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Photo Credit: Montreal Gazette

The Griffen Molino Hype Train Has Left the Station – But Should It Really Exist?

The Canucks have completed two of their three Young Stars games so far, and things haven’t gone quite as fans might have expected. Brock Boeser hasn’t looked as dominant as someone who scored four goals in nine NHL games last spring probably should, and Olli Juolevi hasn’t shown near enough to indicate that he could be this year’s version of Ben Hutton or Troy Stecher.

The Canucks prospects haven’t been devoid of praise, however. Kole Lind got off to a great start, with three points in his first game. Jalen Chatfield, Zack MacEwen and others have shown well.

But one of the players that is getting more hype than I would have expected, having watched the two games, would be Griffen Molino. This is Molino’s first Young Stars tournament, though he isn’t entirely new to everyone. In fact, given that he was played in five games with the Canucks last season, most people have probably seen him more than your average Canucks prospect.

That’s why I find the Molino Hype Train so surprising. We’ve already seen him against NHL competition, where he did not show all that well, and now against teams made mostly of teenagers, where he’s showing okay. Sure, he has a goal (and it was a nice goal), and he played a role in Jonah Gadjovich’s tally. But Yan-Pavel Laplante has scored, and Mackenze Stewart set him up. Neither are good bets to even stick with the Comets this season. Performances in prospect tournaments are nice, but predictive of very little. Not to mention that, at 23-years of age, Molino is the oldest skater on the Canucks’ roster.

So what’s the attraction? It must be the speed.

Molino has one excellent asset, and that is his wheels. He’s a legitimately fast skater, and not just against prospects — he looked fast against NHL competition in April as well. He also has the ability to handle the puck decently at high speed as well, making him pretty adept at weaving around opponents. At the very least, that gives him a leg up on Jakob Stukel, who is also very fast, but evidently only in straight lines. His hands of stone apparently make it tricky for him to go side-to-side while carrying the puck.

There was one particular play by Molino that caught my eye, and it caught the eye of some other people as well. The Province’s Jason Botchford, apparent conductor of the Molino Hype Train, referenced this play in his column on Friday.

And then, in the second period of the Vancouver Canucks’ opening Young Stars game, Molino skated circles around every Winnipeg Jet skater on the ice. He looked like he could have done it twice, too.

That may well be true.

After watching this as it happened, I mentioned to some colleagues that it appeared that Molino had been ‘doing the Virtanen’. Jake Virtanen, well known to all of you, has all the speed in the world and can carry the puck and protect it from foes without much difficulty. The problem is that he never quite seems sure what to do with it. This was a frequent occurrence last year in Utica, especially on the power play. Virtanen would circle the entire zone, but despite the fact that the other team couldn’t take the puck from him, these plays rarely created real opportunities because Virtanen was often unable to find his teammates with clean passes, and instead frequently fired shots into shin pads.

Molino, in the above play, managed a slightly better fate. After circling the offensive zone, he feeds the puck across the blue line to an open Guillaume Brisebois, though the low percentage shot that followed led to nothing.

Plays like this, in general, are a bit like Fool’s Gold. They look nice, and maintaining possession like that certainly makes it seem like something is being accomplished. But at the end of it, all the Canucks ended up with is a low percentage point shot. For all that movement, they failed to get the puck to the centre of the ice. I’ll give Virtanen some credit here: his looping forays also often start on the right side, allowing him to come across from the left and, as a right handed shooter, at least get a shot off (even if it his defencemen more than goalies). Molino, being a lefty, cuts across from the left side as well, but on his backhand, effectively giving him no options. Notably, Molino started this rush from his blue line, ostensibly giving him the choice to take either route.

While he’s certainly been strong on the puck and his battle level shouldn’t be questioned, there are times where he’s been overly aggressive and put himself on the wrong side of the puck. Apparently, Ryan Johnson, the Canucks Director of Player Development, is in favour of this, at least in a prospect tournament, but it remains to be seen if an NHL coach feels the same way when the NHL training camp comes around.

“I’d rather a guy be over-aggressive and make mistakes and learn from it than what you see from a lot of players who struggle in this tournament and that’s they start thinking and stop moving their feet and then they go through three games just coasting around watching things around them.”

For what it’s worth, I’m in favour of Johnson’s approach; I’d also like players to be aggressive and learn from their mistakes. The thing is, at this point, there are probably too many mistakes to warrant time in an NHL lineup.

Now I won’t go right out and say that Molino isn’t going to make it in the NHL — it’s simply too early to tell. But I also don’t think that he’s on a fast track to turn some heads at camp, or that he’s a dark horse to make the team. In fact, if he hadn’t been shoe horned into those five games last season, I have a hard time believing that he’d be in consideration to get a serious look at all.

Molino was signed out of the NCAA in March to relatively little fanfare. Free prospects are always nice, don’t get me wrong, and free NCAA prospects are generally better bets than the CHL equivalent, but this one doesn’t exactly scream guarantee.

pGPS is far from infallible, but it does have a pretty reliable record in the NCAA. Out of 280 matches, just a handful stuck around in the NHL, given Molino an expected likelihood of success of just under 3%. Those are very, very long odds.

There were a number of highly touted NCAA free agents last season, including Zach Aston-Reese (now in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization), Mike Vecchione (signed by the Philadelphia Flyers), and Spencer Foo, who Canucks fans saw up close and personal yesterday as he scored twice against Vancouver for the Calgary Flames. Molino just wasn’t in their league. Honestly, with 33 points in 40 games as a 23-year-old, it’s unusual that he was signed at all.

Still, the Canucks gave Molino a shot, and that dazzling speed likely masked the fact that he probably wasn’t ready for NHL competition. Of any player that dressed for the Canucks last season, few had worse shot metrics than Griffen Molino, whose Corsi-For percentage sat at 42%. In five games, he had no points, one hit, and three shots on net, all while averaging 10:59 of ice time per game — a higher average than Brendan Gaunce, Jake Virtanen, Jack Skille, Anton Rodin, Joe LaBate, or Joseph Cramarossa. He also had a goal differential of -2 at 5-on-5, a negative WAR value, a negative Point Share value, and a negative Game Score value — all signs suggesting that he was below the value of a run-of-the-mill replacement level player. If you’d forgotten how he looked last season, that’s probably a good thing.

I was surprised at the time that the Canucks played Molino, rather than signing him to a contract dated to start in 2017-18 and sending him to Utica, but it was probably a bit of fine negotiating on the part of Molino’s agent. Perhaps if he had gone to the minors instead, expectations of him would be a little more reasonable.

Molino may end up with some NHL games this year, but it won’t be at the start of the season, and it won’t be with top nine minutes. As a fourth line energy player whose primary job is to keep the puck out of his end while the big guns have a rest, he could survive. He still needs to show that he can produce at the AHL level first and given his collegiate stats, I still have my concerns about that.

Before the comment section gets itself in a tizzy about my general negativity, I’d like to point out that I want Molino to be all he can be. I want all the players the Canucks sign to be good, because I want the team to be good, because I like the team. I simply feel that, in this situation, the hype is a little much. Patience, and perhaps an adjustment of expectations, are in order.

Fourth line players are of course a valuable commodity, and having them on Entry Level deals is vastly preferable to paying one, say, $2.65 million a season. Molino could still be a shrewd free agent signing. That said, players of his ilk don’t typically come with hype trains, and it’s probably for the best if this one gets back to the station, if it really must exist at all.

  • If Molino is to follow Hansen’s development curve, then don’t expect him to really become effective for a few years. Remember that Hansen was a 7th round pick and the Canucks almost didn’t resign him at one point (I was shocked it was only a 1-year $825k renewal back in 2010, how could they nearly let him go?). It took Hansen 5 years before he lost his hands of stone. Until that point, he was a super fast, hard working 4th liner that was always on breakaways but never being able to put the puck in the net.

  • Ranger2k2

    I always find putting any stock in these rookie tournaments to be foolhardy. Looking back at stand-outs from previous years there are a lot more misses than hits when it comes to top performers. For instance Hunter Shinkaruk looked tremendous and Horvat looked underwhelming (one of those guys is about to get paid $33 million and the other is probably going to be on waivers to start the year). Sergei Shirokov looked like an offensive dynamo during his first tournament and now plays in the KHL. Granted Troy Stecher looked terrific during last years tournament and was one of the very few highlights the Canucks had last year. I have watched both games and I know that some people are worried about the lack of Boeser’s production, he looks to me like a player that is trying hard to stay engaged (kind of like being at a family function when you have a huge house party to go to after) . I imagine in the main camp Brock will look more like the prospect that has a chance at the Calder trophy than the Molino train.

    • TC

      Exactly. This tournament and early preseason games are in the same boat.

      You also have to consider that the gameplay is super unstructured. Some guys, and especially guys who think the game at a higher level, aren’t always going to look great in this type of tournament. It really caters to guys who can do it all by themselves, and more importantly guys who are willing to do it all themselves.

      It’s probably frustrating for good prospects, because they so desperately want to play “the right way”, but are put on a team with a bunch of players who don’t know how to.

  • DJ_44

    I do not really think there is a Molino hype train (using Botchford as a source of public opinion is precarious at the best of times).

    I was surprised at the time that the Canucks played Molino, rather than signing him to a contract dated to start in 2017-18 and sending him to Utica, but it was probably a bit of fine negotiating on the part of Molino’s agent.

    I actually think that it was the Canucks that wanted this. One, they need bodies as they were in full on tank mode and everyone was being shut down at the hint of injury. More importantly, it took a year off of Molino’s ELC, which means the Canucks are obligated to him for only one year (this year), not two. Good for both parties, but especially the Canucks since they can evaluate his performance after a season and choose not to qualify him if things do not work out.

    All that said, I like Molino and hope he develops.

    • SJ

      I was thinking the same thing. The Canucks kind of needed Molino near the end of last year. That is to say that they needed any warm body that could at least keep pace at the NHL and was willing to sign with them.

  • RIP

    A bit of a waste of one for an article. All everyone is saying is that he is showing well at the Young stars tourney, which is entirely true. Spending all of this time to try and point out he is unlikely to make he NHL(done previously thanks) because we are praising his strong effort seems pretty classless.

    • I was responding to rather specific (though unlinked) suggestions that he could be “this year’s Troy Stecher”, or that he’s going to turn heads at main camp. Making the NHL and staying in the NHL are not the same thing. Again, it’s not about praising his effort. I like his effort.

      • RIP

        Someone suggesting he is this years Troy Stetcher isn’t worth the time of that very long post. You just made it look like to wanted to let everybody know he’s not really that good so stop with the drooling. Again waste of time.

  • Some guys stand out, others don’t. This happens every year during young stars and training camp, thus the importance of sufficient depth.
    If Boeser needs to warm up in the AHL we have Vanek or Oiler killer to keep his spot occupied until he’s ready.

  • “In five games, he had no points, one hit, and three shots on net, all while averaging 10:59 of ice time per game…” – That’s 5 40-second shifts per period with Megna and Shore 85% of the time. Not exactly a recipe for success…

  • Killer Marmot

    Last March, Canucks Army opined that Molino had virtually no chance at playing in the NHL, and that his signing was a wasted contract. Now they seem to allow that he has a decent chance, but we get this curmudgeonly, uncharitable assessment of how he is likely limited to 4th-line status.

    I’m cheering for Molino for that reason alone.

    • Chris the Curmudgeon

      Kind of begging the question though, isn’t it? Molino shouldn’t have been in the NHL based on how poorly he showed there, yet because he was in the NHL it justified signing him?

  • Killer Marmot

    The Canucks have a problem with the penalty kill. Hansen and Burrows played the PK, and they’re gone. Gaunce did as well, and he’s injured. And Horvat plays the PK but probably shouldn’t. With the exception of Burmistrov, the free agents they have signed are notable for their offense, not defense.

    Molino plays, even relishes, the penalty kill, perhaps because it lets him exploit his quickness. This might be a deciding factor in deciding which prospects are brought up.

    • The top 3 penalty incurring players were Tryamkin (64 PIM, 27 minors), Burrows (53 PIM, 14 minors) and Sbisa (40 PIM, 15 minors). Another way of improving PK goals against is by not giving up power plays in the first place. Without these 3 players, we also lose 25% of our minor penalties (assuming all 56 were not offset). Less time on the PK means more time on the PP or 5v5.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    It’s far more preferable to sign your 4th liners for cheap rather than to draft them with picks that could be used on potentially higher end players. Molino will probably never be more than a taxi squad, fill-in guy who hopefully gets his defensive ability high enough to hold his head above water, but even if he develops into that, it’s still useful. Ideally, the management learns a lesson about how you don’t need to trade draft picks, or shell out 7-figure contracts, to get warm bodies who can play 9 minutes a night.

  • Fred-65

    I tend to think thatby giving a few games to Molino allowed him to assess where he was visa via the NHL and so focused his summer training. Most kids play as stars as they progress through their minor/junior days ( Virtanen ) they need to realise they’re now at the bottom of the ladder and need a lot more work