In the space of one week, the Canucks have signed three defencemen. On Sunday, March 10th, the Canucks signed their top prospect, Quinn Hughes. On Tuesday, they nabbed Josh Teves, a free agent out of the NCAA.
They wrapped up the week by inking their second-round pick in 2018, Jett Woo, to a three-year entry-level contract. Woo could be key for the Canucks for one simple reason beyond his talent and potential: he’s a right-hand shot.
The Canucks have both high-end talent and solid depth on the left side of their defence. Hughes is a blue-chip prospect with game-breaking potential. Their second-best defensive prospect, Olli Juolevi, also plays on the left side and has top-four upside.
Beyond those top prospects, the Canucks have some intriguing depth. Ashton Sautner has developed into a legitimate NHL option, the newly-signed Teves plays an aggressive, puck-moving style that could be a good fit in the modern NHL, and Guillaume Brisebois got his first taste of NHL action this season. Among the unsigned defencemen on the left side, the Canucks have Nikita Tryamkin, who could return from Russia to give the NHL another shot, Jack Rathbone, a smooth-skating defenceman in the midst of an excellent freshman season at Harvard, and Toni Utunen, who is playing against men in the Finnish Liiga at 19.
Combined with the players the Canucks already have at the NHL level, they look set on the left side. Where things get a little dicey is on the right.
The concerns start at the NHL level. Chris Tanev’s health has to be a major concern. He’s currently out for the rest of the season after blocking a shot by Kyle Palmieri against the New Jersey Devils. The injuries and age seem to have caught up to Tanev, who was once one of the premiere defensive defencemen in the NHL, but has struggled over the past couple seasons.
Troy Stecher is a safe bet as part of the Canucks future thanks to his youth and talent, but next on the depth chart are Alex Biega and Luke Schenn. Biega is a pretty ideal seventh defenceman, capable of stepping in when needed and providing a jolt of energy, but is less compelling as an everyday option. Meanwhile, Schenn has proven to be competent on a third pairing, but there’s a reason he’s been on five teams in the last three years.
In terms of prospects, it’s thin pickings on the right side.
Jalen Chatfield is the lone Canucks defenceman prospect in Utica with a right-hand shot, but he has limited potential with no offensive upside. Perhaps he could develop into a third-pairing defensive defenceman, but the Canucks need a little more.
The Canucks signed Mitch Eliot as an undrafted free agent out of the OHL to add some right-side depth. The 20 year old is having a breakout season with 55 points in 66 games, but it’s wise to be wary of players that breakout in major junior in their over-age seasons. Still, there’s nothing wrong with taking a chance on Eliot bucking the odds.
That’s it for signed prospects. The only unsigned one is Matt Brassard, who has outscored Eliot this season with 56 points in 65 games, but it’s beginning to look like he won’t be offered a contract. If he doesn’t sign by June 1st, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent.
That brings us to Jett Woo.
It should be very clear why Woo is so important for the Canucks: their NHL depth on the right side is shaky at best and their prospect depth is limited and filled with “mights” and “maybes.” Woo, on the other hand, seems like a much safer bet to have an NHL future.
When the Canucks drafted him, Woo was praised for the defensive side of his game. He’s a hard-nosed, gritty defender with a penchant for big hits, but also makes great defensive reads, skates well, and effectively moves the puck up ice.
What he’s added since getting drafted, however, is a lot of offensive upside. After 25 points in 44 games in his draft year, Woo has 12 goals and 65 points in 62 games this season, good for 5th among WHL defencemen. A lot of that production has come on the power play, where he has been an effective puck distributor and good at getting his wrist shot through traffic.
This breakout is particularly impressive because Woo is still just 18 years old and won’t turn 19 until late July. This kind of production at a young age, combined with his defensive game and physicality, provides a lot of hope for his potential.
Woo’s young age, however, also means that it could be a while before he makes his Canucks debut. Since Woo will just be 19 next season, he won’t be eligible to play in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Canucks out of training camp. That likely means another full season for Woo in the WHL.
That’s not the worst thing. There’s no need to rush Woo and he’ll have the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the 2020 World Juniors after he didn’t get a camp invite this past year.