The Vancouver Canucks are, miraculously, a single point out of the playoffs at just about the halfway point of the 2018-19 season, and while that’s all good and fun, the real hope certainly still lies in the future.
With young talent like Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Adam Gaudette, and of course the already formidable Elias Pettersson, the cupboards certainly aren’t bare in Vancouver. The better news of course is there is more help arriving soon. Thatcher Demko, Jonathan Dahlen, and Olli Juolevi are all getting important experience in the American Hockey League, while other youngsters have showed promise at college and in major junior too.
Case in point: four Canucks prospects will compete in the upcoming World Junior Championships. Goaltender Michael DiPietro will tend the twine for Canada, Michigan Wolverine Quinn Hughes will anchor the blue line for the States, third-round pick Tyler Madden will join Hughes as a member of Team U.S.A., and defenceman Toni Utunen will represent Finland.
While only DiPietro is playing on home soil, all four may give the fans an extra reason to buy tickets, considering the tournament is taking place in Vancouver of all places. Now let’s take a closer look at what each of these four prospects brings to the table and where they’ll fit in for their respective countries at the tournament.
Michael DiPietro – Goaltender – Team Canada
Ever since DiPietro was the final goalie cut from Team Canada last December, it was assumed he would be the starter in this year’s tournament. And, so far, that appears to be the case.
While both he and Ian Scott have been impressive in their junior careers so far, DiPietro’s resume goes deeper.
The Amherstburg, Ont. native — which is just outside Windsor — is in his fourth Ontario Hockey League season and carries an 86-49-8-5 record with a 2.52 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and 16 shutouts. The 19-year-old was traded from his hometown Windsor Spitfires to the Ottawa 67s a day after being named to Canada’s camp roster in early December.
In his time with the Spits, he was sensational. Not only did he backstop Windsor to a Memorial Cup title in 2017 on home ice, but he holds franchise records for the most wins, the most shutouts, and the most games played over the course of his career. His 16 shutouts are one shy of an OHL record.
Scott is surely having a sensational year for the Prince Albert Raiders in the Western Hockey League (including scoring a goal) , but DiPietro will likely get the first start on Boxing Day against Denmark. Scott will then play against Switzerland. Whichever of the two falters first will be relegated to back-up duty.
Quinn Hughes – Defence – Team USA
The Canucks seventh overall pick from this past June was just named an alternate captain for the World Juniors. It’s his fourth time skating for U.S.A Hockey on the international stage. He not only won bronze for the States at last year’s WJC, but also won bronze at the IIHF Men’s World Championship, where he suited up in all 10 games.
Boy oh boy is Hughes having himself a season in Michigan with the Wolverines as a sophomore. The smooth-skating defenceman has 20 points in 17 games thus far, which leads the team in scoring. Those 20 points are tied for second among all defencemen in the NCAA, while his 17 assists are the second-most among all skaters in the NCAA. He has also recorded at least a point in all but four games this season.
Last year, in 37 games as a freshman, Hughes recorded 29 points and was named a Big Ten second-team all-star. His 24 assists ranked third in the NCAA and first overall in the Big Ten among freshman, and was almost the most in program history by a freshman defenceman.
It’s abundantly clear Hughes is ready for the NHL next season, not just because of his poise with the puck and their need for a power play quarterback, but also because of his maturity. Just take a look below at how he stands up for a teammate during a pre-tournament game against the Czech Republic, despite being 5-foot-10. Even how he handles himself in front of the media is impressive for a 19-year-old.
Tyler Madden – Forward – Team USA
Just like Hughes, Madden, the son of longtime NHLer John Madden, has a late birthday, so the 2018 NHL draft pick is already 19-years-old.
Unlike Hughes, Madden is a freshman in the NCAA this year, currently operating at just over a point-per-game for Northeastern University. His stats show he is already getting more comfortable as the season goes along, with five points in his first eight games followed by 10 points in his last six.
Madden has been moved to the wing from centre for the tournament, and may get a chance to play alongside Josh Norris and Ryan Poehling on one of the team’s scoring lines. For a third-round pick this past June, Madden might be able to show he has more offensive potential than initially thought.
Toni Utunen – Defence – Team Finland
Utunen was the Canucks’ fifth-round selection this past June, 130th overall.
He isn’t a flashy offensive defenceman like Hughes, but is solid in his own zone for his age. At just 18, the left-shot D-man is playing for Tappara in the top Finnish league, Liiga, where he has one assist in 21 games.
At the U-18 tournament this past summer, he was the captain of Team Finland. Now with older players at the WJC, he is expected to play more of a depth role for the Finns, especially with the announcement that NHLer Henri Jokiharju will suit up.
It may be a few years before Utunen suits up in a Canucks uniform, but there is lots to like so far with his leadership and defensive responsibility.