Canucks junior prospects update

By Matt MacInnis

The Vancouver Canucks currently have six players in the Canadian Hockey League, four in the WHL and a pair in the QMJHL. Included in this mix is a pair of first rounders in Luc Bourdon and Michael Grabner, one defender, one goalie and four forwards. Three of the Canucks players are European-born players serving as imports for their respective teams, which follows the Canucks preference of having their Euro draft picks play in the CHL whenever possible. At least three of the current Canucks prospects have a good shot of being impact players for the club in the future.

Mario Bliznak, C, 19 — Vancouver Giants (WHL)
Seventh round, 205th overall, 2005

It’s not easy for a prospect to play in the same city as the NHL team that drafted him, with the two arenas just a cab ride away. There has never been an enormous amount of pressure put on the young Slovak, a 2005 seventh rounder, but then again, he hasn’t done much to create a whole lot of buzz around him. Bliznak has shown signs of marginally improving his offensive numbers over last year, however, as he 13 points in 27 games thus far, on pace for slightly more than the 21 points he earned during the 2005-06 campaign. Bliznak has had another unspectacular season despite the fact that the Giants are dominating the league, having only suffered two regulation losses all season. Three of his four goals have come on the power play.

Bliznak has never been touted as an elite scorer. The scouting report on him coming out of the 2005 Entry Draft was one of a decent two-way player who understood the importance of playing tight in his own zone while possessing adequate puck skills. That remains accurate today, as it is clear Bliznak is unlikely to score 20 goals in a season at any level. Bliznak has a lot of development ahead of him if he hopes to be an AHL player, furthermore a Canuck. At this point, it would appear unlikely that he will receive a contract offer from the organization, but it is sometimes difficult to predict the Canucks’ decision-making process.

Luc Bourdon, D, 19 — Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
First round, 10th overall, 2005

The Canucks 10th overall pick in 2005 made the NHL roster out of training camp, but had difficulties getting into the line-up and, when he did dress, seemed lost and out of place most of the time. After his ninth game with the club, GM Dave Nonis made the decision to send him back to the QMJHL in order to prevent this season from counting towards his free agency eligibility down the road. Somewhat surprisingly the Moncton Wildcats, who are in rebuild mode after last year’s Memorial Cup run, have not dealt the star defenseman to a contender. Since returning to junior, Bourdon has played well, posting eight points in seven games and compiling 13 penalty minutes.

One of the most apparent facts of his debut NHL stint is that Bourdon is clearly not 100 percent recovered from his ankle surgery the previous season. His backwards skating was simply not as strong in his nine games as it was in his draft year and before the injury. With a number of pins still in his leg, there is little denying that the injury is going to set him back in the short-term. However, with many fans looking at the success of Anze Kopitar (LA) this season, it is prudent to remember that defensemen almost always take longer to mature than forwards. There is no question that Bourdon underperformed compared to expectations in his nine games this season, but the fact remains that he is 19 years old and is a long way from being fairly written off as a bust. Bourdon remains one of the top defensive prospects in the entire league with top pairing potential thanks to his skating, puck-handling abilities and physicality.

Evan Fuller, RW, 18 — Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Seventh round, 197th overall, 2006

It’s not often that a forward who scored two goals and a total of seven points in his second year in the WHL hears his name called in the NHL draft. But that’s exactly what happened to Fuller when the Canucks made him their seventh round pick in 2006. The middleweight grinder is currently on pace to double last year’s paltry offensive output, with four goals and three assists so far in his first 27 games. He has also racked up 33 penalty minutes with the Prince George Cougars.

Fuller is a hard-working forward who, at 6’2, 193 lbs currently, he will likely be a larger-than-average player by the time he’s in his mid-20s. He’s not a bad skater and the Canucks scouting staff was clear on draft day that he would have to play 110 percent kamikaze-style on the ice if he hopes to ever get a sniff of the big show. It would appear that the Canucks see some of Alexandre Burrows’ attributes in Fuller and hope he can develop into the same type of player. However, it has to be said that those types of players are usually available to sign as free agents once their CHL careers come to an end.

Michael Grabner, RW, 19 — Spokane Chiefs (WHL)
First round, 14th overall, 2006

The lightning-fast Austrian has probably had the most disappointing season of any of the Canucks prospects relative to the hype and expectation surrounding the first-round pick. Grabner has scored seven goals and two assists in 14 games, but has been out for several weeks now with a hip injury that does not appear to be nearly healed as the Spokane Chiefs put him back on the injured list on Nov. 21. Once again, at this early juncture of the season, Grabner’s goal total dwarfs his assists, despite the fact that more of his teammates are putting the puck in the net this year. It’s important that Grabner not come back too soon from his injury and further aggravate the problem.

Grabner is a dynamic player who can create chances with his speed and puck-handling abilities. He appears to be well-suited to the new, more open and faster-moving NHL, although his thin frame and durability remains somewhat of a concern. Grabner has the potential to be the breakout offensive force that today’s version of the Canucks is desperately lacking to provide added punch to the line-up. He has the raw talent to be a first-line player, but is very raw and doesn’t appear to be the type of prospect who is able to be a significant contributor at the NHL level shortly after being drafted.

Juraj Simek, RW, 19 — Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
Sixth round, 167th overall, 2006

The WHL rookie has had a great start to his North American hockey career, racking up 17 goals and 16 assists for 33 points in his first 25 games with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He has been one of the best first-year players in the WHL so far and currently leads all rookies in goals. His play has been impressive not just for his point production but also because the 6’0, 190 lbs winger has shown an unexpected willingness to play the physical game and competitiveness. His defensive abilities are clearly lacking, but the organization has to be enthused that the Swiss-born talent has shown little problem in adapting to North American hockey.

Canucks Head Scout Ron Delorme told HF on draft day that the main reason they felt compelled to select Simek because of his ability to stickhandle. The crafty young player has exhibited that and a general good hockey sense and finishing ability early this season. Simek’s stats are likely at least partially inflated by playing with Codey Burki (COL), who has been one of the top players in the league, but that doesn’t change the fact that his success is encouraging for the organization. Simek has shown he is a legitimate offensive talent and has the tools to develop into a second-line player at least down the road. It’s extremely early, but he looks to be one of the better potential steals of the entire 2006 draft.

Alexandre Vincent, G, 19 — Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
Fourth round, 114th overall, 2005

The 6’4 2005 draft pick had a generally inadequate performance at the Canucks rookie camp and was fairly quickly dispatched back to the QMJHL, where he joined his new team, the Val-d’Or Foreurs. In 15 games played, Vincent has a 7-7 record and a 3.43 goals against average. That figure sounds bad, but it actually places him middle of the pack for goalies that play the majority of their team’s games. However, his .880 save percentage is weak and he is yet to record a shutout.

A big, butterfly-style goalie, Vincent stylistically plays quite similar to former Canucks goalie Alex Auld, although his technique is significantly poorer at this stage of his career. Vincent is going to need to dramatically improve his positioning and technical skills as a goaltender if he’s going to develop into an NHL-caliber goalie. In fact, with Julien Ellis already in the ECHL for the Canucks, and Cory Schneider possibly leaving college at the end of the season, plus the recently acquired Drew McIntyre and seemingly ageless Wade Flaherty, Vincent may find himself victim of a logjam of largely mediocre goaltenders looking for a professional job within the Canucks’ affiliates at the end of this season.

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