The Utica Comets saw a big influx of Canucks prospects this season and fans were eager to see how the Canucks’ promising young talent would perform in the AHL. It hasn’t gone according to plan.
Olli Juolevi suffered a season-ending injury after a strong start. Petrus Palmu, after frequent healthy scratches and a reported lack of communication, went back to Finland for the rest of the season. Kole Lind missed time with an elbow injury and hasn’t produced much when he’s been in the lineup. The same is true for Jonah Gadjovich, who has struggled to adapt to the NHL game.
To top it off, Jonathan Dahlen was traded on Monday to the San Jose Sharks for 19-year-old prospect Linus Karlsson.
According to Jim Benning, Dahlen asked for a trade, which is not exactly what you want to hear from a 21-year-old prospect.
“His agent asked me a couple weeks ago if we could move him and if we could trade him,” said Benning in his post-deadline presser. “I said if we can do a lateral move where we feel good about getting a player back that we like, we’ll look to do that, otherwise we weren’t going to do it.”
Evidently, they felt good about Karlsson, who has 4 goals and 17 points in 48 games in the Allsvenskan this season. At the same age, Dahlen had 44 points in 45 Allsvenskan games, albeit alongside Elias Pettersson. The following season, without Pettersson, Dahlen led the Allsvenskan in points-per-game, with 23 goals and 44 points in 44 games.
Dahlen’s transition to the AHL, however, wasn’t as smooth as he or the Canucks would have liked, with several long scoring droughts. That said, his 14 goals and 29 points in 50 games still led all Comets rookies in scoring this season and was good for fifth on the Comets overall in scoring, behind Reid Boucher, Tanner Kero, Zack MacEwen, and Brendan Gaunce.
Prior to the trade, Dahlen was coming off a six-game point streak and had 6 goals and 11 points in his last 14 games.
According to a source that has been scouting Comets games this season, Dahlen has excellent vision and playmaking and was a vital part of the first power play unit. His issues stemmed mainly from a lack of dynamic speed and acceleration. That’s long been the knock on Dahlen, who has wonderful edgework and east-west mobility, but lacks speed and power in his skating stride.
That lack of dynamic speed may have played a role in the Canucks’ decision to acquiesce to Dahlen’s trade request, but it still feels awfully soon to give up on a 21-year-old in his first season in North America.
“I think there’s upside to Jonathan’s game,” said Benning. “I don’t, maybe, necessarily think there was a fit to the style of game our team, or our organization, likes to play, with speed and ski...speed and pressuring pucks and getting in hard, getting to the net and stuff. We worked with him all year on those things and he’s improved those things, we just felt good about getting Karlsson in this deal.”
You may read into Benning cutting himself off in the middle of the word “skill,” if you like. There seemed to be a tacit admission that Dahlen does have plenty of skill, even if he lacks the speed and the “stuff.”
Karlsson, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same skill level, but evidently fits the Canucks’ preferred style of play.. He was described in his draft year as a “cerebral two-way center” by Hockey Prospect, who praised his 200-foot game and how he used his intelligence to impact the game in all three zones.
In his draft year, Karlsson had good offensive numbers too. He had a fantastic SuperElit season, putting up 27 goals and 52 points in 42 games in Sweden’s top junior league, and he slid into CanucksArmy’s analytics-influenced prospect rankings at 81st overall.
“Karlsson is a player our scouts like,” said Benning. “He’s strong on the puck, he’s a good two-way player, he’s a good playmaker. He was a guy even last year at the draft that we looked at drafting.”
Karlsson’s more disappointing Draft+1 season notwithstanding, he still has some upside as a potential bottom-six forward in the NHL. He’s more of a long-term project than Dahlen, who could reasonably expect to make the NHL next season.
It seems like Dahlen felt like he deserved an NHL opportunity this season, however.
“I find young players now,” said Benning, “sometimes they don’t want to pay their dues in development time, they just want to be given an NHL opportunity right off the start. We just felt that there was some development left in his game before he’s ready to be given an NHL opportunity and we felt he wasn’t there yet.”
That may well be the case. Dahlen’s lack of speed and limited point production, particularly at even-strength, suggest he’s not quite ready for the NHL just yet. At the same time, it must be difficult for a young winger to look at the Canucks’ lack of depth on the wing and wonder why he isn’t getting a shot.
It’s worth noting that while Dahlen’s agent requested a trade, Benning made it clear that he didn’t have to make a deal. Dahlen is under contract for another year after this one and will still be a Restricted Free Agent when it expires. Benning had the option of keeping Dahlen and seeing how he developed over the summer heading into next season.
Dahlen’s trade request, combined with Palmu heading back to Finland and other prospects stalling in Utica this season, raises further questions about the Canucks’ prospect development system. This could just be an issue with individual players, but there certainly has been a lot of smoke emanating from Utica.
If Dahlen’s primary issue was a lack of NHL opportunity, it’s unclear if his situation has improved in San Jose. At least in the current season, Dahlen is unlikely to get a sniff at NHL action. The Sharks do have five forwards that will be UFA by the end of the season, so maybe a spot will open up that he can earn next season.