The Vancouver Canucks had six prospects play in the Canadian Hockey League this season, including some of the top talent in their system. The team had four players in the Western Hockey League and two playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Of the six players, it’s possible that only one will be returning to major junior next season.
Mario Bliznak, C, 20
Drafted: 205th overall, 7th round (2005)
The Slovakian import missed significant time this season due to injuries, but did manage to put together 22 points in 47 regular season games, a significant increase in per-game offensive production over the previous season. Most importantly, Bliznak has really stepped up his game during the first two rounds of the playoffs, scoring three goals and six assists in 10 games in addition to a steady +7 rating. The Giants are now through the first two rounds of the playoffs, which is somewhat of a moot point because the team is already guaranteed a spot in the Memorial Cup as the host team.
Playing in Vancouver, just a few kilometers from GM Place, has placed the Trencin native under the careful microscope of Canucks fans who have critiqued every single detail of his game. The reality of the matter is that the former seventh round pick was never drafted to be a scorer and was not expected to put up big numbers at any level, junior or professional. Bliznak has always been touted as a careful defensively-conscious player who could potentially evolve into a third-liner at the NHL level. Bliznak has definitely slipped more into the role of a two-way player this season with the Giants and his play down what is likely the final stretch of his CHL career may be good enough to earn him a contract with the Canucks – something that is far from assured at this point.
Luc Bourdon, D, 20
Drafted: 10th overall, 1st round (2005)
Much like last season, Bourdon played just half the regular season in the QMJHL this year. After spending the first few weeks of the regular season with the Canucks, Bourdon was sent back to the Moncton Wildcats. Bourdon was selected to help the Canadian World Junior team defend its championship and then, for the second year in a row, was dealt within a few days of the New Year. In the 36 games he did play between the Wildcats and the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Bourdon put up 20 points, 73 penalty minutes and an impressive +22 plus/minus rating. Although his offensive stats aren’t particularly overwhelming, it’s important to recognize that with players like overager Jean-Claude Sawyer and Latvian Oskars Bartulis (PHI) also in the line-up, Bourdon was relied on to play a more defensive role.
The Eagles have steamrolled through the first two rounds of the QMJHL playoffs, losing just one game in the process. Bourdon has posted nine assists in the nine games while firing 16 shots on net. The Eagles were the second-best team during the regular season and are most likely on a collision course with the Lewiston MAINEiacs to determine the Q representative in the Memorial Cup. Like many young defensemen, Bourdon’s past few years have had ups and downs. With the exception of his stint in the NHL, Bourdon has shown a tendency to step it up in big games such as the WJC and Memorial Cup. He still needs to work on developing his all-around hockey sense and picking his spots, both when to pinch and when to go for a big hit, better. With strong coaching and given a specific role in a system (as during the WJC), Bourdon has the potential to be a number one defenseman, although it’s unlikely he will ever develop into a true franchise D.
Evan Fuller, RW, 18
Drafted: 197th overall, 7th round (2006)
Through no fault of his own, Fuller is quite possibly the most-maligned prospect in the Canucks system. Canucks fans have been highly critical of the selection of Fuller, which was partially justified by the Canucks in the hours following his pick by saying that the organization was impressed by his willingness to drop the gloves with widely-recognized WHL “heavyweight champion” Matt Kassian (MIN). Fuller’s offensively mediocrity continued this season as the 6’2, 193 lber scored 20 points while putting up a surprisingly modest total of 70 PIM. He has stepped up his game in the playoffs, registering six points in the Cougars’ eight playoff games thus far. The Cougars are currently battling with the Everett Silvertips in the second round of the WHL playoffs.
Fuller is a heart-and-soul type of player who needs to give his absolute all night in, night out, similar to fellow depth prospect Rick Rypien. The Canucks hope that he can develop into an aggressive and relentless fore checker that will get into the face of the opposition and stick up for his teammates when called upon. It is a long, uphill battle for Fuller to reach the NHL, but work ethic can carry a player beyond where skill alone can take him.
Michael Grabner, RW, 19
Drafted: 14th overall, 1st round (2006)
The swift-skating Austrian winger spent the season with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, scoring 39 goals and 16 assists for 55 points in 55 games. He was not nearly as impressive during the Chiefs short-lived playoff run where he registered just a single point in the six-game series. Grabner was wildly inconsistent throughout the season, completing dominating games for short stretches and being entirely invisible over equally long periods of time, as well as being publicly called out by his coach for his unwillingness to compete in physical games.
There is little question that Grabner has the skill set to become a quality offensive NHL-caliber player; the question appears to lie in his head and his heart. Grabner was moved to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose following his team’s elimination from the post-season, where he is expected to receive an opportunity to showcase his talents. He will play with the Moose next season where he will be expected to be an offensive contributor in his first professional season. Grabner will need to prove that he can be effective against larger, stronger, more physical opponents in the AHL and that he’s willing to mix it up more than he’s demonstrated to date.
Juraj Simek, RW, 19
Drafted: 167th overall, 6th round (2006)
The Swiss stick-handling wizard had a great debut season in North America with the Brandon Wheat Kings. In 58 regular season games he scored 28 goals and 29 assists for 57 points. In the playoffs, Simek has played in eight of the Wheat Kings’ 10 games as his team faces elimination on Sunday. In general, Simek has had a much more consistent and steady season than fellow Canucks 2006 selection, Grabner. While he did have his ups and downs, the peaks and valleys tended to be smaller for him.
Simek is a good skater who is strong on his skates, making him difficult to move off the puck. His skating and puckhandling abilities help him to keep control of the puck in tight situations or in the corners. He showed his commitment to playing in the NHL by coming to play junior hockey in North America, and it is probable that he will play as a professional rookie in the AHL for the Manitoba Moose next season. Simek has second-line potential, but he will likely need a full season or two before he’s ready to play in the big show for a sustained period.
Alexandre Vincent, G, 20
Drafted: 114th overall, 4th round (2005)
The St. Leonard, Quebec goaltender had perhaps one of the most disappointing seasons of any prospect in the Canucks’ system. Expected to be the starting goaltender with a solid Val-d’Or team in the QMJHL, Vincent found himself replaced by Jeremy Duchesne (PHI) midway through the season after putting up an 8-10 record with a .878 save percentage and 3.62 GAA. The Canucks made the decision to pull him out of junior and placed him with the team’s ECHL affiliate in Victoria, BC. He played in just two games with the Salmon Kings but is unlikely to see action again this season in the playoffs.
Vincent is a big goaltender at 6’4 and approximately 200 lbs and uses it well to give shooters little room to aim. He showed solid positioning in the Q but needed to work on his rebound control. Things fell apart this season for him and it’s clear that Vincent needs to work on some things during the summer months in order to find a place with one of the Canucks’ affiliates next season. At this stage, having lost the starting role in junior, his upside appears to be limited, but the journey to the NHL is rarely a smooth one for any goaltending prospect.
It was generally a good season for Canucks draft picks playing in the CHL this season, with the notable exception of the goaltender, Vincent. Most of this crew will find themselves in the professional ranks – predominantly with the Manitoba Moose – next season, most likely leaving just Fuller in the CHL. It will be interesting to see if the Canucks go back to the CHL well come draft day or if they avoid the conglomerate of leagues that has not been a tremendous source of success for them over the past few years.
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