Before he’d been in the National Hockey League a month, rookie Elias Pettersson had people wondering how the Vancouver Canucks were able to grab him with the fifth pick of the 2017 draft.
Not only was the 20-year-old Swede nearly lapping the field in the rookie scoring race – Ottawa Senator Brady Tkachuk’s excellent November has him narrowing the gap – but Pettersson is also outscoring second-year NHLers Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, the forwards who topped his draft class and went first and second to New Jersey and Philadelphia.
The Canucks hope people will wonder the same thing next year about Quinn Hughes, the ultra-dynamic defencemen who was drafted seventh overall last June and is playing his second season at the University of Michigan.
Hughes could turn out to be the best player in U.S. college hockey this season and if he wins the Hobey Baker Award, he’ll inherit the trophy from another Canuck rookie, centre Adam Gaudette.
Hughes epitomizes the Canucks’ 2018 draft philosophy: speed and skill over size, offensive potential over defensive risk. Not only does Vancouver have a pile of enticing prospects starting their pro careers in the American Hockey League, they’ve got another wave of talented players coming from college and junior hockey, and European leagues.
Quinn Hughes, 19, D, University of Michigan (NCAA)
Drafted: First round, 7th overall
Season to date: 13 GP | 3 G | 12 A | 15 P | -5
If you’re old enough to remember Brian Leetch, possibly the greatest American-born player, you’ll understand the core elements in Hughes’ game. The older brother of potential 2019 first-overall pick Jack Hughes, Quinn is one of the best skaters his age and seems to have a hockey mind to match his skills. What he lacks is size. Were he bigger than five-foot-10 and 170 pounds, he’d probably be playing for the Canucks instead of the Wolverines as a 19-year-old. In a month, Hughes will be a central figure at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria and, depending when Michigan’s season ends, could be in the NHL next spring.
Canuck senior director of player development Ryan Johnson: “There’s so much attention paid to his size and weight, but you want to make sure that that’s not the focus for any player. You need to do the work in the gym and get stronger, but don’t focus on a (weight). Hockey sense and speed, all that, trumps size. Quintin knows that. His hockey sense and skating are so elite, I think the biggest thing for him is just understanding what he might be able to get away with at (the college) level that he needs to work on for the next level. He’s in a real good place with a great program. He’s a focussed kid. He thinks about his game in the right way and pays attention to all the little details. We’re very excited about him.”
Jett Woo, 18, D, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
Drafted: Second round, 37th overall
Season to date: 18 GP | 3 G | 10 A | 13 P | +6
This physical blueliner is an outlier in the Canucks’ 2018 draft crop. He’s an outlier among draft picks, generally – a throwback defenceman who craves contact and punishes opponents. After 25 points in 44 games in the Western League last season, Woo appears to be upping his offensive game this fall. But he had a late start after injuring his knee over the summer, then aggravating it when he reported to the Warriors’ training camp. At 205 pounds, he’s a handful to play against and could get a tryout with Canada’s world junior team, which will be led by Moose Jaw coach Tim Hunter.
Ryan Johnson: “He put in the work to get himself (healthy) and jumped right into things. All signs are that he hasn’t really missed a beat. His compete and all those things we love about him are there. We know how he defends, he loves to play physical and loves the contact side of the game. After starting with a little adversity, it’s great for him to be in the mix for Team Canada.”
Tyler Madden, 19, C, Northeastern University (NCAA)
Drafted: Third round, 68th overall
Season to date: 12 GP | 5 G | 5 A | 10 P | +2
This five-foot-11, 152-pound centre has the competitiveness and savvy you’d expect from the son of John Madden, who won three Stanley Cups and a Selke Trophy before becoming a coach. But Tyler Madden has demonstrated as a college freshman that he also possesses considerable offensive upside. The United States Hockey League grad is already a core player at Northeastern, where he plays on the first line, the power play and penalty kill.
Johnson: “He’s a mature kid and has a mature game. You wouldn’t see him playing on the top line at a good program at Northeastern and think he’s a freshman. He’s quick and has a heavy stick for a guy who’s not big in stature. He’s a competitor, but has a really good skill set. The details of the game come naturally to him, which isn’t shocking considering his pedigree. There’s really no limit there. It’s going to be exciting to watch his progression not just year to year, but month to month. That’s how much he’s improving.”
Toni Utunen, 18, D, Tappara (SM-liiga)
Drafted: Fifth round, 130th overall
Season to date: 18 GP | 0 G | 1 A | 1 P | +3
Another undersized prospect with good mobility, Utunen is transitioning to the SM-liiga as a full-time player in Finland’s top league after spending most of last season in the second division. Like many Finnish defencemen, he plays an understated game. At five-foot-11 and 169 pounds, he needs to get stronger and is a long-term project. But the Canucks think he projects to the NHL game.
Johnson: “The Finnish Elite League is a tough league, so he’s going through an adjustment moving up to that league. He’s not getting a ton of ice time, which guys usually don’t at that age. But he’s playing with men, learning to practise and train the right way, so it’s a great step for him. Toni is a good skater, a smart player who moves the puck well. He can get up the ice.”
Artem Manukyan, 20, W, Omsk (KHL)
Drafted: Sixth round, 186th overall
Season to date: 33 GP | 2 G | 10 A | 12 P | +5
At five-foot-seven and 139 pounds, this Armenian-Russian dynamo makes Quinn Hughes look like Victor Hedman. It’s also a tall order for him to ever make the NHL, but Manukyan is one of the more intriguing prospects in the Canucks organization. Although he has gone cold after a hot start offensively, the 20-year-old’s points-per-game in the Kontinental League (0.375) has improved more than four-fold over his draft season. He has the skill and elusiveness required of a player his size, but the Canucks also like how he competes.
Johnson: “I watched him play at the world junior tournament last year and he kind of jumped off the page for me. I wasn’t there to watch him; I was there primarily to watch the top-rated guys who were going to go near the top of the draft. But watching him play, man, he has so much jam and so much skill. He competes. Every time he was on the ice he did something where we took notice of him. Our amateur (scouting) group felt that if we had the chance to take a shot at him in one of the late rounds, he was worth that shot. He’s going to be an interesting guy to follow. There’s an upside there. We just don’t know where it’s going to go.”