In another season where the draft lottery is the main event instead of the playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks have had a number of impressive rookies make their debuts in the NHL. With Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat already on the roster, that definitely bodes well for the future as they continue to develop into a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
As soon as next season, the Canucks could have another four young players make the transition from rookies to full-time NHLers in Jack Rathbone, Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, and Vasily Podkolzin. That, in itself, is exciting as fans get to see the team get even younger and faster. So, with all that said, let’s dive into some of those players and their performances this season in and outside of the NHL.
2020-21 Stats: 49 GP – 10 G – 14 A – 24 PTS
Nils Hoglander has been everything and more for the Canucks in his first NHL season. Just like Pettersson before him, he transitioned seamlessly from European to North American hockey and excelled in every role he was given. Surprisingly, head coach Travis Green started him in the top-six right from the beginning of the season, and never wavered from that decision. In fact, he’s probably cemented him there for the foreseeable future.
Playing mostly in a matchup role with Horvat, Hoglander has not only been a water bug in the offensive zone but a solid presence in his own zone as well. His intense forechecking and seemingly never-ending motor has impressed the coaching staff, his teammates, and every fan that has the privilege of watching him every night. He’s also been an advanced stats darling with a very solid 50.2 Corsi-for percentage (CF%), which is impressive, as rookies normally struggle with that side of the game.
His willingness to compete and compete in hard areas, that’s probably the thing that stands out to me…There’s no way he could win puck battles the way he does if he wasn’t brave and wasn’t playing without fear, which is easier said than done. The skill and the plays he makes with the puck, those are the easy things to see. But his nature, that competitiveness, is probably the biggest thing for me.Travis Green on Nils Hoglander
If it was a normal 82-game season, Hoglander would be flirting with 20 goals, and if Kirill Kaprizov, Jason Robertson, and Josh Norris weren’t producing, he would be a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy too. For a second-round pick that was deemed too small for the NHL, he’s proven to everyone that size really doesn’t matter when you have passion and work ethic on your side.
2020-21 Stats: 3 GP – 1 G – 0 A – 1 PT (Canucks) / 8 GP – 2 G – 7 A – 9 PTS (Comets)
It may be a small sample size, but Rathbone has acquitted himself quite nicely at the NHL level so far. He’s already used his trademark half-slapper and deke move, scored his first NHL goal off a sweet snapshot, and has moved the puck better than most of the blueliners the Canucks employ. Oh yes, he also successfully defended a two-on-one consisting of two of the top goal scorers in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. I would say that’s a pretty good start to an NHL career. It won’t be too long before he is seeing regular time on the second unit power play and 20 minutes a night on the second pairing with Nate Schmidt.
Ever since Rathbone turned pro with the Utica Comets in the AHL, he’s displayed the poise and confidence of a grizzled veteran. He’s not afraid to jump up into the play, and his two-way game is beyond his years already. In fact, his play early on even prompted Trent Cull to say something that most defencemen never get to hear from their head coach.
He walks the blue line better than any (defenceman) in the league…He’s a very promising young guy. It’s very exciting to coach a guy like that. His hockey IQ is very high It won’t take much to get him acclimated.Trent Cull on Jack Rathbone’s game (from ‘Canucks: Jack Rathbone makes his NHL debut against high-octane Oilers’,The Province, 4/4/21)
Green had similar things to say after his first couple of games, praising his overall puck skills, shot, and playmaking skills. He’s seen some hiccups defensively, but isn’t overly worried about it, considering he only has two games under his belt.
He’s held his own…You can see the puck skills, you can see his shot, his passing. The timing in your D-zone coverage is going to take him a little bit, there’s a few times where he’s softening and just a little bit late to get to the corner for a battle, but that’s all to be expected when you’re a young D-man who’s never played in the league.Travis Green on Rathbone’s first couple of NHL games
In the end, it’s amazing to see yet another young defenceman make his mark on the NHL. He’s been a prospect I’ve had my eye on for the last few seasons as he’s excelled in both the NCAA and AHL. He’s got a bright future in this league as a top-pairing blueliner, which is surprising considering he was drafted all the way down in the fourth round.
2020-21 Stats: 6 GP – 0 PTS (Canucks) / 8 GP – 5 G – 3 A – 8 PTS (Comets)
Lind has yet to put up any points at the NHL level, but what he has done is hold his own, and that’s about all you can ask for from a player that won’t ever be a superstar. We can’t always expect everyone to be a Pettersson, Hughes, Boeser, or Hoglander and make an impact almost immediately.
During the small sample size of six games, Lind has looked comfortable playing in the top-six with Horvat where he has showcased his speed and tenacity on the forecheck. He’s also thrown his weight around to the tune of eight hits along with playing a solid 13 minutes a night. For a player that struggled to gain a foothold in the AHL with the Comets only a couple of seasons ago, he’s come a long way from being a potential career minor-leaguer to, at best, a consistent 15-20 goal scorer in the top-nine.
Lind has also added another wrinkle to his game in the form of faceoffs and playing as a pivot. Green has not placed him in that role yet, but if his play in the middle of the ice at the AHL level is any indication of future success, the Canucks could see him take over third-line center duties from Brandon Sutter in the very near future. Needless to say, he has given them something to think about, which is great considering he was a borderline NHLer not too long ago.
2020-21 Stats: 21 GP – 2 G – 1 A – 3 PTS
Olli Juolevi won’t ever be as flashy as Hughes or Rathbone, but he will always be there to move the puck quickly and efficiently to his teammates. He will also be one of the best penalty-killing defencemen on the team, year in and year out. If that’s all you expect out of him, you will never be disappointed.
Since Juolevi was a star with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League, that’s all he ever brought to the table. Just ask his head coach at the time, Dale Hunter.
He is a puck moving defenceman and that is what everybody is looking for…He has a good transition game and breaks out of his own zone cleanly. He is a great passer and there is no fear to his game. He is one of those defenceman that forwards love to have back there passing them the puck.
That’s exactly what Juolevi has brought to the Canucks’ backend this season. He rarely makes a bad pass out of his own zone, and it’s almost always tape to tape. He also has developed into a great shot blocker and smart penalty killer in the vein of Chris Tanev, a skill that could come in handy as Alex Edler inevitably moves on in the near future.
Despite some spotty deployment by Green, Juolevi has looked solid in his first NHL season. Hopefully he sees a permanent spot in the lineup in 2021-22 because if the Canucks are going to contend for a Stanley Cup, they will need the skills of this Helsinki native in the lineup.
2020-21 Stats: AHL – 19 GP – 15 G – 3 A – 18 PTS
This season Gadjovich has transformed from a borderline NHLer to a potential fixture in the bottom-six. We might have to temper those expectations a bit until we see him play a shift with the Canucks, but if his performance in the AHL is any indication, we won’t be disappointed. Since the Comets resumed play, he has been consistently one of their best players, scoring in almost every game en route to a 15-goal season in only 19 games.
Gadjovich has not only been a scoring machine but he’s also established himself as a premier power forward in front of the net. Nearly all of his goals have been scored within a few feet of the crease, whether it be tipping pucks, banging in rebounds, or just executing a power move to the net. Not only that but he’s also been a menace on the forecheck and along the boards, using his immense size to overpower his opponent to either keep the puck or steal it back.
His NHL debut will come soon enough, which is exciting since the Canucks have needed a presence like his in their bottom-six for a long time. Not since the days of Raffi Torres have they had someone like him, and that was all the way back in 2011. Suffice it to say, it’s been a long time coming.
2020-21 Stats: 35 GP – 5 G – 6 A – 11 PTS (regular season) / 16 GP – 6 G – 5 A – 11 PTS (playoffs)
To say that Canucks Nation has been eagerly anticipating Podkolzin’s NHL debut would be a massive understatement. Through all the drama of his KHL deployment by SKA St. Petersburg’s head coach Valeri Bragin to his dominating performances with Team Russia, they have been with him every step of the way. The big Russian, who is basically a clone of Hoglander, only seven inches taller and 17 pounds heavier, has teased everyone with his work ethic, passion, and skill overseas, which has just added to his allure as an NHL forward.
Podkolzin could easily jump into the top-six with Horvat and Hoglander and the line wouldn’t miss a beat. In fact, it would probably be one of the best trios in the entire NHL. His package of size, skill, and playmaking abilities would also be a welcome sight to the first unit power play that has lacked a solid net-front presence since Ryan Kesler was a fixture there in 2011.
If Podkolzin can bring to the NHL the same intensity and production he showed in the KHL Playoffs where he put up 11 points in 16 games, the Canucks’ top-six will be very difficult to play against next season. Just imagine this, Pettersson, J.T. Miller, and Brock Boeser as the first line and Hoglander, Horvat, and Podkolzin as the second line. Talk about speed, youth, and elite scoring potential.
Canucks Have More On the Way
Hoglander, Rathbone, Lind, Juolevi, Gadjovich, and Podkolzin are only the tip of the iceberg, as the Canucks have William Lockwood, Carson Focht, Jett Woo, Dmitri Zlodeyev, and Joni Jurmo still waiting in the wings. They are also set to add yet another blue-chip talent in the 2021 NHL Draft where they will have a top-10 pick. Who knows, they may be welcoming another slick defenceman like Luke Hughes or skilled Swede like Fabian Lysell to the family in just a couple of months.
Despite all the darkness that has surrounded the Canucks’ 2020-21 season, the fire continues to be stoked by the rookies and prospects in the pipeline. That alone should keep the excitement going as everyone gets ready for yet another long offseason on the West Coast.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.