Just picture, for a moment, Jack Nicholson hacking down a door with an axe, sticking his face through the hole and shouting, “Heeeeere’s hockey!”
That’s how it feels right now. The blue skies and sunshine outside say it’s still summer, but the Canucks prospects and veterans arriving in Vancouver to skate and practice say hockey season is hacking its way to the forefront.
In fact, Canucks hockey returns this week. Sort of. The Canucks prospects will take on the Winnipeg Jets prospects at the 2018 Young Stars Classic in Penticton on Friday and Sunday, with two games between the UBC Thunderbirds and University of Alberta Golden Bears mixed in.
While this may be the only chance for some of the players on the roster to wear a Canucks jersey, there are several players that should be in Vancouver this season, either on opening night or not long after. Elias Pettersson is practically a lock for the opening night lineup, but Adam Gaudette, Olli Juolevi, and Jonathan Dahlen should all end up in the Canucks lineup at some point, with players like Petrus Palmu, Kole Lind, Zack MacEwen, Guillaume Brisebois, and Jalen Chatfield having a shot as well.
Then there are the real long shots: the players who aren’t even signed or drafted by the Canucks. The invitees are some of the more intriguing players at camp, as one or more could prove to have an NHL future. Let’s look at one of the longest of long shots coming to camp: Jagger Dirk.
Jagger Dirk – Left Defence
6’0″ – 198 lbs – May 4, 1993 (25)
St. Francis Xavier University X-Men (30-6-22-28)
A prospects camp is all about youth, but some players push the limits on what “youth” means. Jagger Dirk is a first-year pro, but he’s also 25 years old. That makes Dirk easily the oldest player at the Canucks prospect camp. He was born in 1993; no one else on the roster was born before 1996.
It’s doubtful there’s any NHL upside to Dirk because he’s already at an age where players stop being considered prospects. But that’s also what makes Dirk an intriguing underdog story.
Dirk played four-and-half seasons with the Kootenay Ice in the WHL, including his over-age year at 20 years old. With no professional contract at that time, Dirk chose to go to school. That meant four full years at St. Francis Xavier University, where he played for the X-Men.
Playing hockey at a Canadian University, particularly for four years, isn’t usually a reliable path to professional hockey. The level of play just isn’t as good as the NCAA. Dirk, however, stood out with the X-Men, earning All-Star accolades and being named Defenceman of the Year last season in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) association.
With his Bachelor of Business Administration degree in hand, Dirk once again set his sights on professional hockey and earned a tryout with the Binghamton Devils. He played seven games with the Devils, tallying one point. Along the way, he caught the eye of Ryan Johnson and the Utica Comets, who signed him to a one-year contract in May.
What did Johnson and the Comets see in Dirk? According to Cory Hergott, who covers the Comets for CanucksArmy, they see a “slick skating defender who is blessed with a high hockey IQ,” who can play in all situations.
Dirk has one clear plus attribute: his fantastic name. It also makes for one of the best Spoonerisms I’ve ever seen: Dagger Jerk. It seems like a fitting name given he’s capable of playing a physical game and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. That makes sense as the son of former Canuck defenceman Robert Dirk, who was never one to shy away from a fight.
His father is also responsible for his excellent name.
“My dad really liked Mick Jagger,” said Dirk. “So much that he named me after him.”
“My father was perfect for me growing up,” he said. “He pushed me when I needed it, but never too much. We talked a lot about what it takes to play in the NHL and I consider those conversations a real advantage.”
Jay Henderson, his assistant coach with the Kootenay Ice, described him as a “very offensive player,” who “moves well, skates well.”
Dirk put up solid numbers in Junior, putting up 10 goals and 48 points in 69 games in his over-age season, but scoring at a decent rate before that as well. While he was never at the top of the WHL in scoring from a defenceman, he put up enough points that there aren’t any red flags.
He was particularly impressive in the WHL playoffs in his over-age season, with 16 points in 13 games enroute to a WHL championship. It helped that he had Sam Reinhart on his team, but it was a solid performance.
“Jagger moves the puck up ice very well,” said his head coach in Kootenay, Kris Knoblauch. “He has the skills to beat an opponent by skating the puck up ice, but his real strength is his passing. Another skill Jagger possesses is his ability to win one on one battles. He comes out with the puck the majority of the time when battling an opponent along the boards.”
Dirk sees himself as a two-way defenceman, solid at both ends of the rink: “My best attributes on the ice are my hockey smarts, my defensive play, and my ability to create offense off the rush, or jumping into open slots in the offensive zone.”
Dirk’s numbers at St. Francis Xavier don’t jump off the page until his final year, when he was one of the top scorers among defencemen with 28 points in 30 games. He followed that up with 8 points in 7 playoff games, helping the X-Men to the AUS championship, though they fell short in the USports championship in the final game.
The offensive side of the game is encouraging to see from Dirk, as it indicates he has the hands, vision, and passing to hold his own at a higher level. What could make him an effective pro, however, is his defensive game. Dirk processes the game quickly and anticipates plays. He’s got a good stick, and angles opposing forwards away from the front of the net with sound positioning. At 6’0”, Dirk’s not as imposing as some defencemen, but holds his own in physical battles and boxes out well in front of the net.
Dirk could be a player that starts in the ECHL this season, but his all-around game could see him get a quick call-up to Utica. From there, it’s all about proving he can handle that level of competition and working his way towards an NHL contract.
Adding to the intrigue of this longest of long shots is that Dirk is from Penticton, so will be playing in front of a hometown crowd at the Young Stars Classic. His age and experience should help him stand out and give the Penticton crowd a reason to cheer.