Nicklas Jensen: The smooth Dane with a big frame
Prior to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Hockey's Future had Vancouver ranked 27th overall in terms of organizational depth. An indictment on the Canucks' prospect pool, to be sure, but that has a lot to do with the 2010 draft, where the Canucks traded Michael Grabner, their first-round pick, and entered the draft having already traded their second- and third-round picks.
The injury-plagued development of Cody Hodgson hasn't helped matters, but after a draft in which Mike Gillis stocked up on big forwards, the Canucks are in pretty good position to be adding several rookies a year to their farm team (this year, Anton Rodin, Darren Archibald, Steven Anthony, Peter Andersson, and Adam Polasek should start the year with the Chicago Wolves) and perhaps a few prospects to the big club (Cody Hodgson and Chris Tanev will certainly play roles in Vancouver, while Jordan Schroeder, Bill Sweatt, Darren Archibald, Yann Sauvé and Eddie Lack all figure to have a shot at being called up during the season).
In Part 3 of our examination of Vancouver's Top 20 prospects, we crack the Top 10 — where you'd ideally like to see a few guys who aren't too far away from pushing for roster spots and who have the potential to develop into dynamic players.
In other words, these guys should have the potential to be Top 4 defensemen or Top 6 forwards, and in my opinion, they all do.
Age: 19 (Born December 4, 1991)
Place of Birth: Glen Head, New York
Acquired: 2010 NHL Entry Draft (4th round, 115th overall)
2010-2011 Stats: 28-22-29-51 (US Prep School: Milton Academy, New England)
Having traded their first-rounder to Florida in the Keith Ballard deal, their second-rounder to Columbus (by way of Buffalo) when they acquired Steve Bernier in 2008, and their third-rounder to Carolina for the deadline pick-up of Andrew Alberts, the Canucks didn’t step up to the podium at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft until the fourth round. And with their first selection, they chose Patrick McNally, an offensive playmaker with huge upside who has just graduated high school.
Despite going so late in the draft, many teams felt that McNally could have been a first-round pick. The only trouble is that as a high school junior with plans to attend Harvard after his senior season, it was going to take an organization with patience and depth at the NHL level to wait for McNally. Prior to the draft, McNally interviewed with 18 NHL teams, including the Canucks, during which time many teams were comparing his style to Washington’s slick-skating rearguard Mike Green as he has the ability to go end-to-end and finish his rushes.
As a prep school player, however, McNally has yet to face stiff competition. Nevertheless, McNally was named the US Prep Defenseman of the Year after his junior season and the New England Prep School Player of the Year in his senior season. McNally is also expected to quarterback the Harvard power play as a freshman this coming season while logging big minutes.
But who knows how long it will be before McNally turns pro? His father is an FBI Agent, so you know he’s got the brains to go along with good size and tremendous offensive instincts. So although the Canucks’ organization may not have a truly elite defensive prospect, McNally may prove to be just that once his skills are tested against college competition.
Connauton: Another D-man with offensive upside
Age: 21 (Born February 23, 1990)
Place of Birth: Edmonton, Alberta
Acquired: 2009 NHL Entry Draft (3rd round, 83rd overall)
2010-2011 Stats: 73-11-12-23 (AHL: Manitoba Moose)
Like many Gillis draft picks, Connauton had an explosive season in the year following his draft. Having played a year in relative obscurity at Western Michigan, Connauton’s CHL rights were held by the Vancouver Giants, and he used his final year of junior eligibility to have a monster offensive season with the Giants.
With 72 points in 69 games, Connauton was named a WHL First-Team All-Star and showed Canucks’ fans why Gillis had used a third round pick on him. In his first year as a pro with Manitoba, Connauton had an up-and-down year, which is what you’d expect from a gifted young defenseman playing against men for the first time. Although he showed offensive flashes, Connauton also had a team-worst -11, and his lateral movement and decision-making in his own zone often left something to be desired.
Heading into his second year in the AHL, Connauton will no doubt to counted on to raise his game and assume a regular spot in the Top 4. Assuming Chris Tanev is a regular in Vancouver, Connauton and Yann Sauvé will be battling to prove they deserve the call-up over newly-acquired Alexander Sulzer, a 27-year old journeyman with more experience than both Connauton and Sauvé.
Speed Demon Billy Sweatt
Position: Left Wing
Age: 22 (Born September 21, 1988)
Place of Birth: Elburn, Illinois
Acquired: Signed as a free agent in 2010
2010-2011 Stats: 80-19-27-46 (AHL: Manitoba Moose)
You’ve got to wonder whether Mike Gillis signed Lee Sweatt last year as leverage for signing his younger brother Bill. Lee Sweatt, an undersized offensive defenseman who bounced around Europe before signing a free agent contract with the Canucks in the summer of 2010, was picked up this summer by the Ottawa Senators.
But Billy Sweatt was a highly-rated prospect coming out of college. After being drafted early in the second round of the 2007 Entry Draft by Chicago (38th overall), Sweatt couldn’t come to terms on an entry-level deal. He was then traded to Toronto along with Kris Versteeg, but couldn’t agree on a contract in Toronto either — despite being offered a lucrative contract and the likelihood of playing in the NHL right away. As a result, Sweatt became a free agent and Vancouver signed him to a three-year deal.
The scouting report on Sweatt is all about speed. Like Mason Raymond or Jannik Hansen, Sweatt has great wheels and decent size. Unlike the aforementioned Raymond and Hansen, however, Sweatt has a wicked wrist shot he unleashes in full flight and a great set of hands that gives him great upside. After a very good rookie season as a pro in Manitoba, Sweatt could see some action with the big club this year and he may not be far away from a full-time role as Ryan Kesler’s left winger.
Position: Left Wing
Age: 21 (Born February 9, 1990)
Place of Birth: Oakville, Ontario
Acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010
2010-2011 Stats: 61-41-25-66 (OHL: Barrie Colts / Niagara Ice Dogs)
For a few years now, the Canucks have been looking for a power forward with the skills to play on one of their top two lines. When they signed the late-blooming Archibald midway through last season, they may have found their man. Already 21 years old, Archibald has an imposing frame, a mean streak and enough slick moves to remind you a little of Todd Bertuzzi in his prime.
Of course, not many players jump straight from junior hockey to the NHL, but unless the Canucks swing a trade for their coveted power forward, Archibald just might earn himself a trial run on the Canucks' second line at some point this season. The most likely scenario is that Archibald starts the year in the AHL and maybe gets called up a couple times to bang and crash on the fourth line. But who knows? Archibald added 10 playoff goals in 14 games to go along with the 41 regular-season goals he scored.
He did go undrafted, mind you, and was then cut without a contract offer in each of the last two years by Columbus and Detroit. But at this point in his progression, he looks like a Grade-A prospect who just needs to adjust to the speed of the pro game before he'll be ready to contribute.
Position: Left Wing / Right Wing
Age: 18 (Born March 6, 1993)
Place of Birth: Herning, Denmark
Acquired: 2011 NHL Entry Draft (1st round, 29th overall)
2010-2011 Stats: 61-28-28-59 (OHL: Oshawa Generals)
With the signing of Darren Archibald (6’3”) followed by the drafting of Nicklas Jensen (6’3”), Joseph LaBate (6’4”) and Alexandre Grenier (6’5”), Mike Gillis has recognized that both his current Canucks and his prospect pool are thin on power forwards. Of course, Gillis has always put a premium on intelligence and speed and that hasn’t changed just because he’s bolstered the prospect pool with some serious size.
Nicklas Jensen may never be a prototypical power forward the way Archibald or Grenier might, but he is a bright young man with great wheels, soft hands and a quick release to his wrist and snap shots. Can you imagine Kesler or Hodgson playing between Jensen and Archibald in three or four years?
The scouting report on Jensen is that he’s a dynamic winger who projects as a big-time scorer, but after just one year of North American hockey under his belt, he may be something of a project. Having said that, Jensen adapted to the North American game fairly seamlessly. With a fluid skating stride that gives him the ability to rush the puck end-to-end, a lightning-quick release to connect on one-timers in tight and great puck handling and play making ability, Jensen has all the tools. Like many big young players though, he will need to fill out his lanky frame and add more consistency to his game.
It is important to note, however, Jensen’s game improved in the latter part of the season as he started using his frame to protect the puck in the defensive zone, along the wall and on the rush. So maybe he’s not that far away. Could he be another Gillis draft pick who explodes after being drafted with a monstrous offensive season?