A half-hour spent watching the Vancouver Canucks summer development camp at UBC immediately reveals something different from such groups in the past.
Pucks are being rapidly propelled into the corners of nets. The players shooting these discs appearing to have genuine finishing skills that could translate into any league.
The trick is getting players who are big enough, fast enough, experienced and rugged enough to be able to bring those skills to bear and help this team out of 28th in goals for some time down the road.
Just look at the names and goal totals in other leagues. There’s Dane Fox, Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, all rifling pucks in just that clinical way which distinguishes the goal scorer from the labourer, and there’s no question these are the skills the Canucks need the most right now.
Fox of course was the over-age junior who scored 64 goals in 67 games with the Erie Otters of the OHL last year, a guy whom the old regime took an intelligent flyer on who will be headed for Utica this fall where he will have the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he was a wise investment.
“What Stan Smyl has been pushing me on is my foot speed and my quickness and those first three steps, that’s huge,” said Fox. “They’re emphasizing a lot on my skating and I’m putting in some time here now and come September I hope it’s up to par and I can get it up to an NHL-ready level. I’m going to go to Utica and do whatever I’m asked to do and help the team any way I can.”
At 193 pounds now and likely to play five pounds under that, he’s probably big enough to survive the coming ‘get bigger’ push, the question being will he be able to get into position in pro hockey to do what he does best. Because when a puck hits this guy’s stick, it’s immediately headed for a corner at speed.
“A guy like Dane, he got his season going and everything fell into place the last year,” said Smyl. “The test for him will be, how does he react when he doesn’t get the same minutes right away?
“And he’s going to have to earn everything he gets. But the one big thing he has going for him is that when things aren’t happening for him, he doesn’t wait. He goes out and makes something happen.”
This year’s top Canucks pick, Virtanen is almost a cinch to score goals in the NHL, such are his skills and while McCann, who was drafted behind him at 24th overall this past June isn’t in quite the same rarefied air, he’s already up to 190 pounds and plans on being a two-way centre in the NHL for a long time.
“I know I’m going to need another year in junior to get stronger and work on quite a few things yet, but next year all bets are off,” McCann said confidently. “I’m going to be looking to play in this league.”
Evidently the poor fellow is not terribly aware of how much this team seems to loathe young hockey players.
And therein lies the dilemma of these young guns. Will this team ever create spots for their young players. They talk a big story, always have. But when the lineup is chosen and the roster is set, rookies never seem to find a place.
Take this upcoming season. Just like John Tortorella did last year at this time, the new brass has talked about getting bigger and younger — but when you examine the facts, it’s all verbal drivel.
First they sign a 33-year-old goalie and then a winger the same age. In September, the Canucks are even going to have trouble finding a place for Horvat who probably should have played in the NHL last year.
With Henrik Sedin, Nick Bonino, Linden Vey, Brad Richardson and Shawn Matthias all centres who have one-way contracts, if Horvat is going to play the position at which he was drafted ninth overall last season, there is going to have to be a rapid game of musical chairs with a couple of guys getting seats out of position. They never seem to create spots for young players.
This fall, guys like Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Shinkaruk may as well pack their bags for Utica upon arrival no matter how they play at camp or in pre-season games. It simply doesn’t matter how they perform. There’s no room for young players with all the old names labouring away, many of them with no-trade contracts.
Yes, this team finally has some very promising young faces. But will any of them ever get a serious look?
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