VANCOUVER – It’s hard to live up to expectations. It took Elias Pettersson all of a week to graduate from being the Vancouver Canucks’ top prospect to their best player.
The 19-year-old super-rookie began his National Hockey League career merely by scoring five goals and eight points in his first five games, and tying a 46-year-old franchise record by collecting at least a point in each of his first five appearances.
Pettersson led the Canucks in scoring by three points when he was injured in Game 5 on a body-slam by Florida Panthers defenceman Mike Matheson, who was suspended for two games. What’s exciting for Canuck fans, besides Pettersson actually exceeding the daunting hype that came with arriving in the NHL as the Swedish League MVP, is that there is a lineup of other talented prospects pushing their way towards Vancouver.
One of them, U.S. college hockey’s Hobey Baker winner, Adam Gaudette, was recalled from the minor-league Utica Comets after Pettersson left the lineup with a concussion. Initial prognosis for Pettersson’s recovery was encouraging, and he could be back in the Canuck lineup soon.
Here’s our look at the top five Canucks prospects in the system:
Quinn Hughes, D, University of Michigan
It sounds crazy to say, considering Pettersson’s brilliant start, but Hughes was considered on par with the centre in terms of his potential NHL ceiling. The dynamic defenceman is a Brian Leetch-type player, a blueliner with fabulous wheels who uses his mobility to drive offence and recover defensively. The seventh-overall draft pick from last June could have been on the Canucks this fall – he turned 19 on Oct. 14 – except uncertainty about the five-foot-10 blueliner’s physical readiness for the NHL led to a mutual decision for Hughes to return to Michigan for his sophomore season.
As a true freshman, Hughes had 29 points in 37 games last season at Michigan. He dazzled for Team USA at the Summer Showcase tournament, an international warmup for the World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria at Christmastime, and could be in the NHL next spring depending on when his college season ends. Hughes had three points in three games to start his sophomore season on a Michigan team expected to challenge for a national championship.
Thatcher Demko, G, Utica Comets
Demko has been Vancouver’s goalie-of-the-future since Jim Benning plucked him in the second round in 2014 during the general manager’s first draft in charge of the Canucks. The athletic six-foot-four Californian had a brilliant three-year term at Boston College, and was outstanding last year during his second season in the American Hockey League. Demko posted a 2.44 goals-against average and .922 save percentage while going 25-13-4. He was an AHL all-star.
Despite the organizational plan to groom Demko for three full seasons in Utica, the Canucks had hoped the 22-year-old would push for a NHL job at training camp. But Demko struggled in two pre-season appearances, stopping only 83.3 per cent of shots before suffering a concussion when beaned by a teammate on Sept. 23. He is still awaiting clearance to play back in the AHL. His injury is more of a concern than his performance.
Jonathan Dahlen, RW, Utica Comets
The darting winger was always a good prospect, but elevated his standing a notch or two with an excellent performance at the Canucks’ Young Stars tournament in September. A linemate of Pettersson’s in Sweden until last season, Dahlen’s natural chemistry with his close friend was obvious and it’s not hard to imagine them playing together in the NHL once Dahlen, five-foot-10 and 180 pounds, gains a little strength and experience in the American League.
Dahlen led his Swedish club Timra to the second-division title last spring and promotion to the Swedish Hockey League by amassing 44 points in 44 games. He had one goal and three assists in his first seven games for Utica and, like Gaudette, is expected to make an appearance or two for the Canucks at some point this season. The 20-year-old, an Ottawa Senators’ second-round pick traded to Vancouver for Alex Burrows, plays a smart, mature game and has a competitive side that should help him become an NHLer.
Olli Juolevi, D, Utica Comets
The 20-year-old, fifth-overall pick from 2016 is a polarizing prospect in Canuck Nation. He continues to develop and was solid during training camp and the pre-season. But his quiet, all-around game isn’t likely to ever wow anyone. Compared to more dynamic defencemen drafted after him, like Boston’s Charlie McAvoy and Tampa’s Mikhail Sergachev, Juolevi is an underwhelming pick. But the Canucks still project him to grow into a steady top-four NHL defenceman.
Juolevi had 19 points in 38 games last season for Turku in the Finnish League, where he was mentored by assistant coach and former Canuck Sami Salo. The consensus is Juolevi was a better defenceman at the end of the season than he was at the start, and he’s going to play big minutes for Utica this season. He had five points in eight games but was minus-six to start his AHL campaign.
Kole Lind, RW, Utica Comets
Lind is one of those “favourite” prospects that every organization has. It’s not only his ability to score – he had 39 goals and 95 points in 58 games last season with the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets – but his willingness to battle opponents and play in difficult areas that the Canucks love. The player-development department has also been impressed by how much Lind has progressed since Vancouver drafted him in the second round two years ago.
The power forward was good at the Young Stars event for prospects in September, but struggled to make an impact during the pre-season when exposed to NHL play for the first time. Lind, who turned 20 on Oct. 16, is expected to be a key player for Utica, but started his rookie season as a pro slowly with just two assists in six games.