Just under a year ago, with the regular season winding down,
Michigan Wolverines defenceman Zach Werenski had a choice to make. It was clear that he
wouldn’t be returning to college hockey the following season, and it was just
as clear that he would instead be playing with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The
choice was this: should he jump to the NHL for a game or two at the end of the
year and burn an year off his entry level contract, or should he go to the
American League instead, for a fraction of the money, to a team that was at
least going to make the playoffs?
Werenski chose the latter option, and ended up being a dynamic force
on a Lake Erie Monsters team that ended up winning the Calder Cup championship.
A similar decision looms for two Canucks prospects that could turn
pro at the end of the season. While the Comets aren’t nearly as strong as the
Monsters were last year, they’ve at least got a better chance of making the
playoffs in their respective league than their parent club does – which could
mean more games for the duo.
So what are the pros and cons of each option, and which are they
better suited to choosing?
Option 1: The NHL
Ryan Biech posted an article recently about how the Canucks could
use a tool afforded by the CBA to entice Boeser and Gaudette to sign this spring – that
is, they could burn a year off of their three year Entry Level Contracts,
bringing them one year closer to RFA status and bigger paycheques.
The pros of this option are pretty clear: the prospect gets a big
fat signing bonus and an NHL wage while he’s on the roster; his ELC ends one
year earlier than it would if signed in the off season; he gets a taste of NHL
competition; and the Canucks get to parade around a fancy new toy to try and
entice some fans to come out and watch a team that is out of the playoff mix.
There are wins to be had for everybody using this method. One major question that I would have is this: is it really the best thing for the
prospect to be put into an NHL game straight out of college, as opposed to
having a buffer period in the American League? On top of that, they’ll be
extremely limited in the amount of games they could get into. The Canucks would
only have a handful of contests remaining at that point, and Willie Desjardins might be
loath to stick a pair of 20-year old professional rookies into the lineup in
the same game.
If they wanted to head to the AHL after that, they’d be out of luck.
If a prospect is playing on an NHL contract, then they are only allowed to play
in the AHL playoffs if they were on the AHL roster at the time of the trade
deadline. That means once Boeser and Gaudette joined the Canucks, they’d be
ruled out of the AHL playoffs.
There is a way around that however: heading to the AHL first
Option 2: The AHL
This method works quite a bit differently than Option 1, and it’s
nearly opposite in its pros and cons. For one, the prospect would have to sign
an Amateur Tryout contract to play in the American League, and those don’t pay
nearly as well as NHL contracts, and they sure as hell don’t come with signing
bonuses. The Canucks would then be able to sign the prospects to NHL Entry Level Contracts, although they wouldn’t kick in until the following year. With the players not playing any NHL games, they wouldn’t get the signing bonuses yet either – so some personal sacrifice would be in order.
If members of the Vancouver fanbase are paying for AHL Live
subscriptions (as I am), they can see the prospects in action in the minors. But there
are no games on TV, and nothing special to see in Rogers Arena. They won’t get
an early chance to compete against NHL players, or rub shoulder with them in an
NHL dressing room.
What they might get a chance to do is play meaningful hockey games –
the kinds of games that Canucks management has been saying all year it wants
its players to be playing in March and April. With the Canucks, that’s not
likely to happen. They’re five points out of a wild card spot, now sitting idly
on their bye-week while the teams in front of them pull further ahead. Their chances at a playoff spot have been pegged at less than 5% by HockeyViz.com,
and the mood around the rink lately is more often one of disappointment rather
than hope for the future.
The Comets, meanwhile, sit in fifth place in their division, in a
league where the top four teams in each division make the playoffs no matter
what. They need a couple of wins to catch the sinking St. John’s Ice Caps and
secure their spot in the postseason, and there are still plenty of games to do
While the Comets aren’t primed to go on a deep run, they aren’t
completely hopeless. While goaltending has been a little inconsistent, as
Thatcher Demko struggles to navigate his rookie professional season, the Comets
biggest problem has always been (for basically their entire existence) their
goal scoring. The Comets are currently scoring 2.58 goals per game, which is
22nd in the AHL. Their 25th ranked PDO of 98.74 is largely driven down by a
22nd ranked shooting percentage of 8.57% (though their 25th ranked save
percentage isn’t helping either).
Surely they could use the boost from two of the NCAA’s best
offensive underclassmen. But what of the benefit to the players themselves?
Zach Werenski’s decision to head to the American League instead of
the NHL last year was applauded by many in the hockey world, a decision made
with development in mind instead of just money. Columbus beat reporter Aaron
Portzline laid out three benefits to Werenski’s decision, the first two of
which could apply to the Canucks, as well as Boeser and Gaudette.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) March 29, 2016
1. Not the greatest situation w #CBJ right now, playing out the string
2. Werenski’s is immensely talented, but may not be NHL-ready yet
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) March 29, 2016
While the Canucks still consider themselves to be in the hunt for a
playoff spot, the reality is that that ship has already sailed. Their already
miniscule chances of making the postseason should only diminish after the trade
deadline, when they have ideally shipped out a couple of veterans who are
playing in sizable roles with the club as of now.
By early March, when Gaudette would be available, and late March,
when Boeser would probably be available, the Canucks too should be
“playing out the string”. These might be decent games to see what you
have in players like Alex Grenier, Joe LaBate, Andrey Pedan, and Jordan Subban, who already
have years of pro experience under their belts. But it might not be the best
situation to throw some of your top young prospects into – players who have
never had a taste of pro hockey.
Like Werenski, Boeser is a top tier prospect that nearly everyone
(including his own college coach) expects to be in the NHL next year. That
doesn’t mean he needs to try his luck in the NHL right now though. Especially
on a faltering team playing for a coach that might not even be back next year.
It might make more sense to have Boeser’s Canucks debut come at the beginning
of next season, following off-season workouts and an NHL training camp
(something Boeser has never been a part of because of the NCAA’s rules).
There’s also his wrist injury to consider. While the surgery was
labeled a success, Boeser has produced well below expectations this season and
there’s reason to think that he might not be back to 100%. In fact, in my
viewings of him, he seems to be treating his right wrist rather gingerly still,
carrying his stick one-handed more often than you’d expect him too and not
getting as much velocity on his wrist shot, causing a large percentage of them to be blocked. A lower pressure situation with
more workouts and instruction time might be better for him.
As for Gaudette, he doesn’t quite fit the bill of top-tier prospect,
as Werenski did and Boeser does. We don’t even know yet if he’s going to turn pro after this season. Trevor Linden recently spoke to the Province’s Ben Kuzma on the subject, and the Canucks brass still appear to be weighing their options.
“We haven’t come to a full conclusion on that, but speaking now I would say that physically he has got a ways to go,” Linden told the Province. “For him to have another great summer of training and another great year and then make his transition to pro, is probably the direction that he’s leaning and we fully support that.
“It’s really important that when he does make the move to pro that he’s in a spot where he’s physically mature and mentally ready for it. It won’t be a waste of a year for him because he’s committed to getting better.”
As Kuzma mentioned in his article, comments like “It won’t be a waste of a year” may indicate that the Canucks have grown especially weary of high scoring centres transitioning to the next level after a pretty uninspiring season and a half from Cole Cassels, who came highly acclaimed following a monstrous final season in the the OHL.
Of course, there’s a vast difference between the 1.5 points per game that Cassels scored in the OHL on a championship team as a 20 year, and the 1.58 points per game that Gaudette is scoring in the NCAA’s Hockey East on a bottom feeder team as a 20 year old. All the same, caution isn’t a bad plan, which is why heading to Utica after this season instead of the NHL makes even
more sense for Gaudette as it does for Boeser.
Werenski isn’t the only example of this either. During the 2015 playoffs, Detroit Red Wings prospect Dylan Larkin left the University of Michigan after only one year, signing an ATO with the Grand Rapids Griffins and jumping right into playoff hockey. In fact, we got a upclose view of Larkin’s professional debut, as the Griffins were playing against the Utica Comets in the third round of the AHL playoffs. Larkin had a goal and four assists in six games. The Philadelphia Flyers did the same thing with Shayne Gostisbehere in 2013-14, in which he played two games with the Adirondack Phantoms.
Closer to home (from an organizational perspective), the Comets signed a pair of the Canucks’ college prospects to tryout contracts: Ben Hutton and Joseph LaBate. Hutton played four games with the Comets that year, and was signed to an Entry Level Contract on March 16th, which during actually kick in until the following season. Joe LaBate played two games at the tail end of that season for the Comets, signing him to an Entry Level deal on April 30th.
An Extra Perk
The third benefit mentioned by Portzline has less to do with the
prospects and more to do with the team:
3. #NHL expansion rules aren’t settled, so why risk – even at slightest bet – a chance that one game would require Werenski be protected.
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) March 29, 2016
By waiting to sign his Entry Level Contract, it didn’t kick in until
the start of the 2016-17 season, with Werenski playing out his time in Lake
Erie on his ATO. As a result, 2015-16 didn’t count as a professional season in
regard to the expansion draft. At the time of the signing, expansion was still
a bit up in there air: the official announcement of both Vegas being granted a
team, and the expansion draft rules didn’t occur until late June. The Blue
Jackets delayed the start of Werenski’s ELC so that he would be exempt from
expansion in 2018, if for some reason the Vegas league entry was pushed back a
year, or another team was granted entry for the 2018-19 season – which at this
point seems highly unlikely.
If the Canucks choose to delay the start of Boeser’s and Gaudette’s
ELC’s to the start of the 2017-18 season, they would be exempt from any
potential expansion draft in 2019 (assuming it used the same rules as the
current one). We have no evidence at this point that there would be an
expansion draft in 2019, but we suspect that the league wants to expand from 31
to 32 teams sooner rather than later, so delaying the ELC’s for a year would be
a wise case of “better safe than sorry”.
While Canucks fans might be yearning to see something that gives
them hope at the end of the year, I think that everyone involved would be
better off in the long run if Brock Boeser and Adam Gaudette started walking
before running, when it comes to professional hockey.