Canucks Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Matt MacInnis

The Canucks prospect list is solid at the top end, particularly the top 10, but rapidly falls off afterwards.  The team possesses a handful of players who seem probable to make the NHL at this point, but only two or three who have real potential to be game-breakers.  It’s important to note these rankings were compiled to assist with the creation of HF’s Top 50 Prospects, which was early into Cory Schneider’s remarkable season turnaround. 

Top 20 at a glance

1. Luc Bourdon, D
2. Cory Schneider, G
3. Mason Raymond, LW
4. Jannik Hansen, RW
5. Michael Grabner, RW
6. Pat White, C
7. Taylor Ellington, D
8. Juraj Simek, RW
9. Nathan McIver, D
10. Ilja Kablukov, LW
11. Rick Rypien, C
12. Mike Brown, RW
13. Dan Gendur, RW
14. Pierre-Cedric Labrie, LW
15. Sergei Shirokov, LW
16. Charles-Antoine Messier, C
17. Mario Bliznak, C
18. Julien Ellis, G
19. Matt Butcher, C
20. Kris Fredheim, D

1. Luc Bourdon, D – 8B
Drafted: 10th overall, 2005

Bourdon leaps into the top spot on the Canucks Top 20 after Alexander Edler graduated from the list due to his exceptional play with the Canucks and Schneider slips due to the rough start he had to the season.  Bourdon split the season between the AHL and the NHL, finishing the year with the Canucks.  At the end of the year, Bourdon played 38 AHL games and 27 in the NHL.  Bourdon played a more conservative, defensively-focused game during his time with the Canucks, but did manage to score the first two goals of his NHL career.  After Matthias Ohlund was injured, Bourdon also saw some action alongside fellow rookie Alex Edler on the second power-play unit. 

Last season there were significant concerns about Bourdon’s skating, particularly his turning, as he came back from the previous year’s ankle injury.  As this season went on, however, Bourdon looked increasingly mobile and comfortable on his skates.  Overall his strong play in the second half of the season reaffirmed why he was a first-round pick, although it’s unlikely he will ever shed the image of the “guy who the Canucks took instead of Anze Kopitar.”  If he continues to develop as well in the next two seasons, Bourdon can become an upper-tier defender.  Bourdon will likely be a full-time NHL player next season.

2. Cory Schneider, G – 8.0B
Drafted: 26th overall, 2004       

Schneider falls to second only because of the dismal start to his season.  At the time the order of this list was locked, he was only starting to turn things around with the Manitoba Moose.  However, despite his atrocious first two months, Schneider’s brilliant turnaround places him with good numbers in 34 appearances (20-11-2 record, 2.24 GAA and .917 save percentage).  The big Marblehead native showed his renowned calmness in the latter stages of the season and he turned what appeared to be a disastrous start to his professional career into a very successful season.

Despite a brief scare, it’s increasingly apparent Schneider was an astute pick from the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and someone who almost every NHL team would be penciling in as their franchise goaltender within two seasons.  But the Canucks have Roberto Luongo and Schneider may be the best NHL-caliber prospect without a sure future spot with his NHL team.  Schneider is currently playing behind Drew MacIntyre, who was named to the AHL’s Second All-Star team, but that could change if the Canucks opt to use MacIntyre as their backup next season.  At this point, it seems like the biggest question with Schneider isn’t if he will play in the NHL, but for what team he will protect the cage.

3. Mason Raymond, LW – 7B
Drafted: 51st overall, 2005

A selection in 2005 that had many fans referring to their draft guides when the Canucks picked him, Raymond is quickly becoming one of the most exciting players on the roster.  Raymond established himself as a full-time Canuck in the second half of the season, although his season came to a premature end due to a knee injury.  He finished the year with 17 points in 20 AHL games and 21 points in 49 NHL games. 

A lightning fast winger with decent puck handling, Raymond’s hands need to catch up to his feet.  Raymond often would break throw the neutral zone only to lose the puck when he tried to move around the opposing team’s defensemen.  He also has a slight build and was easily knocked off the puck.  He should be able to improve on these issues with his game with experience in the NHL and if he bulks up a little during the off-season.  Raymond appears to be on a path to become a stellar top six forward. 

4. Jannik Hansen, RW – 7C
Drafted: 287th overall, 2004

After playing in 10 playoff games last season, most expected Hansen to have a spot on the Canucks opening day roster.  However, a broken thumb brought an early end to pre-season and he began the year with Manitoba.  He had a brief three-week stint with the team in early November and then was called up for the Canucks second-to-last game of the season, but ended up playing just five NHL games this season despite scoring 41 points in 47 games with the Moose.  It was surprising he did not get more opportunities with the big club considering the problems the Canucks had scoring all season.

Hansen has a good wrist shot but sometimes looks to pass when he should shoot.  He does have good playmaking and puck-handling skills, but it’s difficult to say at this point if he can be a significant offensive contributor at the NHL level.  Hansen will have a good chance to make the Canucks opening roster next season with the expected departures of depth forwards Trevor Linden, Byron Ritchie and Brad Isbister.  Based on the team’s handling of Hansen this season, it’s unlikely he will be thrust immediately into a scoring role, but he does have the potential to play himself into that capacity.

5. Michael Grabner, RW – 8D
Drafted: 14th overall, 2006

With 22 goals and 22 assists in his rookie AHL season, Grabner exceeded expectations for his first foray into professional hockey.  He did have some challenges during the season including being benched at times and demoted to lower lines, but for the most part he responded favorably. 

The Austrian has very high potential but is a boom or bust type prospect.  Grabner is a pure goal scorer with great speed and moves when he’s able to get some open space.  He has struggled in the past with more physical play and is prone to bouts of inconsistency.   He’s difficult to forecast because he could be a 35-40 goal scorer in the best-case scenario or a player who struggles with the more physical play in the NHL.  Grabner will be back in the AHL next season, but should get a couple games with the Canucks during the course of the year.

6.  Pat White, C – 7.5C
Drafted: 25th overall, 2007

The most recent unexpected first-round selection by the Canucks scouting brain trust, White was drafted as a project-type of prospect and nothing has changed in the past nine months.  White made his freshman debut with the University of Minnesota Gophers, a solid program in college hockey.  White appeared in all 45 games, but the 19-year-old saw limited ice time in most of those contests.  All in all, it was not a bad start to his development.  With a handful of forwards not expected to return due to eligibility or taking the next step, White should see an increased role next season.

Listed at 6’1, 190 lbs, White has room to grow into his frame.  He’s hailed as a player with good offensive talents who likely will develop into a steady two-way player.  Unless there is an unexpected jump in his development, White will play at least the next two seasons in the NCAA, where the Canucks hope he will evolve into a top-six forward.

7.  Taylor Ellington, D – 7C
Drafted: 33rd overall, 2007

The 6’2, 205 lbs Victoria, BC native appeared in only 48 regular season games with the Everett Silvertips due to injury.  He finished the year with 14 points and an impress +9 rating, second best on the team behind only fellow Canucks prospect Dan Gendur.  Ellington looked shaky during the Canucks pre-season rookie camp, especially with his backwards skating, but turned in a reliable season for the Silvertips, where he was a major contributor. 

Ellington’s season came to an end after the ‘Tips were swept in the first round of the WHL playoffs.  He is a defensively-minded blue liner who makes a solid first pass.  He plays more physical than his 66 penalty minutes indicate.  Ellington will be back with Everett next season, working to develop all facets of his game.  The organization hopes he will join Edler, Bourdon and Bieksa in their top four for the future.

8. Juraj Simek, RW – 7C
Drafted: 167th overall, 2006

With 16 points in 63 AHL games, Simek did not have as smooth of a transition into professional hockey as hoped.  But considering he has went from playing junior hockey in Slovakia to the American Hockey League in two seasons, one has to reasonably expect it will take him longer than some other prospects to adjust.  What Simek does bring to the table is incredible hands.  He has above-average puck-handling skills – he just needs the rest of his game to catch up to that skill.

Simek’s skating is an item he needs to work on, as is his general toughness.  For a player who will likely spend a lot of time playing along the boards if he is going to become a successful pro, he will need to play stronger and tougher.  Simek needs more time to develop, but HF believes he does have more potential than he showed during a mediocre and at times disappointing debut with the Moose. 

9. Nathan McIver, D – 5A
Drafted: 254th overall, 2003

McIver is an example of a player who has benefited from the Canucks struggling with injuries on their blue line this year.  With all of the Canucks opening night top-four defensemen missing at least 10 games each, McIver appeared in 17 games, going pointless.  While McIver didn’t register on the scoreboard, he made a significant contribution to the team’s toughness.  McIver never hesitated to drop the gloves to protect a teammate which helped him compile 52 penalty minutes.  Although he did finish with -8 rating, McIver generally did an acceptable job in his own zone during the limited minutes he saw.

McIver will never be a significant contributor at the NHL level.  But he has proven himself a serviceable call-up to fill a specific role.  The Canucks are an organization that is deep at defense overall, but with several injury-prone defensemen, he is likely to see a handful of games next season as well.  If he’s able to elevate his game, McIver could conceivably find himself filling the No. 7 spot Mike Weaver owned this season. 

10. Ilja Kablukov, LW – 6.5C
Drafted: 146th overall, 2007
The rangy 6’2, 185 lbs Russian winger had a very good season as a 19-year-old playing for CSKA Moscow in the Russian Super League.  He scored four goals and nine assists for 13 points on a team filled with former NHL players and drafted prospects.  At the start of the season, Kablukov was one of the few bright spots on the Russian team during the 2007 Super Series where he exhibited not only the strong two-way play but some offensive flash.

Kablukov has shown the signs of being a very real talent.  However, the question remains whether or not he will come to North America.  The Canucks have already had to deal with the antics of Kiril Koltsov and the uncertainty of Sergei Shirokov (who may still make the move), and with the current uncertainty surrounding almost all Russians, it’s possible he may never pull on a Canucks jersey.

11. Rick Rypien, C – 5.5B
Undrafted: Free agent signee

Rypien continued to have another up and down season, where he saw action in both the NHL and the AHL.  However, this has to be viewed as the most successful professional season of his career, as he appeared in a career-high 22 NHL games.  Rypien once again has shown that despite his diminutive size, he can play an aggressive forechecking game and is willing to drop the gloves with opponents significantly larger than himself.  Making appearances on the 5’11, 170 lbs Rypien’s dance card this season included 240-pounder Doug Murray, 6’4 Mike Commodore and NHL fight leader Daniel Carcillo.

Rypien is a fourth line mucker who will mix it up with almost anyone.  With his tenacity and toughness, Rypien should be able to find a role on most NHL teams as long as he can prove he’s able to stay healthy for extended periods of time.  He won’t score more than a goal or two a season, but Rypien is still valuable to a team.

12. Mike Brown, RW – 5.5B
Drafted: 159th overall, 2004

Much like Rypien, it’s difficult to place a guy like Mike Brown in a top prospects list.  Brown could play 200 NHL games and score fewer goals than a career second line AHL player who gets a couple brief call-ups because of his style.  Brown has surprising foot speed for someone who plays the type of game he does, but possesses extremely limited puck skills that will prevent him from being an offensively contributor at any level of professional hockey.  Purely a fighter who can cause some trouble for defensemen on the forecheck, Brown is an NHL-level pugilist.  With the impending departure of so many of the Canucks depth players, Brown may end up playing more next season than he did this year.  Brown may have the least upside of any Canuck prospect, but he’s far more likely to don a Canucks jersey than many of the young hopefuls they have in the system.

13. Dan Gendur, RW – 6.5C
Drafted: 206th overall, 2007

A surprise pick at the tail end of the 2007 draft, he was even more surprising during the 2007-08 WHL season.  Playing on the Everett Silvertips alongside highly-touted NHL prospects Zach Hamill and Kyle Beach, Gendur let the team in scoring with 29 goals and 55 assists in 60 games played.  On a team packed with “minus” players, Gendur stood out with a plus 14 rating.  While Gendur did have a verifiable great season, it’s important to keep his performance in context.  Gendur was an overage player playing alongside some tremendous young talent.  He did showcase his solid skating and good shooting ability.  Gendur will debut as a professional next season, but will have to battle to earn a spot immediately out of camp with the Manitoba Moose.

14. Pierre-Cedric Labrie, RW – 6C

Unheralded and undrafted, the signing of Labrie hardly made headlines in Vancouver.  The 6’2, 212 lbs winger is a quiet, unassuming person who seemed somewhat overwhelmed with where he was during the team’s pre-season prospect camp.  But he was committed to making the Moose, which he did and ended up playing 66 AHL games with 18 points and 108 PIM.  A big-bodied presence who is a smart positional player, Labrie stepped up when needed to drop the gloves.  Labrie’s poor skating is by far the biggest concern with his game.  If he can elevate his skating, he could become a decent third-line type player.  However, a more probable result is Labrie finding a fourth line role with a club who uses him as a fighter and potentially as a player in front of the net on the power play as his hands aren’t bad.

15. Sergei Shirokov, LW – 6.5D
Drafted: 163rd overall, 2006

Nothing has changed with the prognosis for Shirokov’s ability.  He continues to develop at a reasonable rate.  For the second straight year, Shirokov compiled 34 points for CSKA Moscow of the Russian Super League.  The problem is if he’s planning on playing hockey in North America.  Prior to being drafted, he told members of the Canucks scouting staff he would be willing to play in the AHL to earn a spot with the big club.  Shirokov is a stellar talent who has good potential to play in the NHL, but he falls down the list because of the uncertainty.  If Shirokov is not in Winnipeg in October 2008, this situation is going to appear eerily similar to what transpired with Kirill Koltsov.

16. Charles-Antoine Messier, C – 7F
Drafted: 145th overall, 2007

The 5’11, 185 lb Boucherville, Quebec, native took a bit of a step backwards this season with a 41-point season, but the organization is high on his skill set.  He is small and definitely needs improvement in his overall game, but he does have raw talent.  Messier possesses quick hands and the ability to rapidly change gears while skating.  He’s a long-term prospect who needs to grow into his body and develop his all-around performance on the ice.  Messier will be back in the Q for the next couple of years and his ability to significantly step up his offensive production this upcoming season will likely be a major indicator of his long-term potential.

17. Mario Bliznak, C – 6D
Drafted: 205th overall, 2005

Bliznak has had an up-and-down time since being drafted by the Canucks a few years ago.  Never expected to be a scorer, Bliznak’s first season playing for the Vancouver Giants was not a strong one, but he rebounded with a better-rounded performance in his second year which finished with an extremely strong showing at the Memorial Cup.  Bliznak was a more significant contributor to the Giants this season, more than doubling his previous career high in points with 51 points in 67 games.  Bliznak is a very good two-way junior player and will graduate to the pro ranks next season.  Bliznak has a shot at making the Moose out of training camp because of his stellar play in every zone.

18. Julien Ellis, G – 6D
Drafted: 189th overall, 2004

Ellis is another Canucks prospect who has struggled since draft day.  Ellis was a stand-out QMJHL goaltender with excellent speed and reflexes.  The biggest challenge Ellis has always, and will always, face is his size.  At 6’0, 177 lbs, Ellis is a small goaltender for today’s standards, although players like Martin Biron have shown you don’t have to be bulky to have a lengthy NHL career.  Ellis spent this season with the ECHL’s Victoria Salmon Kings.  Ellis played in 42 games and had solid stats with a 3.18 GAA and .908 save percentage.  Ellis was one of the best goalies in the league this year, but unfortunately has found himself riding the pine during the playoffs as the team follows the hot hand of Billy Thompson in their first-round series against the Bakersfield Condors.  Ellis is a solid goaltender who still may have a future.  Stuck behind Schneider and MacIntyre in the system, Ellis should land the AHL backup job if MacIntyre earns the job in Vancouver next training camp.  It would be unwise to ignore Ellis’ potential just because he is in the ECHL right now.

19. Matt Butcher, C – 6D
Drafted: 138th overall, 2005

Butcher had a big bounce-back year with Northern Michigan after a difficult freshman season last year.  Butcher scored eight times and added 15 helpers for 23 points in 44 games.  The solid 6’2, 205 lbs center has learned how to better use his size and strength against college-sized opposition.  Fans who saw him play with the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs will recall that it was this aspect of his game that allowed Butcher to dominate during his final season. The Canucks will look to him to once again improve his production this season.  Butcher needs to improve his skating, particularly his first step, which is not at NHL-level right now.  Butcher could develop into a steady third-line NHL player with his size, skill-set and style of play, but he’s a few years away at this point.

20. Kris Fredheim, D – 6D
Drafted: 185th overall, 2005

The Campbell River, BC native is continuing to develop with Colorado College.  He appeared in 34 of 41 games, scoring a goal and four assists. A steady defender with a big frame to grow in (6’2, 177 lbs), Fredheim has a good shot but has become more a defensive defenseman thus far into his collegiate career.  Fredheim is another long-shot prospect who is likely four years away from playing in the NHL if everything falls into place.  Barring significant development this year, it appears Fredheim will finish his college eligibility and then progress from there.