The Canucks have placed a focus on size and strength at the draft and on the trade front in recent years. The shift in philosophy is perhaps no better reflected than in the team’s three best young forwards – Zack Kassian, Nicklas Jensen, and Brendan Gaunce. Coincidentally (or maybe not), the trio all play different positions as well.
Read on past the jump to find out whether Vancouver could be icing their own version of the famous Legion of Doom line in a few years.
Kassian is just getting his feet wet at the NHL level. Jensen has yet to play for the Canucks, and Gaunce is probably a few years away from donning Vancouver colours. However, the potential of having them jump over the boards together is intriguing to say the least.
The 21-year-old Kassian is already 6-3 and 225 pounds. The 19-year-old Jensen is 6-3 and over 200 pounds. Gaunce turned 18 only a few months ago, and he is already close to 6-3 and over 210 pounds. Could the Canucks have their own version of the Legion of Doom on the way?
The Legion of Doom line dominated with the Philadelphia Flyers in the mid 1990s. The trio of Eric Lindros centering John LeClair and Mikael Renberg recorded 666 points in 547 regular season games together. Lindros was a power forward in every sense of the world, using his size to intimidate and create offense. LeClair wasn’t as intimidating as Lindros (few were), but he used his 6-3, 230 pound frame to score 406 career goals in the NHL. The 6-2, 220 pound Renberg lacked the star power of his linemates, but he held his own. As a rookie in 1993-94, Renberg scored a Flyers franchise rookie record 38 goals and 82 points. It took over 10 years for another European rookie to top 80 points (Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06).
“Whatever they were called, the LeClair-Lindros-Renberg combination appeared practically unstoppable. All three players were unselfish with the puck and had soft hands to go along with their strength down low. Each player seemed to know where the other two were at all times. Once they caught the opponent in their deadly forechecking and cycling game, there was little the defense could do but take a penalty or ice the puck. Lindros presented a deadly combination of freight-train force and subtle finesse, with a sizeable mean streak. LeClair was almost impossible to take off the puck or move from in front of the net and also possessed a rocket of a slap shot. Renberg’s speed on the off-wing and willingness to cover up high when the defense pinched added yet another dimension.”
To get a better idea of how the three prospects project, I consulted OHL prospect expert Brock Otten. Brock follows the OHL very closely, which made him the perfect guy to consult. Kassian, Jensen, and Gaunce all played, or are currently playing in the OHL.
Most Canucks fans are well aware of Kassian. In case you aren’t, I profiled his career to date last month – a column you can read here. Let’s start with Nicklas Jensen.
Who does he compare to in terms of playing style?
I’m not really a comparison guy. If you’ve got a gun to my head, I’d probably go with a guy like Drew Stafford in Buffalo, or even similar in nature to the way Jeff Carter plays when he’s on the wing. Jensen’s a big guy, and very good at protecting the puck (very strong lower body), but he’s not an overly physical player and he isn’t a beast along the boards. He is a guy who uses his size to his advantage offensively/to generate offense, but not really in any other area.
What is his upside? Top line? Second line?
I think it depends on the maturation of the rest of his game. He’s a goal scorer, but he’ll need to increase his intensity away from the puck, and become a more well rounded offensive player (to help his linemates) to be a top line guy (at least consistently). I could see him becoming a consistent 30-goal guy.
The Canucks are supportive of Jensen’s choice to go to the SEL next year if he doesn’t make the team – the coaching staff loves him but there probably isn’t room for him on the club right now. Do you think this is a good move for his career?
Apparently things weren’t going well for him in Oshawa last year, and it showed. I think his game (at least in the OHL) actually slightly regressed last year. I wasn’t impressed with him. It was a tough situation in Oshawa with them not meeting the expectations placed upon them to start the season. Going to the SEL would be huge for his development at this point (he can’t go to the AHL) because I think he needs to play against men. He needs to improve his effort level and fight for every inch of ice. I think it’ll help him learn to use his linemates better too.
If he isn’t NHL ready now, how far away is he?
I think pretty soon. He’s already a pretty strong guy, and if his playoff performance in the AHL is any indication, it looks like he’ll have no problems scoring goals against men. It’s the other stuff that needs improvement before he steps foot in the NHL. If his game is able to really mature, he seriously challenges for a top-six spot in 2013-2014.
To me, he seems like a guy with very projectable skills for the NHL – puck protection, vision, and hockey IQ. Would you agree?
He’s got everything you’d look for in a goal scoring winger at the NHL level. I suppose here I’ll elaborate a bit more on the shortcomings that I’ve sort of been dancing around. Jensen’s play away from the puck is very inconsistent. Occasionally, he engages in the corners, and is active on the forecheck, but for a guy his size and with his strength, he should be much more open to getting his nose dirty. At times, he’s too complacent for my liking and seems completely satisfied to let his linemates do the dirty work for him (especially this season). I also think that he gets too drive happy. Once he gets the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, he’s thinking one of two things. Drive to the net, or shoot. At times this led to turnovers this year. The goal scoring ability could probably translate to the NHL right now. The other stuff needs work.
Of the three, Jensen sounds the most like Renberg based on Brock’s answers (and not just because they are both European). Big and powerful skater with a diverse offensive skill set.
On to Gaunce.
From what I have seen of Gaunce, he reminds me a lot of Jordan Staal in the OHL. You can see the skills, but the skating and first step is holding him back. Jordan’s development really took off after his skating improved – both guys are really big and rangy and so smart with and without the puck. Do you agree with the comparison? Why or why not?
Skating wise, they’re similar. Everything else, I don’t see it.. Staal (despite what the OHL numbers would suggest), is more of a goal-scoring center. In the OHL, he was a real solid crease crasher and got a lot of his goals in close. In the NHL, his shot has developed a lot, but he still remains primarily a goal scoring center. Gaunce, on the other hand, is more of a big playmaking center. He’s got among the best vision and playmaking ability in the OHL. His play away from the puck is outstanding too and it really helps to create time and space for his linemates. He’s also way more physical than Jordan ever was. Brendan is someone who thrives on the physical aspects of the game. He throws big hits and is very active in the corners and on the forecheck. While I don’t expect him to put up the gaudy offensive numbers that he did in the OHL, or NHL, Gaunce is much more of a Keith Primeau type of center. In regards to Gaunce’s skating, his brother Cameron (Avs prospect) had the same problem when he was in the OHL. But he really improved it over the course of his OHL career. I’d expect the same out of Brendan. Once his skating improves, it’ll help his game in transition and make him a much more effective puck carrier.
How far off from NHL action is he?
I don’t think he’s the type of guy you want to rush, even if he’s already a strong two-way presence. It worked for the Avs with Ryan O’Reilly, but he’s the anomaly. Most of the time, when NHL teams end up rushing guys like Gaunce, it stunts their offensive potential. I’d like to see him in the OHL for a while to let his offensive game grow, let his skating improve, and let him continue to develop his leadership qualities. He could probably play in the NHL next year and not hurt the Canucks. But it wouldn’t be a smart move. I think he’s at least two years away.
Could he pull a Ryan O’Reilly and make an impact in a defensive role as a rookie? The Canucks have their top two centers around for a while.
He could pull an O’Reilly, but I don’t think it’d be a smart move for the reasons I listed above.
What does he need to work on, asides from skating and first step acceleration?>
The two biggest things would be puck carrying and his shot release. He’s got a big, powerful shot, but he needs some space to get rid of it. He needs to work on a quicker release, and using his size to give him separation and time. And the puck carrying, well that’ll need to improve to make him a more effective offensive player off the rush.
Were you surprised he dropped to 26, or was it more a case of teams having guys ranked higher?
Not surprised at all. In fact, I was hearing rumblings he could fall to the second round. When you factor in the fact that a lot of scouting agencies questioned his upside… and his skating issues, it makes sense for teams to go for guys they feel have greater potential. Do I agree with it? Not really, but I see the reasoning behind it.
Could you see the three eventually forming a line together with the Canucks?
Yeah, I could see that happening. Gaunce and Kassian are solid playmakers, while Jensen is the finisher. The only thing I’d worry about is the speed of the line. None of the guys on it are really burners. They’d really have to dominate down low to find success offensively.
Kassian is likely to begin the season with the Canucks in some capacity. Jensen has a shot at making the roster too, but it would take a stellar training camp on his part to make the big club. Gaunce likely needs a few more years in the AHL. Mike Gillis has lived up to his word on trying to get younger, bigger, and stronger. Now we wait. Vancouver’s three best forward prospects are all big and powerful with different strengths offensively. The idea of the three of them forming a line down the road is an interesting (and not completely unrealistic) one.