The Vancouver Canucks have a bevy of young defencemen who are on the cusp of being NHL players and one or two will be on the opening night roster.
Most of the players in the mix were roster players for the Utica Comets last season but there is one wild card in Jack Rathbone who will throw a wrench into things if he is able to have a solid showing at camp.
I wanted to rank the NHL readiness of the defencemen who have played under 10 NHL games and have a chance of snagging that final spot on the blue line for opening night. With the criteria, Ashton Sautner is exempt from the list as he has played 23 games over the past three seasons with the Canucks.
Number 5: Jalen Chatfield
If you’re looking for a defenceman who can be annoying in the corners, Jalen Chatfield is your guy. He is a right-shot defenceman who is coming into his fourth season as a part of the Vancouver Canucks organization. He was signed out of the OHL and has been a mainstay on the Comets’ defence ever since.
Jim Benning has mentioned Chatfield’s name plenty of times in the past couple of months as a player who could take a step towards being an NHL player this season, but there are better options who we will get to as this list goes on.
Chatfield has done a good job of limiting his penalty minutes while being a pest on the boards. He does not skate at an NHL level and has had some big gaffes in his own zone. Some believe he is the next Chris Tanev, but the only resemblance I see is that he is not an offensive defenceman, they are both right-handed and both don’t fight. Chatfield has one fight in his three seasons with the Comets and was fifth on the Comets for blocked shots last season.
Last year may have been the worst season of his professional career so there is reason to believe that he can still improve but he is 24-years-old and hasn’t scored a goal in his past two AHL seasons.
Chatfield is a fine penalty killer and he definitely does a good job in the corners of limiting passing lanes. He also killed a lot of penalties with Olli Juolevi last season. Juolevi blocked 0.82 shots per game on the penalty kill while Chatfield only blocked 0.54 per game while shorthanded.
The Chatfield-Juolevi pairing was a consistent pairing for the Comets throughout the season. For the year, they controlled 52.6% of goals scored at even strength and 48% of attempted shots when on the ice together. When Chatfield was away from Juolevi he controlled 48.7% of attempted shots.
There is little to no offence from Chatfield and he is not at the level to be dubbed a defensive defenceman at the NHL level. He is a solid top-four AHL defenceman right now but there is plenty of room for him to grow. He would almost certainly benefit from another season in the AHL. He has the work ethic to come back and have a better year with the Comets, but he is just not NHL ready right now.
The latest we have heard about Chatfield is that he declined the Canucks’ qualifying offer but is negotiating with the team on a deal.
Number 4: Guillaume Brisebois
Yeah, he’s still an option for the Canucks.
At 23-years-old, Brisebois is coming off of a productive season with the Utica Comets. Brisebois had four goals and 11 assists in 48 games with the Comets, including a 13 games stretch where he scored two goals and added seven assists. That was the best stretch of the season for him as he had two goals and four assists in the other 35 games.
Brisebois was a staple in the Comets’ top four and saw most of his season with Brogan Rafferty as his partner. Brisebois was able to be more of a stay at home defenceman who did an excellent job of knowing when to jump in and when to stay home. Having an offensive threat like Rafferty as a partner made him change his game but it worked out great as this was the Comets’ best defensive pairing throughout the season.
There were still times where Brisebois was able to get chances to show his offensive ability. Here’s a wicked rip by him back in December.
— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) December 12, 2019
Brisebois continues to improve in the AHL and is steadily becoming one of the most reliable defencemen on the Comets’ roster.
He could probably slot in to the Canucks lineup in a pinch right now but there are better bottom pairing left shot options like Ashton Sautner, Jack Rathbone, Olli Juolevi and Jordie Benn.
The best case scenario for 2020-21 is that Guillaume Brisebois plays as the left shot defenceman for young right shot defence prospect Jett Woo.
Woo will be making a tough jump to professional hockey and a reliable AHL defenceman like Brisebois would help make that transition easier on the 20-year-old. Woo is more of a defensive defenceman so it will open up the space for Brisebois to be a bit more offensive. Combining that with his added knowledge of when to jump in the play from playing a season alongside Rafferty will make him a much more rounded defenceman this coming season.
We could see Brisebois in a Canucks jersey at some point this season if the team is ravaged by injuries but he is still pretty far away from being an everyday NHL defenceman.
Number 3: Jack Rathbone (The Wildcard)
Every year we see more and more high-end prospects make the jump to the NHL. Jack Rathbone has the highest ceiling out of any Canucks defence prospect. He could seriously push to be in the top four in the next few years.
As for making the team out of camp and being ready for the NHL right now, we just haven’t seen enough of him to have him above Olli Juolevi or Brogan Rafferty. That’s not to say that he is the worst of the bunch, he just has the biggest jump in competition as he is coming out of the NCAA and hoping to go straight to the NHL.
One of the things that appears to be NHL ready is Rathbone’s ability to break out of the defensive zone and transition through the neutral zone with one strong pass. We spoke with Jack a few weeks ago and he believes that he has done the work to make the transition a bit easier.
“I’d say my strength is my offensive creativity and my skating ability. Being able to transition the puck from defence to offence and kind of be that fourth forward. My weakness or something that I’m always trying to work on is a lot of just defensive positioning, my feet can allow me to do some things that can get me in trouble sometimes so a lot of decision making on when to jump and when not to. Those are a couple of things I’ve been working on for the past two years. Through video and help from coaches, I’m ready to continue to develop and make that transition a little bit easier.”
Rathbone had a good boost to his offence in his sophomore season with Harvard. He was third in the NCAA for points per game from a defenceman with 1.11 and looked dangerous as a power play quarterback.
His shot is strong enough to beat NHL goaltenders while his passing and vision will be the skills that he needs to continue to perfect as he makes the jump to the NHL.
We still don't know if Jack Rathbone (#3) will turn pro this summer. But whenever he does, this is that the #Canucks are getting.
it's good. pic.twitter.com/2o0oFR7HzW
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) June 9, 2020
It’s hard to predict how NHL ready Rathbone currently is. He is not at the level of an elite defenceman level but he is just below it when it comes to NCAA prospects. Out of the NCAA defencemen who are moving on to the professional ranks, Rathbone is likely the top prospect.
At 21-years-old, there is no rush for Rathbone to make the jump to the NHL right now and he knows that. Making the team out of camp would be great for him but becoming a regular NHL defenceman is a marathon, not a sprint. We asked Rathbone what his goals were for this Winter and here’s what he said.
“Yeah, I don’t think anyone goes into a training camp not wanting to make the team. I think that’s definitely a goal of mine; to play in the NHL this year. Honestly, I just want to learn as much as possible with this being my first year pro. I just want to be a sponge, try and learn as much as possible from the older guys and anyone who attends camp. That will be an incredible opportunity for me and it’s something I’m excited to get going.”
He could be the most NHL ready defenceman out of the young guys but we will have to see how he competes against NHL competition at this year’s training camp.
We will definitely be keeping a close eye on him this Winter.
Number 2: Olli Juolevi
Many believe that Olli Juolevi is the most NHL-ready defenceman out of the bunch but the big thing holding him back is his health.
As it’s been throughout his career, the thing that concerns me about Juolevi is if he will be able to stay healthy for a full season. He has been ravaged with injuries every since being drafted in 2016.
Over the past two seasons with the Comets, he has only been able to play in 46% of the potential games. He’s had hip injuries, knee injuries and has thrown his back out reaching for a cracker for all we know.
Training camp 2.0 in July was the best part of Olli Juolevi’s career. He was fully healthy and looked great. He was able to defend against NHL competition, made crisp passes and after camp he was able to make his NHL debut in the most talked about six minutes of ice time in Canucks history.
Here’s what Juolevi looks like when he’s at his best and doing his thing.
Here is an almost two minute 5-on-3 kill where Olli Juolevi does what he does best.
He positions his body and stick in the dangerous areas which results in blocking multiple shots and passes. pic.twitter.com/WlMTVhNmHU
— 𝗖𝗵𝗿𝗶𝘀 Faber 🤙🔥🎙 (@ChrisFaber39) June 14, 2020
When people ask me what to expect from Juolevi I show them this shift. He is very good at getting his stick in passing lanes and getting his body in shooting lanes. He was one of THE best players on the Comets at getting his shot on net from the point. His breakout passes through the neutral zone are at an NHL level and his playmaking once in the offensive zone may be the least talked about plus in his game.
Maybe we should talk about it more.
After I tweeted out Olli Juolevi's giveaway, he comes back with a great back door feed to Wacey Hamilton on a slap pass. This is the exciting part of Juolevi's game! pic.twitter.com/CDZbNVRSBL
— 𝗖𝗵𝗿𝗶𝘀 Faber 🤙🔥🎙 (@ChrisFaber39) December 29, 2019
One thing that Juolevi excels in more than any defenceman on this list is his penalty killing ability. You saw the shift that I embedded earlier in this article of his excellent 5-on-3 kill where he blocked a bunch of shots and passes.
That’s what you hope he can do at the NHL level. His hockey knowledge is high, it’s been talked about ad nauseum. He seems to understand how plays develop and knows when to step into a shooting lane before the shot is even attempted. In the AHL, he proved that once the puck is in the defensive zone, he is able to defend against it at a high level. The NHL is a lot tougher but at his young age, progression is still occurring in his game.
The scary part is how he defends the rush.
Juolevi getting time against some of the fastest NHL players scares the socks off of me.
He has shown an inability to defend 2-on-1’s at the AHL level and even struggles with 1-on-1 situations when the attacking player has a full head of steam coming his way.
Some would blame that on him not being fully healthy over the past two AHL seasons, but with this extended break, he should be as close to fully healthy at training camp as he’s ever been.
The Canucks could use his penalty killing on their back end as well. The number one guy on my list doesn’t do that, so it’s a huge step up for Juolevi when it comes to who makes this team. The counterpoint would be that if Joulevi makes the third pairing and plays with Jordie Benn, the Canucks would have five left-shot defencemen and I think I just heard Travis Green drop an f-bomb as I typed that sentence.
Heck, he might even win the job out of camp.
Canucks management, coaches and fans are all pulling for him.
He has buzz from the good camp in July and with the added time off he’ll be healthy and ready to compete.
Juolevi is very close to being NHL ready. I think we see a lot of him this season.
As long as he stays healthy.
Number 1: Brogan Rafferty
There’s no reason Brogan Rafferty shouldn’t be number one on this list.
Rafferty is coming off of a rookie AHL season that saw him tally 45 points in 57 games. He moves the puck through the neutral zone with his skating ability and strong breakout passes. His defence against AHL players was very consistent last season and it takes a few games to find a major mistake in his own end.
He’s a 25-year-old, 6’2″, right-handed, smooth-skating defenceman who did everything the Canucks asked of him last season and then he added about 20 more points on top of that.
Brogan Rafferty has the potential to be an impact puck-moving third pair defenceman at the NHL level right now.
There’s no questioning his health, his ability to bring offence and have I mentioned that he’s right-handed?
After what he showed night in and night out at the AHL level last season, he is the most ready defenceman of this young group.
"Hey Vancouver, I bet you'll like that one!!"
DAMN RIGHT WE WILL
What a move from Brogan Rafferty as he scores a beautiful shorthanded goal. pic.twitter.com/CY6Rat72K8
— 𝗖𝗵𝗿𝗶𝘀 Faber 🤙🔥🎙 (@ChrisFaber39) January 16, 2020
He exudes confidence on and off the ice. Every single Comets viewer would say that he was the best defenceman on last years team and to be frank, it’s not even close.
Growing up, Rafferty was a forward and transitioned to a defenceman late in his teens. His offensive awareness is off the charts compared to the rest of the players on this list and the Canucks’ third pairing is really going to need that if he is stated to be coupled up with new number eight, Jordie Benn.
Some believe that his defensive game is lacking. I believe that these people have not watched him play hockey.
Great defensive positioning is something that Brogan Rafferty takes pride in. This shift is a great example of that. He follows it up with a breakout pass to set up a 2-on-1. pic.twitter.com/6umYm0aO7I
— 𝗖𝗵𝗿𝗶𝘀 Faber 🤙🔥🎙 (@ChrisFaber39) May 9, 2020
Juolevi and Rathbone have the potential to win a spot over him at camp but they are going to have to severely out-perform Rafferty this Winter. That was something that Juolevi did during July’s training camp, and he’ll look to do it once again.
The last three players on this list all have a path to make the Canucks’ opening night lineup.
We will see each of Rathbone, Rafferty and Juolevi at some point this season. If one or two of these players are able to prove that they are NHL calibre players, the Canucks’ defence group gets a lot stronger.
I’ve got my eyes on Rafferty to be the guy out of training camp. He’s the most proven and eldest of the young group. Though he has only participated in two NHL games, he proved to be an elite AHL defenceman last season and with that should come the first stab at being the third pairing defenceman alongside Benn.
The ultimate power move would be for Rafferty and Juolevi to both have amazing camps and pair up on the third pair while bumping Benn down to the seventh defenceman role where he belongs. This may be tough as these two did not play together in Utica but their play styles would match up nicely.
Juolevi would be the defensive-minded guy while Rafferty would have some freedom to get creative offensively. Both can move the puck at a high level and that seems to be the most important component of NHL defencemen in 2020.
The Canucks have some options and they will have to lean on each of the defencemen to get through this upcoming 2020-21 season.
Let’s see who will rise to the occasion.
How do you rank your top five by NHL readiness?