Under the Radar Prospects Part I

Though Vancouver hasn’t had much success at the draft table with regards to defensemen in the past decade (save for 2004 and Alex Edler), they have accumulated a decent list of young blue-liners in recent years through the draft and free agency. Though the argument could be made that, recently drafted or signed prospects haven’t had time to allow for the “shine” to wear off yet…

Looking at the current defensive roster, there are two defensemen drafted by the team (Edler and Bieksa), and five acquired through free agency or trade (Hamhuis, Ballard, Alberts, Salo, Rome, and Tanev). Drafting young talent is always important, but lately the organization has placed an importance on scouring overage prospects to sign, as well.

I am going to speak about two young defensemen who the organization acquired this past summer – one signed from Sweden, and another picked in the 5th round of 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Sebastian Erixon

Erixon was signed this past summer by the Canucks after an impressive 2010-11 campaign in Sweden. In Sweden, he was regarded as a strong-skater capable of playing a regular shift in a variety of situations. His big issues are the same many young prospect face – lack of size and strength. In Sweden, he was able to succeed with his positioning and skating, but in North America the ice is smaller and the time a player has to move the puck is less. He will see steady minutes with the Chicago Wolves this season, and could find his way onto the Canucks roster in a year or two if he adapts quickly to the AHL game. The Canucks are going to continue to reap the rewards of strong coaching on their farm team (Craig MacTavish this year and potentially beyond).

Although poised defensive play is something on his scouting report, Erixon’s progression offensively is what likely earned him a contract from the Canucks. He had only 14 points combined in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, but with increased power play responsibilities last season in Sweden he scored five goals and added 15 assists.

Looking at Vancouver’s defensive depth chart, there are some locks on the roster for the foreseeable future. Bieksa, Ballard, and Hamhuis are all signed for a few years (Edler is a free agent after next season but the Canucks won’t be letting him go anywhere). Chris Tanev is looking like a keeper as well. In terms of prospects, there are no sure things on the farm right now. Kevin Connauton, even with his stellar WHL career, is a disaster in his own zone and needs some serious work at the AHL level to even be considered a legitimate defensive prospect. Adam Polasek has upside but is far from a sure thing. One other interesting young defenseman will be talked about more in just a bit.

Erixon passed the initial gauntlet during the preseason when opponents saw a 5’10” defenseman from Europe who weighs in at well under 200 pounds and decided to dump it into his corner to test him out. Erixon came out with the puck more often than not, and appeared unfazed by the physical play. The issue now is – can he withstand that kind of play over a full professional season?

NHL Comparison: He plays a lot like Tim Erixon, but that would just be too easy (no relation, by the way). I’ll go with Kimmo Timonen.

Upside: Top-four puck mover.

ETA: 2013-14.

Frank Corrado

Perhaps no defenseman in Vancouver’s organization acquitted himself better during the preseason than Corrado. The undersized Ontario product played well beyond his experience against NHL competition, firmly establishing himself as a prospect with legitimate NHL upside (a rarity for a recent mid-round draft pick). The comparisons to Kevin Bieksa are obvious – both are smooth-skating, right-handed shooting defensemen from Ontario who play with a lot of confidence and much bigger than their respective sizes. Bieksa went the college route and played a full four seasons at Bowling Green, where he learned to use his size against much bigger opposing forwards.

The Canucks obviously wouldn’t have used a draft pick on Corrado if they didn’t believe he had NHL upside, but his preseason showed he may be closer to playing professionally than many in the organization had probably assumed.

He’ll see a steady dose of minutes in Sudbury this season, and the Canucks will be looking for solid offensive numbers and improved size and strength (like I said, it’s a common theme for most young defensemen). Corrado isn’t as polished as Erixon, but he has more offensive upside. As mentioned earlier, there aren’t exactly a number of open defensive spots over the short term in Vancouver, so don’t expect to see Corrado with the big club any time soon. However, for a team lacking in blue chip prospects, an impressive preseason showing has gone a long way in helping Corrado stand out from the rest of the pack.

NHL Comparison: Ian White or the aforementioned Bieksa.

Upside: Top-four gritty defenseman.

ETA: 2014-15.

Next week I’ll talk about two lesser known forward prospects in the organization.