A new season, a new batch of prospects to welcome to the ranks.
The Vancouver Canucks continued to restock their organizational cupboard this past off-season — and the rest of the hockey world is taking notice.
Consistently ranked in the bottom-five of the NHL last season, the prospects pipeline is starting to flow after areas of need were addressed at the draft and beyond.
In the latest leaguewide rankings, the organization clocked in at 24th in The Athletic, 23rd on Yahoo Sports, 20th at Elite Prospects (up eight spots from last year) and was the biggest riser in The Hockey Writers’ rankings, jumping from 30th overall last season to 21st this time around.
Certainly, in-house development, late-season trades and some savvy signings have helped bolster the system, but let’s take a look at the freshest faces to join the club with pre-season well underway and before the Young Stars tournament in Penticton on Friday and Canucks training camp in Victoria on Sept. 21:
A key organizational need and the consensus best overall prospect in the system.
Not bad work for Patrik Allvin and Co. with the 11th overall pick at the draft.
Tom Willander is being touted as the tonic to the problems that have plagued the right side of the Canucks’ defence in recent years.
“I could see him being a guy who can eat a lot of minutes and play with Quinn Hughes and used in a shutdown role because of the way he skates and his I.Q. There’s definitely an excitement from our staff,” Allvin said at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
Realistically, that kind of success in Vancouver is a few years away for the 18-year-old Stockholm product.
Willander will be a freshman at Boston University this coming season and will look to keep the momentum going after surging up the draft charts in the second half of last season.
The 6-foot-1, 176-pound D-man showed well at the U18 World Juniors, anchoring Sweden’s second pairing and notching eight points (3G, 5A) in seven games while going a plus-6 overall. Willander went from playing U18 junior hockey all the way to the SHL last season — and that’s after converting from a winger just two years ago — so he’s come a long way.
How he did it was through his exceptional skating ability and a motor that never quits. Willander is always engaged defensively, guides attackers away from the middle of the ice and breaks up plays along the boards. He is also strong and skilled physically, and can make up for mistakes with his feet and positioning.
“Put it this way: If I was playing, I wouldn’t want to play against him,” said Todd Harvey, Canucks director of amateur scouting. “He’s going to compete out there, and that was one of the things that we liked.”
The knock on Willander’s game is said to be his Limited offensive upside, but both Canucks brass and the strapping prospect disagree.
“We see some offence in his game there … he’s a pretty good self-evaluator and he thinks there’s more there, and we tend to agree,” said Harvey.
Boston U’s first regular season game is on Oct. 7 at Bentley University. The Terriers were the No. 5-ranked team in the NCAA last season and made it all the way to the Frozen Four semifinal, where they lost to top-ranked Minnesota 6-2 on April 6.
It was the first Frozen Four berth for Boston U since 2015, so Willander is joining a program on the rise.
Internal clock. Poise. Vision.
To hear Canucks player development coach Mike Komisarek describe Hunter Brzustewicz, you’d think the team took a quarterback with their third-round pick this past summer.
Thing is, they kind of did.
The 18-year-old American quarterbacked the Kitchener Rangers power play last season — his first in the OHL — and racked up 23 power play assists, seventh most for a defenceman in the league but first among draft-eligible D-men. Brzustewicz’s 57 points (6G, 51A) in 68 games was also tops among draft-eligible D-men
“He’s a player that has tons of confidence with the puck and a high threshold under pressure,” Komisarek told Canucks.com’s Lindsey Horsting last month. “He’s like a quarterback in the pocket, when there’s pass rushers coming at him, he’s got the internal clock, poise, and vision to make the right play, see the ice and what’s going on around him.”
Brzustewicz isn’t just all about moving pucks and putting up points, though. His hockey IQ, skating ability and upper-body strength give him a true two-way presence on the ice.
Last Sunday, the 6-foot, 190 pound right-shot D-man started on the first defensive pairing and tallied a primary power play assist in a 5-3 win over the Oshawa Generals, the Rangers’ first game of the pre-season. Brzustewicz finished the game with two shots on goal and a minus-1 rating.
Brzustewicz then scored his first of the pre-season on Friday, notching a power-play goal in a 5-3 loss to the Brantford Bulldogs. The goal came on a perfectly placed wrister from the point, with a couple of Rangers screening the Bulldogs goaltender.
The Michigan product went a minus-2 with two shots on goal in the loss.
In his third and final pre-season game today, Brzustewicz tallied two more power play assists and had a plus-1 rating in an 11-3 thumping of the Oshawa Generals.
The Rangers open the regular season on Sept. 29 against the Saginaw Spirit.
They’re preaching patience with this pick, in the hopes that Vilmer Alriksson’s game grows as much as his 6-foot-6 frame.
Alriksson, 18, started last season in the Swedish juniors as more of a finesse-type player, said Canucks amateur scout Bobby Hagelin last month, but started to find his identity in the second half and became more of a power forward who played a two-way game.
“He started to understand that he is a big kid and used his size to his advantage,” said Hagelin. “For being a big guy, he’s really fluid and smooth and has a good release. So it’s really where he is physically. You’ve got to be patient, it’s going to take some time for him to grow into that body.”
Well, we didn’t have to wait too long to see some production from the giant winger, taken in the fourth round of the 2023 draft.
Playing with the OHL’s Guelph Storm, Alriksson notched an assist in his first pre-season game on Sept. 1, then followed it up with a power-play goal and six shots on net in a 5-3 win against the Mississauga Steelheads on Sept. 3. Five of those shots were from dangerous areas of the ice.
The big Swede then recorded another assist on Friday in a 5-2 win over the Niagara IceDogs. On the play, Alriksson used his wheels to carry the puck up the ice and his big frame to fend off a couple of defenders before dishing the puck to the high slot to start the scoring sequence.
The Storm begin their regular season on Sept. 22 at Brantford.
Arturs Silovs is well on his way to becoming an NHL regular.
So too could Nikita Tolopilo, under the guidance of elite goaltending coach Ian Clark.
The Canucks’ goalie whisperer loves the potential of the 6-foot-6 Tolopilo, whose big body and extra long limbs are tailor-made for Clark’s tutelage.
The feeling, apparently, is mutual.
The chance to work with Clark and his assistant Marko Torenius was what sold Tolopilo on the Canucks when he signed a two-year contract in late March.
“That’s the biggest thing why,” he said. “I’m super excited to work with them, and I really believe that will help me,” Tolopilo said.
Tolopilo is expected to back up Silovs in the Abbotsford net this season, his first in North America. With the Canucks signing 25-year-old goalie Zach Sawchenko on the first day of free agency this past summer, Abbotsford will most likely rotate three goalies this coming season.
Tolopilo, 23, excelled in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan last season, posting a .924 save percentage and had a sterling 28-17-0 record as Sodertalje’s starter.
It also won’t hurt to have fellow Belarusian Danila Klimovich around in Abbotsford to show him around.
The Abbotsford Canucks — who we will be tracking closely all season — kick off their 2023/24 regular season campaign on Oct. 13 at Laval.
What’s old is new again for Jonathan Lekkerimaki, who is back to his scoring ways after a suspect season a year ago.
The Canucks’ 2022 15th overall pick scored his fourth goal of the SHL pre-season on Thursday in a 2-1 loss to Linkoping. The game was Orebro’s final exhibition contest before their regular season opener on Thursday against Leksand.
Lekkerimaki, 19, has worked his way up the Orebro lineup to the first line and appears to be adopting his “go with the flow” mantra he spoke about in May when he signed a three-year, entry level contract with the Canucks.
He’s playing fast and loose and letting his skill do the rest.
A strong season would vault the dynamic 5-foot-11, 172-pound right-shot winger into blue-chip prospect territory. Lekkerimaki is likely the only Canucks prospect with a legitimate shot at being a top-six fixture in the future. His hands are too soft and his shot too hard to have it any other way.
Lekkerimaki will need to continue to get stronger this season and limit the slumps and injuries that nearly derailed his campaign a year ago.
Elsewhere: Defenceman Joni Jurmo (2020, Rd. 3) has played in four Champions Hockey League games for Ilves over the past couple of weeks, averaging around 10 minutes of ice time a game and registering an assist and a minus-1 rating for the Finnish Liiga side. Jurmo, a fleet-footed 6-foot-5, 209-pound left-shot defenceman, is still unsigned by the Canucks and needs to prove he can handle the defensive rigours of the professional game in order to earn his first NHL contract.
— with files from Patrick Johnston and Ben Kuzma
Canucks prospects: Lekkerimaki starts pre-season strong in Sweden
Canucks: Ian Clark’s newest goalie project is Nikita Tolopilo