With one final roster decision to make, the Vancouver Canucks practised Monday with two new kids in their lineup.
Jake Virtanen, 21, and Brock Boeser, 20, first-round draft picks from 2014 and 2015, led the Canucks in scoring during the National Hockey League pre-season and have earned spots on the opening-night roster for Saturday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena.
But the Canucks’ youth movement, fed by a prospect pool that has deepened dramatically the last two years, is reflected as much by the players who haven’t made the NHL team as the few who have.
Fifth-overall draft picks Elias Pettersson, 18, and Olli Juolevi, 19, are developing this season in Europe. Second-round picks in June, Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich are back in junior after impressive training camps as 18-year-olds. Talented forwards Adam Gaudette, 20, and William Lockwood, 19, are playing college hockey.
Ottawa Senators’ second-round pick Jonathan Dahlen, 19, and former San Jose Sharks first-rounder Nikolay Goldobin, 21, will start this season with Vancouver’s Utica Comets farm team after joining the Canuck organization in trades at last year’s deadline. Their teammates include prize college and junior free-agents Griffin Molino, 23, Jalen Chatfield, 21, and Zack MacEwen, 21. The Comets’ goalie is outstanding prospect Thatcher Demko, also 21.
"We used to have two or three of those guys; now we have seven or eight," veteran Canuck winger Daniel Sedin said of the team’s stack of prospects. "It has changed a lot. They’re fighting amongst themselves to get a spot (in the NHL), and pushing the older guys to stay on the team. I just think it makes a better dynamic."
Canucks general manager Jim Benning and hockey operations president Trevor Linden believe Boeser and Virtanen are merely the first-wave of young players who will transform the team over the next few years.
"Three years ago, we had a 101-point team and made the playoffs," Linden said. "But I think even our fans could see there was nothing coming behind that (group of players). We recognized there needed to be this next group, and we’re starting to see some of that next group emerge now.
"When I went to (the Canucks’ summer) prospects camp three years ago, I was mostly looking at the college free agents we had. This year, it was pretty fun. We’ve come a long way. Obviously, what happens on the ice here (in the NHL) is paramount. But there’s a whole other layer beneath it that is exciting for us.
"There’s starting to be a critical mass of young players marching towards the NHL."
Many of these prospects, of course, won’t develop into NHL players or will struggle to make an impact if they do. But the Canucks’ drafting, trading and aggressive pursuit of young free agents has significantly improved their odds of player-development success.
The scope and origins of this transformation are unprecedented in franchise history. Former general manager Pat Quinn built the 1990s Canucks into a Stanley Cup finalist through a couple of great draft picks (Linden and Pavel Bure) and some blockbuster trades, including a six-player extravaganza with the St. Louis Blues.
A decade later GMs Brian Burke and Dave Nonis also used a combination of trades and draft picks to build the foundation for a Canuck team that eventually became one of the best in the NHL and stayed there for nearly a decade.
But in terms of a reconstruction and getting as many prospects as possible into the talent pipeline, there has never been anything in Vancouver like we’re starting to see.
"Development camp this summer really showed me how deep the prospect pool is," Boeser, the high-scoring winger from the University of North Dakota, said after Monday’s practice. "It kind of woke me up to how good this team could be in the future."
Virtanen, a power-forward who appears to have made the Canucks after a difficult development year in Utica last season, added: "There’s such a deep pool of prospects that guys are pushing each other. That’s good to have in an organization. Everyone’s fighting for a job. It’s pretty sweet."
It won’t be so sweet if Virtanen is re-assigned Tuesday. But there seems little chance of that.
He and Boeser co-led the Canucks with four goals apiece during the pre-season and have handled whatever challenge has been put in front of them.
Beyond this – regardless of whether coach Travis Green acknowledges it – there is an organizational need to prove to frustrated fans that the Canucks’ rebuild is working, and there are exciting, young players worth cheering for.
Although Green said Monday that scoring totals get too much attention and there are many details unseen by fans that young players must learn in order to play in the NHL, it’s difficult to imagine Boeser or Virtanen being sent to Utica so Vancouver can keep plucky 27-year-old minor-league forward Darren Archibald, who was industrious and impressive during the pre-season but has a low NHL ceiling and won’t inspire anyone to purchase Canuck tickets.
"I think fans get connected to young players who come in, and they can watch them grow," Linden said. "Watch them become pros. That’s the connection point. You’ve got to be patient; that’s the thing. This is something this market hasn’t seen in many years."