VANCOUVER – In terms of value and efficiency, the only thing better than getting a player out of a late-round draft pick is developing one out of nothing.
Three years ago, the Vancouver Canucks signed physical forward Zack MacEwen as an undrafted free-agent out of the QMJHL, and this season, the team got 17 games out of the 23-year-old and was impressed enough that general manager Jim Benning declared the winger a full-time NHL forward for next season.
A year ago, the Canucks signed dynamic defenceman Brogan Rafferty, undrafted out of Quinnipiac University, and this season the 24-year-old was an offensive sensation as a rookie with the Utica Comets, amassing 45 points in 57 games in the AHL.
Rafferty could be on the Canucks next season – with MacEwen.
Thursday’s free-agent signing of German centre Marc Michaelis out of Minnesota State-Mankato may turn out to be nothing. But if the 24-year-old playmaker develops into an NHL player, it will be like another winning lottery ticket for the Canucks.
“We’ve signed some free agents in the past and they’ve worked out well for us,” Benning said in a conference call with reporters. “We think that (Michaelis) is close to playing.
“I’m excited about him because over the last four years he has put up good numbers at the college level. He has skill and playmaking ability, but he also plays a good 200-foot game. His attention to detail defensively is good. He’s a little bit older player, so we think he’s not far off being an NHL player.”
In a productive day that briefly interrupted the gloom and gravity surrounding hockey’s shutdown due to the coronavirus, the Canucks also signed 2016 third-round pick William Lockwood, who has finished four seasons at the University of Michigan and could have forced his way into unrestricted free agency this summer.
Lockwood, a tenacious two-way forward whose development has been slowed by injuries, and Michaelis deepen the Canucks’ prospect pool and should start next season in Utica.
“It feels strange,” Benning said of signing players during the COVID-19 pandemic that has scuttled sports worldwide. “None of us have been through this before. I talked to five GMs yesterday, and it’s unfortunate, but we need to deal with it. The business side of it doesn’t stop, even though we’re not playing. I’m excited we got these guys signed today.”
The Canucks are chasing at least one other college free agent and hope to sign more of their own draft picks, including 2017 fourth-rounder Jack Rathbone, another high-scoring defenceman who just finished his sophomore season at Harvard University.
Rathbone and Rafferty have surged up the Canucks’ development list since they were acquired, occupying spots among the top eight or so prospects in the organization.
Michaelis is an interesting wild card.
Like Rafferty, another late-bloomer who played three seasons at Quinnipiac, Michaelis is further along in his development than most players coming out of college hockey. His ability to play centre gives him added value after Benning traded highly rated Northeastern University centre Tyler Madden, the Canucks’ third-round pick in 2018, to the Los Angeles Kings in February’s deal for winger Tyler Toffoli.
A former junior player of the year in Germany, Michaelis finished his four NCAA seasons in Mankato as the school’s second all-time leading scorer with 162 points, including 71 goals, in 148 games. He is five-foot-10 and 180 pounds.
“We’ve got some guys on the wing that can shoot the puck, and he’s like a playmaker that can get them the puck,” Benning said. “That’s why we’re excited about him choosing us.
“We had a short list this year; there was, like, two guys we went after really hard, him being one of them. So we’re excited that we got him signed. The other player we should hear in the next couple of days whether he’s going to choose us or another team.”
Lockwood, a 21-year-old winger from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., had nine goals and 23 points in 33 games as a senior at Michigan, down from 16 goals and 31 points the previous season. Benning said Lockwood, who is five-foor-11 and 172 pounds but plays a fast, physical game, projects as a third- or fourth-line “energy” player at the NHL level.
Both Michaelis and Lockwood captained their college teams.