Although it may seem that the Hockey’s Future writing staff are constantly critiquing and evaluating NHL team prospects, there is a flip-side as well. We always strive to give credit where it’s due, and this portion is a tip of the hat to Vancouver Canucks prospects in their endeavors to reach the acme of their profession. Based on their efforts from the 2012-13 season, the following is in acknowledgment of that pursuit.
A second-degree shoulder separation certainly slowed Brendan Gaunce down in the first half of the season, but it was unable to stop him. He posted a respectable 18 points in his first 26 games, but really picked up steam in the second half of the season, finishing at exactly a point-per-game clip in 60 games. Gaunce also had an amazing playoff run, leading the Bulls in scoring with eight goals, 22 points through 17 playoff games. His plus-eight rating reflected just how integral Gaunces’ two-way play factored into the Bulls deep playoff run, falling just short in a seven-game series with the Barrie Colts in the OHL semi-finals. His natural leadership ability has shone through all season long, and was never more evident than in the post-season, hoisting the Bulls on his back, as well as leading them in point production. It is this kind of hard work, perseverance, and dedication that earns Brendan Gaunce the Hardest Worker award for the Vancouver Canucks. Runner-up in this category goes to Alexandre Mallet, who gave the Kalamazoo Wings and Chicago Wolves’ third line some real grit and traction this season.
With a number of injuries plaguing the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Wolves this season, there were a steady series of transfers involving their ECHL and AHL affiliates. During that time, Adam Polasek went about his business, accepting whatever assignment he was given. He started the season with the Kalamazoo Wings, bringing some much needed stability to their blue line. Known primarily for his defensive capabilities, Polasek has a strong, heavy slap-shot. Once he was sent back to Chicago, that same shot got him credited with a number of assists, as goaltenders had a tough time dealing with the rebounds and aftermath of his point shots. Polasek will not become renowned as a powerplay quarterback anytime soon, but suffice to say, if you are going to block one of his bombs, you had better know what you are doing. Honorable mentions go to Alexandre Grenier and Jeremy Price.
Best Defensive Prospect: Frank Corrado, D, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)
Frank Corrado may need to hire a professional resume writer to help him keep track of all the new experience and accolades. In what can only be described as a whirlwind season for the poised, cool and collected defenseman, he has played more hockey than some people play in a lifetime. Whether his non-inclusion as the final cut for the Team Canada roster in December was motivation or not, we may never know. But Corrado has looked like anything but a 150th overall draft selection. Throughout the season, he made every team he played for better, from the Sudbury Wolves, to the Kitchener Rangers and Chicago Wolves, right down to his three regular season games with the Canucks, and on into the playoffs. It is surprise finds like this that made the trading of Kevin Connauton (DAL) possible at the deadline to bring in additional forward help.
Fastest Skater: Bill Sweatt, LW, Chicago Wolves (AHL)
Speed is such an integral part of Sweatt’s game that it is hard to imagine him being successful without it. From his fore-check to his penalty killing ability, he just seems to reach his destination a little bit quicker than his opponents do. And it is not just his foot speed that is impressive; his hands are able to keep up quite nicely, stick-handling through traffic and artful dodging of incoming checks. His coaches would tell you that some of his success stems from anticipation and hockey sense, which enhance his reaction time. In a game where everything happens quickly, there are few players better equipped to handle the situation than the nimble, fleet-of-foot Bill Sweatt.
Breakout Player 2013-14: Joseph Labate, C, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
The eighth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers truly made a name for themselves in the WCHA Tournament and the 2013 NCAA Tournament, and just missed out on becoming one of the Frozen Four. Joseph Labate picked a fine time to start playing his best hockey of the season, helping propel the Badgers with timely scoring. Labate factored in heavily against St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, and Minnesota-Duluth. Though finishing a season strongly is not a prerequisite to win the Breakout Player award, it certainly helps, and that is exactly what Labate did. The sophomore left Canucks fans wondering what kind of an encore performance could be in store next season. At 6’4, the lanky pivot proved that size does matter in a playoff type atmosphere, and could eventually bring the Canucks the size they have coveted up the middle. If he is able to keep the momentum he garnered from the Badgers impressive NCAA run, 2013-14 could be an interesting year.
Prospect of the Year: Frank Corrado, D, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)
The Vancouver Canucks best Defensive Prospect is also the Prospect of the Year, and considering that the majority of the Canucks prospect depth is on defense, it makes sense that Corrado gets the nod here. With Chris Tanev shelved with an injury to finish the regular season, Alain Vigneault was so comfortable with Corrado’s development that he thrust him into a third-pairing role, carrying over into the playoffs. Corrado’s game has been favorably compared with Tanev’s, and much has been made of his calm disposition and decision-making with the puck. He has excellent timing, and as a result, rarely makes a mistake or turns the puck over. If he does, his speed helps him recover quickly, and his gap control has been a conversation starter. At this point, it is difficult to say what happens to Corrado’s ice time when Tanev recovers from a leg injury, but this much is clear: 2013 was Frank Corrado’s coming out party.
Most Improved Prospect: Jordan Schroeder, C, Chicago Wolves (AHL)
Schroeder saw a lot of positive things happen for him during the 2012-13 season, not the least of which was a solid audition with Vancouver Canucks during Ryan Kesler’s rehab from double surgery. In reality, the bar has always been set rather high for Jordan because of his draft position, and perhaps even unfairly so. But he has shouldered all of that, and proven all season long that he has the ability to play in the NHL. In 42 games with the Wolves this season, he collected 12 goals and 33 points, compared to the 44 points it took him 76 games to amass in the 2011-12 season. More importantly, he gained 31 games of valuable NHL experience, recording a modest three goals and nine points in that span. They were not sheltered minutes, as head coach Alain Vigneault used Schroeder in many different situations, primarily because of his defensive responsibility. Schroeder matured as a player during the course of the season, and made strides to becoming a regular fixture in the NHL.
Overachiever: Joe Cannata, G, Chicago Wolves (AHL)
Fellow goaltending prospect Eddie Lack’s hip surgery threw a big wrench into the overall game plan for Canucks management. With the Wolves’ starting goaltender out, it meant other players were going to have to step up, and Cannata was right there, ready to help however he could. The former Merrimack College star turned in a solid first pro season, finishing with a 6-6 record, a 2.65 goals against average, and .912 save percentage during his 14 games in the AHL. Cannata made his transition to pro seamlessly, which is a rarity amongst players drafted so late during their draft year. Cannata made progression this season that takes some goaltending prospects years to accumulate. How much further he can improve next year is up for speculation, but as he has shown Canucks management, he is eager to rise to whatever challenges they may have in store for him.
Underachiever: Anton Rodin, RW, Chicago Wolves (AHL)
This dubious award goes to Anton Rodin, the Canucks 2009 second round pick, who has not quite lived up to expectations. Whether it is his inability to acclimate himself to the North American game or the residual effects of a shoulder injury sustained near the end of the 2011-12 regular season remains to be seen. What is known is that Rodin’s point production dropped rather significantly from his rookie season and he was a healthy scratch at times for the Wolves as a result. Factoring in the considerable amount of skill that he has at his disposal, the production drop is rather alarming. Rodin will hopefully spend the summer preparing to come into camp healed, healthy, and mentally alert, because another season of regression would likely not bode well for his North American hockey career.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Steven Anthony, LW, Kalamazoo Wings (ECHL)
Question marks surround Steven Anthony and his future following an illegal blow to the head he received during a game versus the Chicago Express in January, 2012. In his first pro season, he played in 34 games for the K-Wings, and finished with eight goals, 12 assists, and a plus-eight rating to go with 28 penalty minutes. Anthony can move the puck with aplomb, and is a fairly intelligent player. As is the unpredictable nature of head injuries in this sport, Anthony’s future lay shrouded in uncertainty. It would be a relief for all parties involved to see Anthony recover completely, and have a successful 2013-14 season, as Anthony’s three year entry-level deal expires after the 2013-14 season.