Vancouver Canucks: The future is far from certain

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 8: Nikolay Goldobin
VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 8: Nikolay Goldobin /

For the first time in years, the Vancouver Canucks prospect pool looks decent. But there is still a long road for many of these prospects to being NHL regulars.

The Vancouver Canucks have prospects scattered across a variety of leagues and levels in Europe and North America. They even have two of them on the NHL roster, though new head coach Travis Green sparked controversy by scratching one of them (Brock Boeser) for the season opener.

Several of the Canucks’ prospects are playing on the AHL affiliate Utica Comets, and I had an opportunity to attend their first couple of games in Toronto. They lost both games against the Marlies – the Maple Leafs farm team – which came as a reminder that there is still a lot of work ahead of these young players if they are going to be Vancouver Canucks.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I saw this weekend.

Goldy and Boosh

The Utica Comets’ early leading scorers are two players that I have written about for The Canuck Way in the past. I make no secret of the fact that Nikolay Goldobin and Reid Boucher are two players I really like. I’ve long been convinced that – if handled right – they could be key pieces of the future. Goldobin possesses an offensive skill set that could be elite, and Boucher has fabulous creative instincts and a sneakily heavy shot that dazzled his Canucks teammates last season.

Both, however, have been dogged by questions about their conditioning, work ethic, and defensive responsibility. In some cases, these questions have been unfair – as when former head coach Willie Desjardins benched Goldobin midway through his first game as a Canuck immediately after he scored a beautiful breakaway goal. Desjardins felt he had been cheating offensively.

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Unfair as that may have been, the fact remains that neither player was good enough to crack Travis Green’s lineup this season. They’re both young, but the window for them to break into a permanent NHL role will not be open a whole lot longer. They have something to prove in Utica right now.

So far, so good. After two games, Boucher leads the team with three points, including one brilliant set up for a Goldobin goal. Goldy, for his part, has two points in two games, and has shown good speed and creativity, especially when playing with Boucher.

The two players were linemates in the OHL and combined for massive numbers in Sarnia in 2012-13. After playing well together on the power play in the first game, they were put together on the top line for the second. They also got some time on the penalty kill in the third period of that game.

For the most part, both players confirmed my belief that they should be Canucks – if not now, then next season when there is more roster space. However, I also noticed a few too many lackluster shifts from both of them, and I didn’t see significant growth on the defensive side of the puck.

It remains to be seen whether Utica coach Trent Cull will push them to improve defensively or allow them to carry the Comets’ offense. I remain convinced that these are two players who could make a difference at the NHL level and their development should be high on the Canucks’ priority list, especially Goldobin.

Thatcher Demko

One of the most important prospects in the Vancouver Canucks system is goaltender Thatcher Demko. He is, without a doubt, the Canucks’ goalie of the future, and needs to prove that he can dominate AHL shooters. His save percentage of .907 last season was good but I’d like to see Demko push it even higher this season.

Related Story: Canucks Prospects: Thatcher Demko

Demko looked good in his first game against the Marlies. A 24-save performance included some really sparkling efforts against a Marlies PP that was given way too many opportunities (more on that below). Watching Demko, there was no question that he is going to be an NHL goaltender; his positioning was good and his reactions were quick.

Still, he didn’t steal the game. Maybe that’s asking a lot, but if Demko can’t steal an AHL game he won’t be able to steal an NHL game. He was able to do so on a few occasions last season, so we know he is capable. But while it was a solid outing, he wasn’t the difference-maker, and he will need to be that to prove that he’s ready for the jump.

The Back End

It was only the first couple of games, and there’s still a lot of hockey to be played, but I came away from this set with the Marlies disappointed in Utica’s defensive prospects. Some of it may be systems – again, it’s early in the season with a new coach and several young players, and that can be disruptive especially for the back end.

But with the exception of Philip Holm, I wasn’t very impressed by Utica’s defense. Jalen Chatfield looked lost in his first game (a point where I seem to be at odds with my colleague over at Canucks Army). Admittedly, this was his very first game as a pro, but he was often caught out of position and was beaten along the boards several times. He was less noticeable in his second game – this is a good thing – and certainly there may have been some jitters in the opener.

Guillaume Brisebois also looked shaky, and while scouts have often praised his ‘character,’ it wasn’t making his passes any crisper. His positional play looked better than Chatfield, but he lost a lot of pucks along the boards and didn’t inspire a great deal of defensive confidence.

Related Story: Canucks Prospects: Jordan Subban

By contrast, Jordan Subban played with some tenacity and looked tougher to beat defensively and quicker in transition to offence. Subban also posed a legitimate offensive threat, getting off a few good slappers from the point on the PP. However, Subban also got way out of position on at least two occasions, and had to scramble ineffectually to try to make up for it. These both led to Marlies scoring chances. Needless to say, his team-leading six penalty minutes are a problem. The first game was winnable if the Comets hadn’t been so often shorthanded.

Philip Holm was the only Comets defender that I felt held his own on both sides of the puck. I didn’t see any major breakdowns in terms of positioning, didn’t see him consistently losing battles, and did see him contributing on the PP. He got a lot of shots off and, while a few whistled wide, he was at least creating something.

Other Notables

One player I’m anxious to see is Anton Rodin. He hasn’t played yet, as he was held up by visa complications and Trent Cull wanted to get him some practice time before throwing him into the lineup. Remember, despite everything that has gone wrong for Rodin, this is a guy who Mike Gillis believed to be a first-rounder and who lit up the top Swedish league two years ago. He’s still got a lot yet to show us.

Related Story: Vancouver Canucks: The Anton Rodin Story

Patrick Wiercioch also hasn’t played, and I’m not sure what to expect of his season. I suspect he’s the first defensive callup if the Canucks get into injury trouble, but it remains to be seen whether he will use his time in Utica to improve and make himself a Vancouver Canucks regular.

Jayson Megna and Michael Chaput are playing where they ought to. They are decent AHL players and should never have been put in the position they were last season. I hope they can translate that experience into something positive, teaching the genuine NHL prospects what it means to play every day in the NHL. Chaput, in particular, seems like the sort of player who could make a positive impact that way.

Meanwhile, Griffin Molino looked pretty invisible to me – not a good sign for him. Darren Archibald, a surprisingly late cut from the Vancouver Canucks, was hot and cold. Joe LaBate played decent games and was rewarded with a goal in the second. I don’t think he has much shot at being an NHL regular, but he could fill a fourth-line spot ably for a few games if needed, especially if he plays with energy and speed.

Next: Vancouver Canucks Move Up In Power Rankings

If nothing else, it speaks to the changing times that Canucks fans are, for the first time in years, paying attention to the farm.