Cody Hodgson still top prospect for Vancouver Canucks

By Kyle West
Photo: OHL forward Alex Friesen looks like the next abrasive two-way player to play in the Vancouver organization. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Having traded away all their picks in the first three rounds at the 2010 entry draft, the Vancouver Canucks have turned to the free agent route to replenish their prospect list, a strategy that has seen success this year. Undrafted free agents Chris Tanev and Eddie Lack step into the Canucks top-10 this year and are joined by Billy Sweatt, who became available after the Maple Leafs failed to sign him. Along with Darren Archibald, the Canucks have four free agent signings in their Top 20.

1. (1) Cody Hodgson, C, 8.0 C
Acquired: 1st round, 10th overall, 2008

Downgraded in his prospect rating, Hodgson got off to a very slow start in his rookie campaign with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. While he belatedly started producing offensive numbers, Hodgson posted just 12 goals and 18 points in 34 games with the Moose before getting an audition to hold down the fourth line center job with the Canucks. Celebrating his first NHL goal away to Phoenix, Hodgson has attempted to make the most of his limited ice time. With his smarts and dedication he has every reason to make his game stick in the NHL, however the concerns about his foot speed won’t go away. While the Canucks will try every scenario to accommodate his development, sitting on the bench most nights in the NHL can’t be helping his progression long term. A return to the Moose seems inevitable; how Hodgson performs after that demotion will be telling.

2. (3) Anton Rodin, RW, 7.5 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2009

A regular player in the SEL with Brynas this year, the lively and combative Rodin has posted an impressive 26 points in 52 games, including seven goals. A high energy winger who plays bigger than his size, Rodin has always been noted to have a mature and well-rounded game. A fearless forechecker with good speed, Rodin does not hesitate to get involved with physical play and will crash the net to get to loose pucks. Although still rounding into full physical maturity at 5’11 and 175 lbs, Rodin has the speed and smarts to make an impact in North America when he does decide to come over. While he is growing and adapting to the men’s game in Sweden, Rodin is likely to continue to progress overseas, however the scoring needs of the Canucks may necessitate a change of plans as early as next training camp.

3. (4) Sergei Shirokov, RW, 7.5 C
Acquired: 6th round, 163rd overall, 2006

Playing better than ever for the Moose, Shirokov has taken greater responsibility and been more committed to the game this year. Producing at a clip to better his 22 goals and 45 points of last season, Shirokov was rewarded with a two game call up to the Canucks in January and scored his first NHL goal against Colorado. A player whose commitment to staying in the AHL has been questioned, Shirokov has worked harder than ever to prove his heart is with the Canucks and not back in the KHL. Taking the puck hard to the net and paying the price for rebounds is one way Shirokov has demonstrated his desire to become an NHL regular, and while the sample size is still small, he does appear to be closer than ever to realizing his ambition of claiming a full time spot on the Canucks.

4. (2) Jordan Schroeder, C, 7.5 C
Acquired: 1st round, 22nd overall, 2009

In his first full season with the Moose, Schroeder has dazzled and disappointed in equal measure. While his electrifying speed and livewire playmaking can bring fans out of their seats at times, he has been worryingly passive for long stretches as well. With just nine goals and 24 points in 43 games, Schroeder has tailed off from the point-per-game pace he posted in his late season debut with the Moose last year. While there have been extenuating circumstances, such as his shift from center to wing and back and his revolving door of linemates, Schroeder’s lack of production has to be worrying. If he moves back to center with stable linemates of quality and still doesn’t score, then it may time to ring some alarm bells. A player who made a dramatic fall on draft day and was rumored to have attitude issues at the combine, Schroeder needs to dispel any suggestion that he is not playing with full commitment and start producing like he should.

5. (12) Billy Sweatt, LW, 7.5 C
Acquired: Free agent in July 2010

Second only to Shirokov in scoring for the Moose, Sweatt has exceeded expectations as an AHL rookie. A key offensive catalyst for Colorado College in his four years with the Tigers, this former Chicago Blackhawks second-round pick was traded to Toronto in the summer but left unprotected when the Leafs failed to sign him before the deadline for retaining his rights. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis stepped in and made one of his many free agent coups, watching with satisfaction as Sweatt has lit up the AHL. His 14 goals and 38 points in 60 games are satisfying returns for the player, however what really gets Canucks staff excited is his ability to outstrip defenders with superior speed. Already too fast for the AHL, Sweatt plays a smart, up-tempo attacking style that should mesh very well with the Canucks. Already being compared to Alex Burrows, Billy Sweatt looks like another astute free agent signing by Gillis.

6. (5) Kevin Connauton, D, 7.5 D
Acquired: 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2009

Bombing the opposition net while on the power play, Connauton has had plenty of chance to exhibit his strengths in the AHL this season while continuing to work on his weaknesses. Having scored 10 goals and nine assists so far during his rookie campaign with the Moose, Connauton has functioned best as the trigger man on the Manitoba power play. Coming off a record-setting scoring season in the WHL, where he scored 24 goals and 72 points in 69 games for the Vancouver Giants, Connauton’s offensive instincts are off the charts. Where he needs to improve is going backwards, especially when faced with speedy forwards to the outside. Connauton’s backward and lateral skating leave him grasping and gasping and he needs to refine his technique before he can expect to get a regular spot during 5-on-5 play.

7. (6) Patrick McNally, D, 7.5 D
Acquired: 4th round, 115th overall, 2010

One of the reasons the Vancouver Canucks have been leading the league for most of the season is their relentless up-tempo offensive game that starts from the back. As part of the shift towards a more dynamic offensive style, Canucks staff have been scouring the ranks of the undrafted for defenseman who can skate well. One such prize was found in the 2010 entry draft, when prep school blueliner Patrick McNally was claimed in the 4th round. McNally is fluid and fast and demands the puck on his stick in all situations. His team’s top scorer last season, the Harvard-bound defenseman was also top scorer in the Academic rankings. This year, the senior continues to dominate the opposition and highlight his flair for puck possession. There is a steep curve for high-school seniors playing in the NCAA for the first time, and the Harvard program is not the strongest in terms of hockey, however McNally will likely be given the full four years to develop his game and exercise his smarts on and off the ice.

8. (NR) Chris Tanev, D, 7.0 C
Acquired: Free agent in June 2010

The first ever Rochester Institute of Technology alumnus to play in the NHL, Tanev has represented the Tigers well and made the Canucks scouting staff look like they are earning their paychecks. An undrafted freshman at RIT, the lanky Tanev was a key figure in leading the Tigers to a Div. II national championship. He scored 10 goals and added 18 assists in 41 games as a freshman and was a vital performer in all situations. Snapped up by the voracious Canucks scouting staff, Tanev got a long look at training camp and impressed with his poise and smarts. After 39 games with the Moose to start the year, Tanev was recalled when injuries decimated the Vancouver blue line and has not looked out of place in the NHL. Whippet-thin and in need of a bulk-up program, Tanev anticipates the play well and his skating takes him out of harm’s way. Still with plenty of growing to do, early returns are very exciting and he looks every bit a rare gem unearthed. Gillis must have already written the bonus checks for the scouts who discovered him.

9. (NR) Eddie Lack, G, 7.0 C
Acquired: Free agent in April 2010

The man known as "The Stork" touched down in North America and has brought peace of mind to the goalkeeping future of the Canucks with him. The 6’5 keeper has been unbeatable down low as his butterfly takes away most of the cage, and although AHL shooters believe they can beat up top, his glove hand has been sharp all season. Backstopping the Moose to contender status, Lack has been a huge reason for the consistent results at the AHL level in a season where more than the usual number of players have been shuttling back and forth to the parent club. A tendency to drop into the butterfly too early is really the only aspect of Lack’s game that he needs to work on before facing NHL shooters.

To date Lack has a 21-15-3 record, 2.08 goals against average, and a .926 save percentage.

10. (20.) Joe Cannata, G, 7.0 C
Acquired: 6th round, 173rd overall, 2009

One of the big movers on the Canucks depth chart, Cannata has been a revelation of sorts this season. A freshman sensation with Merrimack College, Cannata tailed off as a sophomore but has come on stronger than ever in his third year in the NCAA. Cannata is having an All-American season and must get some serious Hobey Baker consideration as the Warriors are one of the best teams in the nation. Cannata backstopped Merrimack to a recent eight game win streak, five of them one goal victories, and leads the conference with 21 wins, a 2.30 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. Calm and composed, Cannata has been dominant this year and must be on the Canucks radar for a contract after his senior year.

11. (8) Yann Sauve, D, 6.5 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 41st overall, 2008

Fully recovered from the off-season car accident that claimed his training camp and pre-season, Sauve has been eased back into fulltime duties. Playing just 24 games with the Moose, Sauve has concentrated on a defense first game and been used on the third pairings. Pressed into emergency duty with the Canucks, Sauve helped to ease the Vancouver rearguard shortage by taking a regular shift for three NHL games in February. Although he appeared to be caught behind the pace of the game on occasion, the experience will stand him in good stead as he returns to the AHL to work on his game. A solidly-built mobile defender, Sauve has limited upside but is the type of third-pairing guy every team needs.

12. (11) Adam Polasek, D, 6.5 C
Acquired: 5th round, 145th overall, 2010

Continuing to enjoy his hockey in the QMJHL, Polasek is a solidly built blueliner who enjoys the physical side of the North American game. Suiting up for the PEI Rocket, Polasek has some offensive punch to his game, firing home five goals and 31 points in 52 games this year. An energetic presence on the ice and an enthusiastic teammate in the dressing room, Polasek is well-liked and appreciated for his commitment to the game. Further seasoning in the Q can only benefit this fifth rounder and give him a chance to take on more offensive responsibility before taking the next step in his progression.

13. (7) Steven Anthony, LW, 7.0 D
Acquired: 7th round, 187th overall, 2009

Perhaps belatedly realizing he has to work to realize his potential, or perhaps benefitting from playing as an overager on one of the best teams in the CHL, Anthony has produced at a point per game this year. Once talked about in the same breath as superstar Sidney Crosby, the supremely talented Anthony was blessed with similar talents but without the drive to compete. After meandering his way through three seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs, Anthony now plays wing on one of the top lines and pulls his weight offensively. Drafted as a franchise player by the Sea Dogs, Anthony is now a complimentary piece on a very deep and very talented squad. Still a frustrating player, Anthony at least shows signs he can contribute when surrounded by talent.

14. (NR) Alex Friesen, C, 7.0 D
Acquired: 6th round, 172nd overall, 2010

Drafted as an overage player in 2010, Alex Friesen is having a productive fourth season in the OHL, matching his point-per-game totals of the previous season while continuing to be an energetic and occasionally abrasive presence on the ice.

While Friesen has been a consistent offensive contributor for the entire season, never going more than two games in a row without a point, the Canucks organization values him more for his faceoff ability and hard working disposition. He scored very high in the team’s psychological and intelligence testing going into the 2010 draft and his IQ is evident in his ability to read or anticipate plays.

Friesen is known as a great teammate in Niagara as well as a solid defensive presence on the ice. He projects to be a similar player to many of the skilled, two-way agitators that are currently playing for the Canucks or have in recent past. Now 20 years old, the Canucks will have to make a decision to sign him to an entry-level deal by the end of the 2010-11 season.

15. (15) Jeremy Price, D, 6.5 D
Acquired: 4th round, 113th overall, 2009

Coming of an impact freshmen season with the Colgate Raiders of the ECAC, Price has continued his strong two-play and is a leading player at the back in all situations. Unfortunately the Raiders are having one of their worst ever seasons and there is little Price can do to stem the losing tide. His 16 points in 34 games lead the team in scoring by a defender and Price also sees plenty of time on the penalty kill. Observers were critical of his game last season for having frequent attacks of the freshmen jitters but by all accounts he has settled down as a sophomore.

16. (13) Mario Bliznak C, 6.0 B
Acquired: 7th round, 205th overall, 2005

With his first NHL goal under his belt, Bliznak has made at least that progressive step in his development. Resigned in the summer as a free agent, Bliznak did his best to seize the moment during a four game recall to the Canucks scoring in a game against Ottawa on November 11th and making his best attempt to prove his worth as a high energy checking line center. Since returned to the Manitoba Moose his enthusiasm and energy make him a valued teammate and he continues to play a reliable and consistent game. Not quite able to force himself into the Canucks plans this year, Bliznak can hope he has done enough to be retained within the organization.

17. (9) Prab Rai, C, 7.0 F
Acquired: 5th round, 131st overall, 2008

Long been accused of lacking spine, Prab Rai has gone missing this season with back problems. Having won over Canucks management with a 41 goal season in the WHL and rewarded with an entry-level deal, Rai hasn’t played a game all season. Awarded the dreaded "F" grade, Hockey’s Future has cast serious doubts on his ability to live up to his immense potential. Always more of a perimeter player, Rai had shown less reluctance to get into the dirty areas as an overage player with the Seattle Thunderbirds and there were hopes that a renewed commitment to building his strength would help him turn the corner in his development. Instead, a season wasted sees him plummet down the depth charts.

18. (18) Peter Andersson, D, 6.5 D
Acquired: 5th round, 143rd overall, 2009

Andersson has shown himself to be a reliable defensive presence paying against the men of the Swedish Eliteserien. At 6’3 and 195 lbs, he has a projectable frame for the NHL and although he is not likely to develop into an offensive defenseman, he has a good first pass and reads the play well. Andersson has yet to score a point in 27 games with Vastra Frolunda of the SEL yet he plays regular minutes and goes about his business quietly. Not the most exciting of prospects, yet Andersson is one that could become a solid third pairing for the Canucks down the road.

19. (NR) Darren Archibald, LW, 6.0 C
Acquired: Free agent in December 2010

Given his recent track record of turning undrafted lead into prospect gold, Canucks chief alchemist Mike Gillis has sparked excitement around power forward Darren Archibald, a 6’3 winger who plays an uncompromising game. Currently lining up alongside Canucks 2010 4th rounder Alex Friesen with the Niagara Ice Dogs, Archibald passed through 14 rounds of drafting the past two years without anyone calling his name and was turned away empty handed after attending training camps with both the Blue Jackets and Red Wings. Having taken some time to grow into his frame Archibald now weighs in at 200 pounds and is an intimidating presence in the corners. A consistent scorer with the Barrie Colts before being traded to Niagara, Archibald has worked hard to improve his foot speed and strengthening that area of his game will be crucial as he adapts to the AHL next year.

20. (19) Jonathan Iilahti, G, 6.5 D
Acquired: 6th round, 175th overall, 2010

Suddenly eclipsed by Lack and Cannata on the Canucks goalie depth chart, Iilahti has played for five different teams this season. His 15 games with the Blues in the U-20 league saw him post a solid 2.53 goals against average however he was overwhelmed in eight games on loan to two different teams in the Finnish second division and absolutely shelled during three games with the Finns during an international tournament. Cut from the WJC camp after he backstopped Finland to the bronze medal at the Ivan Hlinka last year was further proof of his struggles this season to assert himself amongst the other top goalie prospects in Finland. With no need to rush his development, the Canucks can afford to be patient and see whether his .921 save percentage last year was a flash in the pan or proof of greatness to come.