During the course of the season, I’ve tried to bring attention to several less heralded prospects in Vancouver’s system. That trend continues today with a profile on Niagara Ice Dog and 2010 6th round draft pick, center Alex Friesen.
Friesen plays an integral role on arguably the best team in the OHL in Niagara. The Ice Dogs feature more notable prospects in defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Boston) and slick center Ryan Strome (Long Island), but Friesen could be considered their most consistent player this past season. Friesen’s size (listed generous at 5’10” and about 190 pounds) hurt his draft ranking back in 2010, but he plays a tenacious and scrappy game at both ends of the ice. Think of a young, shorter Mike Peca if you want to get a picture of the kind of game Friesen plays (although Peca was a much more prolific scorer in junior).
Back in a 2010 piece for Vancouver’s official site, Mike Gillis explained why he picked Friesen.
“He scored in the top-three in our psychological and intelligence testing. He’s not a big guy at 5- foot-10, but he’s a very, very competitive player. Hardnosed, good skills, can score goals."
Friesen has spent five full years with Niagara, so his numbers this season should be taken in context (as an overage player at the age of 21, Friesen is facing competition many years younger than himself, for the most part). In 62 regular season games, Friesen scored 26 goals, added 45 assists, and racked up 106 PIM.
Through six playoff games, he has an impressive four goals and 12 points (and only two PIM). He won’t be in the NHL any time soon (the Canucks aren’t exactly desperate for centers at the moment), but there are several reasons why he is a prospect with NHL upside.
In a recent OHL Eastern Conference poll, Friesen was selected by the coaches as the top faceoff man in the conference (after coming third in the category in both 2011 and 2010). He was also named the top defensive forward, and the top penalty killer, as well. He was third on the list for the hardest worker award. Those four awards together paint a picture of Friesen’s style of play. His production is important too, as it is very rare that checking forwards at the NHL level were unable to produce offensively at the junior level.
Friesen will start next season in Chicago with the Wolves. He’ll likely start off in a depth role, as he adjusts to the speed and physicality of the professional game. While concerns about his size linger, he is more than ready to take the next step (I’d hope so after five OHL seasons), and the Canucks have to be happy with how he has improved in his strengths (defensive play and checking) while continuing to produce offensively.
In his final OHL season, Friesen finished with 26 goals, 71 points, and 107 PIM. Being an over ager and playing on an elite squad both were significant factors for his strong production (as was an injury to Strome, which opened up more offensive opportunities). How does he stack up against some current and former checking line players for the Canucks? Let’s take a look.
In their final CHL seasons…
- Maxim Lapierre recorded 25 goals, 52 points, and 139 PIM.
- Manny Malhotra recorded 16 goals, 51 points, and 29 PIM.
- Matt Cooke recorded 22 goals, 54 points, and 99 PIM.
- Mike Keane recorded 25 goals, 70 points, and 107 PIM.
I chose four players who have similar attributes to Friesen (and I wanted to have players who skated in the CHL, to keep the basis of comparison more similar). Of the four, Keane is probably the closest stylistic comparison. The Canucks would be ecstatic if Friesen turns out to be one- half the player Keane was in his prime – a hard working two-way leader on several Cup-winning teams. A more apt comparison may be (prepare yourself for this) Chicago’s David Bolland. Friesen is a better skater than Bolland was at the same age, but he lacks some of Bolland’s creativity with the puck. That being said, both are gritty, tenacious, undersized centers with a lot of smarts and well-rounded skill sets.
The Mike Gillis regime hasn’t churned out any high level prospects (yet), but there are several mid-to-late-round picks who have progressed nicely since being drafted. Friesen is one of them. The Canucks dipped back into the OHL this past season, taking Nicklas Jensen in the 1st round and Frankie Corrado in the 5th.
They don’t draft from the OHL often. Cody Hodgson aside, the most recent three players Vancouver has selected from the OHL – Brandon Nolan (4th round in 2003), Nathan McIver (8th round in 2003), and Fedor Fedorov (2001). To find their last two successful OHL picks, you have to back to 1998 (Bryan Allen, 4th overall), and 1997 (Cooke, 144th overall).
If Friesen (and Jensen and Corrado, for that matter) are able to continue to take positive steps towards an NHL career, perhaps the Canucks won’t keep ignoring one of the best developmental leagues in the world.
While Friesen’s lack of size, remains some cause for concern – he’s a strong player, who has consistently played an extraordinary physical game. Here’s that famous time he cleanly laid out Taylor Hall, for example: