Image via Utica Comets
Something that you’ll notice when it comes to professional sports is that there’s an inverse relationship between how good the parent club is, and how much interest the fanbase has in how the up-and-coming prospects are doing.
As long as the NHL team is winning and staying relevant, most people generally speaking are indifferent to the state of the system. Just keeping winning. As soon as the cyclical nature of the sport begins to take a hold, fans start looking down to the minors in the hopes that there are some sort of reinforcements on the way. Is something on the way that’ll right this ship?
It’s tough to safe with the Canucks. They’re still not considered as having an overly deep or strong pool of young talent in the system, but things are definitely trending upwards (having two picks in the top 24 of a good draft certainly doesn’t hurt in that regard). It takes time cultivating a proper system.
Just past the jump we’ll take a look back at our Top-20 prospects from this past summer, and try to assess how they’ve done, and what they’re tracking towards moving forward.
#20 – Alex Friesen (Utica Comets, AHL)
In the 2012 edition of the prospect rankings on Canucks Army, Alex Friesen came in as the 11th ranked prospect in the system. He had just finished a season in which he – despite having eaten up a bunch of tough minutes in Niagara behind star prospect Ryan Strome – put up 26 goals and 71 points in 62 games for the Ice Dogs.
As he was about to turn pro he was drawing comparisons to guys like Andrew Shaw, who despite his undersized frame had carved a niche for himself in the NHL thanks to a high compete level, an ability to throw in some offense under tough circumstances, and a willingness to mix it up whenever and wherever. Based on their OHL numbers, their stature, and the way scouts spoke about them, it seemed fairly apt (or as apt as comparables can ever be).
A year and a half later, Friesen’s pro career has been an abject failure, and he continues to slow further and further down the organizational depth chart. We had him at the bottom of the barrel last summer, and at this rate, he won’t even be under consideration the next time we sit down to rank.
He has managed just 3 points in 28 games in Utica this season, routinely finding himself as a healthy scratch for Travis Green’s Comets. At this point it remains a mystery why he hasn’t been thrown a lifeline of sorts with a demotion to the ECHL, because he’s pretty clearly not where he should be to be even competing for a regular spot at the AHL level.
#19 – Peter Andersson (Utica Comets, AHL)
Prior to getting injured recently, Peter Andersson was having himself a fine season down in Utica. I don’t think he’s going to ever resemble anything close to a big point producer at any level he plays at, but from what I’ve seen and read about him, he appears to be on track towards being a very reliable player on the back-end.
He doesn’t make very many mistakes, makes the right read more times than not, and it’s because of that that he’ll probably have himself a nice little career. He kills penalties, and has a sparkling 22.97% Goal Differential at 5v5.
I don’t think his upside is all that high, and you’ll probably need to adjust your expectations because of that accordingly (which may be tough to do when you see the buzz words “big” and “Swedish defenseman” next to his name), but I still figure he’ll jump up at least a couple of spots on this list the next time we compile it. There’s something to be said for reliability in your projection. Now he just needs to stay healthy.
#18 – Cole Cassels (Oshawa Generals, OHL)
Kudos to Thomas Drance, who nailed his profile on Cassels this past summer in a big way. I’ll readily admit that all I knew about him for a while there was that he was Andrew Cassels’ son, figuring that he was just something of a legacy pick.
But with the departure of Boone Jenner, Cassels has taken his increased role with the Oshawa Generals in stride. He has made the most of the opportunity to play next to Flyers prospect Scott Laughton, registering 57 points in 50 games (up from 43 in 64 last year), and has been a fixture on our weekly prospect report this season.
One little interesting note: He signed a three-year entry deal in early December during a stretch where he was en fuego. He had 12 goals in 24 games at the time, and was all the rage. Since then he has hit something of a rough patch, having lit the lamp just 7 times in 26 games. He has been described as an “unwilling shooter”, so I’m not honestly sure whether he’s just shooting less, whether he’s hurt, or whether he was due for some regression. It’s possible that it’s at least some sort of combination of the three.
Regardless, no matter what he does to end his campaign this’ll be viewed as a successful one, and the fact that the Canucks were able to add a player like him in the 3rd round is most certainly a boon for them. I’d be quite surprised if he didn’t crack the Top-10 this summer, which is a testament to the awesome year he has had.
“Now he just needs to start working on his celebrations”- Joe Thornton
#17 – Yann Sauve (Utica Comets, AHL)
If Yann Sauve, or anyone in his family is reading this.. I recommend scrolling down or just logging off at this point. Get out while you still can. Which, ironically enough, is what I’d say to Mike Gillis or anyone on his staff were they to ask me about Sauve.
While generally refrain from making widespread conclusions based off of 3-game samples, I think we’ve seen enough of Sauve at this point to know that he doesn’t have a future in the NHL. It certainly didn’t help that he was paired with Frankie Corrado, but Sauve was beaten to a pulp by NHL competition during his call-up to the show following the rash of injuries on the back-end.
With him on the ice, the Canucks controlled an astonishingly low 36.5% of all shot attempts at 5v5, and it feels like he was actually kind of lucky to get out of the entire ordeal with only 2 goals against next to his name.
Sauve, once a 2nd round pick who flashed upside in the early stages of his career, seems like a lock to be a journeyman AHL player that serves as organizational depth fodder at best. That’s if he’s even capable of being that, as he’s currently sporting a -16.52% Goals For Differential at 5v5 down in Utica. It probably wasn’t a great idea for the Canucks to reunite what was a miserable 2nd pairing in the AHL at the NHL level, but their hands were forced with the laundry list of players missing.
#16 – Joe Cannata (Utica Comets, AHL)
The bad news about Joe Cannata: he has a 3.13 goals against average, and .895 save percentage. After Joacim Eriksson really struggled out of the gate this season (more on this later), Cannata had himself an opportunity to handle a heavy workload at the pro level for the first time in his career. But he fumbled and bumbled it, and with Eriksson finally settling into a groove, Cannata has been relegated to bring a baseball cap model. Barring some sort of injury he looks destined for a whole lot of nights off moving forward.
The good news about Joe Cannata: he has stopped 127 of the past 134 shots he has faced, mostly in situations where the team has needed to give Eriksson a little break. It’s a shame for him that he wasn’t able to string together a stretch like this earlier in the year, but he still has a chance to salvage his season.
Especially since he’s an impending RFA this summer. I’d imagine that he’ll sign another two-way deal with the team to provide goaltending depth in the AHL, which I’m okay with. But his days on this list are definitely numbered.
#15 – Patrick McNally (Harvard University, ECAC)
There were a few questions marks surrounding McNally that played into his ranking this past summer. I think some of our voters were concerned with how a young player like himself would handle having essentially missed an entire year of development because of the off-ice trouble he got himself into at Harvard.
Then there’s the fact that, at 22 years old, he’s slightly behind the curve in terms of his development. Combining that with the idea that he’s a “project” is a little disconcerting, but it’s still hard to avoid wooed by the tremendous offensive ability he possesses. Being able to move the puck and generate offense from the back-end is such a luxury that NHL teams so desperately covet, and McNally has the sort of upside in that regard that so few have.
It appears that the year he missed because of that aforementioned suspension hasn’t hurt him all that much. While his counting stats have dried up of late, he still has a whopping 31 shots/game. If he keeps playing like this I have to imagine that the points will begin to rack up once again.
He’s a guy that I’ll be routinely checking in on, and one that’ll probably once again prove very difficult to rank this summer.
#14 – Darren Archibald (Utica Comets, AHL)
I’d classify Archibald’s campaign thus far as a success. As has been the case with him for the entirety of his career, he continues to slowly but steadily improve as a player, which really bodes well for him moving forward.
After having 22 points in 57 games with the Wolves last season, he has 19 in 38 this year on an offensively starved team. He plays in all situations for the Comets, including the penalty kill, and doesn’t need to be sheltered at 5v5.
It must’ve been a pretty cool experience for him to finally get a sniff of the life in the NHL this year, given the journey he has been on over the course of his career thus far. He didn’t exactly turn heads during his cup of coffee with the Canucks, but that’s not the type of player that he is. I still believe that he’s going to be a competent 4th line player in the NHL for at least a handful of season at some point. Especially if his offensive game continues to come on the way it has.
As the face punchers continue on their path towards becoming a dying breed, the biggest beneficiaries will be the Darren Archibalds of the world; guys that can play somewhere anywhere between 6-10 minutes depending on the way the game is going, without hurting your team and actually chipping in with tangible, useful moments. He’s not a sexy name, but he’s a good player to have in the system on the cheap.
#13 – Alexandre Mallet (Utica Comets, AHL)
17-year old season: 11 games, 1 goal, 2 points.
18-year old season: 77 games, 11 goals, 21 points.
19-year old season: 65 games, 10 goals, 21 points.
20-year old season: 89 games, 44 goals, 106 points.
It all makes for a neat story, no doubt, but we can’t just look at what Mallet accomplished in his final year in the QMJHL in a vacuum. Context is crucial, as always. Say it with me: one of these things is not like the others. An optimist may say that he figured things out, but the skeptic in me believes that we can attribute the massive spike in production to the fact that he was an overage, 20-year old man that had his way with a bunch of 17 and 18-year olds kids.
When he fell flat on his face during his 18-game stint for the Chicago Wolves to start the season the skeptic in me felt vindicated. That’s not to say that we should just forget about him as a prospect, but if he really had “figured things out”, then why did he revert back to being a largely unproductive, 4th-line agitator as soon as he lost the physical advantage he had enjoyed the previous year? I don’t think it’s a coincidence, unfortunately.
That’s from Mallet’s write-up back on August 14th, 2013 when we generously (and by the looks of it, foolishly) ranked him 13th. At this point it’s pretty egregious that we had him ahead of someone like Cole Cassels. It’s actually kind of indefensible that we fell victim to the tantalizing physical skill set he possesses, because by the looks of it, he’s not actually even passable as a hockey player.
He has 1 goal and 3 points in 39 games down in Utica, and it’s looking more and more like last season’s flop in his pro debut was more telling than we were willing to admit.
With a fresh incoming draft class, and some risers such as the aforementioned Cassels and Eriksson, it’s a distinct possibility that Alexandre Mallet doesn’t make an appearance in our Top-20 after having gone 9th and 13 the previous two times. That’s a tough pill to swallow, after having burned a 2nd round pick on him as recently as the Canucks did. At least his cautionary tale provides another example of why perspective is needed when evaluating players putting up big numbers in Major Junior.
#12 – Alexandre Grenier (Utica Comets, AHL)
Grenier is basically on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the guy we just finished looking at. In his first full AHL season at the age of 22, he has registered 15 goals and 32 points in 50 games, which has him in the top-5 for rookie scoring in the entire league. He’s had an interesting developmental path: after being drafted out of the QMJHL back in ’11, he spent last season splitting time between the ECHL and Austria.
It just goes to show you that every guy develops differently, and at their own speed.. because that unique path seems to have done wonders for him. Nicklas Jensen is the forward in Utica that has garnered the most attention from fans of the team (with reason, given where he was drafted), but Grenier’s profile (6’5”, 200 lbs) and ability should have fans salivating.
Which is why I reached out to friend of the blog Corey Pronman for his thoughts on Grenier’s surprising play this season, and he came back to me with the following sentiments:
“Seen him a lot live this year. Had him rated towards bottom of my VAN top 10 2 years ago but lower last summer. Big, skilled guy with lot of tools is why I’ve liked him before and like him now. Despite big #’s, he hasn’t been great in the A. He still needs work on all-around game, and for now projects as more of a sheltered scorer in the NHL. Good slot guy on the PP. Frame, hands, good speed for size and shot creates some NHL value for him. “
The next time we rank prospects is still a good 5-6 months away, so suffice it to say there’s a lot of things that can happen until then to change the landscape. On an individual level, a guy can get injured, or fall into a funk, or get hot. Just look at how the narrative has changed with a guy like Nicklas Jensen over the past handful of weeks. He went from being viewed as a bust and question mark to a guy that is scoring in bunches and making fans of the big club hope that he gets called up as the saviour.
Evaluating prospects is a fickle business, to say the least. Then there’s also things that are outside of their control, like the Canucks potentially having a great draft that brings a bunch of strong talent into the system, bumping others down the depth chart.
But with all of that in mind, I still feel fairly confident in saying that Alex Grenier will be amongst the top risers out of any player currently in the team’s system.
#11 – Joacim Eriksson (Utica Comets, AHL)
Eriksson has had himself an interesting season. After having signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Canucks this past summer, he lost the “battle” for the backup gig to Eddie Lack mostly due to the circumstances. Lack was on a one-way deal (which his agent had wisely negotiated for him), and had already shown that he was capable of handling himself at the AHL level. Plus with him set to become an RFA, I’m sure that the team wanted to get a closer look at what they had in him.
So Eriksson was sent down to Utica, presumably to be the team’s number one goaltender. But things most certainly did not go his way in the early going; he was routinely being shelled playing behind a subpar team. Something that needs to be taken into account here is that, despite being 23 years old already, this is Eriksson’s first taste of North American hockey.
Rather than being inadequate or flawed as a ‘tender, it appears that he just needed some time to adjust to the different game. Our prospect writer Josh W put together a fine little graph below, helping visually show Eriksson’s steady improvement over the course of the season:
Eriksson now sits with a 2.62 GAA, and .912 save percentage in 32 appearances with the Comets this season. Those numbers were actually even better looking just a few days ago, before he was lit up and pulled in a start against the Rochester Americans over the weekend.
Those numbers also don’t include that one time we saw him give up 6 goals to the Ducks (in the middle of a 9-1 beatdown where the players in front of him basically did everything but lay down and quit). It goes without saying that it was an unfair situation for him to be thrown into, but at the very least it’s nice to see that he hasn’t let the ugly experience affect him in the slightest.
Regardless, the point remains that he has been tracking upwards for a while now, and it’s his surge in net that has helped stabilize the Comets, and actually give them a fighting shot at a playoff berth (which still looks slim, but at least conceivable).
It’s always difficult comparing goaltenders to defensemen and forwards for these sorts of things, but barring some sort of total collapse or injury, I find it hard to believe that Eriksson won’t be securely in the Top 10 this summer.
Check back in later this week (or maybe early next week at the latest, depending on how things go!) for the second part of the Midterm Report, in which we’ll take a look at how the Top 10 prospects in the system have fared thus far this season.