It’s not difficult to see why this city is so excited about their team’s prospects of late. The core of this team just ain’t what it used to be, and the mantra around town is “Change is Coming”. The most noticeable difference between the franchise now and last season would be the burgeoning cupboard of prospects the Canucks can now call their own; it’s amazing how significantly consecutive seasons with two selections in the first-round (including two top-10 picks) can change the complexion of an organization’s system.
Fans see it, they like it and they want it sooner, rather than later. The external pressure alone – coupled with declining ticket sales – could prove a daunting duo of factors that might sway the Canucks in their decisions regarding these prospects. Internally, they are faced with an equally challenging set of circumstances surrounding these decisions.
If that wasn’t enough, the youth of this team has done their best to try and force themselves into a spot with impressive point totals so far in the pre-season. These are new wrinkles to the plot that have surely given Jim Benning reason for pause when filling in his opening night roster with a ballpoint pen. Stick with lead, not ink, for now Mr. Benning.
We’ll find out just how NHL ready some of these prospects are and get a better idea of how well they’ve played this pre-season on the other side of the jump.
The Big Three
When talking about Canucks prospects making progress towards a roster spot, the chatter generally centers on Bo Horvat, Nicklas Jensen and the aforementioned Hunter Shinkaruk. Frankie Corrado gets his fair share of buzz too, but his play of late has done little to build on that. With the first three prospects generating all the hype around town, it only seems fair that I break down where they’re at.
So far, they’ve been relatively impressive. Shinkaruk and Jensen sit atop the Canucks leaderboard for goals and in the case of Jensen, points as well. Horvat’s play can best be described as unassuming and mistake free to this point, but even he has a goal to his credit.
It’s easy enough to look at the boxcar stats of these players and feel they’re well on their way to creating a spot for themselves in the regular season. Goal scoring is something the Canucks struggled mightily with last season and these kids seem kind of good at that, so far.
There’s also the fact that Benning himself has essentially said that the youth of this team has been told that if they play well enough, he will make room to accommodate them. If only it were that easy. Here’s Benning on Horvat, in particular:
“He’s going to have to come in and prove to us that we have to move one of those guys out to mark room for him. Bo Horvat is a very good young player, he has proved a lot at the Junior level already. It’ll start this weekend, it’ll give him a jump start on training camp. Some of those guys you mentioned [Bonino, Vey, Matthias, Richardson] can play at the wing too, so if he deserves to be on the team we can shift things up to make room for him.”
If it’s goal production that is going to put some of these prospects over the top, now seems like a good time to remind you all of that four game stretch when Jeff Cowan had six-goals. Goals happen in bunches all the time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. This sentiment is doubly true of the pre-season.
Jensen’s production matches up nicely with how he’s playing and the rate at which he’s producing shots. The same can not be said for either of Shinkaruk or Horvat. Neither of them are moving the needle for the Canucks in the possession game and their shot totals are uninspiring to say the least.
Horvat’s team is controlling the flow of play about 49% of the time, while Shinkaruk is getting absolutely dominated to the tune of ~41% possession. Horvat is shooting at 20%, Shinkaruk a super unsustainable 66%. If that’s not enough, nearly all of their goals have an overriding theme of them being in the right place at the right time. This can be a skill unto itself, but when it’s the key factor in nearly all of your production, maybe there’s a little luck involved?
The unfortunate part about my research was that I couldn’t get information from Jensen’s first game this pre-season. The Danish prospect potted a goal that game, but that’s about all the data I can find. If we look solely at the stats from the two games we do have information for, Jensen’s team has controlled play about 69% of the time with him on the ice. Jensen is also shooting at a more reasonable 11 percent clip.
If any of these three talented prospects has made a case for their inclusion on the opening night roster, it has to be Jensen. It’s unfair of me to play the sample size card when referencing goal totals, and then use Jensen’s possession numbers as an indicator of play. It’s encouraging, though, to see Jensen hold his own when detached from the Sedins hips. That certainly wasn’t the case down the stretch last season.
It’s not worth putting any of these players on the team, if the Canucks do so, to only to have them play fourth line minutes. It makes considerably more sense to send them back to the Utica Comets of the AHL, or in Horvat’s case junior. That, of course, is what makes creating a spot for them such a complicated order.
For Horvat, a return to junior isn’t the most appealing prospect to the player or management alike. The general consensus is that he’s accomplished everything he can in the CHL, and that sending him back to Junior would be a wasted year in development. Horvat unfortunately can’t be sent to Utica, because he’s not yet 20. There you have the dichotomy of the Horvat scenario; probably not ready for the NHL and maybe a little too seasoned for junior.
Depending on the severity of Brad Richardson’s injury, the Canucks might have an easier time coming to a decision with their prospect in limbo. Horvat could be a comparable option on the fourth line and as a penalty killer. His style of play lends itself to that role and it would show to the fan base that they’re actually serious about this ‘getting younger’ thing. Again though, is eight minutes on the fourth line of an NHL team better for Horvat’s development than logging considerably more time on ice in junior? I have my doubts.
For Shinkaruk and Jensen, there’s an entirely new set of difficulties that present themselves. Clearing out space in the bottom-six isn’t easy, but it’s a lot more doable than the top-six. Neither Jensen nor Shinkaruk have skill sets suited to the bottom-six. These are players that should ideally be playing with more offensively gifted linemates, in a cushy scoring role. At least in this stage of their careers.
So Who Makes It?
While the Canucks are bound to be short on high-end talent this season, depth is one department where they will not be lacking . This makes it incredibly difficult to accommodate blossoming prospects. It’s never as simple as people would like it to be, and the general manager can’t just “make room”. There are limitations to roster size and leveraging issues abound.
Why trade away a valuable member of the team’s bottom-six, when any of Jensen, Horvat or Shinkaruk can be sent down waiver free? To say they would have to make a strong case for themselves is an understatement.
Of these players, the only one who’s built a strong case thus far would probably be Jensen. Jensen has been the Canucks best player in the pre-season and has shown some flashes of why he was a first-round selection. His defensive game needs ironing out, but his play in both the neutral and offensive zones leaves very little to be desired.
Jensen doesn’t shy away from the net and is producing shots at a prodigious rate. That said, it’s still the pre-season and without QoC numbers it’s hard to say how much of what Jensen is accomplishing is due to favorable deployments and match ups. On the opposite end of that spectrum, how much of Shinkaruk and Horvat’s struggles without the puck could be conditions related?
The problem is, we just don’t know. Based on what we have seen, and the information we do have though, only one of these three deserves a serious look through the rest of training camp. Ironically enough, it’s probably the player you’ve been hearing the least about: Nicklas Jensen.