The Jim Benning era in Vancouver began ahead of the 2014/15 season and at the time he took over the club, the farm system wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams with high-end talent.
The best Canucks prospects who would play for the Utica Comets in that season were: Alex Grenier, Hunter Shinkaruk, Alex Friesen, Brendan Gaunce, and Nicklas Jensen up front, to go along with Andrey Pedan, Adam Clendening, and Frank Corrado on defence. Jacob Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson were the goaltenders of record for the Comets in the 2014/15 season.
Of the above group, only Markstrom and Gaunce remain with the organization. Corrado was lost in the Great Waivers Fiasco of ’15, while Shinkaruk was dealt for Markus Granlund. Jensen was shipped out in favour of Emerson Etem, and Clendening became one of the pieces moved in the Brandon Sutter trade. Grenier, Friesen, and Eriksson all left as free agents.
If we take a look at the NHL games played by the above group, Gaunce and Markstrom stand out from the crowd.
- Grenier: Nine NHL games, all with Vancouver. (2018/19 season, Laval Rocket).
- Shinkaruk: 15 NHL games. One with Vancouver, 14 with Calgary. (2018/19 season, still in Flames organization). * It was announced this morning that Shinkaruk’s rights have been traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Kerby Rychel.
- Friesen: One NHL game, with Vancouver. (signed overseas).
- Brendan Gaunce: 114 NHL games, all with Vancouver. (2018/19 season, still in Canucks organization).
- Nicklas Jensen: 31 NHL games. 24 with Vancouver, seven with NYR. (2018/19 season, signed overseas).
- Andrey Pedan: 13 NHL games, all with Vancouver. (2018/19 season, signed overseas).
- Adam Clendening: 86 NHL games. 17 with Vancouver, four with Chicago, nine with Pittsburgh, 20 with Edmonton, 31 with NYR, and five with Arizona. (2018/19 season, with CBJ organization).
- Frank Corrado: 76 NHL games. 28 with Vancouver, 41 with Toronto, and seven with Pittsburgh. (2018/19 season, remains unsigned).
- Jacob Markstrom: 167 NHL games. 124 with Vancouver, 43 with Florida. (2018/19 season, remains with Vancouver).
The above prospects were surrounded by AHL veterans like Cal O’Reilly, Brandon DeFazio, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Cory Conacher. None of whom outside of maybe Conacher would have been effective for NHL call-up duty if needed.
In the years since, Jim Benning and his staff have slowly been accumulating better prospects for the system and have been surrounding them with some somewhat upgraded veteran players who are younger and fit better within their system.
Benning has gone on record numerous times stating that he wanted to have actual NHL ready players available to be called up from Utica and it has taken him close to four NHL seasons to get to that point, but I think he is there.
Last season, the Canucks were able to summon the likes of Reid Boucher, Nikolay Goldobin, Darren Archibald, Michael Chaput, Patrick Wiercioch, Ashton Sautner, and Philip Holm to fill in the gaps when needed in Vancouver.
Obviously, most of those players named aren’t really considered prospects, nor will they send Vancouverites running to buy tickets for the game, but all were capable of filling that tweener role if needed.
This year, things look a little bit more inspiring. Of course, this assumes that this year’s group will all, or mostly all pan out, and that may not be realistic.
It should also be noted that Comets GM Ryan Johnson has gone on record as saying that the club isn’t looking to yo-yo players up and down during the season, but would rather call a player up when they are ready to stay up.
If that is indeed the way the organization is looking to do things this season, that would identify players like Gaunce, Boucher, Archibald, Tyler Motte, Tanner Kero, Thatcher Demko, and maybe Ashton Sautner and Evan McEneny as the leading call-up possibilities. I feel like any of the players listed above should be able to handle some call-up duty in Vancouver and be more than able to keep their heads above water.
It is also possible that players like Dahlen, Juolevi, or Gaudette could make the club reconsider its position on giving players a taste here and there if they show well enough in Utica.
Of the 27 players that I believe will be kept on the Comets roster to start the season, only Darren Archibald, Brendan Gaunce, and Evan McEneny are carryovers from the previous regime. This makes sense as it has been long enough since the Benning regime took over that there wouldn’t likely be many players of value left toiling on the farm.
Unfortunately, not many players have been able to make the leap from the Utica Comets to the Vancouver Canucks during that span. There is some light at the end of that tunnel, however. If all goes well, there should be more players making that leap over the coming seasons as the Benning regime acquisitions continue to filter into the system.
In place of Nicklas Jensen, Alex Grenier, Alex Friesen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Andrey Pedan, Adam Clendening, Frank Corrado and Joacim Eriksson are Jonathan Dahlen, Zack MacEwen, Kole Lind, Lukas Jasek, Adam Gaudette, Michael Carcone, Jonah Gadjovich, Petrus Palmu, Olli Juolevi, Guillaume Brisebois, Jalen Chatfield, Ashton Sautner, and Thatcher Demko.
Of course, as mentioned previously, we can’t count on all of these players to become NHL stars, let alone NHL regulars, but it is nice to see that almost the entire Comets team will be made up of young, homegrown talent and that more of the surrounding cast can help support them in the AHL and still be useful in NHL call-up duty.
There have been plenty of mixed messages from this regime in regards to what kind of rebuild has been taking place, but I know that I have heard time and again that the team wants to draft and develop players for NHL duty and that it would take time to do so properly.
I am in no position to judge whether or not the organization has done everything right along the way, however, I do know that it has been quite some time since I looked at the pending roster of a Canucks farm team and saw so many players that I have such a high level of interest in.
I would have to go back to the Manitoba Moose days when the likes of Hansen, Kesler, Burrows, and Bieksa were starting to filter in and we all remember how close those fellows got to a Cup once they got established in the NHL.
There is still plenty of work to do and the team needs to keep drafting well and making shrewd UFA signings out of the college and CHL ranks, but things appear to be heading in the right direction.
I feel like this season could end up being remembered as one when the Canucks farm team finally turned a corner and started to become a legitimate source of quality players available to the big club.