August 12 2014 10:30AM
I'll let commenter JDM set us up:
I was just thinking, "these always start off in very sober fashion and are basically a downer for the first couple of entries". Which they are; I mean, it's basically a litany of reasons why prospect X is unlikely to ever be any good.
However, it then occurred to me that this is probably going to be the least depressing one of these lists ever compiled.
He is, for the most part, right. Vancouver's system is significantly deeper this season than it has been in previous years, but the unfortunate truth with top-20 prospect rankings like these is that a good number of the guys we rank and talk about likely won't play in the NHL for one reason or another. Some will get injured, some won't catch the breaks they need, and some just won't be good enough. For guys ranked around 10th or below, you're realistically looking at an outside shot of playing an NHL game at best.
So when Michael Zalewski is your 19th-best prospect and has already played in the NHL (and acquitted himself rather admirably I might add, even if it were just the 2 games we saw him in), that says good things about your system.
Zalewski spent last season playing at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers of the NCAA's ECAC where he finished 2nd on the Engineers in assists and 4th in points and goals. He attended Winnipeg Jets training camp in the fall, and signed a contract with the Canucks on March 4th. Due largely to injuries, Zalewski actually made his NHL debut before his AHL one and, in a sample admittedly too small to make any sort of projection, performed very well.
In two games against the Flames and Oilers, Zalewski played roughly 12 minutes per game, carried a 55.9% Corsi while starting just 33% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and added one assist. His NHL performance doesn't tell us much (there were multiple games last year where Tom Sestito led the Canucks in Corsi% after all), but it's still a thing that happened to Zalewski and it happened in the NHL, so it's worth mentioning.
Here are Zalewski's career stats, courtesy of HockeyDB:
Zalewski's offensive output doesn't necessarily jump off of the page even for a sophomore, but he did eclipse a point per game pace during his BCHL career, tallying 38 goals and 37 assists in 60 games to lead the Vernon Vipers in scoring in his 19-year old season. As a comparison, Tyler Bozak scored 31 goals and added 38 assists in 56 games as a 19-year old with the BCHL's Victoria Salsa. Zalewski's 20-year old and 21-year old production in the NCAA is also much better than the last guy the Canucks signed out of college: Kellan Lain.
I feel quite comfortable saying that Zalewski is a miles better prospect than Kellan Lain, who we ranked as the 10th best prospect in Vancouver's system last year. Like Lain, Zalewski played at centre for his NCAA team, and also like Lain, Zalewski apparently plays a rugged, physical game, excelling in strong board play.
The RPI sophomore is a big-bodied winger that has the potential to be a great bottom six forward at the NHL level. He is very strong along the wall, brings a physical presence to the ice, and can really muck it up and grind it. He's scored eight goals this season, including two on the penalty kill, but he has the potential to make a living as a third or fourth line winger in the pros.
SBNation's college hockey blog also ranked Zalewski as the 32nd best prospect in the NCAA last year, 11 spots behind another Canucks prospect Ben Hutton, and immediately ahead of former Calgary Flames 1st round draft pick Mark Jankowski. RPI Engineers blog Without A Peer' had this to say about Zalewski, via Nucks Misconduct:
"He doesn't project to be a star by any stretch of the imagination, but he certainly has the capacity and size to eventually hold down a regular gig in the NHL. The last two years we had him as one of the better NHL prospects on the team, he was surpassed this year only because Ryan Haggerty had a ridiculous season as a sniper, but long term we still think Zalewski has a future in the league."
Standing at 6'2, 205 lbs, Zalewski certainly possesses the physical tools to play a very meat-and-potatoes style of game. He's always carried relatively high PIMs totals, and while that's not necessarily a good thing, it may lend support to the argument that he has the disposition to play a grinding-type game too. Zalewski fancies himself as a power-forward type, and watching him skate alongside other Canucks prospects at development camp last month, his hockey skills appeared to be above average for the group. In short, while size is likely what got him noticed, it's far from the only thing he has going for him.
Zalewski will need to play extremely well to turn enough heads and get a look at the NHL level, especially since the lower end of Vancouver's roster and the Utica Comets both got a lot more competitive over the summer. With the bottom-6 filled with guys like Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, Brad Richardson, Linden Vey, Shawn Matthias, Derek Dorsett, and Tom Sestito's One-Way Contract, it's likely that Zalewski will start the season in Utica.
There, he will compete directly with not only other prospects like Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Dane Fox, Alexandre Grenier, and Brendan Gaunce, but also with more experienced guys like Brandon DeFazio, Cal O'Reilly, Darren Archibald, Dustin Jeffery, and whoever else Utica decides to bring in to supplement their team. It's worth noting that Zalewski is from that area, and he should be a hit with the local Comets crowd.
At the end of the day, while I really like everything I've seen and read about Zalewski, the biggest threat to a decent prospect making the NHL is that there are a ton of decent hockey players around. Competition is going to be fierce for a player of his abilities since there are a ton of guys looking to make the jump to the next level, and Zalewski won't just have to be good, he'll have to be better than a lot of guys with better pedigrees who Vancouver has already invested more in to. And at 22 years old, this will have to happen relatively soon. If Zalewski is like most guys, and we don't have reason to believe he isn't, he'll reach his peak ability in the next 2-4 years. If he's not knocking on the NHL door by then, well, that won't be good.
The Canucks' system still isn't great by any stretch of the mind, and Zalewski isn't a great prospect, but he has a legitimate shot at having 4th-line upside. While that may not sound like much at all, finding young, cheap depth forwards allows you to spend more money in other places. Instead of having Derek Dorsett for $1.633M/yr, the Kings pay Jordan Nolan $700k and use that extra $900k elsewhere. 4th line upside is still NHL upside, and having NHL upside isn't something we've been able to comfortably say about Vancouver's lower end prospects in years past.
Will Mike Zalewski one day be an NHL regular? Probably not, but then again, it's not that unlikely of a scenario.