January 12 2013 01:48PM
As the Chicago Wolves roll into Abbotsford to play the Heat this weekend, five of their best players were held out of the lineup and will be with the Canucks when the club's training camp opens this weekend (pending ratification of the new CBA by the NHLPA sometime on Saturday afternoon). In addition, "Six or Seven" other Wolves may join them after Saturday's game.
On the one hand, the Canucks' reluctance to "experiment" with young players in a shortened season makes sense. On the other hand, four young, possible Canucks roster players have been playing regular competitive hockey games at the professional level while the majority of Vancouver's aging roster have been skating with the UBC Thunderbirds and gathering cobwebs in the endowment lands. Those four players and their accompanying fresh legs could concievably help the Canucks mitigate their recent propensity for slow starts, which might be key in a forty-eight game season.
To get a better handle on how the likes of Chris Tanev, Kevin Connauton, Zack Kassian and Jordan Schroeder have performed with the Wolves so far this season, we spoke with Wolves beat writer Paul La Tour of the Chicago Tribune and play-by-play announcer Jason Shaver this week. Read more on the other side of the jump.
There's no doubt about it, Kevin Connauton has had a tough go of it this season. Following a rookie campaign in the AHL in which he was very shaky in his own end, Connauton put it together as a two-way player in 2011-12 and was an AHL all-star. This season he's come back to Earth, posting meagre point totals and an ugly -12 number in 31 games this season (insert obligatory qualifier about how plus/minus doesn't tell us much here).
In mid-November, I noted that Scott Arniel had seperated the Connauton and Tanev pairing that was so, so good in the 2011-12 season and proposed a theory:
On defense, the Chicago Wolves appear to have seperated the Kevin Connauton, Chris Tanev pairing that they were using earlier in the season (and that had significantly success for the Wolves in the first half of last year). Going into the 2012-13 campaign, Kevin Connauton has been looking to continue improving his defensive game; while Chris Tanev has looked to jump into the rush more, and generate offense.
It makes sense for the Canucks' prospects to focus on ironing out the kinks in their game in the AHL, but it's my impression that those two were a discombobulated pair in the early going, partly because they were working to subvert their natural instincts which, threw off the 'calibration' of their pairing. Hey it's just a theory.
According to Wolves broadcaster Jason Shaver, there may have been something to that:
Early on, right or wrong, Connauton was concentrating so much on his defensive play and I don't know that he was playing to his strengths as a defenseman. It was in early November that Scott Arniel talked to him about that. The last month and a half, he's been much more noticeable jumping up into the rush and leading the rush.
So while his points and totals aren't where they were last year, he's hit 7 or so cross bars and posts so he's been a little bit snake-bitten on some of that. I'd also say that he wasn't putting as much stock into being offensive early in the year because he's been told over and over again that he needs to be better defensively. But he certainly needs to play to his strengths, that's his ticket to the NHL."
So perhaps at least some of Connauton's weak offensive stats and porous plus/minus is a result of bad luck and presumably a low on-ice sh%. That would pass a quick smell test since Connauton appears to be taking a comparable volume of shots as he was the season previous. For what it's worth, Paul La Tour agrees that something is a miss with Connauton's confidence and style of play:
Kevin Connauton at times just hasn't seemed confident to me, in comparison with last year. Maybe it's because the goals aren't coming. The Wolves still set him up for the one-timer on the power-play and stuff like that but he hasn't seemed to be as aggressive as he has been in the past.
For Connauton, this drop in the quality of his play couldn't have come at a worse time. Presumably there's a lot of opportunity along Vancouver's back-end at the moment, what with the team turning to Cam Barker as a possible eighth defenseman, but at this point it just doesn't look like Connauton has earned more than a short look and a cup of coffee with the Canucks this season.
Chris Tanev is something of a known quantity at this point: a smooth skating defenseman with the ability to thread gorgeous breakout passes onto the tape of his teammates' sticks. He's as steady as anything in his own zone, but takes a bit off the table when his club is set up on offense. Ho hum.
Tanev's focus this season was to improve his offensive game and it appears to have worked somewhat as he's scored a couple of goals in 29 games with the Wolves (hey it's two more than he scored last season). Paul La Tour says that "in the offensive zone [Tanev] looks so much more polished than he did last season," but that hasn't really translated into increased production for Vancouver's best young defenseman. Tanev may be scoring a few more goals so far this season, but his shot rate hasn't improved much (up to 1.1 SOG/G from 1.05 SOG/G a year ago) nor has his point-per-game rate (.41 both this season and last in the AHL).
As Keith Law likes to say, however, "you can't scout a boxscore" and perhaps that's the case with Tanev. Jason Shaver, for example, is convinced that "Tanev has done the most to improve his game at the NHL level," of all the Canucks prospect this season and that, "offensively he's improved dramatically from what we saw last season."
Canucks fans got to see Zack Kassian at his best when he was in Abbotsford this past October. Unfortunately its been the same story that those who've followed his career closely have come to expect: one night he looks like the second coming of Todd Bertuzzi and other nights he looks like a snarlier version of Steve Bernier.
At his best, Jason Shaver believes that Zack Kassian is ready to contribute to an NHL top-six:
He's going to be an NHLer and it will be up to him whether or not he plays top-six or bottom-six. He certainly has the skillset to be a top-six foward. There have been numerous shifts this season when he's completely dominated on the cycle, he's got unbelievable hands for a big guy. Bottom six he can handle himself, he's a powerforward, he's not afraid to drop the gloves...
But yeah he's got the skillset where he can become a top-six forward in the NHL. If he's ready to do it at the age of 21 this year? At times this season he's shown that.
The key formulation of course is that "at times he's shown that." Other times? He's battled inconsistency. Paul La Tour elaborated on this point for us:
It depends on how hard [Kassian] wants to play. He's suffered through consistency issues. But he's a guy - man - when he's on, he is on. And I'd definitely see him as a top-six guy.
But he has too many games where he's just not noticeable for whatever reason. I spoke with him on Sunday and he said "consistency is the biggest thing I need to work on," which is what he said at the start of the season too. It's just something that he's still working through, but he's got the talent.
Consistency is a tough lesson to learn for a young player, but it's good to hear that Kassian is at least aware that this is an area where he needs to improve. Certainly there's no one doubting that he's got the skillset to pull it off.
Jordan Schroeder will, barring the return of a clearly superior center in any forthcoming Luongo trade, be the most watched and scrutinized player at Canucks training camp this week. An under-sized center, Jordan Schroeder was Vancouver's first round pick in 2009 but he's yet to break into the NHL despite his pedigree. He may never have a better chance than he's got now with Ryan Kesler on the shelf to begin the season.
After a very slow start to the season, driven primarily by bad luck, Jordan Schroeder has come on over the past few months. Jason Shaver thinks the key for Schroeder has been simplifying his game:
"Early in the season he admitted to us on the broadcast that he was trying to hit that perfect spot as opposed to just shooting the puck. Instead of trying to pick a four inch corner, he's just been shooting more and it has helped his offensive game."
That the key for Jordan Schroeder is shot volume has been clear for a long-time to us, so it's good to hear that he's beginning to figure that out. On whether or not he should get an NHL shot, Shaver had this to say:
"Defensively you see marked improvement at winning the small battles and coming away with loose pucks... I see him as having a good chance, but in a shortened season, if you're Vancouver's coaching staff, do you take a flyer on Schroeder who hasn't played an NHL game yet?"
For Jordan Schroeder, that really is the million dollar question.
Editors Note: We really appreciate the insight Paul La Tour and Jason Shaver who have consistently been very good to us, provided us with on the Wolves call-ups this week. Follow Jason Shaver on Twitter here, and Paul La Tour here.