pick.” Smith is a constant reminder to Canucks fans that no draft pick is a guarantee to make the NHL.

During the summer Mike Brown left the University of Michigan, a move that GM Dave Nonis later said was a good choice because Brown’s game is better suited to the pro ranks. Brown scored just 15 points in 73 games with the Moose, but that isn’t reflective of his contribution to the team. The 6’0, 210 lbs winger was a very good defensive player and forechecker. His in-your-face style and hard work ethic translated almost seamlessly. His big-body presence and speed makes him a perfect candidate for a depth role on the Canucks down the road, he will just need to smooth out the rough edges around his offensive game.

Under-sized Regina Pat graduate Rick Rypien had a surprisingly good first season in the AHL. Initially offered an amateur tryout contract late last season by the Moose, Rypien ended up sticking around for the playoffs and eventually earned himself a contract with the Canucks. He began the season in the AHL and was called up to fill a spot on the Canucks’ fourth line midway through the season when the team’s forwards were bit with the injury bug. Rypien played five good games for the Canucks, scoring his first NHL goal, before falling to an injury himself, a broken leg caused when he crashed into the end boards. Rypien’s initial pro season was a great start for him, although his lack of size and skill is likely going to limit his career to spot action at best in the NHL.

Brandon Nolan appeared in 18 AHL games, scoring three goals and eight assists for 11 points. He was offensively proficient while playing in the ECHL, tallying 51 points in 43 games, but after spending the majority of 2004-05 in the AHL (48 games played), this season has to be deemed a step backwards for a player seen at the end of last season by many as a potential candidate for a depth spot if he continued to develop at the same pace as the previous season.

Marc-Andre Bernier and Francois-Pierre Guenette both played their rookie professional seasons after graduation from the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL last season. Bernier managed to get into the line-up for 16 AHL games, but failed to register a single point. In 44 ECHL games with the Columbia Inferno, he scored 23 points and just six goals. It was a brutal introduction to professional hockey for the large francophone, who was touted earlier in his career for his blistering slap shot and ability to find open space to unleash it. Guenette wasn’t able to secure a roster spot on the Moose and spent the duration of the year playing for Columbia. He managed to put up 42 points in 68 games.

Conclusions

The Canucks have one of the poorest prospect cupboards in the league and that is reflected in the low quality of prospects overall in their professional farm system this season. Russian blueliner Kirill Koltsov may come back to North America next season and it is unclear what Julien Ellis’ immediate future is. Europeans Alexander Edler and Jannik Hansen are almost certain to join the Moose next season after making their CHL debuts this year and both will likely be relied upon to play important roles.



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