In his first year of eligibility for our cherished annual prospects list, Erie Otters forward Dane Fox makes his debut at number 12. An undrafted free agent, the 20-year-old Fox cashed in a whopping 64 goals while playing triggerman for Connor McDavid and Connor Brown with Erie in 2013-14. Sought after by a number of teams this winter, Fox signed a three-year entry-level contract – a deal that included the maximum signing bonus – with the Canucks in December.
Fox is the very last of a diverse and relatively successful class of undrafted free agents that were signed by the Canucks during the Mike Gillis era. It’s a class that can claim a couple of star graduates, including Eddie Lack and Chris Tanev, and some big misses in Sebastian Erixon and Evan Oberg. No matter, the thing about an undrafted free agent is that they’re found money, basically no-risk propositions.
In Fox’s case, it’s easy to get carried away looking at his massive OHL goal totals and forget that he managed his feat, and it’s still impressive, while playing as an overager with a generational talent on a stacked team. That’s critical context, and it’s pretty unlikely that Fox will be a top-line scorer at the NHL level. Fox is still an intriguing depth prospect though, and his relatively high debut ranking slot speaks to that.
For hardcore Canucks fans, the basic contours of Fox’s story are pretty well known at this point. As a 17-year-old with the London Knights Fox was rolling along in his first draft eligible season scoring at nearly a point per game clip when he abruptly left the team for personal reasons. The gritty checking forward, who had been suspended towards the end of the season previous for an undisclosed disciplinary reason, was ultimately dealt to the rebuilding Erie Otters, and struggled on a weaker team scoring just 10 goals and 22 points in his final 28 games while going -25. He unsurprisingly went undrafted.
The next season, Fox – now a 19-year-old for much of the season – scored at a point per game rate, but missed the first part of the season with a foot injury. Again, he went undrafted.
Finally in 2013-14 Fox found instant chemistry with Brown and McDavid on what was pretty clearly the most feared line in the OHL. Slotting in at left wing and occasionally at centre (Fox protected McDavid on draws against some of the OHL’s better centerman, like Canucks prospect Bo Horvat), Fox scored more goals than anyone in the OHL has since John Tavares managed 72 in 2006-07. Of course where Fox was in his age-20 season when he scored 64, Tavares was 16 when he managed 72.
In reality though, the 60 goal barrier isn’t a totally uncommon ground for Ontario Hockey League players to break, and doing so is far from a guarantee of future NHL stardom. In all, 33 different players have scored 60 goals or more in a full OHL season and nine players have done it this century (since 2000-01). Some of those players were eventual NHL stars, like Patrick Kane and Tavares; others developed into decent NHL depth players like Chad LaRose, and many more were ultimately of little consequence at the NHL level, like Corey Locke, Randy Rowe or Brett MacLean.
The key with evaluating Fox then, is to understand that a 64 goal season as a 20-year-old probably doesn’t tell us as much about Fox’s abilities and ceiling as his OHL career as a whole does.
Fox has always thought of himself as a gritty, two-way depth player and until he was a grizzled OHL vet, he produced like one. He’s a guy who cites Dave Bolland as the player who he’s modeled his own game after. If Fox sticks in the NHL, it’s much more likely that he’ll do so as a bottom-six forward than as a goal scoring dynamo.
That’s not to pour too much cold water on a young player who has some significant tools, and one tool in particular that might be high-end. Let’s start with the more basic stuff though, like that Fox is versatile, steady in all three-zones, and an agitating, physical presence up-front. Here’s his now former coach Kris Knoblach talking about how he used Fox, and another Canucks prospect for good measure, back in March:
“While Dane has been scoring more goals for us this season, he hasn’t neglected the defensive side of his game. He’s one of the forwards we’ll have out there if we are protecting a lead late in the game and before we traded for Brendan Gaunce, he was taking all of our important face-offs.
Since we acquired Gaunce, he and Fox have shared the role of taking the big face-offs for us.”
Fox can take draws and has spent a significant amount of time at center, and might play in the middle in the American Hockey League next season. He probably should start at pivot in the pros, frankly. He was also a notably big hitter when I saw him live, though I’m not sure how much of that hearkens back to the whole “playing against guys three years younger than him” thing.
The two-way stuff is fine, but Fox’s serious plus skill is his blistering, accurate shot. Voted the best shooter in the 2014 Western Conference’s OHL coaches poll, Fox is a one-shot scorer who can get an awful lot on the puck, fires it hard even if he’s off-balance or at an odd angle, and can pick the corner.
Here’s video footage of Fox scoring lots and lots of goals (many of them while wearing Erie’s slick home yellows):
Again, Fox is almost certainly not going to be an elite NHL sniper, but could he develop into that illusive bottom-six player with a persistently high goals per 60? General manager Jim Benning sure thinks so.
“He’s a hard-nosed guy,” Benning told QMI’s Cam Tucker during Canucks Prospects Camp this summer. “He’ll go to the tough areas that you need to go to score. He’ll pay the price to score goals.
“He still needs work to do off the ice to get in good physical condition. His skating, his first two steps need to continue to get better, but he can score so if he does those other things, he should be a good scorer for us.”
Because of his advanced age, Fox is sure to head to Utica along with a whole host of talented, young players like Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk among others this fall. It’ll be very interesting to see how he performs in the AHL and whether his offensive game and hard, accurate shot can regularly beat professional goaltenders.
If it does, the Canucks could have a very intriguing asset on their hands.