Prospect awards point to good things ahead for Vancouver Canucks

By Larenzo Jensen

Frank Corrado - Vancouver Canucks

Photo: Rookie defenseman Frank Corrado, winner of the Canucks’ Best Defensive Prospect award, played in 15 NHL games in 2013-14 (courtesy of Bob Frid/Icon SMI)

It would be easy to focus on the negative aspects of a season in which the Vancouver Canucks failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Although the end of the 2013-14 brought about sweeping changes for the organization, we at Hockey's Future enjoy taking time to focus on the positive developments within a team's developmental system. For the first time in what seems like ages, the Vancouver Canucks have some real talent within the prospect ranks, and the following is a tip of the proverbial hat in the direction of those that were most notable for particular aspects of their craft.

Hardest Worker: Bo Horvat, C, London Knights (OHL)

With all of his offensive production, it is not difficult to understand why Horvat's work ethic gets lost in the shuffle. It is this same lunch pail and hardhat attitude upon which a large portion of his success is predicated. Strong along the boards, he is often the first one in, and is very often the one that comes away with the puck. In 2012-13, he won the London Knights award as the best defensive player and playoff performer. He possesses an excellent awareness of player positioning on the ice, reading plays as they develop. This is part of what makes Horvat such an excellent center, as he interacts well with his defensemen and adapts his coverage in all three zones. He fights hard for every draw, and rarely lets his man through if he loses the faceoff. When in the offensive zone, if the puck is cleared or gets by one of his defensemen, he puts his head down and races back. There are players that have the talent, but the work ethic and desire are lacking. In Horvat's case, the two blend together fluidly. Runner-up for this award goes to Alex Friesen, who not only finished his 2013-14 season on a torrid pace, but did yeoman's work all season long.

Hardest Shot: Kellan Lain, C, Utica Comets (AHL)

The Lake Superior State (WCHA) product had a surge of confidence throughout the season, getting a chance to play nine games in a Canuck uniform. Part of the reason for his call-up was his fine work playing for the Utica Comets this season, and the other was because of his physical stature. At 6'6”, 210 pounds, Lain is more than adept at handling himself on the ice, as his 129 penalty minutes will attest. But Lain is more than just a pugilist; those same hands can transfer a lot of power into his shot. If there was one critique of Lain's shot it would be that he does not use it as often as he could. He provides a strong net presence, and his coaching staff obviously instruct him to head there as often as possible. When he does have a chance to get it off, he has a cracker of a shot, leaving defenders scrambling for cover. Runner-up awards go to Darren Archibald and Nicklas Jensen.

Best Defensive Prospect: Frank Corrado, D, Utica Comets (AHL)

While it is true that Frank Corrado had stiffer competition this season for this award, there is just too much raw potential to give this award to any other candidate. Turned to by his coaches every night to help shut down the opposition's top lines, Corrado is a versatile defender that can play both ends of the rink. In a season where the Canucks were ravaged by injuries, Corrado notched another 15 NHL games, and did not look out of place doing it. He scored his first NHL goal in that span, with four penalty minutes and a minus-two rating. Rarely caught out of position, Corrado has the wheels to recover should that transpire. His first pass is generally the right one, and he is effective getting the puck out of the defensive zone when he recognizes a breakdown in coverage. Although he had a few nights where he appeared to be a little overwhelmed by the difference in speed possessed by forwards at the NHL level, he was by no means out of his league. Considering he is still only 21 years old, Corrado has a bright future within the Canucks' organization. Runners-up in this category were Ben Hutton and Peter Andersson.

Fastest Skater: Nicklas Jensen, RW, Utica Comets (AHL)

Speed is such a critical factor at the NHL level, and one of the appealing qualities of hockey. While arguments will always remain over what type of speed is most important, there are players that are prolific simply because they have great overall speed and skating skills. Nicklas Jensen is one such player who just seems to have that ability to grab an extra gear on the ice. He has often been witnessed being only a half-stride ahead of a defenseman, then widens the gap to three strides in a matter of a couple of seconds. On harmless looking plays, as a defenseman is leaving the zone with the puck, Jensen has caught them from behind, lifted the stick, and turned the puck the other way for a scoring chance. During his call-up to the parent club, it was apparent the Canucks wanted to give him every opportunity to put his jets on display. He added an element of sorely missed speed to their lineup, and looks to get further opportunity in the 2014-15 season. Ludwig Blomstrand, who possesses a pair of very quick feet, was also considered for this award.

Prospect of the Year: Bo Horvat, C, London Knights (OHL)

The 2013 NHL Draft brought the Canucks into drafting territory rarely ventured. Outside of drafting Cody Hodgson with the 10th selection in 2008, rarely could they boast a pick in the top ten. While not a generational talent, Horvat is a very complete prospect, and adds some legitimacy to Vancouver's prospect pool. While it remains to be seen how he adapts to hockey at the pro level, it is hard to imagine that his strong defensive style will not carry over. He has good speed, and as noted earlier, is a hard working, gritty player. The London Knights have been a strong presence in the OHL the past few years. Horvat has been a large part of that success, proving himself both in the regular season, while stepping up his game in the playoffs. He ranked second on the Knights in playoff scoring, but after a layoff of over a month heading into the Memorial Cup, Horvat was held off the score sheet in three consecutive round-robin losses by the host team. There are those fans that feel the price tag to obtain Horvat was too high, but those views may soften once they get a better look at Horvat when he is wearing a Canuck sweater. Nicklas Jensen was the runner-up prospect of the year.

Breakout player for 2014-15: Peter Andersson, D, Utica Comets (AHL)

Part of the beauty of the game of hockey is that you just never truly know what is going to happen. If we did, then there would be no line in Las Vegas, and arena attendance figures would plummet. But sometimes trends and patterns are a foreshadowing of things to come. Peter Andersson's steadily increasing production rate and ice time could be an indication of positive things yet ahead. The Utica Comets coaching staff have obviously liked his versatility, using him in multiple situations. The lanky Swede reargaurd has become a staple on the Comets defense corps, and has gradually improved his game in North America. A huge offensive breakout may not occur, but for a defenseman, offensive totals only hold so much meaning. Having a positive plus-minus rating on a club that had featured many players in the 'minus' column is a big deal. The Comets lost a lot of players to the parent club because of the injury woes the Canucks suffered. The only other matter is whether the Comets will lose Andersson to a call-up stint to Vancouver for his first crack at playing in the NHL. Penn State Nittany Lion Mike Williamson was also considered for the breakout player award for 2014-15.

Most Improved Prospect: Ben Hutton, D, University of Maine (Hockey East)

What a sophomore season Ben Hutton enjoyed. The University of Maine phenom, alongside teammate Devin Shore (DAL), were named CCM Division I All-Americans East Second Team in April. Hutton also received the Bob Monahan Award as the top defenseman in New England. He also set the school record for goals by a defenseman (15), and led all defensemen in the country with that goal total. His nine power-play goals was tops in the country for defensemen as well. While it was evident after his rookie season that Hutton was on the right track, nobody could have predicted he would nearly double his point total and go on a tear the way that he did during the 2013-14 season. It would be nearly impossible for Hutton to orchestrate a more impressive encore, anything remotely close to the numbers he put up this past season would be amazing. The Canucks look to have gotten a lot of bang for their buck with this fifth-round gem. Both Cole Cassels and Mike Williamson were also considered candidates for this award.

Overachiever: Cole Cassels, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

Prior to the 2013-14 season, Cole Cassels stated what his goals were, as ambitious (though understated) as they seemed, while playing for the Oshawa Generals. He wanted to continue to be the gritty, two-way pivot that he has always been, while being counted on more for offensive support. Well, thank goodness for goal-setting, and those that can reach beyond them. Cassels had a monster year with the Generals, obliterating his offensive production from the 2012-13 season. If he had recorded any playoff statistics in that year, those too would surely have been decimated by his 2013-14 playoff numbers. Cassels had 24 goals, 49 assists for 73 points in in 61 games during the 2013-14 regular season. During the 2014 playoffs, Cassels finished second on the team in points, scoring six goals, and 11 assists, for 17 points in 12 games. He only trailed top prospect Michael Dal Colle (2014 draft eligible), and has truly overachieved this season. Alexandre Grenier was the runner-up in this category.

Underachiever: Patrick McNally, D, Harvard University (ECAC)

The former Milton Academy hockey and lacrosse star has hit the proverbial bumps in the road in his pursuit of a career in hockey. The 2013-14 season represented an important time in his development, or lack thereof, after a university-wide scandal forced a hiatus from hockey and cost him all but seven games for Harvard during the 2012-13 season. While he was reinstated into the program for the 2013-14 season, he was unable to return to previous form. He recorded only a fraction of the points he had in his freshman year, playing in 14 fewer games than 2011-12. His goal and seven assists this past season through 20 games was a far cry from his six goals, 22 assists in 34 games during his freshman campaign. His disappointing production lends credence to the argument that it is nearly impossible to lose playing time at this stage of a players' development, and not have a negative impact. It was not for a lack of support from the Canucks organization. While the ship can still be righted, it is hard not to imagine what could have been. Alexandre Mallet was the runner-up in this category, due in large part to his draft position.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Hunter Shinkaruk, LW, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)

Even coming into the 2013 draft, Hunter Shinkaruk had this mantle. Scouts were divided on where he slotted in, with a few surprised he did not go higher, and others that felt he would slip into the second round. Part of the X-factor was Shinkaruk's ability to stay healthy. He missed all but three games in the 2009-10 season after breaking his tibia and fibula in his right leg. In his bid to make the 2013-14 Canada World Junior Championships team, he played through the pain of a torn labrum in his left hip. Finally, on January 7th, he had season ending hip surgery in Vail, Colorado by noted hip specialist, Marc Phillipon. The high reward part of his status stems from how he returned for his first season with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 2010-11 season. He finished 10th in rookie scoring that season, and took the WHL by storm in 2011-12. He scored 49 goals in 66 games, finishing 12th in league scoring. Shinkaruk was one of the standouts during the Canucks 2013 summer camp, and aims to have another strong showing at camp this year. If he can bounce back from his most recent surgery and have a strong camp, there is still a chance he could get an opportunity in the NHL during the 2014-15 season. Jordan Subban was the runner-up for this award.