The Vancouver Canucks added two right-shot defencemen this past season via trade, addressing one of their major weaknesses at the NHL level. Adding Ethan Bear and Filip Hronek is a vast improvement on the Canucks’ right side on defence.
The Canucks’ prospect pool, however, is very questionable on the right side. Filip Johansson, signed as a free agent after the Minnesota Wild chose not to sign their 2018 first-round pick, still has potential to play in the NHL but things fall off a cliff after that.
Jett Woo is swiftly approaching not-a-prospect status, as his development has not gone as planned. Viktor Persson went to Finland after a season with the Kamloops Blazers and has been very underwhelming. Jonathan Myrenberg was traded to the Boston Bruins as part of the deal for Jack Studnicka. Brady Keeper and Noah Juulsen are, at this point, not prospects, just depth.
That’s it for prospects on the right side: just one with a realistic shot at an NHL future and two extreme long shots.
Fortunately, the Canucks have a chance to bolster the right side of their defence without spending a single draft pick or trading away any assets. They can look to find a right-side defenceman the same way they acquired them in the recent past: sign an undrafted free agent like Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher.
With the NCAA season coming to a close and teams quickly getting knocked out of the postseason, college free agents will start signing with teams soon. There are also undrafted free agents coming out of major junior hockey in Canada, as well as European free agents.
Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin has already shown that he’s eager to add to the team’s depth with undrafted free agents, signing Andrei Kuzmenko, Nils Åman, and Arshdeep Bains last offseason. All three of those signings were forwards, however, and the Canucks need to add defencemen.
Let’s specifically look at the right-side defencemen that the Canucks could target.
NCAA free agents
Sam Malinski, Cornell University
Already 24 years old, Sam Malinski does not have a lot of runway left as a prospect. It’s a good thing then that he’s already prepared to take flight as an NHL defenceman.
“I feel that he’s polished and has the composure of an NHL player,” said his high school coach A.J. Bucchino. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he had an opportunity in the NHL…He’s the perfect player that a coach would want to coach.”
Elite Prospects calls the 5’11” Malinski the most dynamic defenceman in the college free agent class, eagerly activating from the point or jumping up in the rush to create odd-man situations. He has a well-rounded offensive skill set, putting up 25 points in 29 games, but doesn’t give up anything defensively.
“He eliminates space by angling attackers wide, then follows stick with shoulder to secure possession,” reads the Elite Prospects scouting report. “Along the boards, he mirrors footwork before closing space and smothering the attacker. And he's always looking for the big hit at either blue line.”
According to CanucksArmy’s Chris Faber, the Canucks are very interested in Malinski and might even be the favourites to sign him.
The downside with Malinski is that he is already 24, so has limited room to make significant improvements to his game. There are some question marks around his skating and whether that will limit his ability to activate at the NHL level. Still, Malinski is one of the top free agents in the NCAA and would be a great signing for the Canucks.
Jake Livingstone, Minnesota State University (Mankato)
The biggest name in college free agency belongs to a big defenceman: Jake Livingstone. The 6’3” Livingstone is from Creston, B.C. and played his junior hockey with the Langley Rivermen in the BCHL, so there’s a hometown connection there.
The 23-year-old defenceman put up 30 points in 36 games this season with Mankato, landing him in the top-ten in scoring among defencemen in the NCAA. He’s a creative offensive player who excels at the type of passing that succeeds in the NHL: quick one-touch passes, give-and-go plays, and passes through layers come naturally to Livingstone and make it easy to see him as a potential NHL player.
Livingstone might only end up as a bottom-pairing defenceman at the NHL level but adding that kind of player for nothing but the cost of an entry-level contract is a no-brainer. The Canucks have shown interest in Livingstone, though they’ll be competing with a lot of other teams. Perhaps the B.C. connection will give them an edge.
Zach Metsa, Quinnipiac University
The 5’9” Zach Metsa may lack NHL size but other elements of his game are NHL-caliber.
The 24-year-old defenceman put up 27 points in 31 games as the captain of Quinnipiac. He’s effective on the breakout, using layers of deception to retrieve the puck, create space, and move the puck up ice to his forwards, while always looking to jump up in the rush to create odd-man situations.
Metsa’s skating is a plus, using it both on the breakout and to quickly close gaps defensively. While small, Metsa doesn’t give up anything in puck battles, with tremendous strength, a low centre of gravity, and the knowledge to leverage those attributes to come out with the puck more often than not.
Offensively, however, Metsa lacks creativity and often settles for a point shot instead of looking to move the puck to forwards in better positions to create scoring chances. That lack of creative decision-making could limit his ability to either make the NHL or make a major impact once he’s there. Also, since he’s already 24, the growth potential of his game is limited.
Colton Huard, University of New Hampshire
At 6’4”, Colton Huard has tempting size for NHL teams and he matches that size with fluid skating that he uses to activate into space off the rush or off the point in the offensive zone.
“From the point, he looks for give-and-goes and quick hand-offs to get into the slot,” reads an Elite Prospects scouting report. “Even when he’s not bringing the puck with him, his non-stop activation creates confusion.”
There’s a lot of intelligence to Huard's game with the decisions he makes but his game is still very raw.
“Huard’s pretty far out for a player at this age,” says Elite Prospects Mitchell Brown in a scouting report. “The ideas are exciting but the details are lacking.”
At 22, Huard still has some room to improve, so if a team sees the potential in his game and can work with him to develop it, they could wind up with a very solid NHL defenceman in a couple of years.
CHL free agents
Jeremie Biakabutuka, Charlottetown Islanders
There is often less hype about undrafted free agents out of the CHL than the NCAA. The college free agents are typically older and more NHL-ready, plus there’s more of a chance of a late bloomer on the path to the NCAA in Junior A to go undrafted than a player in the more heavily-scouted major junior hockey.
Still, there are some gems in the CHL and Jeremie Biakabutuka may be one of them.
In his draft year, Biakabutuka was considered too raw to get selected despite his 6’4” stature, good mobility, and a cannon from the point. He’s still a little raw at 21 but there’s an intriguing toolbox with Biakabutuka that should get him a contract with an NHL team, particularly a team that covets his combination of size, speed, and timing.
“His best quality is his physicality,” says his Elite Prospects scouting report. “Biakabutuka seems to forget how strong and fast he is at his size, at times. Fast and aggressive, he has crushed many newcomers in the QMJHL this season, leaving them flat on the ice as he takes their puck and carries it up ice.”
There are some good offensive instincts with Biakabutuka as well, as he can jump up in the rush with his speed and bully his way into the slot with his size. While his puckhandling is awkward at times — not unusual for a 6’4” player — he definitely has some skill and can catch opponents off-guard with his long, rangy dekes to avoid pokechecks.
With 16 goals and 39 points in 47 games, Biakabutuka is currently tied for second in goals among QMJHL defencemen and 15th in points, while playing fewer games than all of his peers ahead of him in scoring. While expectations should be kept in check as he’s in his over-age year, that’s still solid production for a Charlottetown Islanders team that has sometimes struggled to score.
The big question for Biakabutuka is his hockey sense in the defensive zone and that’s where an NHL team will need to believe that they can work with him to develop him into an NHL defenceman. He’s got the reach and the size to play a physical defensive game, but his reads are lacking and he often depends too much on his reach instead of keeping his feet moving to close gaps.
Biakabutuka is a project but an intriguing one.
Landon Kosior, Prince Albert Raiders
In some ways, Landon Kosior is the antithesis of Biakabutuka. Kosior is below 6 feet at 5’11”, he lacks explosive speed in his skating, he has limited puckhandling ability, and his shot could use some work.
Where Kosior shines, however, is in his hockey sense and his details.
“There might not be a smarter player in this year’s CHL free agent crop than Landon Kosior,” reads his Elite Prospects scouting report. “He is a modern defenceman through and through, with many of his plays operating as textbook examples for players learning the position.”
“In transition, he’s patient and creative, always looking to beat a forechecker or two with a pass,” says Elite Prospects. “Defensively, he shows many projectable skills. He closes space early, guides his opponent to the perimeter, then follows his stick with his shoulder to kill the play.”
The question for an NHL team is whether they believe they can work with Kosior on his tools so that he can intelligently put them to work on the ice. Kosior is as much of a project as Biakabutuka, just in a completely different way.
European free agents
Victor Sjöholm, HV71
It’s slim pickings all around when it comes to European free agents this year. There’s no one akin to Andrei Kuzmenko, a player who was certain to immediately play in the NHL. There are a handful of interesting prospects that could earn NHL contracts but no sure things.
That’s particularly true when it comes to right-shot defencemen. Maybe Timofei Kovgorenya, a 20-year-old Belarussian out of the KHL but played in the WHL last season, will attract some interest. Jakob Stenqvist and Victor Berglund were actually drafted but are now free agents but there’s a reason they’re not currently signed with the teams that drafted them.
One prospect that might hold some promise is 19-year-old Victor Sjöholm, who has twice gone undrafted largely because of 5’9” stature.
Sjöholm managed to stick in the SHL all season, proving that he could play with and against men despite his size. He put up 10 points in 36 games, good for second among junior-aged defencemen behind Montreal Canadiens prospect Adam Engström.
He even wore an “A” for Team Sweden at the 2022 World Junior Championship, though he only managed one point in seven games.
It’s still hard to shake the stigma of being a short defenceman and it doesn’t help that Sjöholm lacks many of the characteristics that lead to a shorter defenceman panning out at the NHL level. His skating is average, his ability to break the puck out of the zone needs work, and he’s not as slippery and manipulative as he needs to be to avoid larger opponents.
Instead, Sjöholm is far more physical than you’d expect from a smaller defenceman, closing gaps quickly and with force to deliver surprising body checks. He’s as solid as they come, absorbing checks along the boards rather than avoiding them, and regularly outbattling bigger players.
Sjöholm is known for his work ethic and that alone might attract NHL attention, as teams might believe that he can address his shortcomings with the right coaching. At the very least, he’s shown that he can be an SHL regular at 19, which should not be discounted.