Photo Courtesy: @UticaComets
With a massive 3-2 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Sunday evening the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, are one win away from the Calder Cup final.
Though the team has largely been powered by a variety of career AHLers including Bobby Sanguinetti and Cal O’Reilly, there are a variety of Canucks prospects who have played very well and have made a strong case for inclusion on Vancouver’s 2015-16 roster.
Here are the five Canucks prospects who have strengthened their case the most over the past six weeks.
5. Frank Corrado
Canucks defenseman Frank Corrado, 22, is a popular pick to be the odd-man out as a result of Vancouver’s blue-line logjam. The club has nine NHL-level defenders who will require waivers next season, including five right-handed shooters (including Corrado). Considering what the club gave up to acquire Adam Clendening, it had seemed like Corrado – the club’s fifth-round pick at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and a pending restricted player – may end up as trade bait this summer.
He still might, but his performance this postseason – and in particular where he’s been used in the lineup – may be enough to tilt the scales in his favour.
It’s not that Corrado’s playoff performance has been great necessarily, the transitional defensive defender doesn’t have a point in 12 games and has battled injury. He struggled on Sunday night in particular, making a couple of unforced giveaways including a brutal touch that led to the Griffins’ first goal.
So why is Corrado on this list as opposed to, say, Clendening, who has outperformed him during the Calder Cup playoffs?
It’s simple. Clendening has done what he’s expected to do: put up points and move the puck at a very high level in the AHL. Corrado though has been asked to play on his weak side – something he hasn’t done much of at the NHL level – and he’s fared decently well overall.
If Corrado is an option to be Vancouver’s fourth left-side defender next season, then – and this assumes that the club doesn’t renovate the blue line significantly, which isn’t a given – he’s no longer in a tough three-way race with Yannick Weber and Clendening for two spots on the right side of the Canucks’ blue line.
Instead he’s racing against Ryan Stanton to be the club’s fourth left-side defenseman. Those are more favourable odds for the 22-year-old.
4. Jake Virtanen
Photo Courtesy: @UticaComets
Jake Virtanen, 18, is Vancouver’s top prospect.
While the physical, quick skating winger hasn’t exactly gone William Nylander or Dylan Larkin in his first seven games of professional action, his pedestrian production levels don’t really capture the extent to which he’s seemed to fit in while adding a dynamic element to Utica’s forward group.
The 18-year-old was the sixth overall pick at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and had a mostly disappointing and injury plagued season with the Calgary Hitmen. Though there were some highlights – the Hitmen really came on in the second half, Virtanen’s even-strength production was elite, and he won a Gold Medal with Canada’s U20 team at the World Junior Championships – Virtanen’s stock fell as the season went on.
Because of his NHL-ready skating and physical game, Virtanen has a credible shot at breaking camp with the Canucks this fall so long as his defensive game is up to snuff. So it’s probably a good sign that in his seven games of AHL action, Virtanen has climbed up the Comets’ depth chart (from the fourth-line to the second) and has looked particularly threatening when carrying the puck through the neutral zone and when protecting the puck down low. His impactfulness on the forecheck hasn’t hurt either.
“The first couple of games they played him on the fourth line, but he made an impact because he’s fast, he got in on the forecheck, he’s physical and he made plays when he got the puck,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning of Virtanen’s first taste of AHL action in a recent interview on TSN 1040.
“Then the last couple of games they’ve moved him from the first to the second line and he’s playing with (Sven) Baertschi and (Alex) Friesen on the second line and he’s got more time and he’s just gotten better and better with each game. That’s good to see.”
Don’t go etching Virtanen’s name onto the Canucks’ 2015-16 roster with a sharpie just yet, but if he can hold his own without the puck, it seems like he’ll have a serious shot of earning at least a nine game cup of coffee with the big club this fall. In AHL action so far, he’s looked up to the task.
“He still has work to do this summer,” Benning summarized, “but he’s an exciting young prospect for us.”
3. Alexandre Grenier
Alexandre Grenier, 23, was among the players drafted by Mike Gillis during the ‘older players’ phase of the Canucks’ recent and mostly sordid draft history. A third-round pick from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Grenier hasn’t generated much hype despite outscoring some of the club’s more ballyhooed prospects like Nicklas Jensen and Brendan Gaunce, but that’s beginning to change.
In 17 games with the Comets this postseason, Grenier has managed 11 points, the third best mark on the team. He’s taking nearly three shots per game, he leads the club in on-ice goal differential (for whatever that’s worth, and it’s not worth much) and all of his goals have come at even-strength.
In regular season action Grenier has 82 career points in 139 career AHL games, good for a .59 points per game rate. That’s not a level of production that screams ‘top-six upside’ necessarily, but it’s good enough to suggest that Grenier might have an NHL future if he can round out the rest of his game.
To hear Benning tell it, that’s precisely how Grenier has caught his eye over the course of the season.
“He’s really come a long way this year,” Benning said of Grenier’s development. “He always had good hands and good skill, the thing that he really worked on this year is his skating. He got in better shape and he’s learned how to work.”
Not noted for his physicality, Grenier stands a whopping 6-foot-5, and has a deft touch around the net. With his performance this postseason and over the past couple of years, he’s definitely put himself on Vancouver’s radar.
“He’s got the size and the hands to be an NHL player, but it’s going to be up to him too,” Benning said. “He’s going to need to keep working hard, have a good summer, and he could come in here and challenge for a spot.”
2. Sven Baertschi
Photo Courtesy: @UticaComets
Baertschi, 22, missed some of the Calder Cup playoffs to join the Canucks in the Stanley Cup playoffs where he wasn’t a huge factor, but he’s been borderline dominant in the AHL’s postseason.
In 15 games with Utica, Baertschi has managed six goals (which leads the team) and 13 points, which is second behind only Cal O’Reilly (who has played two more games). It’s clear when you watch the games too that Baertschi is Utica’s best skater.
“It’s good that he’s a go-to guy down there,” Benning said of Baertschi’s playoff performance. “He’s helping them win.”
Baertschi is also helping to cement a spot for himself in Vancouver’s top-nine forward group. Like with Clendening, Baertschi was likely to be in that spot anyway since he’ll require waivers next season, but if he can continue to play like he has in Utica over the past couple of weeks, he’ll be a frontrunner to snag a top-six role.
The former Calgary Flames prospect doesn’t have to play in the top-six though, even if he does profile as a scoring forward. What the Canucks will need from him next season, after all, isn’t a second line forward so much as a quality offensive threat who can help replace some of the even-strength production that the team will lose when Shawn Matthias signs elsewhere in unrestricted free agency.
Benning seems to have a good feel for precisely what the Canucks need from the young Swiss-born forward.
“He’s a skilled player, he needs to play with other skilled guys, but whatever line he’s on he’s going to bring that line speed and playmaking,” Benning said. “Whether he’s on the 2nd line or the 3rd line that’ll work itself out at training camp.”
1. Jacob Markstrom
Going into this season we all knew that Markstrom was an elite AHL goaltender, and he’s proved it and then some.
Markstrom has been dominant for the Comets all season, and his .929 save percentage in the playoffs and his insane stick save on Sunday have served to put something of an exclamation mark on the Swedish netminder’s excellent campaign:
Benning discussed what he’s seen of Markstrom at length last week, and invoked a curious – and not unfamiliar – comparison for Markstrom’s game.
“He’s really been excellent,” Benning gushed. “The games I’ve been at, and then the report I got from last night, he had 41 shots and he saved 40 of them. He looks like a young Ben Bishop, he’s big and he covers the net and he’s got a demeanour about him.
“He gets mad if he doesn’t play a good game or things don’t go his way and if the team loses,” Benning continued. “He shows up at the rink the next day and he’s real pissed off and he always comes back and rebounds and plays real good. That’s another discussion we’re going to have at our meetings.”
The Bishop comparison is particularly interesting because it came up the last time Canucks backup Eddie Lack rumoured to be on the trade market. Lo and behold, it’s come up again as reports and rumours begin to circulate that Vancouver may move forward with a Ryan Miller/Markstrom tandem in net.
Obviously Markstrom’s NHL game hasn’t been at the level that might give Vancouver pause when deciding whether or not to move him, or to move Lack instead. No, it’s Markstrom’s starring role in the Calder Cup playoffs that has done that.