VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks have invested heavily in their minor-league team.
While elite players like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes jumped straight to the National Hockey League, the Canucks have enough other good prospects churning through their system that they want the Utica Comets to be strong on the ice, in order to create a positive, winning environment for young players starting their pro careers.
The Canucks are willing to put big-ticket NHL players like offensive wingers Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin in the American Hockey League, and invest also in mid-career guys like forwards Tyler Graovac and Justin Bailey, and goalie Zane MacIntyre — players who have enough experience and pedigree to be leaders with the Comets.
Most of those players have already had an NHL recall this season. Below is a list of five prospects, as defined by players 24 years old and younger, who could answer the Canucks’ next phone call when an injury occurs. One of them, winger Zack MacEwen, is actually already with the team. He was recalled two weeks ago amid a wave of ailments to Vancouver’s bottom-six forward group.
None of these five except defenceman Olli Juolevi would make a list of the best six or eight prospects in the Canucks organization, but they’re the nearest under-25s to being ready for an NHL audition.
D Jalen Chatfield, 23
The dynamic defenceman was an undrafted free agent junior signed out of the Ontario Hockey League three years ago.
With speed and aggressiveness, Chatfield started pro hockey with a terrific foundation and has been trying to refine and develop his game during his three seasons in Utica. If he can fully harness his raw abilities and find consistency, the right-shot defenceman seems too suited to the fast, modern game not to one day get an extended NHL run.
The Canucks briefly recalled him in November as injury insurance, but Chatfield did not get into a game.
C/RW Zack MacEwen, 23
Another free-agent find out of junior in the QMJHL, nobody on the Comets advanced his game more last season than did the physical MacEwen.
The six-foot-four forward, who earned his AHL opportunity with a robust, two-way game, turbocharged his offensive side and finished his second season with the Comets with 22 goals and 52 points in 69 games.
But this offensive breakthrough created a kind of identity crisis for MacEwen, who had a disappointing training camp with the Canucks and had to reset his priorities when he returned to the Comets. However, he earned a recall on Nov. 13 and, after waiting for his chance, was mostly effective in a limited role with the Canucks, playing a north-south game alongside centre Bo Horvat and winger J.T. Miller.
RW Justin Bailey, 24
A second-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2013, Bailey played 63 NHL games with the Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers before the Canucks signed him as a free agent in July.
After an underwhelming training camp and pre-season with the Canucks, Bailey has been one of the most noticeable and consistent supporting players in Utica. He is one of the best north-south skaters in the AHL and, at six-foot-four and 214 pounds, is formidable around the puck and near the net when he uses his strength and reach. Even at 24, Bailey remains a work in progress, but is definitely a callup option if the Canucks need a two-way winger.
D Guillaume Brisebois, 22
The left-shot defenceman had a solid if unspectacular camp in Vancouver. But solid and unspectacular is how Brisebois will need to earn his NHL career.
The Canucks’ third-round, 2015 draft pick – the one Vancouver GM Jim Benning received from Carolina for goalie Eddie Lack – has the mobility and outlet-passing ability to build a career. He has added a physical element to his game during his two-plus seasons in Utica and continues to work on consistency. He played eight games for the Canucks last season and, although he is currently behind 25-year-old Ashton Sautner among left-side defencemen in Utica, could get more this year.
D Olli Juolevi, 21
The fifth-overall pick from the 2016 draft would have been at the top of this list until he came out of the lineup after a Nov. 11 game in Utica. An excellent AHL start last fall was derailed by a knee injury that required major surgery and forced Juolevi to miss most of last season.
He was still feeling its lingering effects in September, so there has been serious (verging on grave) concern about Juolevi’s health since the Canucks brought him to Vancouver this month for further tests.
The organization has revealed little about the defenceman’s condition, except to say it is a leg issue unrelated to his rebuilt knee. Benning could clarify the situation this week.
Juolevi plays a Dan Hamhuis-style game and, although he’ll probably always be on the losing side of comparisons to many of the players drafted after him in 2016, should still build a long NHL career if his health allows it.