Vancouver Canucks farm system loaded with future NHL players

By Curtis Coulter
Alex Friesen - Vancouver Canucks

Photo: Vancouver Canucks prospect Alex Friesen is on pace to improve his scoring totals for a third consecutive professional season (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)



Several Vancouver Canucks prospects have made their professional hockey debuts this season with the AHL’s Utica Comets and the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL. The Comets came into the 2015-16 season with high expectations after competing for the Calder Cup in 2014-15. Several major personnel changes were made in the offseason however and it could be difficult for Utica to replicate the success they had a season ago. Here is a look at the personnel the Canucks have deployed in Utica and Kalamazoo this season and an assessment of how each player is doing so far in the 2015-16 season.

Utica Comets (AHL)

Cole Cassels, C, 20

Cassels joined the Utica Comets for 2015-16 after winning a Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals to finish out his junior career at the end of the 2014-15 season. Many expected Cassels to transition easily to the pro game but so far in the early AHL season he has struggled to put up points and has even found himself a healthy scratch on more than one occasion. The coaching staff in Utica has tried Cassels at both center and the wing to try and figure out where he is most capable. As the season goes on and Cassels becomes more comfortable with the pro game he is sure to improve his point totals and his usually solid defensive game should continue to improve as well. A slow start to his pro career hasn’t dampened hopes that Cassels will one day be a solid two-way threat in the NHL.

Hunter Shinkaruk, LW, 21

 Shinkaruk has been excellent for the Utica Comets this season and he continues to roll along at a point per game pace. In mid-November the Canucks could no longer ignore the young sniper and called him up to the big club. Shinkaruk was only dressed for one game in which he saw nine and a half minutes of ice time. He didn’t manage to get onto the scoresheet but didn’t look terribly out of place either. After his brief experience with the Canucks Shinkaruk should be chomping at the bit to get back to the NHL and he may find himself a permanent member of the Canucks as early as next season if he continues his excellent play on the farm.

Alexandre Grenier, RW, 24

For Grenier the time to prove himself is now. He is in his third full season with Utica and producing points at a pace similar to past seasons. He has recently taken over several of Utica’s statistical categories and is now the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and goals and is knocking on the door of the all-time points category as well. His best natural assets, being size and an aggressive style of play, earned Grenier a short call-up with the Canucks in mid-November. Despite not looking out of place in his NHL debut, he was promptly returned to Utica. It remains a bit of a mystery why a player with such physical gifts cannot seem to take an energy player role from the likes of Brandon Prust or Derek Dorsett. Perhaps if Grenier can solidify his defensive game he may have a chance at the NHL as a useful third or fourth line grinder, but if not then he may remain in Utica indefinitely.

Alex Friesen, C, 24

 Much like Grenier the time is now for Friesen to make management notice him. Friesen finds himself in the top five in Utica’s franchise all-time games played category as well as the all-time points category. These numbers speak greatly to Friesen’s dedication and team first mentality, but with his slight stature and several other young centers passing him on the depth chart recently, his chances of becoming an NHL player at this point seem to be dwindling. His value to the Comets cannot be understated and he will continue to be a useful player for Utica, at least for the remainder of the 2015-16 season.

Brendan Gaunce, LW, 21

Brendan Gaunce has been another bright spot for the Utica Comets in the early going of the 2015-16 season. Playing mostly on the wing now, Gaunce is producing close to a point per game in the early AHL season. His strong play earned him a call-up to Vancouver at the end of October and he scored his first NHL goal in his second game with the Canucks. After being returned to Utica, Gaunce suffered an injury that kept him out of seven games but he has since returned to action and continues to be one of the more productive forwards for the Comets. His successful trial of NHL action should have him poised to make a permanent jump into the big league in the very near future. Between Gaunce and Shinkaruk the Canucks have options for the left wing once the current group of wingers need replacing.

Nicklas Jensen, RW, 22

The 2011 first round pick has been a frustrating prospect for Canucks management. Jensen has optimal size for the pro game, NHL-calibre speed and skating as well as a quick, accurate shot. All the ingredients are there for a quality NHL forward yet Jensen struggles to put all of his natural gifts together on a nightly basis. In the early AHL season Jensen is producing points at his usual rate but not showing any signs of improving his overall offense numbers. His overall potential seems to be somewhere between a third line player in the NHL and a top minor league player but he seems to be trending more toward the latter. It is seeming less and less likely that Jensen is in the Canucks long-term plans, especially with Jake Virtanen and Brock Boeser shoring up the right wing position. He may still be able to crank up his offense and shore up his defensive game to the point where the Canucks may extend a contract extension, but it is squarely on Jensen to make that happen.

Ronalds Kenins, LW, 24

Kenins was penciled in to make the Canucks out of training camp but some surprise performances by younger, more dynamic forwards forced the Canucks to demote him and he started the season with the Utica Comets. After only four games into the season he suffered an injury that kept him out of action for twelve games in November. After briefly returning to action with Utica, the Canucks’ injury situation necessitated a call-up and Kenins was on his way to Vancouver. He played in two games in early December for the Canucks and averaged about eleven minutes of ice time. He hasn’t played in a game since but remains in Vancouver with the Canucks as a healthy scratch. Given the chance, Kenins should be able to recapture some of what made him so successful in his rookie NHL campaign. His high intensity, hard-nosed style is something the Canucks should be able to use in the lineup especially with Jake Virtanen in Finland for the WJC tournament.

Joseph Labate, C, 22

Labate is in his rookie season with the Utica Comets and the big forward is slowly coming along with his development. He hasn’t produced any big offensive numbers but his sound defensive awareness makes him a useful bottom six forward for Utica. Labate can line up at wing or center which adds to his overall usefulness and if he can become somewhat of a defensive specialist then he may see NHL time in his future but likely not for another year or two at best.

Jordan Subban, D, 20

A lot was expected of the young rearguard as he began his rookie season with Utica, and so far Subban has delivered as advertised. Easing into the season he was able to adjust to the speed of the pro game and gain some confidence. As the season progressed and some of his senior teammates such as Danny Biega, Taylor Fedun and Andrey Pedan saw call-up action with Vancouver the ice-time and responsibilities increased for Subban, and he has handled the added pressure with poise.

The increased ice time has kept Subban at or near the top of the points leaders among defensemen in Utica and he should continue to produce at a high rate. While young Subban may be enjoying success early in his pro career he certainly won’t be rushed into the NHL and should be given plenty of time down on the farm to work on any deficiencies that he may need to address. If Subban continues to impress as he has so far, a call-up could be in the works yet this season but in all likelihood it will be training camp in the fall of 2016 when Subban makes his push for the NHL.

Andrey Pedan, D, 22

Pedan has been having a fairly decent season so far, increasing his point totals slightly over years past. Pedan is a massive individual that is not afraid to drop the gloves and will stick up for teammates whenever he is on the ice. His overall game is still somewhat incomplete but his defensive awareness and positioning have improved and Pedan looks like he can still evolve his game to the point where he could be a useful lower pair physical defender in the NHL one day.

Pedan was called up to the Canucks in late November and he played his first career NHL game against the L.A. Kings on December 1st. Pedan was given only four minutes of ice-time in that game and sent back to Utica the following day. A few weeks later Pedan was called back to Vancouver but has been held as a healthy scratch since the recall. Pedan still has upside and will work hard for the remainder of the 2015-16 season in hopes of being signed to a contract extension.

Ashton Sautner, D, 21

Sautner joined the Comets for the 2015-16 season after closing out his junior career with the Edmonton Oil Kings. An undrafted defenseman, Sautner pushed himself ahead of a few other prospects on the depth chart that are beginning their professional careers in 2015-16. Sautner has been steady so far with the Comets and with the injury bug taking away a few of the veteran defenders to Vancouver, the minutes and responsibilities have increased for the young defender in Utica. Saunter should continue to improve in both ends of the rink and eventually push some of the veterans out of the picture.

Kalamazoo Wings (ECHL)

Ludwig Blomstrand, LW, 22

Blomstrand has been unable to stick with the Utica Comets so far in his pro career and the 2015-16 season is no exception. Assigned to Kalamazoo to start the season, Blomstrand is a bit off his usual pace for point production, especially in the goal department. After netting 33 goals for the Wings last season, good for the team lead in that category, Blomstrand has managed only five goals through the first third of the ECHL season. Blomstrand’s future with the Canucks organization may be coming to a close unless he can have a major breakthrough in the second half of the current season.

Mackenze Stewart, LW, 20

Stewart was converted to a winger to start the 2015-16 season in hopes that he could become a bruising, energy forward for the Utica Comets. Instead Stewart has been bounced back and forth between Utica and Kalamazoo and has been scratched on more occasions than not. The big, nasty kid will have to refine his game in most areas if he is ever to be more than a fourth line scrapper.

Dane Fox, C, 22

Fox, like Blomstrand has had a difficult time forcing his way onto the Utica Comets roster despite a strong rookie season. Fox has continued to produce points for Kalamazoo in 2015-16 but his goal scoring has dropped off significantly from last year when his 30 goals were second on the team to only Blomstrand’s 33 goals. This may be due in part to Fox realizing that if he is to advance to the higher ranks he will have to focus less on scoring goals and focus more on becoming a physical bang and crash type forward. Fox has never been a stranger to the physical game and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. If he can remain a decent scorer while playing with a physical edge then there should be an opportunity for Fox to advance himself in the near future. 

Anton Cederholm, D, 20

Cederholm has been a consistent player for the Wings so far in 2015-16. His physical edge is a great asset for the ECHL but his offensive skills are still somewhat lacking. Never known for his offensive abilities, it will be the physical elements of his game that Cederholm will have to polish in order to advance to the next level. He still has plenty of time to grow and develop and could still see some time with Utica in 2015-16.

Evan McEneny, D, 21

McEneny has had a trying start to his professional career. He started the season with Utica but was demoted to Kalamazoo after only one game. Since his demotion he has had trouble staying in the Wings lineup and managed to play in only two games so far this season. McEneny has a lot of the tools required to make a solid pro defenseman but a lack of playing time has kept him from gaining much experience or development.

Non-Minor League Prospect Updates

Jared McCann and Ben Hutton seem to have cemented themselves into the Canucks’ current and future plans given their strong play in the early 2015-16 season. Jake Virtanen was right there with McCann and Hutton until an injury sidelined him in early December that kept him out of action for a couple weeks. He was subsequently assigned to the Utica Comets on a conditioning stint before being loaned to Team Canada for the WJC in Finland.

Defenseman Guillaume Brisebois has been enjoying a solid season so far in 2015-16. Once again the captain of the Titan, Brisebois continues to be a solid two-way threat and is used in all situations. Brisebois was rewarded for his strong efforts and signed a three year entry-level contract with the Canucks on December 10th.

Jake Virtanen (Canada), Brock Boeser (USA), and Lukas Jasek (Czech Republic) will be the Canucks representatives at the 2016 WJC in Finland.

Vancouver Canucks Prospect of the Month

Brock Boeser - Vancouver Canucks2015 first round pick Brock Boeser exploded onto the scene at the University of North Dakota to start the 2015-16 season and he hasn’t looked back. He is among the leaders in the NCAA for rookie scoring and he earned a spot on Team USA for the upcoming WJC in Finland. The future is very bright for the young winger and Canucks fans are eager to see Boeser in a Vancouver Canucks jersey. Another season or two in college should have Boeser ready to jump into the pro game and make an immediate impact with the Canucks. His exceptional play and seamless transition into college hockey make Brock Boeser the Canucks prospect of the month for December 2015.