There was a time not long ago when looking for ace prospects on the Vancouver Canucks was like looking for surfers in Saskatchewan or icebergs in Oklahoma.
Years of trading away draft picks to chase a Stanley Cup and choosing poorly with the picks they retained had left the Canucks bereft of blue-chip prospects — the kind of prospects who can reasonably be expected to graduate to the National Hockey League and make an impact.
Consider that between 2006 and 2012, the Canucks drafted and developed only one lineup regular, and former general manager Mike Gillis admitted he showcased Cody Hodgson in order to trade him.
This black hole was an indictment of the organization’s player development, but also a simple reflection on the quality of prospects the team possessed at a time when it was near the top of the NHL standings year after year, which meant it was batting near the bottom of the entry-draft order each June.
Since then, the Canucks have never been the favourites at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, B.C., where the NHL’s four Western Canadian teams showcase prospects and entry-level players starting Friday.
The Canucks used to show up to this gunfight of young talent wielding knives and forks and an occasional slingshot.
In stature, Canucks prospects couldn’t measure up to, say, the conga line of top draft picks the Edmonton Oilers paraded until Connor McDavid’s one-game appearance in the Okanagan two years ago.
But just as the change in fortunes among the Western Canadian teams is reflected in the NHL standings — upticks for the Oilers and, we think, kind of, the Flames and Winnipeg Jets, and a cartoon-anvil-like fall by the Canucks — so are they reflected in the Young Stars’ rosters. The most compelling storylines come from Vancouver.
Brock Boeser, a 23rd-overall draft pick from 2015, headlines the Canuck kids in Penticton after scoring four times in nine games last spring when he was promoted straight to the NHL from the University of North Dakota.
The 20-year-old winger has a chance not only to make the Canucks’ top two lines this season, but could be the franchise’s best pure finisher since Markus Naslund.
Vancouver’s defence features 2016 fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi, whom GM Jim Benning chose ahead of the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk and has said possesses elements of Nicklas Lidstrom in his game.
Canuck goaltenders, long a strength on the team even after its freefall in the standings, include future No. 1 Thatcher Demko (36th-overall in 2014) and intriguing 2017 third-rounder Michael DiPietro, who’d have gone far higher in the draft had he been six foot four instead of six feet.
Even with last June’s fifth-overall pick, Elias Pettersson, and key prospect Jonathan Dahlen home in Sweden (Dahlen has mononucleosis; Pettersson is preparing for the Elite League season), there are a lot of Canucks worth watching in Penticton.
“This is the first-wave in the future of our team,” Benning said. “I think it’s exciting for our fans.”
Benning, who built his management career from the scouting side of the game, said the best time of his year is the entry draft. The Young Stars tournament could be second.
While the Canucks are sending an experienced team to China for historic pre-season games against the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 21 and 23, Benning is staying with his prospects after Penticton. Most of the kids will be in pre-season games on this side of the Pacific on Sept. 20 and 22.
“I’m going to stay behind to see our kids play in these games,” he said. “I want to see how they perform.”
There is no McDavid in the tournament this year.
The Oilers’ marquee player will be a late first-rounder in tiny, skilled American Kailer Yamamoto. The speedster grew up in Spokane, Wash., and took his skating lessons from Mrs. Johnson, whose son Tyler has made a name for himself in Tampa Bay. Yamamoto shone at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich., but will have a far better chance of playing at the world juniors than in Edmonton this season.
The Oilers’ prospects are commensurate with a team that picked 22nd overall in 2017, a welcome change for all NHL fans.
Three young defencemen — Ethan Bear, Swede William Lagesson, and Seth Jones’ little brother Caleb — highlight the Edmonton prospects. All have promise, and the Oilers hope at least two become long-time NHLers one day.
Flames general manager Brad Treliving will be in Penticton having a look at free-agent signee Spencer Foo, the Edmonton native who chose the Flames over the Oilers and others coming out of Union College this summer.
At 23 years old, the right-winger will be one of the eldest players in Penticton. He’ll also be one of the few players whose performance here will have a direct impact on how his chances are perceived when the Flames main camps begins. Is Foo an NHL player? If he is, he should be dominant in Penticton.
Long-ago first-rounder Mark Jankowski — chosen 21st overall in 2012 — will play for Calgary, a rare occurrence for a player with two seasons in the AHL under his belt. Potential goaltender-of-the-future Tyler Parsons is another Flame to watch.
The baby Jets will be headlined by 2016 first-rounder Logan Stanley, a six-foot-seven defenceman who helped Windsor win a Memorial Cup after missing most of last season with a knee injury.
The four-day tournament begins with a double-header Friday evening: the Oilers and Flames at 4 p.m. Pacific, followed by the Canucks and Jets at 7:30 p.m.