It's no secret that Vancouver's prospect cupboard has been lacking over the past decade. As the previous regime stockpiled talent that could contribute on a championship caliber team, the focus on the future was abandoned or, at least, seen as a secondary priority. It is often said among management types that a sports team must be either selling hope or wins, and in the majority of Mike Gillis' years the team was decidedly selling the latter.
In the years since Vancouver's spell at the top of the league, the emphasis on selling wins has dwindled significantly. While ownership still insists on making an effort to make the playoffs, Jim Benning, Trevor Linden and the rest of the Canucks management have been forced to replenish the prospect cupboard that has been effectively bare for the better part of a decade.
And to their credit, they've done a relatively good job of that. Inheriting Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Cole Cassels and Jordan Subban from Gillis' final (and best) draft, they've also added solid prospects in Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann and Brock Boeser in the draft while also acquiring Sven Baertschi, Andrey Pedan and Adam Clendening (who they recently traded to Pittsburgh) through trades. Add them with names like Nick Jensen, Frank Corrado, and Brendan Gaunce, and Canucks fans finally have a decently sized prospect group to be excited about.
And perhaps it's the unusual nature of having a stocked pipeline, but this wave of new prospects has many Canucks fans infatuated with optimism about the future. But while I feel confident about some of these players' chances of becoming NHL regulars, I also believe the optimism dial needs to be turned back a tad so we have reasonable expectations.
Cole Cassels, for example, is getting paraded as the McDavid killer, based off of a five-game playoff series where he slowed the phenom down considerably. And while he did do a very good job limiting McDavid from the obscene point totals he is used to, the Oilers' prospect still put up seven points and had nearly 70% possession in the series. So while these numbers indicate that Cassels' line did the best job of limiting McDavid's effectiveness out of all his playoff opponents, you would be naive to suggest that, based off this series, Cassels will be McDavid's kryptonite for all future Oilers-Canucks games.
Cassels is one of the organization's many good prospects, and perhaps the former third-round pick will get a chance at an NHL job within the next two years. But the problem with the Canucks' youth is it offers a lot of players who project to be part of an NHL team's supporting cast and not enough players who project to be bonafide, offensive stars.
The Canucks prospect system offers plenty of "good" prospects but no "amazing" prospects. This is a franchise that will have to compete with players like McDavid (along with the Oilers' other blue-chip prospects), Sam Bennett, Johnny Gaudreau, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Dylan Strome as well as the L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks, who both have competitive, young teams. The best players Vancouver has that can match them are Horvat and Virtanen, whose offensive ceiling is significantly lower than that of their division rivals.
Virtanen, probably the Canucks prospect with the highest offensive ceiling, saw his development stagnate over the past year, as his point per game totals remained the same as the year before. In fairness, the lack of production may have to do with other variables, like his placement in the lineup or his focus on defense/playmaking, but for a top ten pick to put up such uninspiring numbers should be of concern to those who expect a premier top-line point producer. The debate about whether picking Virtanen over players like Nylander and Ehlers was a good decision has been discussed in great detail over the past year, so I won't touch on it anymore here.
Bo Horvat, the Canucks other top ten pick, had a largely successful first year in the NHL, but his potential as an offensive catalyst remains highly in doubt. To be fair to him, he has never been thought of as a future point per game player, but a smart and reliable two-way player who can drive possession by giving up few shots, but he still doesn't fill the hole that the Canucks' collection of youth needs: high octane offensive power.
And the temptation to look at the system right now and declare them the team's "saviors" is very tantalizing. The oncoming retirement of the Sedin twins is fastly approaching and the memories of the early decade Canucks are still fresh in fans' minds, making the desire to get back to that level of competitiveness intense. The problem right now is that the Canucks have, realistically, the fourth best group of young players in their division, and that is not including the Kings and Ducks, both of whom will be competitive for the foreseeable future. In my opinion, they are lacking a prospect that can produce offense at an elite level. The Oilers have that in their collection of first overall picks. The Flames have it with Gaudreau and Bennett. The Coyotes have Domi and Strome. And the Canucks, with their revitalized prospect cupboard, have no one that we can legitimately expect to match their rivals' offense.
Additionally, the blueliners in the Canucks system are still as weak as they were four years ago. After trading Adam Clendening to the Penguins, the organization's only defensive prospect with legitimate top-four aspirations is Frank Corrado. And when you compare him to the likes of the Flames' Dougie Hamilton, the Oilers' Darnell Nurse or the Ducks' Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, the difference in quality is troubling.
The Vancouver Canucks are not a young team on the rise. They are an organization that has, to the best of their abilities, replenished what was missing during Gillis' reign: prospects with an NHL future. Horvat and Corrado have already made the jump, and players like McCann, Virtanen, Cassels and Baertschi look like they'll be able to join them sooner rather than later, but they almost certainly will not be able to make the Canucks contenders in the next two to three years on their own. That's the reality of the team's situation. It has to get worse before it can get better, and acquiring future stars is almost exclusively achieved through early first-round picks in the draft.
So can we expect the Canucks to be basement dwellers in the coming season? It isn't likely they would do it intentionally, as Benning has repeatedly said he wants to bring his young players up in a "winning environment". The question then is are the players Benning employed good enough to keep the team out of lottery contention? And is aiming for the playoffs without a realistic chance at a cup and an aging core a good idea in the first place?
In my honest opinion, the answer to both of those questions is no. The Canucks lack what their rivals have in droves. In order to compete with the teams they will be facing for the upcoming decade, they need to match the McDavids and the Gaudreaus with players of a similar caliber. And without a legitimate chance at winning the cup, aiming to make the playoffs for the sake of making the playoffs produces nothing but frustration. Rebuilding will include a few frustrating seasons, sure, but at least there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. What the Canucks have right now is a good start, but in order to be competitive against the future Flames, Oilers, Ducks, Kings and Coyotes, the Canucks will need to add prospects with top-line potential - and they won't get those players without some years near the bottom of the league's food chain.