When Chris Higgins went down with a fractured foot in the first game of this year's pre-season, part of the fan base actually got a little excited. As far as injuries go, this one was quite convenient. The temporary loss of Higgins meant another spot available in the Canucks middle six, a spot which most would assume would go to one of the organization's budding prospects. At the time, the rookies leading the race were Jared McCann, Brendan Gaunce, and Jake Virtanen - and all of them are still in the mix today - but on the day of the penultimate pre-season game, one veteran remains on the NHL roster who everyone thought was bound for Utica.
That veteran is Adam Cracknell, a 30-year-old forward who was signed to a one-year, two-way contract late in the summer. Cracknell's a B.C. boy who, after being born in Saskatchewan, grew up in Victoria. Though he was drafted in the ninth round of the 2004 NHL draft, he's carved himself out a decent, though not terribly stable, NHL career, playing in the Blues and Blue Jackets organizations in a depth role, mostly used as an AHL call-up.
Cracknell has never been a significant player offensively (he's scored 6 goals in his 82-game NHL career), and all indications available tell us he shouldn't be playing above Gaunce, Virtanen or McCann. And yet a day after the Utica Comets flew to France to begin their training camp abroad, he is still on the roster and consistently playing preseason games. So is there an argument there in favour of Cracknell? Is this something Jim Benning, Trevor Linden, and Willie Desjardins are actually considering?
I'll start by acknowledging Desjardins' preference for veterans. Last season, Desjardins was decidedly against having Bo Horvat play in the NHL as he felt he couldn't trust a 19-year-old in NHL situations. The team was making a push for the playoffs and the coach didn't want to risk a single point. Desjardins values experience very highly and, up until about the midway point of the season, he used Horvat very sparingly. It took a lot for Horvat to prove his abilities to his coach, and the same effect could be in play this season, as Desjardins might be more willing to lean on a guy who's 30 rather than one who is 19.
Of course, that could be utter bogus. Desjardins did compliment a couple rookies after the game on Monday, saying McCann and Hutton were putting others' jobs in jeopardy. Perhaps Desjardins learned his lesson last year and now understands more the abilities of teenagers in the NHL.
But then why is Cracknell still on the NHL roster? Why isn't he already in Europe participating in the Comets' training camp, at which he is supposed to be a leader for the young players?
Maybe it has something to do with the NHL/CHL rulebook. While Brendan Gaunce can spend another year in the minor leagues, it is a different story for Virtanen and McCann, both of whom, as per the NHL-CHL agreement, are required to play either in the NHL or juniors. That means once they're cut from the Canucks roster, there is no option to call them up later. If the Canucks feel they have enough forward depth with Cracknell, Gaunce, Hunter Shinkaruk and Alex Grenier, they could conceivably send both McCann and Virtanen back to the CHL for another year of junior hockey, thus giving Cracknell an opportunity to make the NHL team out of camp.
Is this a smart idea? Probably not. Virtanen and McCann are each allowed to play nine NHL regular season games before management has to make a decision on their future, and you could argue both have done enough to see their audition extended into the season. But if Benning thinks he has seen enough, he could postpone the youth movement another year and rely on almost exclusively veterans to help the Canucks on their road to the playoffs.
It certainly isn't what the fans would want. Everybody in B.C. has been clamoring for an opportunity to see young players on the Canucks' squad since, well, forever. And finally, after years of Gillis putting prospect development on the backburner in order to facilitate his "win-now" philosophy, the Canucks are finally starting to reap the benefits of a stocked prospect pipeline. Will Benning listen? How much confidence does he have in Cracknell's feisty bottom-six playstyle? We'll find out in two games or so.