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Prospects Primer

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Four days of competition is on the horizon for Vancouver's young guns

Overcast with a good chance of rain. That’s what people in Vancouver have to look forward to early on next week, except a select few.

The forecast calls for high temperatures for 23 Canucks prospects starting September 7; the heat will be intense with every player trying to put their best foot forward and earn a spot at Canucks main camp.

This year’s prospects camp is a mixed bag of new and familiar faces. All-in-all eight players taking part will be accustomed to things having strutted their stuff last season, including defenceman Yann Sauve, forwards Cody Hodgson and Prab Rai and goaltender Morgan Clark.

This will be the third go-around for blueliner Taylor Ellington and forwards Mario Bliznak, Dan Gendur and Pierre-Cedric Labrie.

All eight players will have a leg up on the competition in experience, but they won’t be granted any favours for that. If anything there will be more pressure on Ellington and company. They can’t simply show up and give it their best, the coaching staff knows what they’re capable of and if they’re giving it all they've got.

If Hodgson, Vancouver’s first-round pick from 2008, attends camp (he’s questionable because of a tweaked back), everyone’s peepers will be glued to him.

Since he’s a shoo-in to return to Canucks main camp, the team might opt to sit him out of prospects camp just to be safe. No sense risking further injury before the season even starts.

If that’s the case, Rai, Sauve and Bliznak should get most of the attention.

Rai, a fifth-round selection from last season, scored a career-high 25 goals while matching a personal best 65 points with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds in 2008-09, the 19-year-old’s third year with the team.

He was second in Thunderbird scoring and 40th overall in the league, despite missing 11 games with minor groin and ankle injuries.

When healthy Rai displayed deft offensive skills with near breakaway speed and the ability to create scoring chances in difficult situations. As we saw during the Canucks conditioning camp in July, Rai has added some meat to his bones over the last year and is now better equipped to throw his weight around when battling for pucks.

Bliznak is another centreman that will garner a fair share of attention at camp. The spotlight will shine on him because unlike many other prospects, Bliznak spent last season with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL.

The 22-year-old appeared in 64 regular season contests racking up seven goals and nine assists and his confidence grew from there. During Manitoba’s memorable run to the Calder Cup finals, Bliznak chipped in with three goals and two assists and was noticeably more confident in his abilities. Bliznak was the only Moose to find the back of the net in the 4-1 loss in game 6 of the championship final.

Sauve, the only player of these three to make Canucks main camp last season, has already taken part in a training camp this fall as he skated with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs in late August.

The Sea Dogs would gladly take Sauve, a 19-year-old gentle giant, back for a fourth season, but many feel his game has progressed enough that he’s ready to at least earn a roster spot with the Moose.

Criticized at times for being too defensive minded and needing to improve his puck-handling and scoring touch, Sauve did just that recording 30 points, including a career-high 25 assists, as his point total improved for the third consecutive season.

Although Rai, Sauve and Bliznak, and even Gendur and Ellington, look primed to steal the show at prospects camp, let’s not forget about the rousing Russian Sergei Shirokov.

Simply put, Shirokov = dark horse.

Shirokov, a sixth-round Canucks pick from 2006 who signed with the team this summer, is one of 14 players attending camp that the Canucks have locked down, yet he is the only one who has never attended prospects camp before. This will actually be his first taste of a North American camp all together.

He is a wild card if ever there was one, arriving in Vancouver with no idea what to expect and the raw talent to deliver on expectations.

Shirokov, 23, has great puck-handling skills and a lethally accurate shot, his skating is strong and he has started to amplify his leadership in recent years.

Like any flashy forward, his defensive skills are in question, as is how he will adjust to the playing a different breed of hockey so far from home.

Along with Shirokov, nine other newbies will be trying to turn heads, a list that includes three defencemen, four forwards and two netminders.

Matthew Ford, a right-winger who split last season between three clubs including the Lake Erie Monsters, is the eldest newcomer at 24-year-old, while Spokane Chiefs back-up keeper James Reid, who went 12-5-1 with four shutouts in his rookie season, is the youngest at 18.

Prospects camp begins on Sept. 7 and runs until Sept. 10, during which time the players will take part in four on-ice sessions, one dry-land workout and compete in two games in Alberta.

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