Vancouver Canucks Prospect Report: 2017 picks and WJC outlooks

The Vancouver Canucks select Swedish forward Elias Pettersson fifth overall at the 2017 NHL Draft.

While the Vancouver Canucks continue to surprise most by sitting third place in the Pacific Division with a 14-10-4 record, the future of the team remains rosy at the prospect level.

This month, the 2018 WJC will get going in Buffalo, N.Y. and the Canucks could have a few of its prospects there, including their first-rounder from the 2017 NHL Draft. In our prospect report today, we focus on the players Vancouver picked last summer and how they’re playing in 2017-18.

Elias Pettersson, 19, C, Vaxjo, SHL

Drafted: First round, Fifth overall, 2017
Season to date: 24 GP | 11 G | 20 A | 31 P

Reason for optimism: There was a fair amount of whining in Vancouver initially when Canuck general manager Jim Benning chose Pettersson over Portland centre Cody Glass last June. But six months later, no one is complaining. Pettersson is not only the best prospect in the Canuck organization, he’s considered one of the best Swedish prospects since Peter Forsberg.

Drafted as a 160-pound, point-per-game player from Sweden’s second-tier professional league, Pettersson has been brilliant in his first season in the top division with Vaxjo, which he leads with 11 goals and 31 points in 24 games. An eight-game points streak ended last weekend and Pettersson may have been the best player in the league in November.

He dazzles with the puck and he should not only play for Sweden at the World Junior Championship, but could make his country’s Olympic team, too. He still needs to get stronger – he is 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds – but has shown he can play in traffic and compete for pucks. He will have a chance to make the Canucks next fall.

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Kole Lind, 19, RW, Kelowna, WHL

Drafted: Second round, 33rd overall, 2017
Season to date: 21 GP | 12 G | 22 A | 34 P

After missing two-and-a-half weeks with an illness that was initially feared to be mononucleosis, Lind returned to the Kelowna Rockets’ lineup on Saturday and promptly extended his points streak to eight games, getting a goal and assist in a 5-2 win against Kootenay. The winger has taken his game to another level in his draft-plus-one season, amassing 12 goals and 34 points in 21 WHL games. He continues to play with a physical edge and was invited to the selection camp for Canada’s world junior team.

Lind was impressive in the Canucks’ rookie camp and prospects tournament, and projects as a top-six winger in the NHL. He is among the best five prospects in the organization, which is especially impressive when you consider the Canuck pool has never been as deep with high-end prospects as it is now. Wearing a microphone for an in-house feature at the draft, GM Jim Benning wondered aloud why nobody had taken Kole Lind. The Canucks had him rated as a first-rounder and were thrilled to get him near the start of the second. And they’re even happier with Lind now.

Jonah Gadjovich, 19, LW, Owen Sound, OHL

Draft: Second round, 55th overall, 2017
Season to date: 19 GP | 14 G | 11 A | 25 P

The powerful winger, drafted by the Canucks with the pick surrendered by the Columbus Blue Jackets for hiring coach John Tortorella, has been outstanding since returning Nov. 11 from a wrist injury that caused him to miss four weeks. He had nine goals and 16 points in the 11 games that followed, including a two-goal game in a loss last Saturday to Guelph in which Gadjovich recorded 13 shots on goal. He is definitely on Canada’s world junior radar and will be at the selection camp as well.

The Canucks love that Gadjovich has throw-back net-front instincts. Think Tomas Holmstrom with more size and offensive potential. He retrieves pucks, hands them off to teammates, then goes to the net. Gadjovich continues to work on his skating, which is fine for a 19-year-old who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, but can be better.

Michael DiPietro, 18, G, Windsor, OHL

Draft: Third round, 64th overall, 2017
Season to date: 25 GP | 16-7-0 | 2.66 GAA | .918 SP

Through the start of December, DiPietro led the OHL with 1,468 minutes and was fourth in goals-against average (2.66), and third in save percentage (.918) and wins (16). He posted a 38-save 3-0 shutout last Saturday against Oshawa and is another Canuck draft to be invited to Team Canada’s world junior selection camp.

The Canucks’ goalie-of-the-future is American League starter Thatcher Demko, but the organization wanted another elite goaltending prospect in the pipeline and chose DiPietro who, at six-feet tall, makes up for in athleticism what he lacks in height compared to most top-tier netminders these days. His aggressiveness, in fact, is something the Canucks are working to refine, believing DiPietro will be even better when he quiets his game a little. It’s not hard to imagine a Demko-DiPietro tandem in the NHL four or five years from now.

Jack Rathbone, 18, D, Dexter Southfield, US High School

Draft: Fourth round, 95th overall, 2017

Rathbone is taking the path less travelled, spending his draft-plus-one season back in high school before moving on to Harvard next fall. The Canucks don’t mind because it says something about Rathbone’s character and values that he wants to spend as much time as possible at home in the Boston area so he can be near his autistic younger brother.

The NHL is far more accessible for 5-foot-10 defencemen than it used to be, and Rathbone certainly has the skating and puck skills to have a chance at earning a professional career. He impressed the Canucks with his competitiveness at their summer development camp, where he wasn’t strong enough to handle some of the big forwards he was competing against, but never shied away from the battle.

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Kristoffer Gunnarsson, 20, D, Frolunda, SHL

Draft: Fifth round, 135th overall, 2017
Season to date: 23 GP | 0 G | 0 A | 0 P

As a 20-year-old draft pick, Gunnarsson, 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, is more physically mature than many in his draft class and has become an everyday player for Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League, the old Elite League. He hasn’t registered a point in 23 games this season, but the Canucks didn’t draft him for his offensive potential.

Gunnarsson loves to compete, and constantly looks for contact. That’s a pretty good starting point for a guy trying to develop into a stay-at-home defenceman. The Canucks would like to get Gunnarsson to the American League next season.

Petrus Palmu, 20, RW, TPS Turku, SM-Liiga

Draft: Sixth round, 181st overall, 2017
Season to date: 29 GP | 7 G | 8 A | 15 P

After exploding offensively last year for Owen Sound in the OHL (57 goals and 119 points in 79 regular-season and playoff games), the dynamo is starting his professional career at home in Finland, where he had seven goals and 15 points in Turku’s first 29 games. He gets a lot of collateral notice in Vancouver because his teammate is 2016 fifth-overall Canuck pick Olli Juolevi.

Palmu is only 5-foot-6, but at 172 pounds is about as wide as he is tall. He is surprisingly strong on his skates. He moves well, but needs to develop more explosiveness to thrive at his size. But he has loads of offensive potential.

Matt Brassard, 19, D, Oshawa, OHL

Draft: Seventh round, 188th overall, 2017
Season to date: 29 GP | 1 G | 12 A | 13 P

Brassard is having another good season in junior, leading Oshawa defencemen with 13 points in 29 games while generating 94 shots on net. With 36 penalty minutes, the 6-foot-2 blueliner also continues to play with an abrasive edge. The Canucks hope Brassard will develop into a two-way defenceman as a professional – another of the modern type who is mobile enough to retrieve pucks and skillful enough to make a good first pass out of his zone. As you would expect of a 19-year-old taken near the bottom of the draft, Brassard has lots to work on, but has a set of fairly diverse skills.