Connauton, Jensen headline Canucks prospect awards

By Jared Ramsden

Photo: Defenseman Kevin Connauton had a breakout season in 2011-12, managing 13 goals and 20 assists from the blue line. (Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

Finishing among the top teams in the NHL five of the last six years has taken a toll on the Vancouver Canucks prospect pool. Aside from having a perennially low draft spot, the organization has either traded or graduated most of their top prospects. Consequentially the Canucks inaugural prospect awards are dominated by mostly complementary and depth players, with winger Nicklas Jensen being the possible exception.

Most Improved Prospect: Jordan Schroeder, C, Chicago Wovles (AHL)

Upon first glance, Schroeder's overall numbers don't really stand out. However, he more than doubled his goal output (from 10 goals to 21), while also scoring 16 more points (28 points to 44) than he did in his first full AHL season in 2010-11. He also dressed in 76 Wolves games, improved his plus/minus from minus-seven to plus-eight and had nearly 100 more shots on goal than he did the year prior. He seems to be slowly but surely maturing as a prospect and is inching closer and closer to reaching the NHL.

Best Defensive Prospect: Kevin Connauton, D, Chicago Wolves (AHL)

Though Chris Tanev garnered some consideration here, Connauton takes home this award based on the fact that he has shown a lot of promise and still has a lot of room to grow before reaching his full potential. Connauton, who was an AHL Western Conference All-Star representative, led all Wolves defenseman in scoring this season with 13 goals and 20 assists in 73 games. While he still needs to work on rounding out his game defensively, the offensive skills he brings to the table are top-notch and can't be taught. He has the requisite tools needed to quarterback a powerplay.

Best Offensive Prospect: Nicklas Jensen, RW, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

In an organization not blessed with a tremendous amount of offensively skilled prospects, Jensen was pretty much a no-brainer to be named the Canucks best offensive prospect. The skilled Dane may have not had the impact in his second OHL season as hoped, but he still scored at just over a point-per-game clip. He's a strong skater, and is equally adept at playmaking as he is at burying the puck in the back of the net.

Prospect of the Year: Nicklas Jensen, RW, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

As noted earlier, he didn't have the best junior season, but given how he performed for Team Denmark at the World Junior Tournament combined with how well he played in a brief end-of-the-season stint for the Canucks AHL affiliate in Chicago, Jensen edges out Wolves goaltender Eddie Lack for this award. The Danes were severely overmatched at the World Juniors, but Jensen still managed half-a-dozen points in six games. At the end of his OHL season he joined the Chicago Wolves and in eight games (including two post-season matches) he managed six goals.

Fastest Skater: Billy Sweatt, LW, Chicago Wolves (AHL)

He's not ever likely going to be a top-six forward, but Sweatt's speed could prove to eventually be a valuable weapon at the NHL level. Since being drafted by the Blackhawks back in 2007, his speed as always been his calling card, and when you combine that with his defensive aptitude, he makes the lives of opposing defenseman miserable. 2011 draft pick Ludwig Blomstrand also garnered some votes here.

Hardest Shot: Kevin Connauton, D, Chicago Wolves (AHL)

Most everyone knows that Connauton is an offensively gifted blueliner as evidenced by his 33 points for the Wolves this year, but it his pulverizing shot that is his standout tool. As evidenced by the fact that we won the hardest shot competition at the AHL All-Star Skills Competition with a blast that measured just a shade under 100 mph at 99.4, Connauton's shot strikes fear in many an AHL goaltender and the Canucks hope that it won't be too long before his rocket shot is instilling fear in NHL goaltenders in the not-too-distant future.

Overachiever: Jeremy Price, D, Colgate Raiders (ECAC)

Price was an offensive dynamo in the Ontario junior circuit before joining the Colgate Raiders in 2009, and though his numbers have not been as dynamic in his three seasons at the NCAA level, he has quietly emerged as one of the Canucks most well-rounded defense prospects. He's likely going to return to Colgate for his senior season next year, but once he turns pro, he might not need much minor-pro seasoning.

Underachiever: David Honzik, G, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)

Honzik's first season as a member of the Canucks organization didn't exactly go as well as Honzik or the Canucks had hoped. He never was able to take hold of the number one job for the Tigres and was outplayed the majority of time by the younger Brandon Whitney. He still played in 43 games for Victoriaville, but he didn't show much improvement as his numbers were almost identical to his 2010-11 season. Given the volatility of the goaltending position, it's still far too early to write Honzik off, but in an organization with a lot of talented goaltenders, he's going to have to bounce back next season if he wants to earn a contract from the Canucks.

Highest Risk/Reward: Alex Grenier, RW, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)

Grenier didn't burst onto the scene in the QMJHL until 2010-11 when he was 19, so is more or less the definition of a late-bloomer. His first full year this fall as a 20-year-old was solid as he scored at a point-per-game clip in the regular season in 64 games and just a tick under a point-per-game in 17 playoff games for the Mooseheads. A very raw package of size (6'5) and skill, it appeared Grenier's next step was to play in the AHL, but it looks as though the Canucks might have other plans for him as it is rumored that he might play next season in Austria for EC Salzburg under former NHL coach Pierre Page.

Breakout for 2012-13: Joseph Labate, C, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)

There looks to be a handful of players that might breakout in a big way next year. In the end though, Labate took home the honors over Swedish forward Anton Rodin. Fresh off dominating the Minnesota High School ranks, Labate had a decent freshman season at the University of Wisconsin, finishing with five goals and 15 assists in 37 games. Labate has the skills of a burgeoning power-forward. He's blessed with tremendous offensive skill and as he gains experience and continues to fill out his lanky 6'4 frame, he should become very difficult to contain. He true break-out may not come until 2013-14, but expect a big jump in Labate's sophomore numbers next year.