On April 19, Peter Harling of mynhltraderumors.com did a nice piece on the top Vancouver Canucks prospects in the organization. In the post, he argued that there’s a new set of on-ice leaders on the Canucks roster led by last year’s Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson and this season’s likely Calder Trophy winner (OK, perhaps I’m biased as a Canucks’ fan) Quinn Hughes.
Both Canucks’ players are amazing young talents. And, as the result of general manager Jim Benning’s great work in the NHL Entry Draft over the past few seasons, the organization is teeming with great young prospects.
In this post, I want to look at the four best young defensemen in the Canucks system, according to Harling’s post.
Defensive Prospect #1: Brogan Rafferty, Utica Comets (AHL)
The 24-year-old Brogan Rafferty is a 6-foot-2, 198-pound defenseman who signed as a free agent in 2019. For some reason, even after a great NCAA career at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, he went undrafted by any NHL team. However, he had a great 2019-20 rookie AHL season with the Utica Comets when he scored seven goals and 38 assists (45 points) in 57 games. That led the AHL’s scoring for defensemen.
Harling described Rafferty as a smooth-skater and a good puck-mover. Because he’s older than the average prospect and has plenty of experience, it’s likely the Canucks will give him a good look in their preseason training camp to make the team. Although, after goalies, defensemen seem to take the most time for their development, there’s a good chance head coach Travis Green will give him a chance to start in the team’s bottom four defensemen and see if he can play his way into a bigger role – sort of like Oscar Fantenberg did last season. His numbers suggest he could be of help on the team’s offensive side.
Defensive Prospect #2: Olli Juolevi, Utica Comets (AHL)
The 21-year-old Finnish Olli Juolevi is a 6-foot-3, 198-pound defenseman who was drafted fifth overall in round one of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Canucks. What’s so interesting about Juolevi is that he was chosen ahead of some players who’ve already turned into NHL stars – the Calgary Flames Matthew Tkachuk and the Arizona Coyotes Clayton Keller to name two.
That said, as Harling points out in his post, two things might explain what seems like Juloevi’s slower development: (a) he’s suffered a series of injuries and (b) sometimes it just takes defensemen longer to grow into their position. Still, we’re talking about someone who’s just a kid – at 21-years-old. And, if his AHL season was any indication, there’s a chance this prospect can play in the NHL. In 45 games, he scored two goals and added 23 assists (25 points).
Juolevi had a solid season with the Comets. He hasn’t made his NHL debut, but this isn’t a player the organization should give up on. He probably won’t be a high-volume offensive machine like Quinn Hughes, but he has a chance to become a solid two-way defenseman who might one day skate big minutes in the mold of Alex Edler. He’s the same size.
Defensive Prospect #3: Jett Woo, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
The 19-year-old Chinese-Canadian Jett Woo is a 6-foot, 189-pound defenseman who was drafted in the second round (37th overall) of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft by the Canucks. It’s hard not to like him as a player because he’s a banger. He also has one of the great hockey names, which comes with the following story.
Jett was named after the great martial artist and actor Jet Li. As the story goes, Jett got his first name because his grandfather, who immigrated to Canada and was active in Winnipeg’s Chinese community, was instrumental in helping the young Jet Li move to Canada. Although Li decided to move straight to Hollywood instead of heading to Winnipeg (what a difficult choice you might ask), a strong connection remained between the family and the actor.
Because Jett Woo’s dad Larry, who was a Winnipeg firefighter and played junior hockey in both Victoria and Swift Current, loved Li’s name, he gave it to his son. However, the family added an extra T to the end for good luck.
Woo might still be looking for that luck. He suffered a disappointment when he didn’t make the Canadian World Junior roster. In addition, when he moved from the Moose Jaw Warriors to the Calgary Hitmen, his point production dropped (by 20 points) over the course of the season.
The good news is that, along with teammate Dakota Krebs, Woo served as a full-time alternate captain for the team and played a big role on the ice. Woo isn’t flashy, but he’s solid. Again, he won’t put up the numbers Quinn Hughes will, but he’s a great partner to someone who has that flash and dash.
Defensive Prospect #4: Jack Rathbone, Harvard (NCAA)
The 20-year-old Jack Rathbone is a 5-foot-11, 190-pound defenseman who was drafted in the fourth round (95th overall) of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the Canucks.
As Harling notes, the young Rathbone is quickly moving up the Canucks’ depth chart and making the team’s scouting staff look smart. In his first collegiate season, he scored an impressive 22 points in 33 Ivy League games. Last season showed even better production, scoring 31 points in 28 games. Few defensemen at any level score more than a point-a-game; that’s Paul Coffey and Bobby Orr scoring.
Such scoring will certainly move anyone upwards through the prospect rankings. As a retired university professor, I’m hoping Rathbone stays at Harvard for his full four seasons and earns a degree that helps him far past wherever his hockey career might eventually take him.
By the time he finished four collegiate seasons, he’d surely be ready for either the AHL or a training camp look-see with the Canucks. For a fourth-round pick, he’s trending nicely.
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