By Traviss Ram
With the NHL preseason well underway, now is as good a time as any to look at the three PTOs with a legitimate shot at cracking the Canucks’ NHL squad.
Interestingly, all three are former top-10 draft picks – an indication Benning may be targeting players with pedigree or at least some hint of upside. They also all fit Benning’s purported M.O. of being “meat and potatoes” players, as each was drafted with the expectation they could be gritty, power forward type pieces.
Unfortunately like most PTOs, they range from mostly NHL ‘has-beens’ to ‘never-was’s’. Still, they’ll be given a look during camp and might show enough to help the team.
Drafted 9th overall by Minnesota in 2005, Sheppard quickly earned a spot on the Wild in his draft+2 season. However, he never ended up progressing beyond a depth forward and ended up bouncing between the San Jose Sharks and their AHL affiliate in Worcester. He most recently played in the Swiss NLA, totalling 25 points in 37 games.
His most recent season in the NHL paints a picture of a bottom-six, defense-oriented forward. With fairly decent shot suppression, Sheppard could actually be a solid component of a ‘tough minutes’ 3rd or 4th line, perhaps along Brandon Sutter. However, his dearth of offensive ability would likely limit his overall impact and possibility to move up the lineup.
As Sutter is the front-runner to be the main piece of a potential shutdown line, Sheppard does not really have the offense or skill to keep up on such a line, as Sutter should be expected to play 15-20 minutes a night (and the Canucks probably don’t really want someone like Sheppard playing that much anyways). As for a 4th line spot, Sheppard will also have to compete with a plethora of fringe prospects including Markus Granlund, Brendan Gaunce, and Emerson Etem.
Considering the Canucks’ investment in these players (particularly on the part of Granlund, and him requiring waivers), Sheppard doesn’t have much of a chance of nailing down a spot. And frankly, if I’m the Canucks, I don’t want him to. I’d much rather give some NHL minutes to a younger player with some potential to develop further. Sheppard can definitely provide NHL calibre play in spot duty, but I’d be the Canucks wouldn’t want to see him on the ice on a regular basis.
Known for his abrasive style, Ruutu (brother of Jarkko!) is the most accomplished – and oldest – of the bunch profiled here and was actually a quality player during his prime. Originally drafted 9th overall in 2001, Ruutu once scored 21 goals with Chicago and then cleared 50 points twice with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Unfortunately, after some injury trouble, Ruutu landed in New Jersey and his offensive production basically fell off a cliff.
I was shocked at how well his shot attempt numbers have held up, though. It seems almost unbelievable really. He’s performing at roughly a second line level in that regard. If the Canucks were looking for a gritty player to add to a defensively-oriented line, Ruutu looks like, on the surface, to be a decent option if they can look past the non-existent offensive contributions. Per HockeyAnalysis, he ranked fifth on the Devils in terms of CF%Rel over the last two seasons.
Once again, though, I’m not sure I’d actually want to sign him to a contract. Ruutu’s place in an NHL lineup will only block younger players who need the minutes to continue to develop. And at Ruutu’s age, he’s definitely not going to get any better.
Finally, we’ve reached the most skille(d) of the group (not really, bad joke), Jack Skille. Skille has bounced between the NHL and AHL for a variety of teams since being drafted 7th overall in 2005. Only last season did he finally land a full-time NHL job, as he scored an unremarkable 14 points in 74 games for the Colorado Avalanche.
Similar to Sheppard, Skille also has somewhat unremarkable shot attempt differentials. However, he does appear to have some modicum of scoring ability. Skille has always been a big scorer at the AHL level, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising he has some NHL level qualities. He has an ability to get shots off, coming in 2nd among Avs forwards last season in shots/60, and has translated that volume shooting into 2nd-line, even-strength goal production.
Even more surprisingly, he did so while shooting at a roughly average 7% at even-strength. So despite his low counting totals (likely a product of low ice-time), there are indications Skille could have some value in a bottom-six scoring role.
In such a role, Skille would also be in direct competition with many Canucks prospects like Virtanen, Etem, Rodin and even Grenier. Again, as I’ve stated before, my view is that I’d prefer to give a chance to younger players in hopes of them developing. There will always be replacement players available on the waiver wire should the youngsters not pan out.
No offense to any of these guys, but there are better options out there if Benning wanted to offer someone a PTO such as….
Bonus Wish List: Brad Boyes
Seriously, how does Brad Boyes not have, at least, a PTO? He can still play.
Good possession numbers and he can still produce at a 2nd line rate. He scored 24 points in 60 games last season – a 33 point pace – despite Babcock stapling Boyes to the 4th line most nights. If the Canucks are looking for forward depth insurance in case someone like Anton Rodin doesn’t pan out, I don’t see how Boyes could be such a bad option. I’d much rather see Boyes in camp than any of the three players profiled above.