With the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, in the Calder Cup Finals, the recent signing of young players, and the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, the focus in the Canucks community has largely turned to their up-and-coming young players.
There are several young players in the Canucks’ system that will likely get a shot at making the Canucks’ roster at some point in the next two years; this past season, 20-year old Bo Horvat was a welcome addition to the roster, bringing some much needed youth. This was his first season in the NHL, and he played 68 games and finished with 13 goals and 12 assists. He got his first taste of NHL playoff hockey too, playing in all of the Canucks’ six playoff games and scoring one goal. Perhaps more important than the points though, is the fact that Horvat proved himself to be a responsible and mature young player. He showed his ability to both forecheck and contribute offensively as well as backcheck and play well defensively.
Who though, will be the next young player to join Horvat on the Canucks? The Canucks have already started to make some moves to either sign some of their young players or send them to play with their AHL affiliate team, the Utica Comets. On May 12th, the Canucks signed 19-year old Mackenze Stewart of the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders. A defenceman, the current plan is to start Stewart in Utica next season and to turn him into a winger, perhaps to help the Canucks in the future with maintaining forward depth.
“We drafted him as a defenceman,” Canucks GM Jim Benning told the Vancouver Sun. Stewart was drafted 186th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. “This year, he played some wing and some defence. I think what we are going to try and do is develop him as a winger. He is a real good skater for his size, he gets in on the forecheck and plays physical. He’ll stick up for his teammates, he’s a hard-nosed kid who will do what needs to be done.”
The second prospect the Canucks have recently signed is another defenceman, Jordan Subban. Along with forward depth, the Canucks are also looking for a boost on the defensive end, as well as more help offensively from their defenders. At 20 years old, Subban just finished his fourth season with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls. Though small in size, Subban has been making a large impact on the ice. This past season he had a career best 25 goals and 52 points, which is also the most goals by a Bulls defender in one season.
Originally drafted by the Canucks 115th overall in 2013, Subban now has an entry-level contract with the Canucks, which he signed on May 14th, just two days after the signing of Stewart. The Canucks had to sign Subban prior to June 1st, otherwise he would have become eligible for this month’s NHL draft.
Even younger prospects have been sent to the Utica Comets. In early May, winger Jake Virtanen and centre Jared McCann joined Utica for their playoff run.
18-year old Virtanen, whose WHL Calgary Hitmen were eliminated from the WHL’s Eastern Conference final, was chosen sixth overall by the Canucks in the 2014 NHL draft. Although the Hitmen struggled in their final playoff round, Virtanen finished the playoffs with 13 points in 14 games. He was then sent down to Utica, and although he was not expected to actually play any games for them, he has now played nine.
With Utica, Virtanen has been expected to prove that he can play well defensively if he wants to maintain a spot in the line-up and if he wants to make it onto the Canucks’ roster later down the road. Benning is pleased that through this Virtanen is getting an opportunity to become familiar with professional hockey.
“It’s still a learning experience because it’s so much faster,” Benning told The Province. “But he’s adding to the team because he’s a physical presence on the forecheck.
“It’s a really good learning experience for our young kids. Even in practice, when (Virtanen) is doing the battle drills, it’s a step up from junior. He’s getting an appreciation of how good the AHL is, and it’s like a stepping stone to get to the next level.”
Jared McCann is another 18-year old Canucks prospect whose team (the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) was knocked out of the playoffs. He was also chosen by the Canucks in the first round of the 2014 NHL draft (24th overall). McCann had a good season with the Greyhounds, finishing with 34 goals and 81 points through 56 games, but he has yet to play a game with Utica. Both McCann and Virtanen likely have at least one or two more years with their junior teams or with Utica before making the jump to the NHL (although there has been talk that depending on Virtanen’s play with Utica, he could make it onto the Canucks’ fourth line next season).
Other Canucks prospects have more experience playing pro, and have been gaining experience through playing with the Utica Comets and/or the Canucks. Winger Hunter Shinkaruk, who the Canucks drafted in 2013, left the Medicine Hat Tigers this season to join the Comets. The 20-year old forward played 74 regular season games for Utica this year, finishing with 16 goals and 15 assists. He was drafted the same year as Horvat, and has stated that this first year on a professional team has been a very valuable learning experience for him both on and off the ice.
Another of the Canucks’ prospects, Sven Baertschi, already has a considerable amount of experience playing pro – the question is whether or not he will return to the Canucks or remain in Utica. Prior to joining the Canucks Baertschi spent three years bouncing back and forth between the Calgary Flames and the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat. The 22-year old winger was originally drafted 13th overall by Calgary in 2011, but was acquired by the Canucks in early March of this year. He played three regular season games with the Canucks this year (and scored two goals against Edmonton) as well as two playoff games in the first round against his former team before joining Utica for their playoffs.
Like Subban, Baertschi is a small player, standing at 5’11”. He has been playing on a line with Virtanen in Utica, and both have had considerable success playing together; through 17 playoff games this season, Baertschi has seven goals and seven assists.
“The way we play here fits me just perfectly,” Baertschi told The Province of his time with Utica. “It’s really all about puck possession, and that’s my game. That’s how I like to play and that’s why I think I’ve been successful with this team so far.”
With Horvat having basically secured himself a spot on the Canucks’ roster for next season, of all of the players listed here Baertschi is the most likely to be actually fighting for a spot on the Canucks’ roster in the fall. However, depending on who the Canucks draft and what trades are made, other spots could open up on the roster for other young players.