The Canucks’ 2019 prospect development camp kicks off with open practices on Tuesday at UBC. The bulk of the camp roster is made up of Canucks draft picks and signings, but eight are undrafted and unsigned invitees.
Often, a few invitees will come from the Canucks’ backyard: players that are from British Columbia and would be training near Vancouver for the summer.
That is the case for two of the older invitees to camp: 22 year olds Darien Craighead and Liam Finlay. Craighead is from Surrey, while Finlay is from Kelowna, and both have played in the NCAA for the last three years after starring in the BCHL.
The two local forwards deserve a closer look. Let’s start with Craighead, whose Canucks connection is a little more than just growing up a stone’s throw from Vancouver.
Darien Craighead – Right Wing
6’1″ – 190 lbs – Mar 7, 1997 (22)
Northern Michigan University, NCAA (36-10-10-20)
Darien’s dad, John Craighead, had a cup of coffee in the NHL, playing five games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1996-97, dropping the gloves a couple times along the way, notably with the Canucks’ Donald Brashear.
After toiling in German hockey for four years, Craighead attempted a return to the NHL, and signed a contract with the Canucks after a memorable preseason performance, in which he fought four times (enjoy a young Don Taylor and Dan Murphy in that video). Unfortunately, he never got called up to the Canucks and played out the season with the Manitoba Moose alongside the likes of Brandon Reid, Jason King, and Nolan Baumgartner.
I caught up with John rinkside, and he joked that it was a bit of a reunion, as he’d played with a few of the coaches running the prospects through drills, including Baumgartner. You could tell how proud he was to see his son out on the ice in Canucks colours.
Darien Craighead has more finesse than his pugilistic father, who turned to coaching after his playing days and is currently co-owner and head coach of the Surrey Knights. That’s not to say the younger Craighead won’t drop the gloves if the situation calls for it, but his hands have a little more softness to them.
“He said it’s a bit tougher to take the path that he took to the NHL,” said Craighead with a smile after the first on-ice sessions at Canucks development camp. “They’re not taking as many guys like that any more.”
“I definitely have a lot more skill, but there’s still some parts in his game that I like to implement into my game as well,” he added. “I like to look at a lot of players. I’m a bit of a hockey nerd in the way that I just look at players and try to take things from their game, just little things, and put it into my game.”
Craighead was an invitee last year at the New York Islanders prospect development camp and he pointed to two current Islanders that he tries to emulate, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, that play the same kind of, “heavy, down-low game.”
At that first camp with the Islanders, Craighead was a little starstruck, but is taking a more business-like approach with this opportunity. He’s heading into his final year at Northern Michigan University, which will be a big chance to get the attention of pro scouts and hopefully earn the NHL shot he didn’t get in his draft year.
Craighead was reasonably productive in his first year of draft eligibility in 2014-15, putting up 44 points in 42 games, mostly with the Cowichan Valley Capitals. That was good for third in the BCHL in points-per-game among first-year draft-eligible skaters, but not good enough to get the attention of NHL scouts.
The following season, Craighead showed some progression, with 30 goals and 72 points in 52 games, followed by 20 points in 20 playoff games with the Chilliwack Chiefs, coming just short of winning the BCHL championship. His 72 points were 12th in the BCHL in the regular season and he was sixth in playoff scoring.
Over the past three years, Craighead has been a solid top-six forward with Northern Michigan University. He hit the ground running in his freshman year, scoring 25 points in 39 games, then followed that up with 17 goals and 33 points in 42 games as a sophomore. Unfortunately, he took a step back in his junior year, with just 10 goals and 20 points in 36 games.
Still, he has quick hands and good vision, to go with an accurate slap shot and wrist shot. Putting up 78 points across 117 games is NCAA games is nothing to scoff at.
Next year, Craighead will have to be a leader for the Wildcats, who have graduated their three top-scoring forwards. That will both open up bigger opportunities for Craighead and also heap more responsibility on his shoulders.
“There are some pretty good players that are leaving and that just gives opportunity to the guys that weren’t in those spots,” said Craighead. “[The NHL] is obviously the goal… Right now, it’s the summertime, so I’ve got to put in the work and just kind of put that aside.”
If Craighead thrives with that responsibility in his senior year, he could have some NHL suitors. He has the hockey sense, hands, and finish to go with the grittier, more physical side of his game, and is worth watching in the coming year.