It’s the latest edition of the prospects tracker, where we tally up the efforts of the Vancouver Canucks’ highest profile prospects:
College freshman aren’t supposed to be this mature.
They’re also not expected to excel playing for an NCAA powerhouse in their first season of North American hockey.
But Canucks 2023 first-rounder Tom Willander isn’t your average first-year student at Boston University.
While others revel in breaking away from their parents’ grasp, Willander is busy executing breakout passes.
While others take shots at the latest frat party, Willander is wristing in game-winners against a Top-10 rival.
And while others shake like a leaf presenting to sleepy classrooms, the 18-year-old Swede is holding court in post-game scrums, speaking eloquently in a foreign language.
“I usually don’t think too much about being a freshman,” Willander said with a grin, after scoring the winner as the No. 8 Terriers beat No. 9 Maine 3-2 on Friday at an electric Agganis Arena in Boston. “I’ve come in here, been greeted well and feel like I’m in the team like everybody else.
“I just feel we’re playing a really smooth game. I feel like everyone’s chipping in when we’re on the man-advantage there and I just think everyone’s bringing what they’re supposed to to the table.”
What Willander is bringing to the BU blue-line is exactly what the Canucks envisioned when selecting the right-shot defender with the 11th overall pick this past summer.
An excellent skater to begin with, the 6-foot-1, 179-pound blueliner is becoming a breakout machine, something head coach and former NHLer Jay Pandolfo has been focusing on in practice.
“We have been working a lot on our breakouts. Just having good breakouts is what gets us in the offensive zone and creates opportunities,” said Willander. “It’s creating offence from defence — I think we had definitely a bunch of far plays that ended up being dangerous on the other end. Hope to keep that going.”
After registering one assist in his first seven games, Willander has three in his last three games, including a gorgeous long-bomb pass across the neutral zone and onto the tape of streaking forward Scott Lachance for his first NCAA goal to put the Terriers up 3-1 in Saturday’s 5-4 win to complete the weekend sweep over the Black Bears.
Willander, who had good chemistry with fellow Canucks prospect Aidan Celebrini (Rd. 6, 2023) on the third defensive pairing to begin the season, has been elevated to the second-pair to play with Carolina Hurricanes 2019 4th-rounder Cade Webber, a 22-year-old senior whose defensive acumen allows Willander to wheel and deal more often.
“Really solid. I always know what to expect from him and from that predictability I find it’s easier to do what I do best, so I think it’s nice.”
While Willander has shown to be adept at handling the defensive rigours of NCAA hockey so far — with his positioning and stick-checking sticking out so far — an underrated part of Willander’s game is his willingness to put his body on the line on any given night.
“Blocking shots, I think that’s one of the most important components,” said Willander. “I just feel like being able to sacrifice your body is something that just improves the energy of the team and also something that keeps the puck out of the net.”
Willander had two blocked shots on Friday and another one on Saturday.
As a team, Pandolfo said the Terriers — who were ranked No. 1 in the country before stumbling out of the gate and finding their game the last few weeks — have been better defensively because everyone is buying in. Pandolfo also said simplifying the power play — which scored all three goals in Friday’s 3-2 win — has been a key to their recent success.
Willander, who is quarterbacking the second unit, scored the third goal on Friday on a well-placed wrist-shot from the point.
“I think we’re just more direct on the power play. We’ve kind of sent that message at the start of the year and tonight it paid off,” said Pandolfo. “It was good to see the other unit too, Tom had a great shot and we had a great screen in front.”
Willander was named the player of the game for his efforts.
With Willander’s positive play this season — and the ascendant games of defensive prospects Hunter Brzustewicz (Rd. 3, 2023) and Kirill Kudryavtsev (Rd. 7, 2022), among a couple others in Abbotsford — blue-line depth may not be the organizational sore spot it once was. But it’ll take time, with the most promising of the bunch still at least a couple years away.
Willander has two goals, five assists and a plus-10 rating in 11 games this season.
It’s becoming a story when Hunter Brzustewicz’s name isn’t on the scoresheet.
That’s because it rarely happens for the dynamic left-shot blueliner.
Brzustewicz, 18, has played in 21 games for the red-hot Kitchener Rangers this season.
He has points in all but two of them.
The 6-foot, 190-pound D-man just went another week with points in all three games — two assists in a 5-3 win over Kudryavtsev’s Soo Greyhounds last Sunday; a goal and two assists in a 9-2 downing of the Windsor Spitfires on Friday; and one assist in a 6-3 win over the same Spitfires on Saturday.
It’s like he’s printing money every time he touches the puck this season.
Add it all up and Brzustewicz is second in league scoring with 36 points in 21 games and his 30 assists are tops in the junior circuit.
It’s pretty clear the Canucks’ 75th-overall pick would be taken in the first round if the 2023 NHL draft was redone.
“I was patient, but it felt like a long wait,” Brzustewicz told CHL.ca’s Evan Doerfler in a player profile earlier this week. “It was stressful leading up to it just being there all week, especially the day of. It was a sigh of relief when my name got called and I was extremely happy to be selected by the Vancouver Canucks.”
Brzustewicz, a Washington, Michigan native, revealed that he had actually committed to play for the University of Michigan at the age of 13, only to de-commit when the Rangers showed interest and play two seasons with the U.S. National Development Team before joining the OHL’s Blueshirts.
Brzustewicz said being at the Canucks’ development camp this past summer helped his game immensely.
“Hunter is calm, patient, poised with the puck,” said Canucks player development coach Mike Komisarek. “He’s able to start the transition game with a quick-strike pass, or hold onto it and let passing lanes open up and find the right option, so he’s doing a lot of good things we’re excited about right now.”
Defensively, Brzustewicz has only had two games this season in which he was a minus. He’s honing in on using his body to dislodge pucks and regain possession, and taking pride on clearing out the front of his net.
“He’s adding layers to his game,” said Komisarek.
Brzustewicz is expected to compete for a spot on Team USA’s blue-line at the World Junior tournament which begins on Boxing Day in Sweden.
Now that’s how you bounce back.
After losing three straight behind an injury-riddled Abbotsford Canucks team a couple weeks back, backup goaltender Nikita Tolopilo was given the start on Saturday afternoon against the Silver Knights and stopped 31-of-33 shots — as well as all four shootout attempts — to lead the Canucks to a 3-2 shootout win in Henderson, Nevada.
The 23-year-old Belarusian was named the game’s first star for his efforts.
Tolopilo took the reins from starter Arturs Silovs for this one, after Silovs earned his fourth-straight win in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win over the same Silver Knights. Silovs, 22, has a 2.58 goals-against-average, a .908 save percentage and is 7-1-1 on the season.
Tolopilo, meanwhile, is 3-3 with a .902 save percentage and a 3.30 GAA — an inflated number after giving up 18 goals in a rough three game stretch in late October-early November.
But that was then and this is now, and the Canucks are at full strength after welcoming Vasily Podkolzin and Chase Wouters back from injury, with Jack Studnicka joining the group earlier this week after clearing waivers and Linus Karlsson back in the fold after a one-game call-up to the NHL, where he made his NHL debut in Calgary, going a plus-1 and getting three shots on goal in over 11 minutes of ice time.
Podkolzin had six shots on goal in his return on Thursday, while Studnicka bagged the overtime winner on a great solo effort.
Meanwhile, the duo of Max Sasson and Aatu Raty have been the offensive drivers for Abbotsford recently, with the linemates accounting for a combined eight points (5G, 3A) in the last three games.
Abbotsford has won five straight games and is 10-4-1, good for second in the AHL’s 10-team Pacific Division. The Canucks next play the division-leader Wranglers in Calgary on Saturday and Sunday.
Elsewhere: Left-shot defenceman Kirill Kudryavtsev (Rd. 7, 2022) continues to impress for the Soo Greyhounds, extending his points streak to four games this past week with four assists in two games. The 19-year-old two-way D-man even went a plus-2 last Sunday against Brzustewicz and the high-powered Rangers.
And forward Danila Klimovich (Rd. 2, 2021) was back in the Abbotsford lineup on Thursday, registering an assist after smartly breaking up a play at the opposing blue-line, giving the puck to linemate Nils Aman going straight to the net as Aman shot the puck into the goal.
Klimovich, however, did not play on Saturday, but it is unclear if he was scratched since he took a puck to the face on Thursday and had to go to the dressing room for repairs. The talented Belarusian was sat by head coach Jeremy Colliton early in the season for a game then missed some time due to injury. He has two assists and a plus-3 rating in five games this season.
Recommended from Editorial
Canucks prospects: Arty Party back on in Abbotsford, Lekkerimaki looking elite
Canucks Schedule: Rick Tocchet balancing practices with preparation practicality