The Vancouver Canucks have been an intriguing team to follow during the first half of the 2015-16 season. It was stated before the start of training camp that Canucks management was going to try to put a younger team on the ice this year, and so far they have done exactly that.
With the recent demotion of veteran winger Chris Higgins it is obvious that the Canucks are comfortable moving in a direction where youth will be favored over some declining veterans. A few other minor moves such as the acquisition of Emerson Etem for Nicklas Jensen and a late round pick have added more capable youth to the mix of an already impressive group of under-25 players.
Led by twenty year old Bo Horvat, the group consists of Sven Baertschi, Emerson Etem, Linden Vey, Ronalds Kenins along with several players that have made their NHL debuts in the 2015-16 campaign such as Jared McCann, Ben Hutton and Jake Virtanen. In fact, so far in the 2015-16 season there have been seven players that appeared in their first NHL game with the Canucks. Here is a look at those seven players and the impact they have had on their NHL club to this point.
Jared McCann, C, 19
Arguably the Canucks’ best prospect so far in the 2015-16 season, McCann has displayed poise and discipline far beyond his age. McCann has also displayed a certain degree of toughness that is usually not as noticeable in such young players. He has already gained some notoriety after a well-documented incident with Islanders captain John Tavares in which some stick swinging was involved, showing that he will not be bullied without repercussions.
Pressure has been added to young McCann with Henrik Sedin and Brandon Sutter both missing significant amounts of time. McCann has been given the task of centering the first line until Henrik returns, which is quite a responsibility for a kid who could still be playing junior this season. While teammate Jake Virtanen was loaned to Team Canada for the WJC, McCann was held back in Vancouver. His importance to the Canucks was obvious at that point and it appears McCann is in Vancouver for the duration. The upper limit of McCann’s potential is still unknown but he is looking like a legitimate top six center in the making.
Jake Virtanen, RW, 19
Coming into camp most of the hype surrounding the Canucks rookies was directed towards Virtanen. Fans and the Canucks management team were eager to see the young forward at the highest level. It was unknown if Virtanen would make the Canucks or if he would be returned to junior for one more season. In the end he secured a spot in the starting lineup and has remained with the Canucks, although he has had a bit of an adjustment period and has plenty of room for improvement in many aspects of his game.
He can get frustrated at times and has been known to take untimely penalties. With more experience and development Virtanen will certainly become a good NHL forward, but for now keeping him in a limited role has been good for his development. Virtanen was granted a leave from the Canucks to join Team Canada for the WJC in Finland. His impact in the tournament was underwhelming and he was the recipient of harsh criticism after receiving a few questionable penalties in Canada’s final game of the tournament which they lost to Finland, eventual winners of the gold medal. Teammates and coaches alike stood by Virtanen and set the blame squarely on everyone for not getting the job done.
Ben Hutton, D, 22
Hutton was the biggest surprise addition to the Canucks opening night roster. Coming into camp many people hadn’t even heard of Ben Hutton and now he is averaging around eighteen minutes a night in a top-four role with the Canucks. Hutton seldom looks out of place or intimidated by the speed and size of opponents and can make a great first pass out of the zone to get the offence going. If Hutton can continue to improve at this current rate he has it in him to be a top pair defenceman for the Canucks, but realistically he is likely better suited to the second or third pair long-term. The Canucks have a pipeline full of decent defense prospects so Hutton will have to cement himself into the Canucks long-term plans in the next season or so, which shouldn’t be hard to do if he can maintain his current growth rate.
Hunter Shinkaruk, LW, 21
Shinkaruk is enjoying a productive season with the Utica Comets and is displaying great improvement in most aspects of his all-around game. About a month into the season Shinkaruk was called up to Vancouver and played in his first NHL game. Shinkaruk was limited to only nine and a half minutes in his first game but he was invigorated by the experience and will be determined to get back to Vancouver as soon as possible. After suiting up for the lone game with the Canucks he was sent back to Utica where he resumed his strong season. He currently sits ten points ahead of his nearest teammate on the Comets, Brendan Gaunce. Shinkaruk is looking like a future top six scoring winger for the Canucks if he continues to develop at the current pace.
Brendan Gaunce, LW, 21
Gaunce, like Shinkaruk is enjoying a strong second pro season with the Utica Comets. He currently sits behind only Shinkaruk for the team lead in both goals and points. Gaunce is considerably bigger than Shinkaruk and can bang in the corners a bit more consistently which adds to his overall appeal as a pro. Gaunce’s strong play earned him an early season call-up to the Canucks and he suited up for his first NHL game, playing close to eleven minutes. He scored his first NHL goal in his second NHL game but was returned to Utica shortly after. He will continue to grow in Utica and appears to be on track to challenge for a full time NHL job as early as next season.
Alexandre Grenier, RW, 24
Grenier is third on Utica in points and is having a decent season as a whole. Grenier was called up to Vancouver in late November and suited up for one game with the Canucks. He played just under nine minutes in that game and did not look terribly out of place. His stay was short-lived however and he was returned to Utica. Grenier was called up again in early January but did not dress for the Canucks before he was once again returned to Utica. Grenier may be running out of chances to become a full time NHL player with Vancouver especially with younger, more talented players pushing for the same positions in Vancouver.
Andrey Pedan, D, 22
Pedan has had a bit of a strange season so far. He was having a decent season with Utica before being called up to Vancouver in late November, where he was a healthy scratch for three games before getting into the lineup for his first NHL game. Pedan was limited to four minutes of ice-time in his debut and was then kept out of the lineup for another six games before getting into back to back games in late December. Pedan was then a healthy scratch for another five games before finally being sent back to Utica to resume his season there. In the month he was in Vancouver he played a mere twenty five minutes of actual ice time so it may not have been the best for Pedan’s development or his confidence. Hopefully he can get his confidence back up and help Utica get back into the playoffs and make another deep playoff run. Pedan still projects as a top six defenseman with the Canucks in the next few years.
2016 World Junior Championships
Three Canucks prospects took part in the 2016 WJC in Helsinki, Finland.
Jake Virtanen was loaned by the Canucks to Team Canada for the WJC. Team Canada was expected to bring home gold and Virtanen was one of the players expected to lead the charge. As a returning player even higher expectations were placed on Virtanen but he and Team Canada as a whole ultimately under-achieved and placed outside the medal round. It was a tough pill to swallow and Virtanen received more than his fair share of the criticism for Canada’s demise in the tournament but he has resumed his NHL career with the Canucks and has his focus looking forward, not back.
Lukas Jasek was picked to represent the Czech Republic at the WJC and tallied one goal in the tournament. Jasek has bounced around between three Czech leagues so far in 2015-16 but he is finding his footing as an eighteen-year-old playing mostly against men. He may come to North America next season and see how he fits in against junior players on this side of the pond.
Brock Boeser was loaned by the University of North Dakota to represent the USA at the WJC. Boeser was having a stellar rookie campaign before the WJC and had a solid tournament as well. He netted one goal and added two helpers in seven games played in the tournament. The Americans looked dominant for most of the tournament and ended up taking home the bronze medal. Boeser has resumed his season with UND and continues to pile up points.
Vancouver Canucks Prospect of the Month
Jared McCann has earned the prospect of the month award for a second time this season. His calm demeanor and strong two-way play are now on full display every night in Vancouver. McCann has been playing like a ten-year veteran lately and is even filling in on the top line for injured Henrik Sedin. The initial plan was to bring McCann along slowly but his play has made that near impossible. He is averaging under thirteen minutes a night but is playing a very responsible thirteen minutes. Once Brandon Sutter and Henrik Sedin both return to the lineup the pressure will be taken off of McCann somewhat but from what he has shown the hockey world so far, he is here to stay.