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The Canucks have targeted the USHL in recent drafts; will they do so again?

Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, Colby Ambrosio, Wyatt Kaiser, and Chase Bradley are all USHL prospects that fit what the Canucks have looked for in the past.
Before Adam Gaudette became a key part of the Canucks' roster, he was an under-the-radar fifth-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. photo: Dan Toulgoet

The USHL has become one of the biggest sources of top prospects at the NHL Entry Draft, growing rapidly over the last decade. At the 2019 draft held in Vancouver, 52 of the 217 players picked were active players that year in the USHL, the top junior league in the US, more than all of the Swedish and Finnish leagues combined. 

That included first overall pick Jack Hughes and his US National Development Team teammates Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras, Matthew Boldy, Spencer Knight, Cam York, and Cole Caufield, all of whom were picked in the top-15 picks.

Over the last five years, the Canucks have been finding intriguing prospects from the USHL outside of the first couple of rounds. It’s become a pattern: they use a later pick on a prospect with middling numbers in the USHL only to see him blossom in the college ranks and become a key part of their system.

They took Adam Gaudette in the fifth round in 2015, the same year they drafted Brock Boeser, also out of the USHL, in the first round. Gaudette had modest numbers in the USHL — just 30 points in 50 games — but erupted in the NCAA for Northeastern University, winning the Hobey Baker Award in his junior year and subsequently becoming a regular in the Canucks’ lineup.

In 2016, the Canucks drafted Will Lockwood in the third round, even though he had just 6 points in 20 USHL games and 33 points in 59 games with the US National Development Team. A strong performance at the World Under-18s helped convince them to take a chance and Lockwood excelled in the NCAA despite injuries, signing a contract with the Canucks this past March.

Jack Rathbone only played four games in his draft year, but we’ll include him here. He played mostly high school hockey heading into the 2017 draft, where the Canucks took him in the fourth round. Since then, he’s scored 53 points in 61 games in two years of college hockey and signed a contract with the Canucks.

Tyler Madden was a third-round pick out of the USHL in 2018, again with modest numbers: just 20 points in 32 games. Like Gaudette, he took off at Northeastern University and was the top centre in the Canucks’ system before they traded him to the Los Angeles Kings as part of the Tyler Toffoli deal.

Finally, in 2019, the Canucks took two players out of the USHL late in the draft: Jack Malone in the sixth round and Aidan Mcdonough in the seventh. Malone has yet to break out in the NCAA, but Mcdonough had a stellar freshman season for — surprise, surprise — Northeastern University, putting up 11 goals and 27 points in 31 games on a line with Madden.

Even Boeser fits this mould to a certain extent. In a redraft of 2015, there’s no way Boeser would go 23rd overall, but he slipped under the radar a bit in the then-underscouted USHL. Consider that Kyle Connor, who led the USHL with 12 more points than Boeser in their draft year, also didn’t get picked until the back half of the first round, 17th overall.

Since then, the USHL has become more of a focus for NHL scouts, but there are still gems to be unearthed, as the Canucks have shown. The question is whether they’ll go digging this year.

The USHL was Judd Brackett’s stomping grounds as a scout before he became the Canucks’ Director of Amateur Scouting and it’s not hard to see his fingerprints on the likes of Lockwood, Madden, and Mcdonough. Brackett was even once a goaltender for Northeastern, deepening the connection to that pipeline for the Canucks.

Brackett was let go in May, however, and the Canucks may have shifted their focus for the upcoming draft. That might not even be a bad idea, as there are more eyes than ever on USHL, which might mean it’s harder to find steals in late rounds.

That said, are there any players from the USHL that fit the Canucks’ pattern?

Gunnarwolfe Fontaine jumps to mind, only partly because of his extremely memorable name. Like Mcdonough, Fontaine had a big season in the USHL in his second year of draft eligibility and is heading to Northeastern. His age — he’s already turned 20 — and smaller size might scare off some NHL teams, but he definitely fits the pattern for the Canucks.

Fontaine is ranked 211th among North American skaters by Central Scouting, but some experts see him as a third or fourth-round pick.

The Canucks haven’t shied away from smaller players from the USHL — Madden was extremely sleight when he was drafted — so Colby Ambrosio could tempt them in the middle rounds of the draft. Ambrosio is just 5’9”, but is a dynamic offensive player with quickness in both his hands and feet.

Elite Prospects suggests that Ambrosio could be a “diamond in the rough.”

Looking for someone that fits the Jack Rathbone mould, Wyatt Kaiser stands out. Like Rathbone, he spent most of his draft year playing high school hockey and scored just 3 points in his 11 USHL games, so he’s under the radar for some scouts. He’s ranked in the 200s for both Future Considerations and McKeen’s Hockey.

Others view Kaiser more highly. He’s 81st on Bob McKenzie’s list for TSN, right where the Canucks will be making their first pick of the draft in the third round. The Canucks have the 82nd overall pick, but since the Coyotes had to forfeit their second-round pick for illegal fitness testing of prospects, that pick will actually be the 81st.

Elite Prospects ranks him all the way up at 51st overall, praising his smooth skating and pinpoint passing. That sounds an awful lot like Rathbone.

Finally, there’s a player that is really under the radar, which definitely fits the pattern for the Canucks: Chase Bradley.

Bradley is ranked 214th among North American skaters by Central Scouting, about as far down the list as you can get: they only list 217 players. No other prominent scouting services rank Bradley at all.

It’s understandable: Bradley had just 19 points in 34 games for the high-scoring Omaha Lancers in the USHL. He was 13th on his team in scoring, behind five different defencemen. Those numbers don’t scream “NHL prospect,” but neither did those of Madden, Gaudette, or Lockwood. 

Where Bradley might be underrated is that he got limited ice time on a deep Lancers team and played on the left wing instead of his natural position at centre. Since the season ended, he’s been traded to the Sioux City Musketeers, where he should get a lot more ice time and opportunity next season. 

After that, Bradley is committed to Northeastern. Hm, sounds familiar.

Bradley’s scouting report from Hockey Prospect notes that he plays a “take-no-prisoners style of game” and “seeks out physical contact,” but is also a “good skater with an effortless stride and a good cruising speed.” They suggest that despite his lack of points, “there’s untapped upside to his game” and praise his shot and puck protection, though they note his playmaking needs to improve.

Do the Canucks’ scouts agree with that assessment? If so, he’s a decent bet to be one of their late-round picks.

Of course, the whole point of finding a hidden gem is that it’s hidden in the first place. If the Canucks do snag an underrated player from the USHL, it’s likely it won’t be one of these four players, but someone else entirely.