Welcome back to another Vancouver Canucks Prospect Report! After a bit of a hiatus, the report is back and will be a regular column until the prospects hang it up for the 2021-22 season. This edition will focus entirely on North America as it features new prospect Arshdeep Bains‘ continued assault on the Western Hockey League (WHL) leaderboards and Viktor Persson‘s successful transition from Europe to North American ice. We also take a jaunt over to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) to check up on Connor Lockhart with the Erie Otters and Ethan Keppen with the Flint Firebirds.
We finish the report with a trip to the NCAA which includes updates from Jackson Kunz, Jack Malone and Jacob Truscott. That and a whole lot more as we continue to recap and analyze the top performances of prospects throughout the Canucks pipeline.
Arshdeep Bains, Red Deer Rebels
Since signing with the Canucks on March 11, Bains has continued to pile up the points to the tune of six goals and 15 points in only seven games. As of this writing, he has 36 goals and 97 points in 62 games and is currently leading the WHL in scoring, two points ahead of his linemate Ben King and nine points ahead of Saskatoon Blades star Kyle Crnkovic.
The 21-year-old Surrey, BC native is on an eight-game point streak that started on March 5 against the Blades and has never gone more than two games without a point all season. Point streaks are just a natural occurrence for him as he’s had multiple ones that have gone over five games.
Boasting speed, size, creativity, playmaking and a fierce work ethic, Bains is now only three points away from hitting the century mark. At the rate he’s going, he will hit that in the Rebels’ next game against the formidable Edmonton Oil Kings on April 2, who sit nine points ahead of them in the standings with six games to go in the regular season. The Rebels have already clinched a playoff spot and will be looking to him and King to lead them to a WHL Championship for the first time since 2001.
Bains’ dominance this season has also attracted the attention of generational talent Connor Bedard, who is all but guaranteed to be the first overall pick in 2023. In an interview with Don Taylor and Rick Dhaliwal on Wednesday (March 29), he heaped a bunch of praise on him including the nugget that he himself was a “big Canucks fan.”
I am a big Canucks fan, nice to see them sign him. He is so smart and the way he sees the ice, he is one of the best passers in the league. The year he is having is insane.
For a high-end player like Bedard to recognize that about Bains is a pretty big deal. We will just have to wait and see if the supreme playmaking and vision that has netted him 61 assists in 62 games translates to the NHL one day. The Canucks could use a playmaking winger like him to elevate the games of Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and whoever else they draft in the coming years.
Viktor Persson, Kamloops Blazers
Viktor Persson has had a solid season to this point but has gone on a bit of a drought production-wise over the last month or so. His last point came almost a month ago on March 3 against the Spokane Chiefs when he recorded an assist. All told, he is on an eight-game pointless streak in which he only has three shots on goal. On the bright side, he hasn’t been on the ice for a lot of goals against as he has not recorded a minus since Feb. 21. During his dry spell offensively, he is a plus-5.
Playing for the playoff-bound Kamloops Blazers, Persson has three goals and 27 points in 58 games along with a solid plus-12 in the plus/minus column. Despite the lack of production, his first experience on North American ice has gone rather smoothly. It will be interesting to see how he does at the next level in the American Hockey League (AHL) because he has the size, mobility and first pass to potentially make an impact.
Like The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler said on a recent episode of the Western Centric Podcast, “it’s hard to describe Viktor because he doesn’t play a flashy game, but I actually think he could if were playing a little more aggressively. He’s a kid who moves very well, he understands spacing…when to attack and when to make the safe play. He’s excellent on outlets, I’ve seen him stretch the ice this year with [some] leading three-zone passes…”
All things that make a good defenceman in the NHL, especially in the modern era. If Persson can learn to be more aggressive, I actually see him being someone like Troy Stecher or Alex Biega who normally plays on the bottom pairing but can jump into the top four in a pinch. Having said that, even if he just becomes a sixth/seventh defenceman, that’s a pretty solid return for a seventh-round pick.
Connor Lockhart, Erie Otters
Moving east to the OHL, Lockhart has bounced back nicely from sitting out the entire 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Playing for the Erie Otters, the tenacious pivot has a career-high 20 goals and 42 points in 55 games after putting up 9 goals and 27 points in 57 games in 2019-20, which was his rookie year in the league. The only blemish on his stat line is an ugly minus-17, but that could be a product of being on a bad team that currently sits in the basement of the Western Conference with a 24-31-4 record.
Despite the struggles of the team around him, the shifty 5-foot-9 Ottawa product has been one of the Otters’ most improved players this season. Known for his dynamic offensive presence, quick hands and tremendous work ethic on the forecheck, he has played his way into the conversation of being a steal at 178th overall in the 2021 Draft. It will be interesting to follow him in the future as he moves on to the AHL’s Canucks and hopefully to the parent club one day as well.
Ethan Keppen, Flint Firebirds
Joining Lockhart in the OHL this season was Keppen, although, not right away. Starting in the AHL with the Canucks, he played an uneventful 11 games where he recorded four penalty minutes and a minus-4 in the plus/minus column. Being 21 years old and still eligible for the junior leagues, the Canucks elected to send him back for his final year with the Firebirds, a club he had spent his entire career with.
As a veteran in the OHL, you would expect Keppen to produce, and produce he has. Scoring at a point-per-game pace, he has 20 goals and 34 points in 34 games, along with a plus-10. The Firebirds have clinched a playoff spot in the Western Conference and will be pushing to win their first series since their move from Plymouth in 2015-16. Keppen doesn’t project as much of a scorer in the NHL, but he could become a serviceable callup or fourth-line grinder if and when he does make it to the big leagues.
Jackson Kunz, University of North Dakota
Unfortunately for Jackson Kunz, the success he had in the United States Hockey League (USHL) last season did not transfer to his freshman year in the NCAA. He struggled to produce, finishing with only three goals and six assists in 31 games. Unlike the Green Bay Gamblers, he was not playing in the top six, but on the third and fourth lines so that might be a reason for his lack of production. In an interview with Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald, Kunz discussed adapting to a new team and new role.
“Yeah, it’s definitely different. I’m used to being top six when it comes to ice time…kind of my whole career. Coming in this year, it’s a bit of a change, but you adapt, right? You adapt to your role and know what you’ve got to do when you’re on the ice and every shift, so I think it’s been good” (from ‘A chat with UND freshman forward Jackson Kunz’, Grand Forks Herald, 1/27/22).
Kunz also talked about what he has worked on since joining the University of North Dakota. Scouts and pundits during his draft year pointed to his skating as a weakness that could limit his potential in the NHL. It’s good that he’s identified it and feels like he’s improved in that area as well.
“Definitely my skating and my pace of play has gotten better. That’s kind of my focus throughout the past however many years. That’s the main thing – just thinking faster. Everything is faster.”
All in all, Kunz has the tools to become a good bottom-six player in the NHL. He’s got the size (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) and hands to be an effective net-front presence on the power play and a willingness to throw his weight around as well. If he continues to improve his skating, he might become a guy like Patric Hornqvist – who is not fleet of foot by any means but has become an eight-time 20-goal scorer in the NHL. Most of his goals are not the product of skating, but good hands and positioning in front of the net.
Jacob Truscott, University of Michigan
Jacob Truscott is off to the Frozen Four. After surviving a four-goal onslaught from Quinnipiac in the third period of the Midwest Regional Final on Sunday (March 27), the Michigan Wolverines are now only two wins away from a National Championship. With a stacked roster of first-round talent including Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson, Brendan Brisson, Luke Hughes and Mackie Samoskevich, they were expected to contend for it, and now, here they are.
Truscott is not part of that exclusive club of first-rounders, but he has been a key piece of his club nonetheless. The Canucks’ fifth-round selection from 2020 has been paired with superstar defenceman Luke Hughes for most of the season and has not looked out of place (from ‘Luke Hughes continues to impress during freshman season’, The Michigan Daily, 2/2/22). In fact, he’s been the Chris Tanev/Luke Schenn to the younger Hughes, providing a stay-at-home defensive presence for the more free-wheeling defender. Sporting a career-high two goals and 17 points in 39 games along with a solid plus-29 in the plus/minus column, he has been an effective ying to his yang all season long.
The Wolverines and Truscott’s next mission is to beat the Denver Pioneers on April 7, which features talent like Sean Behrens, Jack Devine, Carter Mazur, Shai Buium and uber-sophomore Carter Savoie, who by the way, only has 22 goals and 44 points in 37 games.
Jack Malone, Cornell University
After returning to the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms for the 2020-21 campaign due to the Ivy League cancelling all winter sports because of the pandemic, Jack Malone was able to continue his studies at the prestigious Cornell University this season. Suiting up for his sophomore year, he had a solid season finishing with eight goals and 20 points in 32 games.
Like Kunz, Malone is a project that will likely be a good callup option or bottom-six forward at his ceiling. If he does succeed at the next level, it will be because of his hands and shot. If you want evidence of the former, just look at this individual effort from a game back in November.
It will be interesting to see if the new Canucks brass think Kunz, Malone and Truscott are worthy of contracts as they all remain unsigned at this point. With the focus on Aidan McDonough in recent days, these guys seem to have been forgotten. Especially Malone, who was selected during the same draft as him. With his solid sophomore season behind him, that’s definitely a story to watch in the coming weeks and months.
That does it for another edition of the Canucks prospects report. Stay tuned next week, as we will turn our attention overseas and take a look at how Lucas Forsell, Jonathan Myrenberg, Arvid Costmar and Dmitri Zlodeyev’s seasons have gone so far. The 2021-22 campaign has ended or is nearing an end for many of their teams, so it should be interesting to see how they have all done to this point.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.