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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Will Any Canucks Prospects Make Their NHL Debuts in 2019-20?

In each of the three previous seasons, I’ve published articles about the likelihoods of various Canucks prospects making their NHL debuts in that particular season (see 2016-17 here, 2017-18 here, and 2018-19 here). Each year, I have done this in October, and this season I, unfortunately, missed the boat.

As I recently reviewed the draft that I had written on this topic, it occurred to me that it might not be too late to publish such an article, given the Canucks haven’t had any NHL debuts yet this campaign. It then occurred to me how strange it is that there haven’t been any debuts. More than that, there don’t seem to be any coming on the immediate horizon.

Over the past several years, the Canucks have made a habit of debuting players early and often – a by-product of being a rebuilding team. That the Canucks don’t have any debuts lined up in the immediate future could easily by the by-product of a team on the rise, a team that picked up a bevy of veterans to fills lineup holes during the off-season.

There are a number of players that could, in previous years, have made cases for themselves to be spotted into the lineup, and I’ll cover each of them here. But the larger question is, given the new direction of the team and the increasing likelihood of a late season playoff push, will we see any debuts this year at all?

Before answering those questions, let’s see how last year’s predictions turned out.

2018-19 Results

Player Likelihood Debut?
Olli Juolevi Definitely No
Quinn Hughes Highly Likely Yes (March 28th)
Jonathan Dahlen Highly Likely No (Traded, Returned to Europe)
Zack MacEwen Probably Yes (February 11th)
Petrus Palmu Probably No (Returned to Europe)
Guillaume Brisebois Probably Yes (February 14th)
Jalen Chatfield Possibly No
Lukas Jasek Possibly No
Will Lockwood Possibly No
Kole Lind Unlikely No
Jonah Gadjovich Unlikely No

Three of the players that I listed ended up making their NHL debuts last season, after being labeled as Highly Likely (Quinn Hughes) and Probably (Zack MacEwen and Guillaume Brisebois), which is pretty good, I think. None of the ones I labeled as merely Possibly or Unlikely made their debuts, so I think I was on the right track there, too.

Things went off the rails with Olli Juolevi, Jonathan Dahlen and Petrus Palmu however. I judged them as Definitely, Highly Likely and Probably, respectively. Juolevi missed most of the season with an injury, and Dahlen and Palmu are both back in Europe – Dahlen as an San Jose Sharks prospect. Oops.

I also failed to predict the circumstances that forced 19-year old then-junior goaltender Michael DiPietro into NHL game action, so definitely some room for improvement there.

The 2019-20 Contestants

I’ll remind everyone here that the purpose of this exercise has always been to predict debuts, and therefore other prospects looking for call-ups this year such as MacEwen, Brisebois, Ashton Sautner, Brogan Rafferty, Josh Teves and even DiPietro aren’t included. Three of those players (MacEwen, Sautner and DiPietro) already appeared in NHL games this season, and players from this group are likely to receive the first calls from the big club, which is another factor in why it’s less likely that we’ll see some fresh blood in the lineup.

Let’s take a look through the names of prospects who could conceivably find their way into an NHL spot.

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So You’re Saying There’s a Chance

Olli Juolevi

Likely the best hope for a debut is former fifth overall pick, Olli Juolevi. Unfortunately for Juolevi, if he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.

I had Juolevi pegged as Definitely making his NHL debut last season, and if it weren’t for season-ending surgery a little under a year ago, I believe that would have been the case. Juolevi was off to a hot start, collecting 13 points in 17 AHL games before his campaign was cut short; those are some very strong numbers for a defenceman of his age in that league. Beyond the offensive numbers, the Canucks have a vested interest not only in Juolevi succeeding (obviously), but also in the appearance of some forward momentum and good optics for a former high draft pick.

Due to a variety of factors (including many beyond his control), Juolevi is the only player taken in the top 18 selections of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft that has yet to play an NHL game; all told, there are 52 players taken after Juolevi that have made their NHL debuts, including 10 that have already played over 100 games. That’s not a great look for a first round pick, and a debut would at least move the needle in the right direction.

The challenge for Juolevi is that the additions of Quinn Hughes, Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn have made the NHL team’s defence corps significantly harder to crack, and the signings of Oscar Fantenberg and Brogan Rafferty have added more bodies to the lineup for call ups, which, preference for handedness aside, have at least changed the conversation for the defensive depth chart, especially considering that Juolevi is still getting re-acclimated after major surgery. The defensive side of the game remains an issue for him, and it has been suggested that limited mobility as a result of his injuries is at least partly to blame.

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And that was all before Juolevi was mysteriously deactivated from the Comets roster and returned to Vancouver for evaluation by the team doctors. After several weeks of media blackout, Juolevi returned to the Comets in early December. Assuming that he can stay healthy for a reasonable period of time, one might expect the Canucks to try to get him into some NHL games in the back stretch of this season, but the playoff race they’ll likely find themselves in might encourage them to try some safer, if less pedigreed options like Brisebois and Sautner.

Jalen Chatfield

It seems like a generation has passed since Jalen Chatfield lit up the scoresheet in the 2017 NHL preseason. Near the end of that year’s exhibition series, I suggested that, based on his history, offence was likely to be more of a bonus than an expectation going forward. A couple of years on, it appears that has rung true: Chatfield posted seven and six points respectively in his rookie and sophomore AHL seasons, and is sitting on one point in 28 games so far this year, meaning he’s on pace for his lowest output yet.

Generally speaking, we’d like to see some production at the minor league level even among those who project as offence suppressors in the NHL, so Chatfield’s point output is a bit disappointing. There is evidence to suggest, however, that he’s helping out in more discrete ways. A year ago, Darryl Keeping wrote about some of Chatfield’s transition stats, noting that he was among the Comets’ best defencemen in terms of controlled zone exits and entry defence.

The Canucks have clearly liked what they’ve seen enough from Chatfield to reward him with an NHL call up earlier this year when Quinn Hughes was out and Chris Tanev looked like he was going to miss time as well – but he’s still looking for that elusive NHL debut. The prevailing theory is that the Canucks would like Brogan Rafferty to spend most of his rookie pro season without disruption, meaning the Chatfield is probably fourth on the right side depth chart. Given some decent underlying numbers (albeit in a limited sample) and the Canucks tipping their hand with a recent call up, I’d suggest that Chatfield is among the most likely in the system to sneak into a game this season.

Kole Lind

Kole Lind’s rookie campaign in the American Hockey League was one to forget, but a disappointing first season certainly didn’t extinguish his value as a prospect. Early in his sophomore professional year, Lind is showing no lasting effects from last season, having gotten off to a hot start.

Given that his tendency to light the lamp at that level is a relatively recent phenomenon, we can hardly suggest that he’ll be ready for full time duty in the NHL in the immediate future. But a cup of tea in the show here and there? I can see that being viable if his strong play in the AHL continues, along with some good results to follow.

Other Comets

The Canucks other second round pick in 2017, Jonah Gadjovich, struggled to find his feet in his rookie professional campaign as well, but unlike Lind he hasn’t been able rectify that with a strong start in 2019-20. Injuries slowed the start to his 2019-20, and he’s since produced at about a half a point per game – an improvement no doubt, but not one that screams “NHL ready”.

If we’re being honest though, Gadjovich has always projected as more of a long term project, and even if he’d been fully healthy throughout this season, an NHL debut would have been a pretty unlikely feat. As it is, it’s more likely that Gadjovich competes for a late-season call-up in 2020-21.

Lukas Jasek has been one of the most interesting stories among Canucks prospects – his tale of going from analytics-praised draft selection to all but forgotten second-tier Czech pro to bursting onto the Utica scene 22 months ago is well chronicled.

However, Jasek is now 22-years old and on the middle year of his three year Entry Level Contract. He’s getting to the point where he has to show something soon or risk getting pushed too far done the depth chart to warrant a look. While at times this season, he’s been a top six centre, he’s also spent time further down the lineup and even in the press box, making it difficult to get a read on the organization’s impression of him.

Calling Francis Perron a prospect is pretty generous, given that he’s already 23-years old. Still, he’s young-ish, he’s playing a sizable role with the Comets and he’s never played an NHL game, so here he is.

I don’t think it would be a stretch to suggest that Perron isn’t in the Canucks’ long term plans, insofar as I doubt they’re expecting him to turn into a regular NHL player. He does, however, provide some value and flexibility in the short term. He’s on a very affordable $715,000 contract (with a $100,000 annual salary in the minors), well under the $1,075,000 savings a team gets from burying a contract in the minors. That would allow some extra salary cap manipulation in the event that a team already close to the cap needed to squeeze in a middle six winger making $3 million coming off of LTIR and also had a very expensive contract just begging to be buried – just as a random example.

So long as Perron continues to perform in the American League, he’s got a decent chance at being a depth call-up later in the season if the Canucks get into some deep injury trouble. That actually makes him the most likely of the three in this section to see the NHL this year.

College Drop-Ins

William Lockwood is a bit of a tricky prospect to analyze. Although his reckless playing style earns him plenty of fans, it also brings plenty of injuries. On top of that, his numbers are also, frankly, not good considering his age, though an argument could be made that playing through some of those injuries has hampered his ability to produce.

Therein lies the rub, however. Given the fact that Lockwood is in his senior year and is approaching the free agent deadline for college players (as of August 15th, 2020, Lockwood will be able to sign with whoever he wants), the ol’ sign-and-burn tactic seems like it would be a tap in, as this Canucks regime has already done the same for Brock Boeser, Adam Gaudette and Quinn Hughes, effectively reducing each player’s entry level contract by a year (they also snuck Brogan Rafferty and Josh Teves into games late last year, showing that they aren’t shy about using that strategy for free agents either).

On the other hand, one has to wonder if Lockwood will even be healthy enough to play in NHL games at the end of the season, or if he’ll be prepared for that level of play, given his penchant for missing stretches of games.

For some reason, TSN 1040’s PM Drive show has been preoccupied with the idea of Lockwood as a trade chip at the trade deadline if they don’t feel that they can get him signed. I covered that in an article recently, suggesting that he’s no longer the type of prospect that you worry about losing, and not much has changed since then. I can’t see the team being willing to slip Lockwood into an important NHL game in order to burn a contract year, especially when Lockwood has so little leverage to force the issue.

Tyler Madden, the Canucks’ third round selection in 2018, is putting up much better numbers than Lockwood, sitting well above a point per game so far.

The big difference here is age: Madden is in his sophomore college season, meaning that he’ll still have two more years after this one before NCAA free agency comes into consideration. As such, it’s quite unlikely that we see Madden make his NHL debut this season just based on the fact that we should expect him to return to college for at least one more season before turning pro. The Canucks recent NCAA-first round picks (Boeser and Hughes) have completed their sophomore seasons, and picks from beyond the first round (e.g., Thatcher Demko and Adam Gaudette) have played three or four seasons in college before turning pro.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Madden turned pro and jumped into a game near the end of the 2020-21 season, but this year is just too early.

Jack Rathbone is a fascinating prospect, if one that was particularly difficult to analyze around the time he was drafted, and the year after. Rathbone spent his draft season and draft-plus-one season in the US High School system, which is both difficult to assess from a data perspective and tricky to set eyes on because of very limited access to game footage.

That said, Rathbone is now in his second season in college hockey, which makes his progress considerably easier to measure. He put up 22 points in 33 games last season, and has been hovering around a point per game this year, which is all the more impressive given that he’s a defenceman. He’s also showing that he can have success without Adam Fox, his former defensive partner who is now patrolling the New York Rangers blueline.

Rathbone’s success has to be taken with a slight grain of salt, given that he deferred college for a year to help care for his autistic brother (which is amazing, by the way). Rathbone’s eligibility for free agency is a little more complicated, given his delayed start to college, but I covered it definitively here. The bottom line is that the Canucks have well over a year before he can elect free agency, and likely another year on top of that. That, combined with Rathbone’s affinity for his education, means that it’s unlikely that he’ll leave college to embark on his professional career this season.

Conclusion

There we have it. There are only a few players who would even have a small chance of getting into an NHL lineup this season, and Canucks transition into a competition team challenging for a playoff spot all but eliminates even their chances of debuting before season’s end.

However, I do think this could just be a bit of an off year; that is, not every year of competitiveness will be devoid of NHL debuts. The Canucks have a fair number of prospects that are approaching NHL readiness, including the aforementioned Juolevi and Lind as well as Vasili Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander, and their top college prospects are going to be looking for debuts after next year or the year after. As such, even as the team continues to improve, I think we’ll see a resurgence of NHL debuts in the ensuing season.