It’s no secret that the Vancouver Canucks have a shallow prospect pool with little to no sure-fire NHL players residing in it. They do, however, have some intriguing late bloomers who have started to turn heads as potential contributors down the road. If they hope to be perennial playoff contenders when Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson are in their athletic prime, they need some of them to hit their ceiling and become impact players in their lineup. Let’s take a look at three that have put themselves on the map this season as prospects that have a good chance of doing just that.
Linus Karlsson may have accomplished the feat at 23 years old rather than 19, but that shouldn’t discount the accomplishment. On March 22, 2022, he made history with his 25th goal in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), breaking the rookie scoring record previously held by none other than current Canucks’ superstar Elias Pettersson. The 6-foot-1, 179-pound dynamo has been on an absolute tear this season racking up 26 goals and 46 points in 52 games, which of course leads his team. According to Pick224, he is also second only to Adam Tambellini in primary points per 60 minutes (P1/e60), generating an impressive 2.8 P1/e60. That means he averages almost three primary points every 60 minutes of ice time.
Needless to say, Karlsson has been phenomenal this season in the SHL. What remains to be seen is whether he can translate that success to the American Hockey League (AHL) and then to where it really matters, the NHL. Players who have success overseas don’t always have it in North America, just look at former prospects like Anton Rodin and Petrus Palmu. They could rip it up in Europe, where the physicality is noticeably lower, but could never put it together in the AHL or NHL.
Something tells me that won’t be the case with Karlsson. According to Canucks Army’s Chris Faber, his shot has improved to being near NHL-ready and if you watch highlight reels of his goals this season, you can see that his one-timer on the power play is lethal. Being a right-hand shot, that could come in very handy on a Canucks’ power play currently lacking in that area, even though Brock Boeser could easily fill that role (but that’s a conversation for another article). As of this writing, Karlsson is second only to 35-year-old Richard Gynge in power-play goals with 13.
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While Karlsson’s skating still needs to improve for him to have sustained success at the next level, his other skills should make him an effective middle-six player, or at the very least, a power-play specialist. At this point, him just becoming a serviceable NHLer would make Canucks fans happy. It would also even up the trade the Canucks made with the San Jose Sharks that saw Jonathan Dahlen go the other way. Although his production has slowed down since the beginning of the season, he appears to be an NHL player. If Karlsson can utilize his shot, playmaking and proficiency on the power play to be a 15-20 goalscorer, that trade won’t look as bad anymore.
Jack Rathbone has been a prospect to watch ever since his days at Harvard when he was leading their blue line with 53 points in 61 career games. Partnered with Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox for one of those seasons, he started making a name for himself in 2019-20 when Fox left and signed with the New York Rangers. He became the de facto number one defenceman and thrived to the tune of 7 goals and 31 points in only 28 games. He showcased his mobility, precise passing and hockey IQ en route to being named to the NCAA (East) First All-American Team, NCAA (ECAC) First All-Star Team and NCAA All-Ivy League First Team.
Signing with the Canucks and transitioning to the NHL at the end of the 2020-21 season, Rathbone made his big-league debut on May 4, 2021, against the Edmonton Oilers and played 12:04 in what became a 4-1 loss. Unlike Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser before him, he wasn’t able to record his first point in his first game. That came 48 hours later when he scored his first NHL goal against those same Oilers in a 6-3 victory. Rathbone finished the season with one goal and three points in eight games.
Since then, Rathbone hasn’t been able to record any more points and has since played only nine games. He struggled with the defensive side of the game at the beginning of 2021-22 and was sent down to the Abbotsford Canucks to further refine his craft. Before going down with an injury after a hit from behind in mid-February, he was on fire with 13 points in his last six games, including a career-high five points (1 goal, 4 assists) on Feb. 7 against the Tucson Roadrunners. Fortunately, he returned a few weeks later and continued the point streak, which just recently ended on March 13. He now has seven goals and 25 points in 26 games and could be seeing some time with the big club very soon as the Canucks’ push to the playoffs continues.
As everyone probably knows by now, Rathbone has all the tools to become a top-four defenceman in the NHL. His mobility, smarts, first-pass and slap shot have been showcased multiple times in the AHL this season and he has not looked out of place at the NHL level, albeit in a small sample size of 17 games. With an aging blue line and potentially one or more big contracts moving out in the offseason, the Canucks will need a defenceman of his ilk to take a spot in the top four. At only 22 years old, he has the potential to be a consistent 40-point defender which would take the pressure off of Hughes who is the only blueliner this season who has more than 19 points (Oliver Ekman-Larsson).
Rounding out the trio is none other than 2019 seventh-round pick Aidan McDonough. With what he’s done in the last two seasons, it’s hard to believe that he was such a late draft pick. Going back to 2020-21, he has 35 goals and 59 points in 59 games, including a career-high 25 goals and 39 points in 38 games this season. Given an “A” by the Northeastern Huskies at the beginning of the campaign, his leadership has shone through all season long. Pacing his team in goals by a wide margin (Sam Colangelo was second with 12) and finishing second only to Western Michigan University’s Ethen Frank in the entire NCAA, to say 2021-22 was a banner season for him would be a massive understatement.
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Ultimately eliminated in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament by Western Michigan, McDonough did all he could by scoring the tying goal at 16:40 of the third period off his own rebound after Western Michigan failed to clear the zone. Unfortunately, Luke Grainger was able to score the game-winner in overtime after Devon Levi appeared to make an acrobatic save on the goal line.
The Canucks were pushing hard to sign him on the weekend, but according to Rick Dhaliwal and Thomas Drance of The Athletic, McDonough has told them that he wants to play his senior year at Northeastern and revisit contract talks next season. If he remains unsigned after Aug. 15, 2023, he will be free to sign with whoever he wants.
For a team with a shallow prospect pool, the Canucks need all the talent they can get right now. So, not signing him at this point is obviously disappointing. Dhaliwal assured fans on Twitter that McDonough’s decision not to put pen to paper wasn’t an indictment on the team, just what he felt was best for him and his development.
McDonough has size, an NHL shot, and a lethal one-timer on the power play. All of which would be welcome on the team in the future. If all goes well (including signing an entry-level contract), he could legitimately become a productive piece of the top-nine and the power play in the future. Just imagine a second unit of McDonough on one side and Karlsson on the other. Could the Canucks have a poor man’s Pettersson and Brock Boeser on their hands in a few seasons? Maybe that’s high expectations, but given their performances in 2021-22, there’s more than enough evidence to have hope, right?
Similar to Karlsson, McDonough still needs to continue to work on his skating to make it to that level. Though considering the upward trajectory he is on and the commitment to improving every season, that part of his game shouldn’t restrict him from becoming an NHL player one day. But as we say constantly on Prospect Corner, we will just have to wait and see what happens.
Canucks Need One of Karlsson, Rathbone or McDonough To Hit Their Potential
As of this writing, the Canucks have only added Arshdeep Baines to the prospect pipeline since Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford took the reins in the front office. Until they inevitably add more, fans will anxiously wait for one of these late-bloomers to hit their potential in the NHL. They all have shown intriguing skills that could translate to the NHL one day. These three may never hit the heights of top-four defenceman or top-six forward, but even they can become regular NHL contributors in the future, it will go a long way in creating a playoff contender year in and year out.
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Just look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, they have superstars like Steven Stamkos, Viktor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov, but they also have late-bloomers like Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and others who have been huge factors in their success in recent seasons. In the end, the Canucks need more luck like that to push themselves past the rebuild/retool stage and into the contenders’ circle that they haven’t been a part of since the early 2010s.