The season is young, but Canucks senior director of player development Ryan Johnson likes what he sees in OHL Flint left winger Ethan Keppen, whom Vancouver drafted in the fourth round last June. “The summer he spent with us has benefitted him greatly,” Johnson said. “He’s trying to get the puck in his hands more. Obviously it’s early, but he’s coming along. He’s a smart kid.”
The Canucks liked a lot of things about Keppen when they drafted him – his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), a relentless approach to puck battles, an ability to put himself in good shooting positions and a solid understanding of defensive play – but it’s his ability to learn that they’re especially enamored with. Flint was terrible in 2018-19, but that was actually a good thing for Keppen. He played a lot and in every situation, and his comprehension of all aspects of the game stood out to the Canucks’ scouts and development staff.
Vancouver eschewed what the 30 other NHL clubs are still doing: it didn’t play any prospect games in the fall, instead trying a more coaching-intensive approach. The Canucks figured players such as Keppen were going to be seeing plenty of action soon enough, so why not spend time focusing on the skills they need to fine-tune if they’re going to take the next step and make it to the NHL one day. “The game has changed so much, the pace of the game and the players,” Johnson said. “You have to be able to win those pucks. It’s not just, ‘When he gets strong enough he’ll be ready.’ There’s a lot of dialogue about how a player enters (a puck battle) that makes a difference.”
Technique matters in junior and college hockey, but it matters even more the closer you get to the NHL. Keppen’s task, especially now that he’s suddenly on a much deeper Firebirds squad, is to take the lessons he’s learned and use them to dominate his OHL opponents. Win pucks. Kill penalties. Take his scoring opportunities. He was just shy of being a point-per-game player in 2018-19, and improving on his scoring pace is a priority. – Patrick Johnston