While the internet has been awash in Roberto Luongo trade rumours, the only real Canucks news has come from their prospect pool. Mike Gillis signed one prospect, saw another head to Europe, and declined to offer a contract to two more. So what are these moves and what do they say about the Canucks’ prospect pool?
Alex Friesen signs with the Canucks
Alex Friesen is coming off a solid season for the Niagara Ice Dogs, where he scored 71 points in 62 games and added 22 points in 20 playoff games as the Ice Dogs made it to the OHL Final, only to lose to the London Knights. It was a career year for the Canucks’ 2010 sixth-round pick and he was named to the OHL third all-star team at the end of the season.
Friesen was an over-ager for the Ice Dogs, playing in his fifth season, alongside the New York Islanders’ 2011 first-round pick, Ryan Strome, and the Boston Bruins’ 2011 first-round pick, Dougie Hamilton. Both are blue chip prospects, which makes it difficult to judge Friesen’s career year. Was Friesen successful as a result of playing with such talented players or should he be lauded for his ability to play alongside them at a high level?
There are no doubts, however, about his defensive ability. Friesen was recognized in an OHL Eastern Conference coaches poll as the best defensive forward, best on faceoffs, and best penalty killer in the Eastern Conference, and also finished 3rd for hardest worker. He was reportedly 68% on faceoffs this season and was the Ice Dogs best player in the playoffs, according to coach Marty Williamson.
This is all very encouraging and a clear indication of why he was offered a contract. If the Canucks can turn a sixth round pick into a contributing bottom-six forward who can play on the penalty kill, that’s an impressive result. He also fills a role for the Chicago Wolves, as the Canucks’ prospect pool is surprising light on centres. Focussing on centres seemed to be a trend early on for Mike Gillis: his first two first-round draft picks were centres and he acquired a number of players who were capable of playing in the middle and on the wing, like Pavol Demitra and Kyle Wellwood.
Now, however, the cupboards are a bit more bare, which is troubling. With Ryan Kesler on the mend, Jordan Schroeder might get a chance to start the season with the Canucks, leaving a pretty big hole for the Wolves. Hopefully, Friesen will help fill that hole and get a chance to further develop his strong two-way game.
Alexandre Grenier is heading to Austria
Alexandre Grenier, the Canucks 2011 third-round pick, has signed a one-year contract with EC Red Bull Salzburg. The Canucks offered him a contract, ensuring that they retain his rights, but Grenier opted for a year in Austria rather than start his professional career in the ECHL. It’s unclear how he ended up on the Red Bulls’ radar (Laurence Gilman simply said that “he had an opportunity) and it will be interesting to see how this turns out for Grenier and the Canucks.
It’s a bit of an odd move, but Grenier is a bit of an odd case, a late bloomer who only played a season-and-a-half of major junior hockey. As a result, he was drafted as a 19-year-old, which can be risky. He also wasn’t expected to go as high in the third round as he did. That said, Grenier showed improvement, finishing second in scoring on the Halifax Mooseheads this season, scoring 64 points in 64 games and 16 points in 17 playoff games.
While those point totals are decent enough for an over-age player, it’s the frame they’re attached to that generates excitement. Grenier is 6’5″, 200 lbs, but can skate and handle the puck like a much smaller player. The hope is that his time in Austria, where he will play under former NHL coach Pierre Page, will be better for his development than a year in the ECHL. Page was a head coach in the NHL for 13 years and is especially focussed on development in Salzburg.
The Red Bulls play in Austria’s top league, the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, and are one of the league’s best teams. Marty Turco briefly played for them during a preseason tournament last season and they have 6 former NHLers on the roster, though they have a grand total of 113 NHL games played among them.
While the signing precludes any chance of Grenier playing for the Wolves or Canucks next season, it may turn out to be the best option for his development.
Canucks give up rights to Jonathan Iilahti, Sawyer Hannay
The Canucks had until today to sign 2010 6th and 7th round draft picks Jonathan Iilahti and Sawyer Hannay, but declined to do so, meaning they lose their rights to both players.
Iilahti had a bizarre year. He was originally expected to come to Vancouver this season and play in the WHL for the Giants, but contract issues with his Finnish club, the Espoo Blues, derailed that plan. Where he likely would have had a chance to be the Giants’ number one goaltender, the Blues didn’t seem to have a spot for him, as he played limited games with the top club in Finland’s SM-liiga and only got into a few with their U20 club. Instead, he ended up loaned to the creatively named Sport, where he still ended up as the backup in Finland’s second-tier league, Mestis.
While Iilahti put up good numbers with the Blues U20 team and in the Mestis with Sport, he struggled in Finland’s top league and wasn’t able to break through to establish himself as a number one goalie. With the highly-touted Joe Cannata getting signed recently, the Wolves seem set in goal if one of Luongo or Schneider gets traded and Eddie Lack needs to step up to the Canucks, making it less essential for the Canucks to hang onto all of their goaltending prospects.
Gillis has made a habit of choosing one goaltender each draft and will likely repeat that trend this summer.
As for Sawyer Hannay, he played alongside Alex Grenier for the Halifax Mooseheads and, by many accounts, had a decent enough season. A prototypical defensive defencemen, Hannay provided just 2 points in 47 games, but played primarily a shutdown role. That said, his complete lack of scoring was definitely a concern, as his size can’t make up entirely for a lack of puckhandling and passing. He was sidelined with a concussion in February, but returned in time for the playoffs.
Hannay is big and tough, but hasn’t developed as the Canucks might have hoped. He scored just 6 points in 2009-10, but there were evidently rumblings of a better offensive game under the surface from scouts. Instead, he scored 7 points in 2010-11. With several defencemen ahead of him in the system, the Canucks chose to let him go. They could have signed him and returned him to the Mooseheads to play his over-age year without affecting the Canucks 50-contract limit in hopes that he would show the team something as a 20-year-old, but was evidently not worth the risk.