The biggest question mark for the future of the Canucks is on defence. The Canucks have elite young talent at forward, as well as some decent depth. They also have two great prospects in net, though there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding the position.
It’s defence that seems the most suspect, particularly the right side. On the left side, the Canucks have a blue-chip prospect in Quinn Hughes, the still-promising Olli Juolevi, intriguing potential in Jack Rathbone, as well as wild cards like Nikita Tryamkin, Guillaume Brisebois, and Toni Utunen.
The right side, however, is a little more uncertain. The Canucks added one right-side defenceman in the 2018 draft, selecting Jett Woo in the second round, and he’s the best of their right-side prospects. He has 23 points in 24 games in the WHL so far this season and plays a hard-nosed, physical style that could be a good complement to the puck-movers on the left side.
After Woo, things get questionable. Matt Brassard has some upside, but is a longshot to make the NHL, while Jalen Chatfield hasn’t shown that he’s anymore than an AHL defenceman after a strong pre-season performance in 2017.
Any one of Woo, Brassard, or Chatfield could make the NHL — heck, maybe two of them do — but it’s a crapshoot for all three. Woo may have the best odds, but there’s plenty of uncertainty about even his future.
At the NHL level, the Canucks’ right side depth is Chris Tanev, Erik Gudbranson, Troy Stecher, and Alex Biega. The only one of those four that provides much hope for the future is Stecher and it’s unclear how much the organization believes in him. So the need for right-side depth should be obvious.
Friday’s signing of 20-year-old free agent defenceman Mitch Eliot won’t solve the problem, but it is one more roll of the dice for the prospect pool.
Eliot is a 6’0”, 190 lb defenceman with a right-hand shot currently playing his over-age season with the Sarnia Sting in the OHL. He’s currently fifth among OHL defencemen in scoring with 7 goals and 27 points in 33 games.
Eliot made headlines earlier in the year when he left Michigan State in the NCAA with six games left in the season to play for Sarnia. It was an unexpected move, according to Spartans’ head coach Danton Cole, who didn’t mince words about Eliot’s departure.
“It’s surprising and lets the guys on the team down,” said Cole, “but you get stronger from things like this...Mitch was a nice young man and we wish him well and all that but you know the timing of all of it you can’t say that it’s not disruptive.”
“But we will deal with it,” he added. “We want the guys in the locker room who want to be in the locker room. If they don't want to be here, get the hell out of here. If that's where your head's at — it's hard enough winning when everyone's on the same page. So, you know what, our locker room is better.”
Eliot explained the move at the time as the best move he could make for his hopes of playing professional hockey. Perhaps he felt he wasn’t getting the opportunities with Michigan State to showcase his game to professional scouts; Eliot had just 8 points in 61 games across two NCAA seasons.
He’s certainly getting plenty of opportunity to play with Sarnia, skating on the top pairing and first power play unit. He’s making the most of it — his 18 points at 5-on-5 are tied for third among OHL defencemen and he’s sixth in total shots, with 95 in his 33 games.
Offence hasn’t really been a calling card for his game prior to this season. Even in the USHL before heading to Michigan State, he had limited points, with 5 goals and 13 points in 55 games in his draft year in 2015-16.
That could be a red flag, but he has other positives to his game that could give him an NHL future.
A prospect report from SBN College Hockey in 2016 concluded that while Eliot has no standout ability that sets him apart from other prospects, he’s a well-rounded defensive defenceman, capable of winning puck battles, playing with physicality, then calmly transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone.
If that ability translates to the professional game, he might have a shot.
Realistically, however, Eliot is a long shot to make the NHL, like most over-age free agents in Major Junior. Given the needs in the Canucks’ system, it’s a long shot worth taking.