The Vancouver Canucks held a rookie camp in Victoria, BC to give some of their young players the opportunity to get into a competitive environment before heading to the main camp and to allow them to shake off their nerves. Hosted by Bear Mountain Arena and open to the public, several hundred curious fans came out to take a look at the team’s future. What they saw was several prospects prove that they are at a different level than most of their peers, some show promise for the future and others become a cause for concern.
One major difference from previous rookie camps was the lack of top players from the Manitoba Moose or other minor professionals. GM Dave Nonis explained that the team didn’t feel it was fair to pit teenagers against seasoned professionals this time around.
“They’re still playing against players that are their own peer group. You’re going to see players rise to the top against players they’ve either played with or against in the past couple of years. And the top players from this camp will be moving on to the next one. Having some of the younger guys being dominated by older players wasn’t something that we felt was appropriate this time around. Also I think your team changes as your depth changes and as the talent level changes from year to year.”
With three goaltenders in camp, including 2004 first-round pick Cory Schneider, former QMJHL standout Julien Ellis and camp invitee, Keyvan Hunt, a veteran of the hometown Victoria Grizzlies from the BCHL. With many of the drills focusing on odd-man rushes, sometimes completely void of defenders, it wasn’t easy to get a read on how the goaltenders were performing. However, after a couple days it was easy to tell that Schneider wasn’t fishing many picks out of his net and seemed to intimidate some shooters into trying to pick the corners, resulting in more shots slamming off the back boards than getting on net.
Conversely Ellis turned out a poor performance and just did not seem to be able to build on the success of the second half of his ECHL season last year. Ellis lacked the same lightning-fast cross-crease movement and superior reflexes that made him such a standout goaltender in major junior with Shawinigan. Hunt turned in an honest effort and did quite well considering he is an undrafted BCHL goaltender, but needs to significantly improve his quickness.
It was pretty clear that the organization has a number of capable young blue liners who have the potential to not only make the NHL, but some can become impact players.
“It’s an area you can’t be too deep in," said Nonis. "There are teams that are very desperate to try to find defensemen, but I think we’re very comfortable with the ones we have. With [Alex] Edler, [Luc] Bourdon and [Daniel] Rahimi who are all going to play at the NHL level. Whether or not they’re able to do it right now on a regular basis is yet to be seen, but in terms of a solid prospect, I think you can make a case for all three of those players and we’re very happy with their development.”
Very early in camp Bourdon and Edler established themselves as the dominant defensemen who may be battling for the No. 7 job with the Canucks — or better — if they can outplay a veteran like Lukas Krajicek. Both players looked very good some days and less NHL ready others. For example, Edler was dominant on Saturday but committed error after error on Sunday to the point that Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters that Edler would start with the Manitoba Moose if he played like he did that day.
“Alex is a pretty smart player and that’s not hard to see. The way he thinks the game is what got him where he is. What’s also pretty easy to see for me is the God-given ability that Luc has which is significant. His strength, his foot speed, his conditioning, he’s pretty far ahead of most players at this age right now. They’re both pretty good prospects,” said Nonis of his organization’s prized young defenders.
When asked by Hockey’s Future if he believed both guys had the ability to become top-pairing defensemen in the NHL, Nonis was cautiously optimistic.
“We’re hoping they can be. I think we all want to project players into saying they’re top four defenseman or top six forwards. I would say I think they have the ability to do that. Where they end up is going to depend on opportunity and a lot of it is dependent upon them. They have to grab that and move themselves up the lineup to the point where they are top four defensemen. So do I project them there? I mean that’s going to be in the future, but there’s no reason why they can’t develop to that if they do their job.”
Although he downplayed that it was a direct competition, Bourdon acknowledged that any competition can only be beneficial.
“I think it’s great. Every time we jump on the ice obviously we think about making this year. I want to make this team and I’m pretty sure Alex wants to make this team, too. It’s just a battle, a fight. I want to practice and play better than this guy and I’m sure he wants to practice and play better than me. So that’s just the way it is. It’s a good thing for both of us.”
But despite the fact that most of the media were fixated on the competing duo, the Canucks had a number of other high profile prospects on display at the camp, most notably Rahimi and 2007 second-round pick Taylor Ellington, who was having his first experience at this level. Rahimi was one of the more noticeable players at camp outside of the elite players, as he did his best to increase the level of physicality every day. While Rahimi was steady and consistent in his own end, it’s apparent that he doesn’t have the quality of skating to become a top-four defenseman at the NHL level and he still needs to find a way to control his temper and not allow himself to get frustrated on the ice.
Ellington played like a young man at his first NHL camp and seemed overmatched at times, although that was at least partially due to his poor conditioning – a byproduct of an injury that prevented him from being able to spend much time in the gym earlier in the off-season. Ellington looked uncertain and nervous and displayed mediocre backwards skating during some of the one-on-one or two-on-one drills. Despite his struggles, Ellington did earn an invitation to the main camp with the professionals, something done solely to get him some experience in that kind of environment for future years. Nonis doesn’t believe that skating is going to prevent Ellington from becoming an NHL player, however.
“He’s going to need some time, but I don’t think foot speed is going to be a problem for him. I think it’s going to be more getting his body ready to play at the pro level and he has some time to do that.”
Last year at this time Patrick Coulombe was putting on a performance that not only got him as a walk-on an invitation to the Canucks camp, but nearly earned him a spot on the opening-day roster. This year’s rookie camp was a far different story, however, as Coulombe was consistently beat and out-muscled while displaying poor defensive instincts. Vigneault admitted that his play wasn’t quite on par with last year’s performance, but emphasized that Coulombe came to camp prepared and will likely step it up against high competition.
“He’s been alright. He came to camp in great shape. And I think him and Edler and all the other guys that have some experience, we’ll get a better feel for where they are in the next couple of days with our team being there, competition being better and exhibition games. This is mostly a chance for these guys to get the jitters out.”
Another player in the Canucks organization was Shaun Heshka, who turned in a very solid performance at camp. A strong skater with a pretty good shot, Heshka carried the puck with confidence and will likely surprise observers at the main camp. Heshka was definitely one of better players among the lesser-known prospects.
Chad Brownlee and Dylan Yeo were quiet throughout camp, although Brownlee did manage to get one of the final invites to camp.
There was no doubt that Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond were several levels above everyone else in the forward corps. Hansen really turned the heads of the organization and fans last season during the playoffs so he’s not exactly a mystery. Raymond, however, is playing in his first professional camp of any level and Vigneault admitted he can’t wait to see the Minnesota-Duluth product face off against elite competition.
“I’m as excited as anybody watching him right now. It’s really fun to see.”
Raymond is happy that he is getting attention early on in the process, but admits that he isn’t surprised by his strong performance.
“I don’t know if I surprised myself. I have high expectations of myself so I came here to do what I can and play my best.”
With his lightning speed, fantastic overall skating abilities, hard work ethic, quality wrist shot and strong playmaking abilities, it’s not difficult to figure out that Raymond may be a good fit somewhere on the Canucks top six, if not this year then in the immediate future.
With a little more experience, Hansen was by far the most complete forward in attendance. He displayed good speed, passing, vision, puck handling, a great snap shot and an accurate one-timer. He played like he had something to prove in every zone of the rink and rarely came away from a battle without the puck. He certainly looks bigger than last year although he was listed by the team as 6’0, 176 lbs.
The team had two other well-known forward prospects in camp with last year’s first round pick Michael Grabner and Swiss import Juraj Simek. Grabner’s dismal performance throughout camp is undoubtedly the most alarming factor coming out of this preliminary set of practices. Grabner appeared to be disinterested and outright lazy at times. He was non-existent in his own zone and did not do well in drills designed to force players to physically compete. That said, when he was able to get the puck in open ice Grabner used his blazing speed to create scoring chances and a fantastic wrist shot to convert them. Overall though, his play was more negative than positive. The team must be hoping he’s able to step it up when pressured by professionals at the main camp.
Simek on the other hand was showed signs of real promise. Although he clearly needs to improve his foot speed and conditioning, the talented puck-handler exhibited tremendous skill and scored a couple beautiful goals.
“He’s a highly skilled player," commented Nonis. "His foot speed has to improve. His conditioning has to improve. But in terms of raw ability, he has it. I think we’ll see as camp moves on that he does have the ability to play with better players. He’s going to need some time improving those areas we talked about, he definitely has to improve his strength and foot speed, but that’s just work, it’s nothing more than that.”
Other Canuck draft picks or free-agent signees at camp including Mario Bliznak, Evan Fuller, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Charles-Antoine Messier and Dan Gendur. While none of these players were particularly impressive, most of them did show some positive sides to their game. Bliznak showed strong body position and puck possession skills and demonstrated improved puckhandling abilities. He was too casual with his passes at times. Labrie went to the net on every play and showed some ability to convert chances into goals when in close. Gendur was surprisingly fast and showed off a powerful shot although he was completely invisible at times. Fuller wasn’t able to showcase his puck pressuring skills due to the nature of the controlled drills and Messier wasn’t strong enough although he did pull off several slick moves that caught the attention of the coaching staff.
“He’s playing real well, I think we all like his skill level and his speed on his ice, but obviously he’s not ready to make the next step,” said Jack Adams winner Vigneault of Messier.
None of the invitees stuck out for more than a few fleeting moments although none of them, including tough guy Garet Hunt, appeared to be completely out of place either.
“His overall skill. The quickness, the way he can go laterally with the puck. There’s a lot there and I’m looking forward – as is everyone in the organization – to seeing what he can do next week.” – Vigneault on what separates Raymond from the rest of the pack.
“I think we’ve worked hard to get some prospects. I think it’s pretty clear that a number of these players will be able to play at the NHL level. How good they will be that’s another question. But we are happy that we do have some players coming at all positions which we didn’t have a couple years ago.” – Nonis on improved depth in the system.
“Well you know last year if I got sent down there was no hope for me to play a couple NHL or AHL games. I felt like I was done with junior and I really didn’t want to go back, but at the end of the day, it didn’t help me to have that attitude.” – Bourdon on his disappointment over being returned to the QMJHL last season.
“Yeah, it was tough. It doesn’t seem like it, but packing your stuff in one place and driving 10 hours to another place and do that five or six times last year it was kind of hard. I think this year will be a lot different.” – Bourdon on looking forward to being able to spend most of the season in one place.
“I talked with [Thomas Gradin] a few times before the draft and he told me they were going to pick me. I was a little bit surprised because I just played with the national team once so I was a little bit surprised.” – Rahimi admits he knew the Canucks were going to pick him before the draft.
“Anybody starting at camp that shows that he’ll be able to help our team is going to get a chance. Contract shouldn’t be an issue when you make…obviously if the twins get off to a slow start we’re going to be patient! But if someone comes in and steps on the ice and say that boy…saying Jannik Hansen comes in to the main camp and he does what he’s doing now, we’re going to have to say well maybe we have a player here and maybe this guy can step in.” – Vigneault on giving young players a real chance to make the team.
“I’ve said this a number of times, for me talent has no age.” – Vigneault.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.