The Top 20 Canucks Prospects: An Update (Part IV)

We here at CanucksArmy published our top 20 prospects list this past summer, and have provided follow up coverage on a lot of the organization’s prospects this season, especially those playing in Chicago with the Wolves. However, there are many notable prospects in the organizaton playing elsewhere – the CHL, NCAA, or over in Europe. Although the season is only a few months old, why not check in and see how the top 20 prospects are faring?

This week, I take a look at the top five prospects in the organization: Jordan Schroeder, Brendan Gaunce, Nicklas Jensen, Eddie Lack, and Zack Kassian.

#5 Jordan Schroeder | C Chicago Wolves (AHL)

Known as an excellent skater with good hands and vision, Schroeder’s upside is high. Playing mostly as a centre, he has also played on the wing – he played there for the U.S. world junior team in 2008 (11 points in 6 games) and 2009 (8 points in 7 games). He also played at the world juniors as a seventeen year old (8 points in 6 games).

Schroeder got off to a slow (partly unlucky) start with the Wolves this season, but his level of play has picked up considerably in November and early December. For whatever reason however, he was healthy scratched for a game in late November by head coach Scott Arniel, along with Zack Kassian.

Having seen a number of Wolves games this season, Schroeder is a bit of an anomaly. He quite clearly "gets" the game of hockey, and his lack of size isn’t an issue – he’s quite strong and sturdy on his skates. I view him as a player who shines with wingers who are better able to take advantage of his passes. However, I don’t think he is processing the game away from the puck at an NHL level yet, which is an issue especially considering how demanding Alain Vigneault is of his third and fourth line centers.

Some highlights from a recent game:

#4 Brendan Gaunce | C Belleville Bulls (OHL)

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It is easy to see why the Canucks were happy to see Gaunce fall into their laps back in June. He has some work to do, but all of the pieces appear to be in place for his development into a very dependable NHL center in the near future. And Matisz makes a great point regarding the lack of depth up the middle in the Vancouver organization. If Gaunce puts together another solid OHL campaign in 2012-13, he could find himself fighting for a roster spot with the Canucks in a little over a year.

Despite being named team captain in September, Gaunce’s season hasn’t gone as he had hoped, but that has nothing to do with his on-ice performance. He recently returned to the Bulls lineup after missing a large chunk of time with a shoulder separation. And thanks to the lockout, he wasn’t selected for Canada’s evaluation camp for the upcoming World Juniors, either. If Canada didn’t have the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau or Mark Scheifele to call upon, Gaunce would presumably be a candidate for a roster spot.

He has eight goals and 14 points in 20 games for the Bulls – decent production, but nothing earth-shattering. Then again, the Belleville Bulls have only allowed 72 goals against in 29 games, second fewest in the OHL, and Guance’s two-way plaly and penalty-killing ability has a lot to do with that (though, so does playing in front of Malcolm Subban).

Gaunce’s stock hasn’t really changed, and he remains a few years away from NHL action.

#3 Nicklas Jensen | LW AIK (SEL)

Jensen, the son of a Canadian who played 16 seasons in the Danish league, burst onto the OHL scene two years ago. His high-octane scoring talent really shouldn’t have been a surprise, though. The season before arriving in Oshawa, Jensen played in the Danish senior league, scoring a two goals in his debut. At age 16 Against men.

Jensen’s play in the SEL has been impressive, for the most part, through the first few months of the season. The team he is playing for (AIK) isn’t very strong, but that has enabled Jensen to play a big role for the club. He has recorded only three assists through 27 games, but his 10 goals are very impressive for a teenager playing in the top Swedish professional league. In fact, Jensen is in the top-10 in league goal scoring and is far and away the most productive rookie in the Swedish Elite League this season. 

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Jensen already has NHL size, and he is learning to use his strength against men in the SEL. As of now, it looks like leaving the OHL to go over to the SEL was the right move. He is expected to remain in Sweden until the end of the 2013 season, even if the NHL lockout ends.

#2 Eddie Lack | G Chicago Wolves (AHL)

Lack always relied on his raw athleticism while growing up a goalie in Sweden, and didn’t begin to refine his game from a tactical and positional standpoint until he arrived in Brynas IF and began working with Pecca Alcen. Keep in mind that was just one season before he was signed by the Canucks as an undrafted free agent, and he was already 21-years old – an astonishingly late age to be told for the first time that he ‘played like he was 5-foot-3’.

Lack is a player who many were pencilling in to the Vancouver lineup at the start of the season (assuming one of Luongo or Schneider would have been moved by then, of course). Lack hasn’t been as good this season for Chicago as he was last year, though. Part of that has to do with the team’s defensive struggles (especially on the penalty-kill), and part of it has to do with Lack’s inconsistent play. He still struggles with rebounds and tracking pucks (look for it next time you watch Chicago play), but he is still one of the best goaltenders outside of the NHL right now.

The Canucks will probably keep him in Chicago for the duration of the season, and sign a backup to come in and play behind Cory Schneider in Vancouver. There is no harm in letting a goaltender like Lack spend more time developing – it is very rare for a goaltender to emerge as NHL caliber after only a few years of pro hockey (especially Lack, who was incredibly raw when he came over from Sweden three years ago).

#1 Zack Kassian | RW Chicago Wolves (AHL)

Although Vancouver didn’t draft Kassian (they scouted him heavily back in 2009, however), no player better exemplifies the recent focus that the club has placed on on size and strength with drafting and player development . Kassian was one of a handful of young players around the league they targeted when shopping Hodgson. He may not be as productive offensively as Hodgson for a few seasons. And he may not be as physically intimidating as Lucic was as a second year NHLer. However, Kassian is on the right track and the Canucks are making sure he stays there.

The first few months of the season have been largely good for Vancouver’s top prospect. Kassian has been dominant at times, showing why he is one of the best young forwards in hockey. He is quicker than last year, thanks to a rigorous off-season training regiment, and he has displayed the vision and creativity that allowed him to star in the OHL with Peterborough and Windsor.

Kassian’s recent healthy scratch points to his penchant for bad penalties and inconsistent effort – when he is fully engaged in the game, he is impossible to knock off the puck, especially down low. From researching my piece on him last summer, everyone I spoke to mentioned the importance of surrounding him with quality leaders and people. I have no doubts Kassian will develop into a very good NHL player, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. And the fact that he has been able to be so dominant (not as frequently as Canuck fans may hope, though) against some very talented AHL competition is a great sign.

Other prospect updates: