After four years and 115 games at Michigan, senior forward Will Lockwood signed a two-year entry-level with the Vancouver Canucks — the team that drafted him in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft — last Thursday.
Shortly after the signing was announced Thursday afternoon, Canucks general manager Jim Benning provided his thoughts on where Lockwood projects on a conference call with media.
“Lockwood is fast and plays with a lot of energy,” Benning told reporters. “He’s willing to get in on the forecheck, he’s physical and will hit. He’s a guy we see as a top-nine forward, at worst a fourth-line energy guy.”
Many scouts see Lockwood as an in-between player — the kind of player that may well find success and stick in the NHL, but could also top out at the AHL level. Lockwood’s skating and tenacity are highlights of his skillset and have NHL-caliber upside, but his tendency for injury and his good-but-not-elite 85 total points in 115 college games are marks against him — to varying degrees — at this point in his development.
In January of this year, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked Lockwood as the Canucks 11th-best prospect.
“He has always been a well-rounded two-way winger who can finish off plays, hang onto the puck as a carrier when he needs to and play with pace,” Wheeler wrote. “He’s a little on the smaller end, though, and he hasn’t progressed quite like you’d probably hope offensively, which limits his upside. I could see him becoming a very good AHL player who is a little bit of a tweener. The good news is that he’s got the versatility you want in a depth player, so he’s not a top-six or bust type.”
That evaluation fits with Benning’s projection of Lockwood as a top-nine forward — which really means third line, because if Lockwood had second-line upside, Benning probably would’ve said top-six. But plenty of NHL players make a living as those third- and fourth-line forwards, and every team needs a good-skating forward who isn’t afraid to be physical, is defensively responsible and has a good degree of offensive upside.
Outside of Lockwood’s season-ending shoulder injury suffered at the 2018 World Junior Championships, the majority of his injuries — another shoulder issue his freshman year and a concussion his senior year — have stemmed from his relentless physical play. Vancouver likes that he has an edge; while the fact he’s gotten hurt as a result of it isn’t ideal, injuries suffered as a result of above-average physical play are different than injuries suffered because a player doesn’t have the physical makeup to survive in the NHL.
“When Will Lockwood put the Michigan jersey on, he was 10 feet tall,” former Michigan coach Red Berenson said in October. “That’s how he played. He just about played too reckless and too physical and sure enough, he started to get injuries. But he made a great impact right away and he made other players better. He made our team work harder.”
If Lockwood does live up to Benning’s expectations as a third-line player, that puts him in the category of players like Adam Gaudette, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey in 2018 and put up 142 points in 106 career games across his three years at Northeastern. Gaudette has 33 points in 59 games with the Canucks this year and has been the third-line center for a large part of this season.
Gaudette made a relatively quick leap to the NHL, playing five games with Vancouver after his junior season at Northeastern and just 14 AHL games the following season, which makes comparisons to Lockwood a bit more far-fetched. But both were mid-to-late round draft picks, and both are known as physical, defensively-responsible forwards with decent offensive upside.
Lockwood is expected to play for the Utica Comets in the AHL for a year or two before making the leap to the NHL level, so it will be a bit before his NHL projections round into form. But at this point, it certainly seems likely he’ll have an NHL role one day.