As the 2015-16 season gets underway the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. For the first time in many years the Canucks actually have some prospects that could push a few of the veterans for NHL jobs. Aside from Bo Horvat there has been very little homegrown talent injected into the Canucks lineup in recent memory. The fans and the Canucks organization are excited at the prospect of some youth being injected into the team as the current core group is nearing the end of their careers.
There will be some very large shoes to fill once the Sedins retire and it will be up to the likes of Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann, Cole Cassels, Brock Boeser, Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Gaunce to evolve their games and hopefully fill the voids left by the twins and others.
Cole Cassels, C, Utica Comets (AHL)
Although Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann – who scored his first NHL goal already – remain with the Canucks as of this writing, Cassels has really opened some eyes and turned some heads over the last year with his stellar play during his final season of junior with the Oshawa Generals. His solid two-way game will be a welcome addition to a Utica Comets team that saw significant turnover among the forward ranks over the summer. The Canucks franchise seems to be headed towards more of a developmental approach with its minor league affiliates as opposed to the recent trend of icing a veteran-laden farm team. Cassels will benefit as much as anyone under the new direction and should be given important minutes in all situations in 2015-16.
Cassels was always a longshot to make the Canucks roster out of training camp but there is no pressure for him to step in and fill a role right away. He will benefit greatly from spending a season or more with Utica where he can adjust to the speed and physicality of the pro game and further evolve into a dynamic two-way threat. If he manages to accelerate that evolution he could be a call-up candidate as early as this season.
Nicklas Jensen, RW, Utica Comets (AHL)
Since being selected 29th overall in 2011 Jensen has faced the pressure of being a first round pick with high expectations on him. While he has increased his offensive production in successive seasons with the Canucks’ AHL affiliates he has not been able to secure a permanent spot on the Canucks roster despite several call up opportunities. Possessing excellent NHL size and speed, the big Dane needs to find a scoring consistency at the top level or he may be passed over in favor of younger, more dynamic players moving forward.
2015-16 will be somewhat of a now or never season for Jensen. If he cannot raise his ceiling and force his way onto the Canucks roster at some point in the upcoming season he may be stigmatized as a bust and find himself as nothing more than a depth option. With some added responsibility in Utica for 2015-16 Jensen should be given every chance to flourish early on in the season but may see his role diminished if he cannot provide what is expected of him.
Hunter Shinkaruk, LW, Utica Comets (AHL)
Shinkaruk had a fairly successful rookie pro season with the Utica Comets in 2014-15 and will be looking to build on that success in 2015-16. He will be one of the forwards relied on to provide offense for the Comets and should be given plenty of opportunities to do so. He will have to continue to add muscle to his frame and try to add a physical dimension to his game before he will be ready for NHL duty. While his defensive game will never be his strong suit, his offense will be what gets him to the next level. If he can find the scoring touch that he had as a junior in Medicine Hat, he will surely have a breakout season offensively in 2015-16.
Shinkaruk will almost certainly play the majority of the season in Utica but may be given a cup of coffee at the highest level if he proves ready at some point in 2015-16. Barring a major injury or a serious backslide in offensive production Shinkaruk should see himself in a Canucks jersey in the very near future. Canuck fans will welcome the youngster with open arms after years of watching former first round picks disappoint and be dealt away.
Jake Virtanen, RW, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
Virtanen is the highest drafted Canuck (6th overall in 2014) since the Sedin twins were selected 2nd and 3rd overall back in 1999 and the pressure is squarely on his shoulders to live up to the hype surrounding him. Virtanen’s physical tools are on display during almost every shift he takes and opponents are very aware of where he is on the ice at any given time. Virtanen can steamroll right over most opponents at the junior level and is a threat to score at any moment. Hopefully his injury woes from 2014-15 have been fully resolved and he can focus on rekindling his scoring touch that was absent at times last season.
While many Canucks fans would like to see Virtanen in Vancouver for 2015-16 it is likely he will be returned to junior to play one last season with the Calgary Hitmen. Virtanen played a prominent role for Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship and can be expected to do the same in 2016. There is little pressure for Virtanen to make the Canucks out of training camp as most, if not all, of the forward positions are currently secured. Unless he truly amazes management at training camp it is in Virtanen’s best interest to allow him one more year at the junior level to dominate physically and hone his scoring edge. Virtanen is definitely a key player in the future plans of the Canucks organization and his day is coming very soon, but patience will benefit both him and the organization in the long term.
Pettit will be looking to improve his standing in the Canucks organization by increasing his offensive output from last season and that might actually be simplified by the absence of Connor McDavid (EDM). Although league scoring leader Dylan Strome (ARI) returns, Pettit will be given more of an opportunity to put up some points in a top-six role with the Otters in 2015-16.
The determination on Pettit at this point in his career is that he is a reliable centerman with strong faceoff skills and good defensive zone awareness, assets that most players his age are lacking. If he is to have a future with the Canucks he will need to continue to improve his skating and overall play in the offensive zone, something he hasn’t truly been given the chance to do thus far. If he can provide a scoring touch to an Erie team that needs to replace a load of points, then his stock should rise substantially and cement him into the future plans of the organization. If he cannot produce offensively he may still become a useful bottom six player with decent shut-down potential.
Drafted in the fourth round (114th) in 2015, little was known about the young Russian aside from what people had seen of him at a few international events. Shortly after being drafted Zhukenov committed to coming to North America to learn the game on the smaller ice surface and get a feel for the North American style. Playing in the QMJHL will give the Canucks scouting team greater opportunities to monitor his development.
If he transitions easily, Zhukenov could very well end up playing top-line minutes with Chicoutimi. If all goes well he may have a very successful season offensively. Zhukenov will need to further develop his defensive attributes and add a lot more muscle to his slight frame if he is to ever advance to the pro ranks, but for the short term it will be his scoring touch that will gain him recognition.
Thatcher Demko, G, Boston College (Hockey East)
Demko is a very exciting prospect and the Canucks have high hopes for the young American. With no other serious goaltending prospects currently in their system, the Canucks view Demko as the goalie of the future and hope he can follow a road similar to the one taken by Cory Schneider. Demko has the size and ability to become an elite NHL goaltender if everything unfolds just right, and so far it has. Another year or two in college followed by a stint in the AHL should have young Demko in line for NHL duty as early as 2017-18 but he will not be rushed into a role that he may not be prepared for. Realistically, if Jacob Markstrom turns out to be a legitimate number one goalie there will be even less pressure on Demko to be rushed into the NHL. If Demko is not ready for NHL back-up duty once the Ryan Miller-Markstrom era comes to an end then the Canucks will certainly seek help outside the organization in filling either the starter or back-up role until he is ready.
Demko will continue to be a dominant force at Boston College in 2015-16 and after spending the summer recovering from double hip surgery he should be eager to see the results of having two fully healed, pain- free hip joints. It is very likely that his already excellent butterfly technique and solid positioning will only be enhanced as a result of the surgeries. A national title will be the next goal for Demko and with a solid group coming back to Boston College for 2015-16, it isn’t out of the question.
Freshman to Watch
Brock Boeser, RW, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Boeser will make the jump to the college ranks for the 2015-16 season, joining the University of North Dakota where he will hope to make a big splash in a much tougher league. While already a gifted offensive threat, Boeser will need to spend plenty of time in the weight room adding some bulk to his frame and focusing on becoming a better player in all three zones. Once he evolves his all-around game Boeser will likely be one of the more productive forwards at UND over the next couple seasons.
Boeser is definitely on the radar to make the USA’s World Junior Championship team for the 2016 tournament. A strong showing there would cement him as a top prospect with the Canucks organization. While still a couple years away from the pro ranks, Boeser has all the desirable traits of a legitimate NHL scoring forward and Canucks fans are eager to watch his progression over the coming seasons.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Matthew Beattie, LW, Yale University (ECAC)
Beattie will be in now or never mode for the 2015-16 season as his future with the Canucks hinges on him having a very good season with Yale. Last season was abysmal for Beattie statistically, putting together only three assists in 16 games. Once viewed as a power-forward type scoring forward, his future is now more that of a bang and crash energy forward with a limited scoring upside.
If Beattie somehow reignites his scoring touch then it is more likely that the Canucks would offer him an entry-level contract at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season. Much more likely however is that Beattie has become a middling player at the NCAA level and fallen off the radar of the Canucks management team. It will take a very strong season by Beattie to receive any serious consideration for an NHL contract.
Top European Prospect
Nikita Tryamkin, D, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (KHL)
When Tryamkin was drafted in the third round back in 2014 Canucks fans were hoping they had uncovered the next Zdeno Chara. A mountain of a man, Tryamkin has similar physical attributes to Chara but is somewhat lacking in the meanness department. If Tryamkin can get comfortable with his massive frame and start to use that frame to impose his will on opposing forwards then the big Russian should have the makings of a good shut-down NHL defender. If he does not learn to utilize the size he possesses to his advantage, then his upside will be somewhat limited. His respectable all-around game should keep him in the conversation as a player the Canucks would like to see in North America in the near future.
In the 2015-16 season Tryamkin has been held to two points while playing bottom-pair minutes through 17 games so far. He will need to show some improvement in a hurry, otherwise he may be headed into that category as a player whose growth seems to be stunted at this point. Only time will tell if the big defenseman can prove to be the player the Canucks had hoped for when drafting him 66th overall in 2014.
Lukas Jasek, LW, HC Trinec (Czech Extraliga)
Jasek will suit up for HC Trinec again for the 2015-16 season. Jasek is an intriguing prospect in that he has a solid set of offensive skills and has the size of a good NHL forward. If he can improve on his somewhat lackluster stats from his rookie campaign with Trinec then Jasek should see a significant rise in his stock as a prospect. He will need to work on adding a physical dimension to his game and not shy away from initiating contact, especially on the forecheck. Still only 18 years old, Jasek has plenty of time to work on these deficiencies and should see a spike in offensive production in 2015-16.
Considered a long-term prospect, Jasek will continue to ply his trade in the Czech league until the Canucks management team sees fit to introduce him to the North American ice. Probably a few years away at best the Canucks will continue to monitor the young Czech’s progression and assess his future potential accordingly. Early in the 2015-16 season Jasek has just one assist for the men’s club, making an assignment back to the junior ranks a possibility to help him find his confidence again.
Article written by Curtis Coulter