Some players are familiar, others are foreign, some are even foreign foreigners, and how they mesh remains to be seen, but the Canucks will ice a competitive team either way with skilled players throughout any given line-up.
Here are five burning questions for Canucks fans to keep an eye on during the 2011 Young Stars Tournament, running September 11-15 at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
1. Sweatt sweatin’?
Billy Sweatt enters his second Young Stars Tournament a confident man coming off a stellar year with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, in which he scored 19 goals and had 27 assists in 80 games. His name is being tossed around as a wildcard to make Vancouver’s bottom-six out of training camp, but he will face some stiff competition. A strong showing in Penticton could lead to a good main camp for the 22-year-old.
“This is definitely a good warm-up to get back into things,” said Sweatt. “Most of these guys haven’t played in four or five months and it’s just getting back into it so at the start of the tournament it might be a little sloppy, passes not connecting and stuff, but it serves as a good warm-up and then towards the end of the tournament things will really be flying.
“I’m coming in with a good, positive attitude and I’m excited to get going.”
2. Who will be offensive?
Of Vancouver’s top 10 scorers from the 2010 Young Stars Tournament, only four are back this year – Sweatt, Prab Rai, Alex Friesen and Kevin Connauton, who combined for three goals and four assists.
Pierre-Oliver Morin, Matt Fraser and Aaron Volpatti did the heavy lifting with two goals each and seven points a year ago; who will fill the net this year?
Newcomer Darren Archibald can score, as can Steven Anthony, Anton Rodin, Jordan Schroeder, Nicklas Jensen, Billy Sweatt and Kellan Tochkin, they’ve all proven themselves offensively in their respected leagues and now a handful of them have to put their skills on full display for Vancouver to be successful in Penticton.
3. Which free agent will rise above?
Twelve free agents (players that have not been drafted or signed by the Canucks) are taking part in the tournament; positionally they break down as follows: seven forwards, three defencemen and two goalies. The pressure is on these guys to impress if they hope to land an extended stay with the Canucks, pressure that isn’t lost on the players themselves.
Centre Nathan Longpre spent last season with Robert Morris University where he racked up 42 points (14-28-42) in 33 games before playing eight games with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks. Playing pro hockey for the first time was a wake-up call for the 23-year-old, as the difference between the university game and that of the pro level was immense.
“The college game was good, competitive hockey, but this is a whole new level,” said Longpre. “It’s a more controlled game than college, college is more all over the place, go, go, go, go and that was a tough adjustment for me. It’s better skill here, all the guys are strong and fast, so I’ve just got to prove that I’m capable of playing at this level.
“It was a tough adjustment at first, but getting on the ice more and more I got into a groove and I’m more comfortable going into this camp because of it."
Longpre said it best: “I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t see something in me.”
4. Is it Jensen time?
The Young Stars Tournament will be the first time 2011 first round draftee Nicklas Jensen plays for his new club and there’s an air of excitement surrounding the 18-year-old Dane. He too feels the pressure, but it’s different from most others because of the stock the Canucks put in him at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
He doesn’t need to shoot the lights out every minute of every game to live up to the billing; he merely needs to let his hockey savvy instincts guide him and his fluid skating, great hands and binocular vision guide him and the Canucks.
If Jensen scores a goal or two early in the tournament and his confidence soars, a highlight reel coast-to-coast goal, one featuring a little of this, some of that and a whole lot of this, could be in the cards.
5. Can they end with a bang?
Vancouver’s veterans, namely Prab Rai, Jordan Schroeder, Steven Anthony, Yann Sauve and Kevin Connauton, could be back for future prospects camps, but the time is ripe for them to establish themselves at a higher level. Rai and Sauve battled injuries this past season, but Schroeder, Anthony and Connauton had great showings and the S.S. Canucks will sail as far as these five take it this week.
“With the veterans, I’m looking for the gap between where they are and where they need to be to play at the NHL level to be pretty narrow,” said coach Craig MacTavish. “When you’re dealing with a group of 30, there’s varying ages and varying levels of skill and experience and varying degrees of gap between where they are and how far they need to go to play in the NHL, which they all want to accomplish.
“I’m looking for the veteran group to be very close and I think they should be in the position where they look very good at this level. You don’t want to put a lot of pressure on them, they still have to play their game, but they should be guys that at the end of the game you’re feeling like those were the guys that led your team if you had success.”