Nicklas Jensen keeps top spot in Vancouver Canucks mid-season Top 20

By Larenzo Jensen
Nicklas Jensen - Team Denmark

Photo: Nicklas Jensen, shown here skating for Team Denmark, is expected to return to North America after his season ends in the Swedish Elite League. (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

For the Vancouver Canucks organization, regular season success over the last half-decade has been a dual-edged sword. Winners of multiple President’s Trophies and continually atop the Northwest Division standings, any neutral hockey enthusiast might think it is crazy to label their success a bane. But on two levels, this success has presented challenges that few organizations would covet.

First, the fan base has grown restless with expectations rising each season after dominant regular season campaigns, not to mention coming within one win of a Stanley Cup. 

Secondly, success has dropped the Canucks to the bottom of each round for the entry draft’s order, where fewer and fewer quality players remain. Still, they have managed to restock their talent cupboard adequately via strong scouting and the occasional free agent signing even after graduating a pair of prospects already this season in Zack Kassian and Chris Tanev.

1. (1) Nicklas Jensen, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2011

The Vancouver Canucks appear quite happy with Jensen’s development and supported his decision to play with AIK Stockholm after the onset of the NHL lockout. In an interesting twist, AIK will likely finish ninth, just outside of the league's eight-team playoff. They tried to trade Jensen (who has 16 goals in 49 games), but General Manager Mike Gillis and the Canucks blocked a potential trade. They feel when Jensen’s season in Sweden is over, they want him in Chicago playing with the Wolves. AIK Stockholm was hoping to get something at the trade deadline for Jensen and have reduced Jensen’s ice time. Gillis wants Jensen to continue gaining experience at the AHL level, and hinted that he may even see time with the Canucks this season. The trickle-down effect of the NHL lockout has created some drama for many prospects, but Jensen’s development remains the same: He is being groomed for future NHL duty.

2. (3) Eddie Lack, G, 7.0B
Signed as a free agent, April 6th, 2010

Lack’s climb to the number two spot has more to do with Zack Kassian’s graduation from prospect status than from personal growth. Lack, who has not played since November 24th with an injured hip flexor, had successful hip surgery on January 29th. Lack is expected to be out for six months but should be ready for training camp next season. The procedure was performed in Vail, Colorado by the same orthopedic surgeon that operated on Ryan Kesler’s torn hip labrum. The Canucks tried resting Lack in late November, hoping that would facilitate a recovery, but it was not working and they pulled the trigger on the surgical option. Lack’s injury was reflected in his sub-par numbers in contrast with last season. The Canucks felt the time was right to have the surgery, adding that it will give Lack time to get some training in before camp opens in mid-September.

3. (4) Jordan Schroeder, C, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 22nd overall, 2009

Schroeder has performed admirably in his audition with the Canucks thus far in the 2012-13 season. He has shown he belongs in the NHL, gaining confidence with every game. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has deployed Schroeder in many situations, including key defensive moments, as well as using him on the power play and as a shooter in shootouts. His uncanny ability to read plays and his acumen in executing passes and setting up teammates has garnered him regular minutes with the parent club. Of course, he was brought up because of Ryan Kesler’s hip labrum surgery, but with Manny Malhotra being placed on injured reserve for the rest of the season, it appears Schroeder has found a roster spot for the foreseeable future. In 19 games, he has two goals, three assists for five points with a minus-two rating.

4. (5) Brendan Gaunce, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 26th overall, 2012

Brendan Gaunce continues to endear himself to Canucks management and fans alike. In early October, he suffered a second degree shoulder separation. Despite the setback, his development is still on track, with the exact same point-per-game pace as last year and a better plus-minus rating. Considering that he had 18 points through his first 26 games, his 27 goals, 25 assists for 52 points in 53 games is quite remarkable. The two-way center sits first on the Belleville Bulls in goals, second for points, and his defensive game has been sound as well. He continues to win faceoffs and many battles for the puck along the boards, getting used in just about any situation imaginable. Listed at 6’2, 215 pounds, the 19-year-old has NHL size, and at this point, it would take a substantial turn of events to derail his eventual development into an NHL pivot. He has continually been improving his skating as well, which was the only factor preventing him from being selected higher in the 2012 NHL Draft.

5. (11) Frank Corrado, D, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 150th overall, 2011

Frank Corrado is enjoying a breakout season, and his jump up the Canucks prospect ladder reflects that. Corrado made the final selection camp, and was one of the final cuts for Team Canada this past December. Corrado’s increasing stock was also evidenced by the fact that the Kitchener Rangers traded goaltender Frank Palazzese and two others to the Sudbury Wolves to obtain Corrado and Josh Leivo (TOR). So far, the trade has paid excellent dividends, with Corrado not missing a beat. In 22 games with the Rangers, he has 12 assists and boasts a plus-20 rating. A smooth skating defenseman, with a crisp, accurate first pass out of the defensive zone, Corrado is truly starting to look like a late round gem unearthed by the Canucks organization.

6. (8) Kevin Connauton, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2009

Although Connauton’s production has been consistent with the numbers he produced last season, his move up the Canucks’ depth chart is due mostly to other players’ movement. In 48 games, he has three goals, 16 assists for 19 points with a minus-11 rating. His plus-minus rating would be more of a concern if the Chicago Wolves were doing better as a whole, but several factors, including the loss of starting goaltender Eddie Lack to injury, as well as several key promotions to the parent club have created holes in the Wolves arsenal. That being said, Connauton’s minus-11 rating is the worst on the team, and it is becoming apparent he misses being paired with rock-steady Nolan Baumgartner, who is now behind the Wolves' bench. Interestingly, Connauton’s penalty minutes have also been on the rise, he has as many after 48 games this season as he did in 73 games last season. Still there is no denying the offensive talent Connauton brings to the table, as well as the fluid skating he exhibits. The Canucks organization will continue to monitor his development closely, readying him for an opportunity to show the parent club he has the moxie to play in the NHL.

7. (7) Anton Rodin, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2009

The good news for Rodin is that he has not regressed up to this point in his second season with the Chicago Wolves. Conversely, he is slightly behind production from his rookie season, and he has not flashed signs that he is fully adjusted to the North American style of play. Although he seems to have put some distance between him and a nagging shoulder injury, keeping healthy is a must for Rodin. He is getting ice time with the Wolves, which translates to valuable experience for the sophomore. His draft position had a lot to do with his quick hands and offensive potential; it is hoped he can exploit that potential in the next couple of years. A number of scenarios could play out between now and next season, but outside of a game or two call-up from the Canucks, it is likely Rodin will start next season in Chicago with the Wolves.

8. (9) Alexandre Grenier, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 90th overall, 2011

Recently assigned to the Kalamazoo Wings, Grenier is a rather intriguing prospect for the Canucks. He tantalizes with his large, if yet not fully developed, power forward frame. Yet, a bruising, physical style is not what he is known for. He is skilled and has good, strong wrist and slap shots. He is still considered a little bit raw, which is natural taking into account he did not start playing major junior with the Quebec Remparts until halfway through his 19-year-old season. He began the 2012-13 season in Austria with Salzburg, but has now played in 24 games for Vancouver’s ECHL affiliate. Thus far, he has three goals, 14 assists for 17 points, a plus-three rating, and 26 minutes in penalties. He also has played one game for the Chicago Wolves, where he was completely neutral on the score sheet. It will be interesting to see how he continues to adapt to professional hockey, in hopes of realizing his potential as a late-bloomer.

9. (10) Patrick McNally, D, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2010

Considering McNally’s gifted hockey abilities and relative potential, his recent removal from the Harvard University hockey team should be seen as a hiccup in his development. He is free to sign a pro contract, but because he has not, it is quite conceivable that he and other members of the team will rejoin Harvard in the fall. The freshman was impressive playing prior to the incident, and it appears that the infringement was widespread in nature across the university athletic teams. The offensively minded defenseman was a finalist for the ECAC Rookie of the Year Award, notching 28 points in 34 games. He possesses great lateral mobility and though not a physical defender, he is crafty with his stick and interrupts attacks effectively through it. If all goes well, he will be trending upward once again on this list.

10. (12) Alexandre Mallet, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 57th overall, 2012

Just as Mallet needed time to find his way in the QMJHL before really hitting his stride, so too he has taken time to adjust to pro hockey. Mallet started the season with the Chicago Wolves, but was reassigned to Kalamazoo to help his learning curve. In 31 games with the Wings, he scored nine goals, 13 assists for 22 points, with a plus-five rating and 31 minutes in penalties. He was recently reassigned to Chicago, where he has a cumulative total of no goals, one assist in 18 games with a minus-four rating and seven penalty minutes. With good strength, an excellent work ethic, and proven offensive upside, Mallet essentially just has to do what he has been doing to this point: play hard, forecheck voraciously, and stand up for his teammates. Then it is only a matter of time before the parent club gives him a few games to audition for a third or fourth line checking position.

11. (13) Joseph Labate, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 4th round, 101st overall, 2011

The top ten finalist for the 2011 Minnesota Mr. Hockey award has almost identical numbers to last season’s offensive totals. He has played 33 games for the Wisconsin Badgers, scoring six goals and 17 points to go with 39 penalty minutes. He is sixth on the team in scoring and is also amongst the team leaders with a plus-10 rating. The sophomore has all the traits of a late round project that Mike Gillis likes to select. At 6’4, 200 pounds, he has no problems driving to the net, and with good hockey sense, he knows what to do once he gets there. He still needs to fill out his albatross-like frame in order to resemble a power forward and improve his skating stride as well. Labate has also started to see some power play time, which can only help his growth and confidence. Canuck fans hope that the University of Wisconsin has another notable hockey player graduate from its program.

12. (15) Joe Cannata, G, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 173rd overall, 2009

Just as other Canuck prospects have been shifted around this season because of injuries, call-ups, and unforeseen roster adjustments, Cannata has played for both the Chicago Wolves as well as the Kalamazoo Wings. With the above noted hip surgery undertaken by Eddie Lack, there has been an open transfer window between the Wolves and the Wings. Cannata has taken it all in stride, turning in admirable performances for both teams. Prior to being sent to Kalamazoo, he compiled a 5-3 record over eight games with the Wolves. He recorded a strong 2.21 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. Over seven total games with the Wings, he has three wins and four losses, with a 3.29 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. In his first pro season, the former Merrimack College star is proving that he has what it takes to stick around. With more experience and time to adjust to the pro game, Cannata may turn out to be another great late pick gamble by the Canucks.

13. (14) Yann Sauve, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2008

Yann Sauve is one of two players drafted by the Canucks in 2008 that is still in the system. The big, strong defensive-minded blueliner was moved to the Kalamazoo Wings lineup, with perhaps the mindset to accelerate offensive aspects of his game. While he has not exactly lit up the ECHL, his seven goals and 13 points through 19 games is encouraging. Also, his plus-six rating is good for second on the team, behind center Brett Lysak. During the 2011-12 season he played a top four role with the Wolves, a role he is no doubt eager to assume again. Should he continue improving his decision-making and puck-handling in Kalamazoo, it is likely he will get another shot with the Wolves. For now, the extra confidence he is building with the Wings is exactly what Canucks management had hoped for.

14. (17) Adam Polasek, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 145th overall, 2010

Polasek has acquitted himself nicely while splitting time between Kalamazoo and Chicago. In 12 games with the Wolves, he has one goal, three assists with a plus-seven rating and 13 penalty minutes. In Kalamazoo, he played 34 games, scoring four goals and eight points with 37 penalty minutes. At 6’3 and 207 pounds, Polasek provides a considerable presence, already possessing an NHL sized body. Although the Canucks have a strong stable of defensive prospects, Polasek remains an intriguing option and has to be considered a candidate for a future call-up, if only for a brief audition. There is always room in any organization for a lower-pairing defenseman that will provide steady, reliable defensive coverage.

15. (16) Henrik Tommernes, D, 7.0D
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2011

The lanky rearguard is currently playing for Frolunda HC of the Elitserien in Sweden. In 53 games, the 22-year-old has five goals, 10 assists for 15 points with a minus-10 rating and 28 penalty minutes. Tommernes proved in his rookie 2010-11 season with Frolunda that he has the offensive capabilities, finishing as the club’s leading scorer amongst defensemen with three goals and 17 assists. Of note, he also had a minus-17 rating. In the 2011-12 season, he played three fewer games, scoring five goals, with nine assists for 14 points, but a much improved plus-11 rating. It is hard to get a read on why there has been this kind of fluctuation in his plus/minus rating, though there could be several explanations. Whatever the reason, his hockey IQ is solid, his skating and mobility are considered strengths. Playing with men in the SEL will certainly have been beneficial for Tommernes should he make the move to North America to play the 2013-14 season.

16. (18) Alex Friesen, C, 6.5D
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2010

Friesen will likely never become known as a goal-scorer, so he must rely on being a shutdown type of player, a role for which he is well-suited. Not the largest physical specimen, Friesen has strong checking and faceoff skills and hits harder than his frame would suggest. In 39 games with the Wolves this season, he has one goal, four assists with 22 penalty minutes and a plus-seven rating. He has played a more disciplined style of hockey than prior to being drafted, while still maintaining a tenacity that forces opposing teams to keep track of where he is on the ice. For his first year as a pro, Friesen appears to be making the transition without much ado.

17. (NR) Jeremy Price, D, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2009

Price makes his initial appearance on the list with another solid season for Colgate University in the NCAA. In 2011-12, Price was the leading scorer amongst Colgate defensemen as a junior. He is on a similar pace this season with six goals, 14 assists in 34 games.  He has also seen a drop from 33 penalty minutes last year to 10 penalty minutes this season over nearly the same amount of games. Coaches and teammates are impressed by his quiet, lead-by-example demeanor. As with all defensive prospects, it usually takes time for an organization to really comprehend what they have. As Price readies himself to make the transition to pro hockey, it is apparent they have invested in an offensive defenseman with some leadership upside.

18. (20) Bill Sweatt, LW, 6.0C
Signed as a free agent, August 19th, 2010

The speedy Elburn, Illinois native is enjoying a modicum of success during his second season with the Chicago Wolves. In 44 games this season, he has 11 goals, 11 assists and a plus-four rating. His offensive numbers are essentially on pace with last year's, but interestingly, after receiving 24 penalty minutes during 2011-12 he only has one minor penalty this season. The solid two-way forward had a two-game audition with the Canucks in December of the 2011-12 season, and may warrant another look, considering the injury troubles the parent club has had at at forward this season. In the meantime, Sweatt needs to continue adding weight and strength to his lean 6’0 frame. Sweatt possesses a number of NHL ready traits, including good hands and decision-making when he has the puck on his stick.

19. (19) David Honzik, G, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2011

Now playing for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles after two years with the Victoriaville Tigres, Honzik has been inconsistent due to a number of factors. He has had some injury troubles, but is also playing on the team with the lowest amount of points in the QMJHL. Therefore, his 3-21-1 record does not provide a very accurate indication of where he is at in terms of his development. His goals against average is, by extension, inflated compared to his two seasons in Victoriaville, but his save percentage is comparable to previous years. Regardless, he is still only 19 years of age, and there is still the possibility the Canucks could offer him a contract this year. Now listed as 6’3, 219 pounds, Honzik has the size and athleticism to be a successful goaltender; in fact, some still believe he has some untapped potential. Within the Canucks system, he has to be regarded as the biggest boom or bust goaltending prospect.

20. (NR) Ben Hutton, D, 6.0C
Drafted 5th round, 147th overall, 2012

In 2011-12, Hutton served as captain for the CCHL champion Napean Raiders and also represented Canada East in the 2011 World Junior 'A' Challenge. This season, he has made a seamless transition playing for the University of Maine, where he leads the clubs’ defensemen in production. In 28 games, he has four goals, nine assists for 13 points to go with 18 penalty minutes. Hutton makes the list because of his offensive upside, which is already starting to manifest itself in the NCAA as he ranks third overall on his team in scoring. Listed at 6’2, 192 pounds, Hutton also has good size while only being 19 years of age. Success seems to follow him wherever he goes and some suggest he could become one of Hockey East’s best defensemen in the next year or so. If he can find a way to continue accruing the types of numbers he has posted thus far in his young career, it is not that far of a stretch.