To say that Canucks prospect Alex Friesen plays bigger than his size would be an understatement. The generously listed 5-10, 185 pound centre was one of the most physically intimidating forwards in the OHL over his five year career with the Niagara Ice Dogs.
Friesen played an important role on the Ice Dogs, providing a defensive presence behind star center Ryan Strome. He saw his offensive responsibilities increase each season, and in 2011-12 he set a career high with 71 points in 62 games. Friesen added eight goals and 22 points in 20 postseason games for Niagara as well.
The next step for him is to turn pro, and he looks to start his career in the Canucks organization with the Chicago Wolves in 2012-13. He isn’t far off from the NHL, though, and his style of play has garnered some comparisons to former Canuck draft pick Mike Peca.
Niagara coach Marty Williamson is a big fan of Friesen’s game.
"[Then Wolves head coach] Craig MacTavish is going to be raving about him and he’ll get a guy who will always be there for important situations. He really thrives on that. He was our best player throughout the playoffs and is absolutely a heart-and-soul guy. Not the most gifted goal-scorer, but the hardest worker and hardest hitter.
He’s such a competitive kid. He really bought in to what we were trying to do. He might have been our hardest hitter and could absolutely destroy guys because he keeps you honest. If you fall asleep as a defenceman he’ll put you right through the end boards. But you can’t play that way every shift."
The second quote there sounds a lot like a young Peca, doesn’t it? Peca made a name for himself by absolutely hammering guys – it is likely a reason why his career was cut short (that, and a Darcy Tucker low bridge).
Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman knows the importance of having depth up the middle.
When you look at our depth chart, we have a need and particularly centres who can play at both ends of the rink. What we like about Alex is that he’s an over-achiever and is a gritty two-way forward who plays above his size. And you don’t want to put players in a [third-line] box because they can develop and exceed expectations.
To find out more about Friesen, I consulted OHL prospect guru Brock Otten. In addition to answering a few of my questions, Otten provided a season recap of Vancouver’s OHL prospects recently. Here is what he wrote about Friesen:
I absolutely love Friesen as a prospect. He’s the type of player who leaves it all on the ice. His playoff stats speak for themselves, and he was consistently one of the Dogs top performers in the post season.
Friesen is a jack of all trades kind of guy. Anything you ask of him, he does it. He wins faceoffs (one of the best in the OHL). He kills penalties. He can play the point on the powerplay. He forechecks. He hits. He’s aggressive with the puck. Best of all, he does everything at a high speed, with great wheels. The biggest difference in Alex this year was strength.
(An example of Friesen’s speed):
He was a lot harder to take the puck off of, and he was more effective in winning battles along the boards. This added strength also gave him the confidence to take his physical game to the next level, as he became one of the more effective body checkers in the league.
Friesen doesn’t profile as a top six player at the next level, but I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t find some sort of role in the NHL in the future. I look forward to following his progression in the AHL this year, where he should be able to crack the Chicago line up full time. There’s no doubt he’ll be a fan favourite. The Canucks may even want to look into having Friesen and Darren Archibald play together, as the two had chemistry with the Dogs.
You can never have enough quality centers, and the Canucks would love to be able to plug a young player on an entry level contract in to the roster. Friesen’s game is polished, he just needs to continue to get stronger, as his lack of size will be a bigger issue as he progresses to pro hockey. Continuing with Brock:
Is Friesen a player who you think can overcome his lack of size at the pro level?
He’s a very durable player. Despite playing a very tenacious, in your face kind of style, he never once dipped below the 60 games played mark in the last four years of his OHL career. He’s also a very good skater, which gives him elusiveness. He’s certainly not an easy player to line up for a hit. All the things that Friesen does incredibly well, like being a good forechecker, being a good penalty killer, and being a good face-off man are all things guys of his size excel at at the NHL level.
Is his offensive game going to transfer, or is it more a case of him being an overager in the OHL?
He’s been terrific offensively the past three years, not just last year as an overager. I don’t think he’s skilled enough or a good enough goal scorer to be a top-six player, but he’s smart enough, quick enough, and able to handle the puck well enough to put up modest points on a checking line. So I guess you could say I don’t anticipate his offensive game to transfer to the point at which he’s putting up 71 point seasons in the NHL (what he scored in the OHL this year), but I think he’ll still be able to help out a team offensively and contribute.
Does he have the ability to be an effective NHL player within the next three years?
I think he has the ability to be an effective NHL player within the next year. I think he’s a very pro ready player. We’re not talking about a big budding power forward who we’re waiting for so he can grow into his body. What you see is what you get. As I said earlier, the things that Friesen does well should transfer fairly easily to the pro game. His faceoff ability, his energy/forechecking ability, and his penchant for killing penalties all make him an asset as a role player on a checking line. You look at the success a guy like Andrew Shaw had in Chicago. Friesen is a similar type of player and I think he’ll move quickly up the system. The Canucks have been searching for valuable fourth line players over the past few years. There really aren’t many guys in Vancouver’s system (at least at the pro level) like Friesen. He doesn’t have a ton of competition if the Canucks want more from their fourth line.
I’d agree with Otten here. No Vancouver prospects project as fourth line players – at least not in the near future. Friesen’s low cap hit would allow them to spend some more money elsewhere, too.
Any comparisons you would make, or players he reminds you of?
I already mentioned Shaw, and I do think they are similar players. I think Friesen will face a similar sort of career path, and move just as quick as him. Another guy might be someone like Gregory Campbell in Boston (who was a similar sort of OHL player during his time). I think Canuck fans will really like Friesen. He’s been a fan favourite in Niagara ever since he stepped foot on to the team (especially as a local player). He works his butt off and is a true team player. It is easy to see why Friesen is a prospect who should excite Canucks fans and management.
He also seems like the type of player who will quickly endear himself to Alain Vigneault. Vigneault rewards players based on hard work, and that seems to be Friesen’s calling card.
Friesen belts an opposing defender on the forecheck (and earns a penalty for the clean hit):
Max Lapierre is a free agent after this year, as is Manny Malhotra. There will be a lot of opportunity for Friesen to earn a roster spot in 2013-14.