Now, four months later — and since the abrupt conclusion of 2019/20 — three of those players have been held to one pro game or fewer on the season.
That’s a problem, and that’s only the beginning of the Canucks’ major issue of inactive prospects.
No name is worthier of discussion on this topic than one Michael DiPietro. We rated him as the team’s fourth-best prospect after a brilliant rookie pro season, and he seems to be the heir-apparent to the backup position. Or, at least, he seemed to be. Right now, it’s difficult to tell, because DiPietro has not played an actual hockey game since March 11, 2020, which you may recognize as more than a calendar year ago.
Since then, he’s either been offseasoning or on the taxi squad. Yes, he’s spent plenty of practice time with Ian Clark — and that’s good for any goaltender — but there’s simply no substitute for real game action in real game situations. At a certain point, DiPietro’s development has to suffer, if it hasn’t already.
Think of it this way: remember DiPietro’s disastrous NHL debut on February 11, 2019, when he got shelled for seven goals against on 24 shots as a teenager?
For DiPietro, that was only about 50 regular-season games ago.
At any moment, Jim Benning could assign DiPietro to Utica without the need for waivers. Of course, DiPietro would need to quarantine before joining the Comets, something that could have been mitigated had it occurred during training camp, as it probably should have.
And sure, the Comets have only played ten games in the 2021 season thus far, in part due to COVID-related postponements, but that’s still ten more games than DiPietro. At this point, it would not be at all unlikely if DiPietro were to not play another game until the 2021/22 season opens in October — if we’re fortunate enough for the season to actually start in October.
That’s more than 18 months between games.
The Canucks’ next-best goaltending prospect, Arturs Silovs — and 14th overall on our list — has DiPietro’s 2021 AHL game log beat… by exactly one. The 19-year-old was assigned to the Manitoba Moose under the auspices of a friendly pandemic-era agreement between the Canucks and the Jets, but he’s been stuck on the bench all season anyway.
As of this writing, Silovs has hit the ice for the Moose once only, a February 27 loss to the Laval Rocket. Prior to that, he got into six games across two different levels back in Latvia on loan.
That’s just not enough game action for a prospect barely old enough to legally purchase a vape.
The third and final member of the one-game club is Brogan Rafferty. We ranked the 25-year-old all the way up at sixth in our rankings, even though he likely topped out as a bottom-pairing defender. Rafferty’s potential was thought to be more of the immediate variety, and he was expected to challenge for a depth spot on the big league roster in training camp.
And, technically speaking, he won one — only to dress for one single game and spend the rest of the early season on the taxi squad.
Earlier this week, Rafferty was finally and mercifully assigned to Manitoba. Though, again, quarantine will keep him out of the lineup until at least their March 24 matchup with the Rochester Americans.
Like DiPietro, Rafferty did not require waivers for the reassignment.
Ostensibly, the reason these players’ development is being sacrificed, especially in the case of DiPietro and Rafferty, is so that they can be kept close at hand in case of an injury.
It is true that they represent the organization’s best depth options at their respective positions. But does their potential value as injury replacements come anywhere close to outweighing their potential as future, more-thoroughly-developed assets? Especially when the team could have, and probably should have, simply signed veteran depth options to pad out the taxi squad instead? Especially in a season in which the Canucks have not been terribly competitive anyway.
It’s a frustration felt by many in the fanbase, and it’s compounded by the lack of playing time for several other key prospects.
Vasily Podkolzin’s questionable deployment and limited minutes with SKA St. Petersburg have been well-documented all season long.
Jack Rathbone sat out more than a month before reassignment to the Comets, where he’s managed five points through four games thus far.
Olli Juolevi has gone almost a month between games after being knocked out of the lineup by Travis Hamonic.
Marc Michaelis has dressed for six NHL games recently, but has not received all that many minutes, and has just cracked his 150th game across the past five seasons.
And, as we’ve mentioned before, even those prospects that were assigned to the Comets right away, like Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, and Jett Woo, have only managed to get into ten AHL games at the most. There’s nothing that could have been done about that, but it’s still part of the frustration.
Arvid Costmar, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in early February, and won’t play another game until September.
All of the Canucks’ other prospects in Europe have been plenty active, as has Northeastern University’s Aidan McDonough, but that’s not much comfort in the grand scheme of things.
The game action, and thus the development, that Vancouver’s best prospects have been receiving in 2021 is simply inadequate, and there’s almost no way it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the long-term success of one or more of them. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances aplenty that those interested in defending the asset mismanagement can point to, but the fact remains that better options were available and better options should have been taken — even if they were only marginally better. When talking about the development of NHL hopefuls, we’re talking about direct competition with hundreds of other youngsters equally talented and equally hungry for a shot at the big leagues.
The margins kind of matter.