The Canucks haven’t had much luck developing prospects in the AHL and have faced questions regarding the ice time their current crop of prospects is getting with the Utica Comets.
There’s one prospect, however, that has been consistently held up as an example of their development process working: Zack MacEwen. The 22-year-old winger was unheralded when he entered the Canucks system, but has shown consistent and steady improvement throughout his time in Utica, becoming a legitimate prospect deserving of an NHL call-up.
At the end of last season, the Comets gave MacEwen the Ian Anderson Award as the team’s most improved player and he’s only gotten better. After four points against the Rochester Americans on Saturday, MacEwen is now up to 42 points in 49 games and is third on the team in scoring.
With the Canucks already high on MacEwen and with a roster spot open due to Sven Baertschi’s post-concussion syndrome, the time was right to call him up to the big club for the very first time.
MacEwen was in on four of the Comets’ five goals against Rochester, scoring a goal and adding three assists. His goal was a laser from the left wing, illustrating his fantastic shot, but just as impressive were his assists, particularly his setup on Reid Boucher’s first goal. He made a heads up play to pass up his own great scoring chance from in front to give Boucher a tap-in.
That’s been MacEwen all season, though a four-point night certainly put an exclamation point on things. His shot is great and his hands are impressive, particularly for a big guy, but what stands out is his hockey IQ. He looks to make plays and seems to think the game at an above-AHL level.
“He’s progressing and he’s a good character guy,” said head coach Travis Green. “Big body, but has decent hands at that level. I’d like to get a look at him. You’re always looking for size and guys that can play the game and skate.”
Now we’ll see if he gets a chance to prove himself in the NHL. There’s an opportunity available, with the likes of Tim Schaller and Markus Granlund struggling, but Green was non-committal about getting MacEwen in the lineup. He sees value in MacEwen being in Vancouver, however, even if he doesn’t play.
“Whether he plays or not is not always the most important thing, but it’s just getting him up here and being around the group and really for us to get some eyes on him to see how he looks in our group in a practice, in a morning skate,” said Green. “He’s had a good year — he’s had two good years — and he’s well deserving of the call up.
“He’s a guy we’ve liked from day one. He works hard at his game. Like I said, he’s a high character guy that competes hard and wants to become a better hockey player and does whatever it takes, and I just think it’s the right time, with all the games and we have a roster spot, to bring him up.”
Whenever I think of MacEwen, I can’t help but think of the older gentleman at the Canucks’ open practice heading into the 2017-18 season, who named Zack MacEwen as his favourite new Canuck. He shows up a minute into the video below:
MacEwen was certainly an unusual choice as favourite new Canuck. After all, the Canucks had just drafted Elias Pettersson, traded for Nikolay Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlen, and signed several free agents, including Sam Gagner. MacEwen, who signed with the Canucks as a free agent out of the QMJHL after 31 goals and 74 points in 66 games in his over-age season, was an afterthought to most fans. Also, he had just gotten injured at the Young Stars prospect tournament, so he wasn’t even on the ice for that particular practice and missed the entire preseason.
A couple years later, however, that Canucks fan looks pretty prescient, as MacEwen has become a legitimate prospect with the Comets and looks like he might have a much higher ceiling than anyone anticipated.
“He’s big, he skates hard and fast, he’s smart, and he’s tough,” said the fan, pausing and changing his inflection to emphasize “tough.”
MacEwen is certainly that, using his big 6’4” frame to good effect in board battles and dropping the gloves https://www.hockeyfights.com/players/22800 when the situation calls for it. What has caught everyone off-guard is that he brings plenty of skill and scoring to go with that size and toughness.
The simple truth is that players who break out in over-age season in major junior frequently don’t amount to much at the next level. We can look at other players signed by the Canucks as examples, like Dane Fox and Yan-Pavel Laplante, but sometimes a late bloomer turns into something special.
If MacEwen can even turn into fourth-liner at the NHL level, that’s a great result for an undrafted player. What’s intriguing about MacEwen is that he has the potential to be something more. With his size, speed, and skill, it’s easy to picture him as a complementary winger on a top-six line and netfront presence on the power play.
There’s also the possibility that MacEwen can’t break through in the NHL, but there’s many reasons for optimism. The league has always had room for 6’4” guys that can skate and handle the puck.