Photo Credit: Bill Streicher – USA Today Sports
We know Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi, and Thatcher Demko. We’ve heard plenty about the Canucks’ top three prospects, but not much about the rest of the list. Jim “Draft Guru” Benning came into Vancouver with quite the drafting pedigree. During his tenure with Buffalo and Boston, Benning managed to snatch some mid-round gems. Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Dennis Wideman were all 2nd to 7th-round picks who have had rather successful careers.
Prior to Jim Benning’s hiring, the the depth prospect cupboard was sub-par. Three year’s in, it’s been filled. It’s not necessarily full (or even close to full), but it’s a heck of a lot better than it was before. This weekend on Hockey Prospect Radio, Jim Benning have us an update and scouting report on some players who may not be getting very much publicity.
In the late rounds, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Each player has flaws and aspects of his game that need some tuning. I know it’s been spoken about a lot but intangibles do matter. Not necessarily to the extent that some might believe, but character is important not only during the developmental phase, but also throughout one’s career. If a player has that will and determination to make it to the NHL, he can make it happen through hard work.
Jakob Stukel is fast. I’ve watched the Calgary Hitmen play a few times this season and his speed stands out. He also has a decent shot, but it’s his hockey sense that hasn’t caught up. When the Canucks drafted him in the 6th round last year, it seemed like he was just starting to come into his own. The trade from the Giants to Hitmen sparked a massive jump in point production, but unfortunately it’s fallen off this season. With 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 50 games, the 19 year-old isn’t tearing it up on an average Calgary Hitmen team.
“One of the reasons why we drafted his was because of his speed. That’s the way the game is going now – having speed on the wings. He’s a fast player, he gets to the net with his speed. He’s had a bit of a slow season this year, he’s a streaky scorer. He worked pretty hard this summer. He sees how fast the players are in the NHL and he understands he still has a lot of work to do. We’ll see what we have with him.”
I wouldn’t call McKenzie a steal, but the Canucks certainly got value snagging his 194th overall in the 7th round in his D+1 year. McKenzie plays on North Bay Battalion team that emphasizes defense, and that shows in his game. His game is very well-rounded and he projects to be a bottom-6 NHL player. Nothing specifically jumps out with his skill-set, but he’s a very steady and dependable player. With 54 points (24 goals, 30 assists) in 49 games, McKenzie currently leads his OHL team in scoring
“I talked to Scott Walker and Ryan Johnson last week and they’re happy with his development. He’s a big body guy that likes to get to the net. He has to continue to work on his skating, his first three steps. He has good hands around the net, he plays the game the right way. He has the chance, we think, to develop into an NHL player. If he can pick up his skating and quickness, we believe he’s going to continue to develop and he’ll score at the American league level, and at some point, hopefully develop into an NHL player. At the end of the day, we like his overall package.”
Selected as an over-ager in the 5th round, 144th overall in 2015, Carl Neill’s offensive production has turned heads. Currently 3rd in QMJHL defensemen scoring, Neill has 54 points (12 goals, 42 assists) in 50 games. He was recently traded to the very good Charlottetown Islanders team to help them push for the championship, which goes to show how valuable he is seen in the league. The Canucks could certainly use a defenseman who puts up his points, but to say he’s the next Erik Karlsson is highly highly unlikely. Nonetheless, he has offensive instincts that set him apart from other defensemen.
“The thing we like about Carl is his poise with the puck. Once he gets the puck on his stick, he sees the ice real well. He’ll hold onto the puck and make a pass up the ice to the forwards. With him, it’s about keep working on his mobility, turning to get back and get pucks. When he gets the puck on his stick, he’s smart and makes good plays with the puck. He’s a good kid, he’s a high-character person. He’s worked hard off the ice and we have to decide this year if we’re going to sign him. If we think he can play in the American Hockey League and keep developing, we have to get him signed. He’s worked really hard off the ice to improve his footwork and mobility. He’s got good offensive instincts.”
Adam Gaudette might just be the face of Canucks mid-rounds picks if everything goes as planned. Drafted in the 5th round in 2015, Gaudette’s draft year point production did not stick out. He had 30 points in 50 games in the tier 2 United States Hockey League, which seemed more worthy of a 6th or 7th-round pick. Boy were we wrong. His freshman season point totals turned heads, and now he’s genuinely getting everyone excited. He has 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 26 games. Wow. And he’s only getting better too.
It’ll be hard to predict whether he’ll sign with the Canucks this year, mostly because he could still use another year of getting stronger. Should he stay with Northeastern for his junior season, he’ll be a leader on a team that loses the likes of the highly-touted free-agent Zach Aston-Reese and maybe Dylan Sikura.
“He’s a player that we’re really excited about. We think he can grow into a 2nd or 3rd-line NHL centreman. He’s got good size, he’s smart, he’s strong. He’s strong on the puck, protecting the puck, making plays. He continues to get better. That was a really good pick by our scouts – they followed him, they knew him going into the draft. When we drafted him, he was 170 lbs. As he’s gotten stronger, his skating has really improved. He’s got his confidence, he’s a big part of the Northeastern team. The sky’s the limit for him. He can turn out to be a player who can score points at the NHL level and can play a good, two-way game. He wasn’t physically strong (in his draft year), but we could see how smart he was. I think he’s about 190-195 lbs now so he’s gained 20 lbs of muscle. When it’s time to sign him, we’re going to sign him and get him up and going.”
Last season, Tate Olson looked to be a diamond in the rough. Putting up just 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists) in 50 games this season, he’s having a down year. He’s a throwback defenseman who exemplifies Benning’s common saying of “hard to play against.” Strength is his biggest weakness, though he has managed to bulk up to 190 lbs on his 6’2 frame. I’m not sure you could compare this season to last season and immediately call him a bust. He’s smart, and he makes the right players with and without the puck, which is exactly what an NHL defenseman should be able to do.
“In his draft year, we really liked his hockey sense. He reads the game really well, his defensive awareness is good. He has poise with the puck and had a really good year last year. This year, his numbers aren’t quite as good but we see improvement in his two-way game. For him, it’s going to be about working off the ice to get stronger so he can handle the size and strength (of the pro game). He’s a kid that’s focused, I know he wants to do well. He’s been working hard off the ice to get the strength that he needs to be an NHL defenseman. For a 7th-round pick, he’s another guy, we feel, has something in his game that he can keep developing.
None of the Canucks’ mid-round picks are perfect. None of them are sure-fire NHL players. It’s how they develop and how they work that will get them to the summit. Pavel Datsyuk has flaws, and so did Henrik Lundqvist, Joe Pavelski, Jamie Benn, and even Pavel Bure. In no way am I saying Jakob Stukel is Pavel Bure, it just goes to show that there are success stories out there. For now, we have to trust in Jim Benning and hope his late-round picks can turn into NHL players.