Even as the Stanley Cup Playoffs march on, an NHL deadline is sneaking up on everyone.
Okay, it’s probably not doing much sneaking. Every NHL general manager is fully aware of this upcoming deadline and is extremely unlikely to be surprised by it. If they are surprised by it, they are very bad at their job and will most likely lose that job very soon.
That deadline is June 1, which is the last day to sign prospects whose rights are expiring.
When an NHL team selects a player in the draft, they hold that player’s rights for only a certain length of time. For players drafted out of one of Canada’s three major junior leagues — the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL — that window is just two years. If a team doesn’t sign a draft pick after two years, that player goes back into the draft.
For 18-year-old players drafted out of a European league that has a transfer agreement with the NHL, teams hold their rights for four years.
In the case of Russia, which does not have a transfer agreement with the NHL, teams hold the rights to draft picks indefinitely. Technically speaking, retired 39-year-old defenceman Kirill Koltsov is still in the Canucks’ system because they own his rights from drafting him back in 2002.
More practically, the Canucks will retain the rights of Russian draft picks Dmitri Zlodeyev, Dmitri Zhukenov, and Artyom Manukyan indefinitely. If Manukyan had been drafted out of a European league with a transfer agreement, he would be subject to the June 1 deadline but, as a Russian, it doesn’t apply.
The deadline does apply to 2020 draft picks out of major junior, but the Canucks didn’t pick anyone from those leagues in 2020. Viktor Persson, selected in the 7th round in 2020, is playing for the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL, but he was drafted out of Sweden, so the Canucks hold his rights for four years. They don’t have to sign him until June 1, 2024.
So, for the Canucks, this year’s June 1 deadline only applies to European draft picks from 2018. The Canucks have two of those prospects — one they selected themselves and one for whom they traded: Toni Utunen and Linus Karlsson.
Karlsson was drafted in the third round of the 2018 draft by the San Jose Sharks and was acquired by the Canucks in a trade for Jonathan Dahlen. He is a no-brainer to get signed after an outstanding rookie season in the SHL and it’s been suggested that the Canucks and Karlsson have already agreed on a deal.
The delay in getting Karlsson signed was likely the IIHF World Championship tournament, which ends on May 29. Karlsson was named to Sweden’s preliminary roster but was left off the roster when the tournament began. NHL players like William Nylander became available and were added to the roster, which is now at the limit, so Karlsson won’t be playing at the tournament.
While Karlsson will almost certainly be signed, the future is much less certain for Utunen, the Canucks’ fifth-round pick from 2018.
Utunen sparked optimism in his potential with his performance in the 2019 World Juniors after he was drafted. He scored the overtime game-winning goal to eliminate Team Canada in the quarterfinals and earned his way onto the top pairing by the end of the tournament, helping to shut down Team USA in the gold-medal game.
In many ways, Utunen seemed like a modern defensive defenceman — smart and mobile, with the ability to make a clean first pass to break the puck out of the defensive zone.
Since then, however, Utunen’s development hasn’t proceeded particularly quickly. At 22, Utunen is playing on the second pairing for the Lahti Pelicans in the Finnish Liiga, averaging 18:13 in ice time per game. He had 11 points in 59 games this past season, though offence has never been the hallmark of his game.
Utunen’s corsi percentage this season was 45.9%, which isn’t ideal. The Pelicans weren’t a particularly good team — Utunen’s 45.9% was second among regular defencemen on the team — but overall, it just doesn’t paint the picture of a player who is ready to play in an even more difficult league.
That said, there are things to like about Utunen’s game. He’s still a heady defender, who uses great positioning to force opponents to the outside and smartly leads with his stick to separate the puck before finishing his checks. While he doesn’t jump up the ice much, he chooses smart moments to do so and has enough skill to make good on chances when they come.
Maybe there’s still some hope for an NHL future for Utunen, with a likely ceiling as a third-pairing, penalty-killing specialist. The Canucks have one week to decide if that future will be in Vancouver.