Although 2013-14 was a trying and turbulent season for the Vancouver Canucks, the team appears poised to re-establish itself as a playoff contender this year. Part of that optimism is attributable to the team’s depth, bolstered by having two first-round picks in both the 2013 and 2014 NHL Drafts.
While the contributions of some of those highly-regarded young men will have to wait for another year, the Canucks are looking for some quick development so that last year’s setbacks can be forgotten.
One of the highly-regarded prospects whose contributions will have to wait is Bo Horvat, who is on the shelf with an injury sustained in training camp. Though obviously unfortunate for him, the injury buys the Canucks extra time to decide whether to return him to the London Knights for yet another junior season or keep him at the NHL level. Horvat’s emergence from this limbo is certainly one of the most intriguing stories of the early season for Canucks supporters.
Top Pro Prospect
Hunter Shinkaruk, LW, Utica Comets (AHL)
Hunter Shinkaruk is an agile, offensively talented player who is poised to spend some time in the NHL at some point in 2014-15. The Canucks’ 2013 first-round pick was a notable talent in his WHL career but missed much of his post-draft season rehabbing from hip surgery. Rather than return to junior for an overage season, Shinkaruk should benefit greatly from playing in the AHL. The primary question mark with him since draft day has been whether he possesses the strength to play his game at the pro level, and this is the only way to determine the answer. Shinkaruk should put up some impressive numbers as he learns his trade this season and could provide a jolt as need arises.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Frank Corrado, D, Utica Comets (AHL)
Frank Corrado looks to be a decent bet for the Canucks’ bottom four defensemen sometime in the near future, but the 2011 fifth-round pick is used to being patient. With most of Vancouver’s current NHL defensemen becoming free agents after the season, one would assume that an inexpensive, reliable option like Corrado would be among management’s top contract priorities.
Corrado was also injured during training camp and will be sent to Utica when he has recovered. The AHL squad should be revitalized with some of the talent coming its way and Corrado is expected to improve upon his modest efforts last season. The road to becoming an NHL defenseman is a long one, but Corrado is moving along it steadily.
Linden Vey, C, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)
One cannot question what the Los Angeles Kings have accomplished in recent years, and the depth of their system sometimes means having to part with the talent the team nurtured. The career of Linden Vey is one such example. A loaded depth chart allowed Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi to let Linden Vey loose for a draft pick, but the talented young man from Saskatchewan has proven he has significant talent. Scoring 67 points for Manchester in the AHL last year is a very good indication that Vey is ready for the next step. A natural center, Vey may well be asked to transition to the wing in order to fit on the Canucks’ roster but for now will play the third-line center role. This should provide the Canucks some offensive depth even as Vey adjusts to the NHL game.
Top Junior Prospect
Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
There is little doubt that Jake Virtanen and his family were very worried when the highly-touted young man had to undergo shoulder surgery in May 2014, just a matter of weeks before the NHL Draft. Concerns about his ability to rebound were apparently overstated, as the Canucks took the opportunity to use the sixth overall pick on the British Columbia native. A point-per-game draft eligible season, his excellent size, speed and shot all combine to make Virtanen the top prospect in the Canucks’ system. Partially due to rehabilitation time from the surgery, he will likely have to wait a full year before making any impact at the NHL level, but even patience born out of necessity will be good for the player and his future upside.
Jared McCann, C, Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
With the Canucks looking to ice a veteran lineup, most if not all of the junior eligible players will be back with their junior clubs. For Jared McCann this presents a very good opportunity to continue his growth at a good level and potentially compete for a league title. Russian import Sergey Tolchinsky got a lot of attention with his 91 point season, but McCann will be relied upon to play a complete game to let his teammates roam. McCann was just short of a point per game last season, but the 2014 first-round selection has another gear and should be able to build on the lessons of training camp to get to that level. Another positive year from McCann could have the Canucks boasting a truly impressive array of young centers.
Top Amateur Prospect
Thatcher Demko, G, Boston College (NCAA)
The Canucks spent a second round pick in 2014 to acquire Central Scouting’s top ranked North American goaltending prospect. Though projecting success between the pipes can make even top scouts look foolish, Thatcher Demko is a fairly safe bet. He rose through two rather non-traditional hockey programs in California before joining the US Development Program. Solid play at that level got him noticed by Boston College. Last year, Demko eventually displaced junior netminder Brian Billett and got the bulk of the starts down the line into the NCAA Tournament. His final save percentage was not altogether impressive for the league, but for a true freshman on a very high-profile team it was admirable. Though Boston College loses its top line and the services of Johnny Gaudreau, Demko will have every opportunity for successes in the win column as he refines his game throughout his sophomore campaign.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Ben Hutton, D, University of Maine (NCAA)
The Canucks seem not to rely heavily on U.S. colleges as a developmental arena, but one prospect worth monitoring is the University of Maine’s Ben Hutton. The 2012 fifth-rounder has been steadily improving throughout his college career. Last year’s sophomore season saw Hutton register 29 points in 35 games, including 15 goals. The former forward possesses excellent offensive instincts but has come a good distance in understanding defensive coverage as well. He has a solid frame and plays an intelligent positional game. With last year’s leading scorer Devin Shore and others returning to Orono, Hutton should have a solid junior year building on his last, perhaps leading the Black Bears back to the NCAA Tournament.
Top European Prospect
Nikita Tryamkin, D, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (KHL)
Nikita Tryamkin stands out for his size, and the 2014 third round selection is a huge young man who uses his size effectively in the defensive zone. He is currently playing in his third professional season with Avtomobilist, a team that is struggling mightily thus far in 2014-15.
While Tryamkin’s offensive numbers are not impressive to date, his shot rate has gone up steadily. Also, he plays behind more experienced teammates like former NHL player Sami Lepisto and KHL veteran Dmitri Megalinsky, and is asked to focus on responsibility foremost. Whether or not Tryamkin ever makes the jump to North America is up in the air at this point, but he blends an intriguing skill set in an NHL-sized frame as he works to build a solid resume.
New Team in 2014
Gustav Forsling, D, Linköping (SHL)
Gustav Forsling stays in the same system, but this season makes the step up from the U-20 squad. That team was one of the top in the J20 league last season, behind University of Minnesota recruit Leon Bristedt and Washington’s 2014 first round pick Jakub Vrána. Forsling’s defensive play also helped, and he was the top defensive scorer on his J-20 squad. He is not overly large for a defenseman though, and he will have to improve his positioning to really be effective in his own zone.
Forsling’s new team is full of veterans of North American hockey (Canucks’ pick Daniel Rahimi among them), and he will have the opportunity to learn about being a professional hockey player from players with a wealth of experience. Forsling is likely a couple of years away from making the big move to North America, but the offensively-gifted Swede bears watching.