The Vancouver Canucks Are Rolling The Dice With Youth Movement

There’s a lot of excitement right now among Vancouver Canucks fans, and it’s being fueled primarily by the rapid emergence of some of the team’s top young prospects.

Forwards Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, and defenseman Ben Hutton have all made the Canucks’ opening night NHL roster after impressive performances during the team’s training camp and preseason. The two forwards, both just 19 years old, were drafted by the Canucks in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, while the 22 year-old Hutton was a 5th round selection from back in 2012. The trio will join other young players on the Vancouver roster such as Bo Horvat (20) and Sven Baertschi (23).

It’s certainly an interesting collection of decisions. To make room for the three rookies the Canucks sent down to the AHL a handful of players that were with the team last season, including two 24 year-old forwards in Linden Vey, who had 24 points in 70 games, and Ronalds Kenins, who picked up 12 points in 30 games, as well as 22 year-old defender Frankie Corrado, who suited up for a combined 28 Canucks games over the past three seasons. The decision to waive Corrado cost Vancouver their rights to the player altogether as the Toronto native was claimed off waivers by his hometown Maple Leafs in a really nice feel-good story.

It’s not hard to see why the Canucks did what they did. By all accounts, the three youngsters performed very well in the preseason and rightfully earned their NHL roster spots. There’s also a lot of merit that can be found in these kind of “message-sending” moves, where the best players get the roster spots, regardless of their age or background. Period. That keeps all players, including veterans, on their toes.

“To be honest, we probably had Jake penciled in, we felt Ben would probably need some time in the American league, it’s a big step for a defenceman, and Jared the same thing.” said Canucks president of hockey operations Trevor Linden. “But they deserve to be here and it’s exciting for us, I think it is exciting for everyone. If we didn’t feel good about it, they wouldn’t be here.”

There are, however, still some questions remaining as to whether the moves were actually the right ones to make.

Just Because They’re Ready Doesn’t Mean It’s Right

As a preface, there’s absolutely no question that Virtanen, McCann and Hutton are all very good prospects, among the best in Vancouver’s system. It would be wholly inaccurate for anyone to suggest that the three don’t have long, bright NHL futures ahead of them.

The real debate, though, is whether or not having them in the NHL this season is the right decision, for both the team and the individual players themselves.

The NHL is by far and away the best hockey league on the planet, but one thing that it’s not is a development league. The best of the best play in the NHL, and it’s a league that can be unforgiving and leave little room for error. It’s not an easy place to play for veterans, let alone bright-eyed teenagers, which is why so few players under the age of 20 make NHL rosters.

Scouting and drafting are two-thirds of the criteria for producing homegrown NHL talent, but the third, and often overlooked, criteria is development itself. Where an individual plays and how they’re used by their teams can have huge ramifications on how those prospects grow and develop over time. A team can’t simply throw an 18 year-old into the NHL and say “good luck, kid, figure it out.” Putting young players in bad situations can often damage them either physically, mentally, or both.

The Wise Way Of The Winged Wheel

The Detroit Red Wings, long considered one of, if not the best, teams in the league for drafting and developing figured this process out years ago. The Wings are well-known for keeping players in junior, the minor leagues or over in Europe for prolonged periods of time to maximize their development. After all, it’s much easier for a player to develop individual skills when they’re getting tons of ice time against their equal peers, as opposed to sitting on the bench or getting completely overwhelmed by better players in the NHL. Young players need ice time to hone their skills, so even if a guy is capable of playing sheltered minutes on the 4th line it’s still, generally, not a good place to put them.

It’s a methodology that has recently, and wisely, been adopted by the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, two of the league’s most notable rebuilding stories. This week the Oilers sent Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse, two high profile and likely NHL-capable prospects, down to the AHL after preseason instead of keeping them up with the big club. The same can be said about Toronto’s William Nylander, who also went to the AHL, and Mitch Marner, who is now back in the OHL. All four players are probably already better than a handful of players on their NHL squads, but will instead play huge roles on their current clubs and will probably grow leaps and bounds because of it.

Virtanen and McCann are both still eligible to play in junior this season, with the former’s rights being owned by the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen and the latter’s being owned by the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Both the Hitmen and the Greyhounds are professionally run franchises that have powerful rosters capable of championing their respective leagues and playing in the Memorial Cup. Both would present excellent opportunities for top prospects to develop. While there’s still the chance that either one or both forwards could be sent down after the season begins that option, based on the actions of Canucks management, seems unlikely.

Hutton, meanwhile, is fresh out of college and has only four games of AHL experience on his resume. More time in the minors would do him no harm. That his roster spot cost the Canucks another good defensive prospect in Corrado is especially controversial, as Canucks fans are already starting to express.

Instead, the trio of youth will be put into a less than ideal situation, playing on a borderline playoff team that finds itself in a brutally tough Western Conference and an even bigger, more physical Pacific Division. They’ll be routinely pushed around by heavy teams like the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings or roughed up and agitated by scrappy teams like the Calgary Flames. Or, possibly even worse, they might not see much ice time at all as to protect them from both scenarios.

The Canucks recently made a series of questionable moves this past summer. While it still remains to be seen how their training camp decisions will pan out, don’t be surprised if they end up getting added to the list.