Canucks Top 20 Prospects, Fall 2008

By Matt MacInnis

The Canucks prospect system has been a shaky entity for much of the past 10 years with no homegrown stars emerging from the system since the Sedin twins.  But despite the graduation of skyrocketing defenseman Alexander Edler off the list and the tragic passing of highly-touted prospect Luc Bourdon this summer, this may be the time to be the most optimistic about the depth of the system. 

In the system right now, the Canucks have a legitimate top goaltending prospect, a real top line forward, a handful of potentially very good secondary scorers and a pair of steady defenders to bolster the defensive corps depth.  The Canucks also possess a couple depth players already on the cusp of becoming NHL players and a couple interesting longshot prospects. 

Top 20 at a glance

Rank (previous ranking) Name – HF grade

1. (2) Cory Schneider – 8C
2. (NR) Cody Hodgson – 8C
3. (3) Mason Raymond – 7B
4. (4) Jannik Hansen – 7C
5. (5) Michael Grabner – 8D
6. (6) Pat White – 7C
7. (7) Taylor Ellington – 7C
8. (NR) Yann Sauve – 7C
9. (9) Nathan McIver – 5A
10. (12) Mike Brown – 5A
11. (10) Ilja Kablukov – 6.5C
12. (8) Juraj Simek – 7F
13. (13) Dan Gendur – 6C
14. (15) Sergei Shirokov – 6.5D
15. (14) Pierre-Cedric Labrie – 6C
16. (17) Mario Bliznak – 6C
17. (16) Charles-Antoine Messier – 7F
18. (18) Julien Ellis – 6.5D
19. (NR) Prab Rai – 6.5F
20. Daniel Rahimi, D – 6D

1. Cory Schneider, G – 8C

Drafted: 26th overall, 2004 

After an outstanding second half of the season with the AHL Manitoba Moose, Schneider has reassured most of his detractors that he is indeed the real deal, or at least as much as any goaltending prospect can truly be labelled can’t miss.  The reality is no prospect’s future is more volatile than that of an up-and-coming netminder.  Schneider is as mature off the ice as he is calm on the ice and plays a very safe, clean style that keeps him square to the puck.  He uses his 6’2 frame and the butterfly style, and continues to work on containing rebounds and loose pucks.

Schneider appears destined to play major minutes with the Moose this season.  After his dominant play during the home stretch of the 2007-08 season, big things are expected of the former first-round pick.  Schneider appears on the path to a No. 1 job in the NHL sometime in the next few years.  The big question, with Roberto Luongo casting an awfully big shadow in the Canucks’ crease, is what team will the opportunity come with and what role does Schneider play in potential deals for as GM Mike Gillis puts the finishing touches on this year’s squad?

2. Cody Hodgson, C – 8C         

Drafted: 10th overall, 2008

The highest new entry to this edition of the Top 20, Hodgson was a consensus top 10 pick in the past entry draft.  Hodgson is most often described as a well-rounded and efficient player who has done nothing but produce at the major junior level.  While he is not a fast skater and is a bit undersized at 5’11 and 185 lbs, Hodgson simply plays all facets of the game well.  He possesses very good vision and really controls the play in the offensive zone.  Defensively he is ahead of the curve for his age and won’t be a liability as a professional. 

Because of his size and the fact that he isn’t a great skater, some unfairly compare Hodgson to Sam Gagner.  However, Hodgson doesn’t possess Gagner’s spectacular puck skills and plays a significantly more rounded game than him.  It’s also unreasonable to expect Hodgson to immediately step into the NHL this season as Gagner did last year.  If Hodgson has a spectacular training camp he may stick around for the cursory nine-game trial, but in all likelihood, the young pivot should be returned to Brampton this fall for further seasoning.

3. Mason Raymond, LW – 7B

Drafted: 51st overall, 2005

Raymond ended up scoring 21 points in 49 NHL games and averaged nearly a point per game in his 20 AHL games last season, which met reasonable expectations of his first professional season.  With limited professional experience and two years of collegiate hockey as his only time against significant competition, Raymond performed remarkably well in the NHL.  As expected, his blazing speed created opportunities and helped him get back into the play defensively when required.  Raymond has good hands and is willing to go hard to the net, although his slightly built frame often allows him to be knocked off the puck. 

Raymond bounced between scoring and checking lines last season, but will likely be given the opportunity this year to prove he can consistently contribute to the team’s offense.  The speedy winger is on the verge of solidifying his spot on the Canucks roster for years to come.  Some added strength on the puck and an improved shot would go a long way to making him a more threatening weapon. 

4. Jannik Hansen, RW – 7C

Drafted: 287th overall, 2004

Nobody in the Canucks top five had as disappointing as a season as Jannik Hansen.  Penciled into most pre-season line-ups after an impressive post-season with the Canucks in 2007, a training camp injury kept him out of the opening line-up and he never really got his chance to prove he belonged in the NHL. He played just five games with the Canucks.  His play with the Moose showed significant improvement from the previous season, however, as he scored 43 points in 50 games.

Hansen appears likely to spend his career moving between the second and third lines of whatever team he plays with.  While he does have good offensive instincts, he needs to get over his “pass-first” mentality he exhibited during his NHL stints.  He is an aggressive forechecker who can play multiple roles and ultimately needs to believe more in his own skills.  Hansen has a chance at playing himself onto the team, although he will have to be impressive to bump other players the Canucks have who are on one-way contracts.

5. Michael Grabner, RW – 8D

Drafted: 14th overall, 2006

Expected to be somewhat of a wild card heading into last season, Grabner scored a very respectable 44 points with the Moose.  With speed to burn and good goal scoring instincts to accompany his impressive puck skills, Grabner is a true pure sniper.  He is a threat to score every time he is on the ice, provided his head is in the game.  Like many young talents, Grabner seems to disappear for long periods of time where he is completely ineffective.  After earning a reputation as a soft player in major junior, Grabner needs to prove that he’s willing to go into the dirty areas to get the job done.

Grabner is an explosive talent with game-breaking potential.  The problem is that there are lingering concerns about his work ethic and willingness to compete.  He may have a career similar to that of Maxim Afinogenov, where he shows flashes of superstar talent but fails to live up to expectations year after year before finally breaking out for a big season only to fall from grace the year after.  The point is that Grabner can be as inconsistent as he is exciting.  If he can harness his talents on a daily basis, the Canucks may have a special player. 

6.  Pat White, C – 7C

Drafted: 25th overall, 2007

Despite a slow start in his freshman campaign with the University of Minnesota Gophers in which he saw limited ice time, White remains one of the Canucks’ better overall prospects.  A relatively unheralded two-way player, White is responsible in both ends of the rink and does possess some above-average skills.  His freshman season is being unfairly characterized as a failure by many when in reality he was simply a 17-year-old playing in the best conference in college hockey.  White was expected to get a slow introduction to the NCAA and that is precisely what happened.

With the departure of most of the top-scoring Gophers from last season, White will see increased minutes and opportunity this season.  Look for his numbers to double while he hones his overall game.  White is a project draft pick; he will take a few more years to get to the big show.  The organization will show patience with White who will never be a flashy player, but shows signs of being the kind of dependable center all teams need.

7.  Taylor Ellington, D – 7C

Drafted: 33rd overall, 2007

After a so-so showing at his first professional camp last autumn, Ellington returned to Everett for another junior season with the Silvertips.  He put forward another solid year for the ‘Tips, helping to anchor the team’s defense.  Ellington is a defensive defenseman who will put up limited offensive stats in the professional ranks.  He uses his size and strength well to control opponents along the boards and in front of the net.

The big, strong defenseman will be 20 years old on Halloween this year, which leaves the Canucks with the difficult decision of whether or not they want him to play professionally or return to junior for an overage season.  This is a critical developmental year for Ellington, so expect the Canucks to send him back to junior unless they are certain he will be able to play adequate minutes at the AHL level.  It would be very surprising to see Ellington in the ECHL this season. 

8. Yann Sauve, D – 7C

Drafted: 41st overall, 2008

The Canucks second-round selection is in many ways another version of Ellington.  Sauve at 6’3, 210 lbs already has the size and physical strength needed to play in the NHL and really just needs to further hone his defensive zone coverage.  Sauve is generally considered to have more offensive upside than his WHL counterpart, but certainly didn’t show it last season.  While he certainly has been an important part of the Saint John Sea Dogs’ team, he hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty bantam draft expectations that preceded him.  As a result, his NHL draft position was also not where originally anticipated.

Ellington and Sauve won’t likely be very different players by the time they are both in the professional ranks unless Sauve is able to showcase the offensive talents promised to be within him.  Sauve’s mental game needs to catch up to his physical attributes as well, particularly when it comes to decision-making with the puck.  Sauve is most likely going to be a big, solid second-pairing type of defenseman.  He’s considered to be another project-type prospect whose path to the NHL won’t likely be a fast one. 

9. Nathan McIver, D – 5A

Drafted: 254th overall, 2003

McIver had a real breakout season in 2007-08 thanks to the significant injuries to the Canucks’ opening night defensive roster.  He played in 17 NHL games and did not look out of place, although he was used in limited roles and minutes.  In fact, he only played more than 13 minutes twice and one of those was a game where Willie Mitchell, Matthias Ohlund, Kevin Bieksa, Aaron Miller and Lukas Krajicek were all injured.  McIver dropped the mitts eight times during the season, and has some tough customers on his fight card.

The great thing about McIver is that he knows precisely what his limits are and plays within them.  He understands what is asked of him and gives an honest effort every night.  It was rare that one could say he had a poor game.  He keeps it simple and makes it unpleasant for opponents.  McIver may never be a true full-time NHLer, but he’s the kind of on-ice teammate everybody appreciate even if he only plays a dozen minutes a night and is lucky to get a few second assists during the season.  He’s a third pairing guy at best, but he’s steady when he is in the line-up.

10. Mike Brown, RW – 5A

Drafted: 159th overall, 2004

The story of Mike Brown can be read from his statistics.  In 19 regular season games with Vancouver, he had one goal and 55 PIM.  In 54 AHL games, he posted 13 points and 201 penalty minutes.  That included 31 fights if you count the pre-season and playoffs.  Brown is more or less the forward version of McIver — a very good north-south skater with good speed, but his lateral movement and precision skating need work.  He plays a hyper-aggressive style of forechecking and has absolutely no qualms about fighting. 

Brown’s future will depend heavily on the needs of the organization he plays within.  Despite the fact that he has little to no offensive ability at the NHL level, he is more than just a goon because of his skating and forechecking ability, but that doesn’t mean he is anything more than a fourth line player.  He will likely see some action during the season, particularly if games get rough against rivals, but it would be surprising to see him play more than he did last season.

11. Ilja Kablukov, LW – 6.5C

Drafted: 146th overall, 2007

Nothing has really changed for the lanky Russian.  That’s both the good and the bad news.  Kablukov had a good season with CSKA Moscow with 13 points in 50 games and really showcased himself positively during the Canada-Russian junior series at the start of the season.  He plays a very good two-way game and seems to have under-appreciated offensive creativity with the puck.  With some added muscle, Kablukov may be a pre-offensive outburst Johan Franzen with his size and intelligent defensive play.  The problem remains whether or not he’ll come to play in North America.  Kablukov has more “real” promise than several of the players above him on the list though.

12. Juraj Simek, RW – 7F

Drafted: 167th overall, 2006

The dangling winger is the only player from the previous Top 20 to actually fall out of the top 10 spots.  Regardless of his puck skills (impressive) and the fact that he was playing in the AHL after just one season of North American hockey (a significant challenge), Simek’s 17 points of production simply were not good enough last season.  Simek does not play a game that will lend itself to a grind line in the NHL.  If he’s not able to produce offensively, he simply won’t factor into the Canucks’ future plans.  Simek is far from done as a prospect.  Not yet 21, there is plenty of time for Simek, but he needs to prove last year was simply an adjustment period and he’s ready to get back to putting points on the board.

13. Dan Gendur, RW – 6C

Drafted: 206th overall, 2007

Gendur slips a spot from the previous ranking simply because of the additions from the 2008 draft class.  It’s difficult to argue with the 84 points in 60 games he racked up in Everett, but it’s important not to forget he did so as an overager.  Gendur does possess above average speed and a great shot, which are key attributes to scoring at any level.  The road ahead will not be an easy one for the winger, however.  With a loaded Moose roster more or less set, Gendur will most likely end up with the ECHL affiliate in Victoria.  It’s an uphill battle for Gendur, but he’s shown he does have more offensive flair than an average seventh-round pick.

14. Sergei Shirokov, LW – 6.5D

Drafted: 163rd overall, 2006

You don’t score 34 points in the Russian Super League without impressive skills.  But the plucky 5’10 Russian who once told Canucks scouts he would be happy to traverse the Atlantic to enhance his game and get a shot at the NHL is no closer to donning a Moose or Canucks jersey than he was two years ago on draft day.  He likely has the skills to play at a decent level in the NHL, possibly even right now depending on how he adjusted to the North American game, but with each passing year it becomes decreasing less likely he will come over.

15. Pierre-Cedric Labrie, RW – 6C

Drafted: Undrafted, free-agent signee

Much like Simek, Labrie only had one year of major junior experience under his belt before turning pro.  The difference is definitely in the expectations.  With 18 points, Labrie’s debut season has to be considered a success, particularly when you consider he was a complete unknown prior to signing with the club.  Labrie plays a pretty simple game.  He’s a big body with decent hands in front of the net.  He doesn’t skate well, he doesn’t handle the puck particularly well, but he’s strong on his skates and puts the puck away when the opportunity presents itself.  He needs to upgrade his skating and become more aware of his defensive responsibilities.  If he can put it together, Labrie has some longshot NHL potential, but that is years away under the best circumstances.

16. Mario Bliznak, C – 6C

Drafted: 205th overall, 2005

The Canucks’ other forward making the jump to the professional ranks, Bliznak will face many of the same challenges as Gendur, although the offensive expectations will be significantly lower.  Bliznak is a steady two-way forward who has accurately been tabbed as a defensive specialist since his draft day.  He’s proven he’s capable and responsible during his time with the Vancouver Giants and also showed that he steps up in the biggest games.  Expect Bliznak to spend the upcoming season with the Salmon Kings and then slowly work his way through the system over the coming years.  He may one day become a checking line player in the NHL.

17. Charles-Antoine Messier, C – 7F

Drafted: 145th overall, 2007

Messier did not have the season expected of him this year, compiling just 41 points in 66 games in the high-scoring QMJHL.  Now playing in rural and northern New Brunswick, Messier is about as far from the limelight as one can be playing major junior hockey in Canada.  The Canucks have spoken highly of his skills, but he has not been able to string together more than a couple good performances in a row to date.  Messier’s size is going to be a major factor moving forward, as the 5’10, 176 lbs pivot is elusive but still small and lacking physical strength for a pro player.  Messier faces a long, uphill battle over the next few years and he will have to produce significantly better numbers.  Messier will spend another season the Q and don’t be surprised if he returns the following season for an overage year.

18. Julien Ellis, G – 6D

Drafted: 189th overall, 2004

This season is a true make or break year for the former Shawinigan Cataractes star.  If Ellis is not able to seize the backup job in Manitoba and hang on to it, it will be all but over for his NHL aspirations.  Regardless of the slow start to his pro career and his diminutive size, Ellis has shown in his junior career exceptional speed and reflexes.  He continues to struggle with positioning and rebound control, but his movement and natural gifts always give him a chance to make the big save.  There is no doubt Ellis has a lot of impressive names ahead of him on the goaltending depth chart, but that shouldn’t detract from the skills that he does have.  He’s a longshot at becoming a backup goalie down the road in the NHL, although he obviously has significant strides to make before that’s possible.  

19. Prab Rai, C – 6.5F

Drafted: 131st overall, 2008

A somewhat surprising pick for a team preaching character in the days leading up to the draft, Rai ran into controversy during the 2006-07 season when he demanded a trade from Prince George apparently over a dispute regarding ice time.  But that’s long in the past now for the Surrey, BC native who had a good season with the Seattle Thunderbirds.  Rai used his upper-tier speed to notch 20 goals and 65 points in 72 games.  A player plagued by claims that he’s not tough enough or willing to battle in the corners, Rai will have to show over the next few years those are myths.  Rai will be back in junior this year looking to put up increased numbers and show added commitment to his physical and defensive play.  Rai is a longshot prospect with some scoring potential but also has the chance to completely vanish from the radar screen.

20. Daniel Rahimi, D — 6D

The 6’2, 220 lbs rough and tumble defenseman had a disappointing start to his professional hockey career in North America.  Expectations were higher than they ought to be for a third-round pick because the previously unheralded Rahimi was a pick of fan-favorite scout Thomas Gradin.  Rahimi showed in rookie camp that skating was a major issue for him, and that remained a clear problem for the defender throughout his time with both the Moose and Salmon Kings this season.  Rahimi is just mean and nasty to play against.  He initiates contact whenever he can and knows how to punish opponents when battling for the puck.  His puck-handling skills are below-average and he will need to get better at making the simple plays in order to be a mainstay at the AHL level and eventually graduate to the NHL.  Rahimi is a work in progress, but is an interesting prospect because of his size, physical strength and aggression.