February 25 2014 10:47AM
Something that you'll notice when it comes to professional sports is that there's an inverse relationship between how good the parent club is, and how much interest the fanbase has in how the up-and-coming prospects are doing.
As long as the NHL team is winning and staying relevant, most people generally speaking are indifferent to the state of the system. Just keeping winning. As soon as the cyclical nature of the sport begins to take a hold, fans start looking down to the minors in the hopes that there are some sort of reinforcements on the way. Is something on the way that'll right this ship?
It's tough to say with the Canucks. They're still not considered as having an overly deep or strong pool of young talent in the system, but things are definitely trending upwards (having two picks in the top 24 of a good draft certainly doesn't hurt in that regard). It takes time cultivating a proper system.
Just past the jump we'll take a look back at our Top-20 prospects from this past summer, and try to assess how they've done, and what they're tracking towards moving forward. Last week we ran Part 1 (focusing on the prospects we had ranked #20 to #11), and now we're going to spend some time running through the Top 10.
Note: There seemed to be some confusion when we ran Part 1, so I just wanted to clarify something before we got going. All we're doing here is evaluating our rankings from August. That's why a guy like Dane Fox won't be discussed (since he wasn't in the system at that time), and that's why some of the specific rankings may seem off now that we have the benefit of hindsight being 20/20 after an extra 6 months of development. We're going to hold off on actually re-ranking guys until sometime after the 2014 draft. Now let's get to it..
#10 Kellan Lain (Utica Comets, AHL)
For a lot of guys, just making it to the NHL is a dream come true and an accomplishment in itself. Think about how many kids grow up playing hockey at all of the low levels, and then how many actually wind up making it to "the show". A minuscule percentage.
Well, not only did Kellan Lain achieve his dream of making it, but he did so in a way which probably has never been done before. His debut lasted a grand total of 2 seconds, as he was one of the 10 brawlers in the now infamous kerfuffle between the Canucks and Flames.
If you'll recall there was some sympathy going Lain's way following that incident; his parents had flown in to watch their son's first taste of NHL action, and many wondered whether the team was planning on sending Lain back down to the AHL shortly thereafter, robbing him of garnering any sort of real experience at this level. He was a fringe guy, after all.
But they didn't, and he made sure to make the most of his opportunity by burying a rebound goal. Good for him. Years from now when he's bouncing his grandkids on his knees and telling them about the moment, I'm sure no one will remember that his 1st career NHL goal came against what was essentially an AHL squad.
The irony of all of this, though, is that Kellan Lain is what we call a "low event player". When I asked our prospect writer Josh about him, he had the following to say about him:
"Pucks just don't seem to go in when he's on the ice. In 42 games he has played in Utica, he has only been on for 15 goals combined (for and against)".
Josh went on to note that Lain has logged some tough minutes in Utica this year; he has the highest estimated Quality of Competition on the team, and plays on the penalty kill. As a result, he only has 7 goals and 12 points on the season.
In 8 games with the Canucks, he has that one goal he has scored, he's been on the ice for one goal against, and he's only sporting a 43.9 corsi for %. While it's a ridiculously small sample size - yet still larger than the one we just saw at the Olympics, which people had no issue dissecting and overanalyzing to death! - I'd wager that it's a microcosm of what we'll see from him moving forward.
Lain is going to start a lot of his shifts in the defensive zone, he's going to post some pretty ugly possession numbers, and you're never going to hear anyone say that they're going to the rink because they're looking forward to seeing him play. But that's just fine.
As long as the coach is able to feed him some tough minutes without worrying about him being a total liability, then he'll serve as an asset which Mike Gillis was able to bring into the system on the cheap. The fact that Laurence Gilman is on the same page as me certainly doesn't hurt.
As we've come to appreciate over the years, that 4C role is an important and oft-overlooked one which all of the elite teams seem to have covered.
#9 Henrik Tommernes (Utica Comets, AHL)
Trying to get a good gauge on Tommernes and where he stacks up in relation to all of the other prospects in the system remains a challenge. While our pal Jeff Angus did an admirable job of trying to provide some answers about him last summer, there were still lots of questions heading into this season.
On the positive side:
-This is Tommernes' first season playing in North America, and as we've seen - for example with Joacim Eriksson, who was covered in detail in Part 1 of this series - the adjustment to the game after having spent so much time competing in Europe can be a challenging one.
-He appears to have boat loads of offensive potential. His offensive numbers in the SEL have been very favourable in comparison to some pretty big names - i.e. Enstrom, Kronwall, Ohlund - and all things considered, he has had a decent showing in that regard with the Comets this season. He has 4 goals and 14 points in 40 games in the AHL, and is putting more than 2 pucks/game on net. He has also ran the power play with the Comets, and has looked more than competent in doing so.
On the negative side:
-While all of the overseas experience is probably a good thing in the long run, for the time being he's a little bit behind the eight-ball here in terms of where you'd ideally like to see someone who will be 24 years old before next season be.
-Despite being heavily sheltered, he's having a supremely difficult time competing at 5v5. He has the easiest Quality of Competition out of any defenseman on the team, yet he has a 35.71 goals for % (though some of that could be due to poor luck with on-ice save %).
-He's injured right now, and has been for a while now.
The point is: he's going to once again be very tough to properly rank this coming summer. I assume that he'll need quite a bit more time in the AHL before we even consider his name on the Canucks blueline. But as was the case with Patrick McNally, he's got enough ability with the puck that he'll always garner interest, and is surely worth keeping an eye on because of it.
We've seen teams make use of 3rd pairing defensemen by sheltering them at 5v5, and then unleashing them on the power play. That's Henrik Tommernes' destiny.
#8 Joseph LaBate (University of Wisconsin, Big-10)
LaBate remains an interesting, but very tantalizing prospect. When I spoke to Chris Peters this past summer for our profile on LaBate he basically went on to suggest that, while he had most certainly taken strides between his 1st and 2nd season at the NCAA level, there was still a lot of work to be done. He had upped his scoring rate, but given all of the physical tools he had - 6'4'', 200 lbs, feel free to continue salivating - there was reason to believe that he could accomplish so much more.
So far, so good this season on that front for LaBate. I honestly don't quite know why he has only 9 assists in 30 games for the Badgers, but even with that oddly low figure he's still well on track to surpass his point total from last year in setting a new career high. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he has been taking in excess of 3 shots on goal/game, which at that level is elite. As a result he has already set a new personal best with 10 goals, and will continue to try to add onto it.
As you're probably aware of by now, the issue with LaBate is whether or not he'll ever achieve his potential, and if so, how long that'll take. For the time being he'll continue to be held (relatively) slightly down this list because of that very uncertainty. But by all accounts he continues to develop and improve his game, and could very well become a more than useful player for the Canucks down the road.
#7 Jordan Subban (Belleville Bulls, OHL)
I reached out to our ol' pal Cam Charron, who follows the OHL much more stringently than I do, for his thoughts on Subban's season to-date. Here's what he had to say:
From what I understand about the Bulls, they're selling everything that may be of value. The third Subban brother, Jordan, unfortunately stayed behind and out of the fire sale and won't compete in the playoffs.
I was a little surprised Subban got no Team Canada consideration for the world juniors or even the Super Series, considering Subban's role at the Ivan Hlincka camp a couple of years back. He's still an excellent skater and 13th in defensive points in the OHL despite playing on the league's fifth lowest-scoring team. He's a bit of a project player, who still hasn't grown, who will need to grow if he wants to find a regular spot in the pros.
Subban is slightly under the scoring pace he was at last season, but as Cam mentioned, some of that could very well have to do with having a worse supporting cast around him because of the team's moves. Still, on numerous occasions this year he has flashed the elite skating ability and offensive instincts that enticed the Canucks to spend a 4th round pick on him, and our staff to rank him 7th on this list:
He'll surely be back in the OHL next season, and a potential trade to a better team could really allow him to flourish and benefit him in terms of exposure, and production.
#6 Eddie Lack (Vancouver Canucks, NHL)
"This coming season is a monumental one for the 25-year old; with the departure of Cory Schneider, there's a back-up gig up for grabs, and I'd guess that Lack is the front-runner for the spot heading into camp. Especially due to his contract status. If you'll recall he signed a rather savvy 2-year contract last summer, which ensured that he'd be on a 1-way deal this year. He's making his $850k, regardless of where he plays, while his biggest competition, Joacim Eriksson, makes a significantly smaller figure (only $70k) if he gets send down. Lack is two years older than Eriksson, and becomes an RFA again next summer, so it stands to reason that the team would like to see what they've got in him before reaching another crossroads next year."
That was from his profile this past summer. Lack, much like another prospect that'll be discussed in detail on this list (hint: look directly below), had his campaign last year completely derailed by a hip injury which ultimately resulted in surgery, and being shut down.
What he'd been able to accomplish in his two AHL seasons prior to that was legitimately impressive, and watching him during that time, he certainly passed the eye-test. But when you combined the uncertainty of the injury (and the poor season that came along with it), and the lack of knowledge that we have when it comes to evaluating that position, our ranking of him was defensible. As a general rule of thumb I'll almost always be lower on goaltending prospects than most others, just because of the volatility that comes with the territory.
He has worked out in spades this season for the Canucks, filling in admirably whenever the team has called his name (which has probably been more than anticipated at this point, given Roberto Luongo's battle with injuries this season). He has an impressive 2.22 GAA / .922 save % in his 22 appearances this year, and the team did well to sign him on the cheap for the next pair of seasons after just a few good showings early on.
He's an investment that has certainly paid off thus far, and he could conceivably be in line to handle an even heavier workload as soon as next season. But I'll still continue to take a conservative approach when it comes to goaltenders moving forward (which is something to keep in mind when Joacim Eriksson comes in a few spots lower than you'd expected him to come the summer!)
#5 Hunter Shinkaruk (Medicine Hat, WHL)
I find it difficult to be rational about Hunter Shinkaruk. I had him as my top prospect in the organization, and I stand by it. I still think that he has the highest upside out of anyone on this list, despite the tough developmental season he has had to endure.
After thoroughly impressing during his preseason run with the Canucks (has stuck with me), expectations were high for him when he was sent back to Major Junior. He was supposed to dominate the inferior competition with the Medicine Hat Tigers, make Team Canada for the WJC, and set himself up for a potential top-6 on the big club as soon as next season.
But then he injured his hip just 6 games into the season, and it all went downhill from there. He tried to cover it up and play through it because of the prestige and honour attached to being a member of Team Canada, but it was clearly bothering him in a big way. He only managed 16 points in 18 games with the Tigers, and was cut from the WJC team in favour of Anthony Mantha (who in hindsight wound up being one of the only effective players on the team). After that he decided to fully shut it down, and get the hip surgery he pretty clearly needed.
Before that happened I got to see him live once, and while his interview skills were off the charts (no, seriously, he was legitimately one of the better characters I've had a chance to talk to and I sure hope the team's PR doesn't dilute him), he seemed very passive and unwilling to really impose his will on the game until he really truly needed to. It was a change from what I'd seen from him last year, and I'd imagine that the injury was the major cause of that.
I still personally remain just as high on him as I did heading into this season. Injuries happen, and I'm not jumping off of the ship just because of something which looks far more like a singular, random event than something which'll linger moving forward. He still has elite skills which are hard to come by. When we rank again next summer, I wager he'll be in my top couple of spots yet again.
What's next for him? Well, his Major Junior career could well be done. He'll rehab the injury - which generally takes somewhere in the range of 4-6 months to fully heal on average - and I assume that he'll be given a looooooong look by the Canucks in camp next fall.
Especially if he's able to do stuff like this again..
#4 Nicklas Jensen (Utica Comets, AHL)
Just like the player that came before him on this list, expectations were high for Jensen - even higher, in fact, since the Canucks had a pretty clear scoring void in the top-6 wing position which desperately needed filling as soon as possible - heading into the preseason.
Unfortunately for him, he sustained a shoulder injury right off the bat and was quickly sent down to Utica to sort things out. After he managed a measly 1 goal and 3 assists in his first 23 games with the Comets, there was a whole lot of eyebrow-raising and panicking going on. It may've been the best thing for him, though. With the drought he fell off of the radar a little bit, and was afforded the opportunity to work out whatever it was that was going on with him.
Since then, he has been on an absolute tear. He has 13 goals in his past 24 games, and on some nights has been single-handedly winning games for a suddenly surging Comets squad. Heck, he recently scored a hat trick in the span of 5 1/2 minutes, which is something that the Vancouver Canucks consider a solid couple of games worth of production these days.
The surge in scoring has neatly coincided with a massive spike in shooting % as shown below, but it's not something that I'd consider unsustainable. It's more of a positive regression which was inevitably going to take place at some point anyways. Even with the exponential spike he's now shooting exactly 11% on the season, which is basically what I'd expect him to shoot at this level (if not a bit lower, even). The 2.7 or so shots on goal per game which he's generating bodes very well for him moving forward.
One final note: the Canucks are 6/37 on the year in shootouts, which is good for the second worst conversion percentage in the entire league. Their general incompetence in the skills competition from top to bottom has definitely cost them a few points this season. Jensen, on the other hand, appears to be pretty darn good at making stuff happen on that front:
Gillis hinting Jensen will be called up sometime this season— Taj (@taj1944) February 24, 2014
The #JensenTrain could be coming to a city near you soon, guys and gals.
#3 Bo Horvat (London Knights, OHL)
Here's what Charron had to say on Horvat when I asked him about his campaign:
Since the Knights got Nikita Zadorov back from the Buffalo Sabres, they've been virtually unstoppable. That makes it a little weird that Horvat came back early from an injury, but it's just the sort of hockey demanded by those who run the London Knights. London is hosting the Memorial Cup this season and get an automatic berth but they don't want to miss a chance at a threepeat as OHL champs.
Horvat has become a reliable defensive centreman in addition to his capabilities as a gamebreaker this season. He's got 68 points in 47 games which isn't a world beater level, but he's spread those points out rather evenly and is going to be a factor in any game the Knights play. Despite what happened at the junior tournament, this year is a success for Horvat, who's continuing to adjust to the two-way game.
I think that the pessimists out there will be quick to point out the World Junior Championships from this past December, in which, as Cam alluded to, Horvat was fairly forgettable. He had some moments on the penalty kill and what not, but for people who were getting to see him play up close for the first time since the team traded away Cory Schneider for him, he surely didn't have nearly the type of impact they would've hoped to see.
Just keep in mind how small a sample size that tournament is, and how little predictive value it has going forward. We've seen plenty of guys light it up, only to wind up flaming out. And vice versa.
The fact of the matter is that Horvat has significantly upped his offensive production in London this season, while maintaining the type of two-way, defensive play down the middle which had become his hallmark in the past.
It'll be very interesting to see how the Canucks handle Horvat being forward. He's going to turn 19 in a month, and it's pretty clear that he's way over-qualified for the OHL at this point. I suspect that the team will, just like with Shinkaruk, take a very long look at his heading into next season. He appears to be ready. And that's coming from someone who was very firmly in the "he's not ready this year" camp this past September.
#2 Frank Corrado (Utica Comets, AHL)
While we've definitely come a long way over the years in terms of scouting, and dealing with prospects, there are still some areas which remain a mystery. People have theories and ideas, but they're far from being set in stone in terms of correctness.
There may be no more elusive a topic on this front than the question of whether a player's development will be stunted (and in extreme examples, go backwards) if he's thrown to the lions and given too much responsibility, too soon. There is the rare breed that bursts onto the scene and has a knack for adjusting on the fly despite the increased difficulty of the competition. But for most prospects, there's an adjustment phase. How they handle it is the key.
While we've definitely seem some examples of this over the years (guys being thrown into bad situations, withering under the pressure, and never really being the same ever again), we've also seen just as many players take their initial lumps, only to come back even better; as if they've used those beatings as a sort of teaching tool and motivation.
I guess we'll see which group Frank(ie) Corrado eventually falls into, because he has been completely and utterly obliterated in his 11 games up with the Canucks this season. After showing a ton of promise in his initial 7-game stint with the team towards the end of last year (stretching into the playoffs), his NHL showing this year has been abysmal, if we're being Frank.
Only Yannick Weber has faced easier competition out of any blueliner for the Canucks this season (though that's likely skewed by his run on the 4th line), and no defenseman on the team has started a larger % of their shifts in the offensive zone. Yet despite those cushy circumstances, Corrado has posted a 41.5 corsi for %, and a -15.1 Corsi Rel. Basically only Yann Sauve has been worse in his 3 games up with the team, but we already know that he's not an NHLer.
What we're being reminded of is the fact that Corrado, even though he's considered to be as mature as they come, is a 20-year old defenseman who was playing in the OHL at this time last year. It's really tough playing on the back-end at this level, and he's learning that the hard way right now.
I'm still a big believer that Corrado has all of the tools you'd like to see in a top-4 defenseman, but we'll need to be patient with him as he adjusts. If the Canucks have any desire to legitimately make a late season push for a playoff spot, then it would behoove them to make sure that Corrado undergoes that process down in the AHL with the Comets for the time being. It's because of that fact that he'll probably move down this list the next time we sit down and rank; after all, one of the main reasons he was as high as he was had to do with how consistent and "NHL ready" he was considered to be heading into this season.
#1 Brendan Gaunce (Erie Otters, OHL)
Gaunce has had a difficult year, in all truthfulness, given his expectations as a first round selection in his Draft+2 year. He didn't get any world junior consideration despite his reputation as the type of two-way checking forward Hockey Canada loves.
That said, Gaunce will get a chance on a good playoff team. He was moved from Belleville to Erie—one of the Ontario league's worst teams to one of its best—but has not picked up his scoring rate significantly, going from 26 points in 22 games with Bulls to 35 in 24 with the Otters as a first line centre in both situations. Thing is, the success of Gaunce will ultimately lie on his ability to play defence and play against tough opposition, and he is at least scoring at a decent rate in the OHL to make us think he'll be cut out for an NHL role at some point.
Well, that doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Gaunce, who the team took in the 1st round two years ago, and who we collectively ranked as the team's top prospect last summer (though let the record show that I had him 3rd!).
While I think the reasoning behind having him as high as we did is still valid - i.e. plays the type of game that'll almost assuredly translate to the NHL level in at least some form, is probably going to be ready soon, has a fairly high "floor" to his projection - it's pretty clear that he had no business being ranked where he was. I assume that he'll be somewhere in the 4-5 range when we do this again next time around..
#0 Ludwig Blomstrand (Kalamazoo Wings, ECHL)
Pointless in 8 games with the Comets, followed by 14 points in 31 ECHL games? Vindication.