We began our countdown of the top 10 prospects within the Vancouver Canucks organization yesterday, with a look at #6-10. Today, we will take a look at the top 5. These five players could very well form the nucleus of the Canucks in a few years.
Once again, the list below includes players who are eligible for the Calder Trophy for top rookie (less then 25 NHL games before the upcoming season). So that means that Sven Baertschi, Frank Corrado, Ronalds Kenins and Jacob Markstrom have been excluded from consideration.
With that said, here are the top 5 prospects currently in the system.
#5 – Cole Cassels
Team: Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Size: 6’0″, 180 lbs
2014-15 Stats: 54 GP – 30 G, 51 A, 81 Pts
Where will he be next year: Utica (AHL)
The biggest riser in the prospect depth chart is Cole Cassels, and he comes in at 5th in my rankings. Although Hunter Shinkaruk has a higher offensive ceiling than Cassels, centre is the most important position in hockey and Cassels plays it extremely well.
Entering this past season, Cassels was looking to build off an impressive 19-year-old season and continue to refine his game. He did that and then some. He increased his points per game from 1.2 to 1.5, all while becoming reliable two-way centre in charge of shutting down other teams’ top players. The Columbus, Ohio born centre was suspended for a hit from behind which likely resulted in him being left of the U.S. World Junior roster, as he would’ve had to miss some games to complete the suspension. When he returned from the suspension, he continued to light it up.
His team, the Oshawa Generals, entered the OHL playoffs as a prohibitive favourite to win the OHL Championship and move onto the Memorial Cup. The only thing standing in the way was phenom Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters. The two teams met in the OHL Final, with Cassels being matched against the soon-to-be Edmonton Oilers star. Cassels didn’t ‘shutdown’ McDavid (McDavid still had 7 points in 5 games), but Cassels was able to limit him and make a much bigger impact on the scoresheet with 12 points in 5 games. The Generals went on to become the Memorial Cup Champions with Cassels continuing his strong play in both ends of the rink against the opposition’s top players.
The Canucks’ former 3rd round pick will try to ply his trade as a pro when he joins the Utica Comets this fall. If Cassels has one glaring weakness, it is his skating. However if he can improve his skating like Bo Horvat did this past season, then the Canucks may have found a gem in the 3rd round.
#4 – Brock Boeser
Team: Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
Size: 6’1″, 191 lbs
2014-15 Stats: 57 GP – 35 G, 33 A, 68 Pts
Where will he be next year: University of North Dakota (NCAA)
The Canucks’ most recent 1st round pick, Brock Boeser, comes in at #4 in the prospect rankings. Given that he plays in the USHL, many Canucks fans didn’t know what they were getting with Boeser, but early signs are promising. Curtis Joe at Elite Prospects gives Boeser a pretty good review:
A dynamic offensive winger and natural goal scorer. Has great instincts and is able to quickly get into position for premium scoring chances; possesses an accurate release on his shot which he can get off in the blink of an eye. He always knows where his linemates are, and is a great passer; that being said, his individual puck possession play is incredible and sets him apart as an offensive player.He will need to work on defensive zone coverage and a slew of small details such as board battles, but Brock Boeser has a ton of elite-level scoring potential due to the way he can read, make, and finish plays.
The Burnsville, Minnesota native will take his talents to the very well respected University of North Dakota hockey program next year. Boeser will almost certainly represent the U.S. at the World Juniors this December/January. If he can work on his defensive zone coverage and 200-foot game, Boeser may just end up being a steal in the late 1st round.
#3 – Thatcher Demko
Team: Boston College (NCAA)
Size: 6’4″, 195 lbs
2014-15 Stats: 35 GP – 19-13-3, 2.19 GAA, 0.925 S%, 1 SO
Where will he be next year: Boston College (NCAA)
Canucks fans hope that they have the heir apparent to the crease with Thatcher Demko. Ranked the 12th best NHL Goalie prospect by InGoal Magazine, Greg Balloch has great things to say about Demko:
Even with limited rotation in his hip, Demko was able to put up some solid numbers with Boston College in 2014-2015 and at the World Juniors. The issues in his hip are not seen as serious, but it was enough to cause him discomfort all year long. All eyes will be on him to see how much he improves this upcoming season now that he has had surgery and is completely healthy. The Canucks do not plan on rushing him along, so fans can hold off setting a date for his NHL arrival. For a raw-but-talented goaltender like that, taking the slow route is clearly the best idea. His work with Canucks’ goaltending consultant Dan Cloutier is already paying dividends for his technical game.
Demko had surgery on his hip in May to alleviate the pain and to allow more movement. It will be interesting to see how he does with more rotation in his hip. Many goalies, Eddie Lack included, see and feel a noticeable improvement in their game after the surgery.
I expect Demko to have another great year in the NCAA and may consider turning pro before his senior year at Boston College. Patience is needed for a goaltender like Demko, as it could take him some time to adapt to the pro game. Whether he turns pro in 2016-17 or the following year, I wouldn’t expect Demko to make a bid for the Canucks crease for at least three more years.
#2 – Jared McCann
Team: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Size: 6’0″, 185 lbs
2014-15 Stats: 56 GP – 34 G, 47 A, 81 Pts
Where will he be next year: Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Another late first round pick for the Canucks, Jared McCann has quickly established himself as a well rounded centre with top 6-upside.
He also gave one of the best post-drafted interview quotes with ‘it is what it is’:
Although that comment confused fans at the time, it was just a young man who felt he had the talent and skill to be drafted sooner. He is a gifted playmaker who sees the ice well, but as evidenced by his 34 goals, he has a great shot as well.
I would expect McCann to return to the OHL this upcoming year and should challenge for a spot with Team Canada at the World Juniors. As mentioned with Cassels, I feel that centre is the most important position for a team’s success. Having players like Horvat, Cassels and McCann likely making up the centre depth in the future for the Canucks is a very good thing.
#1 – Jake Virtanen
Team: Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
Size: 6’1″, 207 lbs
2014-15 Stats: 50 GP – 21 G, 31 A, 52 Pts
Where will he be next year: Calgary (WHL) or Vancouver (NHL)
The highest selected Canucks pick since Daniel and Henrik Sedin in 1999, Jake Virtanen checks in as the #1 prospect. At the time of the draft, I wasn’t a fan of taking the Calgary Hitmen forward at 6th overall, as I felt there were some players with a higher ceiling available. However, there is no denying that Virtanen brings exactly what the current edition of the Canucks need.
He is a fantastic skater, has a wicked wrist shot and uses his body effectively to create space from defenders. Virtanen also has a knack of getting in the other team’s face and creating havoc.
The Abbotsford native had an up-and-down season in the WHL, but was effective at the World Juniors. He was shuffled throughout the lineup to help get his teammates going.
He returned to the WHL after the tournament, where he played well but didn’t set the world on fire. Once the Hitmen were eliminated from the playoffs, he made his way to join the Utica Comets in their Calder Cup run.
Although he only put up just one assist in 10 games, he looked comfortable playing against men and didn’t shy away from his trademark physical game. Ideally, he would’ve put up more points, but his time in the Utica should be seen as a positive.
Virtanen now turns his attention to making the Canucks roster this October. It will be interesting to see if Jake gets the Bo Horvat treatment, where he’s spotted in and out of the lineup with hopes that he rounds out his game. The alternative is to send him back to the WHL, with the expectation of a leadership role with Team Canada at the 2016 World Juniors. I feel the latter will be better for his development, as he will get to play a lot more, which for a 19-year-old top prospect is usually the best course of action.
Regardless of what happens, I think Jake Virtanen will be a fan favourite shortly, especially if he continues to be a physical force:
It should be an exciting season for Canucks fans, regardless of how the Canucks do this year. The top prospects will be scattered throughout North America looking to make an impact.
As usual, we will keep you updated throughout the season with our monthly report on Canucks prospects that are making a difference for their team.