On Sea-to-Sky Boners: Why Don't the Canucks Draft WHL-ers?

Cam Charron
October 30 2012 10:19AM

I still don't quite agree with Mike Gillis' draft strategy, but I do know this: If you're a fan criticizing Gillis for not selecting enough WHLers, understand that the Edmonton Oilers are doing exactly the opposite, and they haven't won a lot of games over the past several seasons.

The Canucks have never selected a player off the team in their own backyard, although the Canucks compelled the Giants to select Mario Bliznak and Jonathan Iilahti in the CHL import draft and Kevin Connauton moved to the WHL following his draft year. The Oil Kings, one of the top teams in the WHL, have featured several Edmonton Oiler-selects over the last few seasons, including Travis Ewanyk and Mitch Moroz.

The Oil Kings, who are owned by the Oilers, also picked up Martin Gernat and Kristians Pelss in the import drafts. The two of them became big parts in the Oil Kings' WHL Championship run last spring. They also wanted to select Keegan Lowe, an Oil King and son of Oiler executive Kevin Lowe, but the younger Lowe did not want to be drafted by Edmonton.

Now, I'm reading this report in the Province from Steve Ewen, a beat-writer for the Vancouver Giants, who is working off some speculation from Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal that the Oil Kings should have some interest in Giants defenceman, the Oilers' 31st overall pick in 2011 David Musil

Musil, an assistant captain with the struggling Vancouver Giants (3-10), is exactly what the Memorial Cup threat Oil Kings need. The six-foot-four, 215-pounder, the Oilers’ second-round pick (31st overall) at the 2011 NHL entry draft, is a no fuss blue-liner who can play big minutes. 

However, Musil wouldn’t come cheap, but it never hurts to have Oilers draft picks playing on the junior team that they own. They already have defenceman Martin Gernat and forwards Travis Ewanyk and Mitch Moroz in their system.

I take issue with Matheson's assertion that "it doesn't hurt" to have the Oilers picks on their own WHL team. A lot of the junior prospects I've talked to this season have made it pretty clear that they're left to their own development devices. They'll be checked in on, but the amount of control that the Oilers exhibit over their prospects is something I haven't run into too much covering juniors.

Essentially, the Oilers are trying to use the Oil Kings as a vaulting platform, but I'm not so sure it works. Of the Top 10 prospects in the Oilers' system as ranked by Corey Pronman, only Gernat appears from the Oil Kings. It's not like the marquee selects of the Oilers are the ones getting the top minutes on the Oil Kings. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins vaulted to the NHL from Red Deer before the Oil Kings could interfere with his development in any way. Nail Yakupov is over in Russia with Neftehimik Nizhenamsk, and Justin Schultz developed away from the Oilers at the University of Wisconsin before signing with them this offseason.

Even the Oilers can appreciate this, I feel. Inspired by Graphic Comments, I felt like I could mock up a couple of graphs:

That said, fans of the team can appreciate their prospect the more they know about him. Yakupov has been covered a lot in Canada, and particularly on sister website Oilers Nation. Oilers fans do have to go out of their way for coverage on guys like Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin. Even Daniil Zharkov, who plays with the Belleville Bulls, isn't as well known because Oiler fans and management can get a tangible, legitimate look at the player on the Oil Kings. I wonder if they just like that for their depth guys:

So why are Vancouver fans concerned? WHL or not, the Canucks have some decent prospects somewhere in the world. The Canucks have gone years without consistent appearances by their top prospects playing for Team Canada at the World Juniors, yet somehow they truck on, winning more games since the start of Gillis' tenure (199) than any other NHL team. Gillis also has yet to win fewer than 45 games on the season, a feat only matched by the Pittsburgh Penguins during Gillis' managerial tenure. 

Of course, this isn't due to the Canucks' ability to select NHLers. The last Canuck draft pick to play 100 games with the organization was Mason Raymond. The last to score 100 goals was Ryan Kesler, and he was drafted 10 seasons ago. Drafting and development has not been the strongest aspect of Gillis' tenure, but the Canucks have contributed their resources to things other than overseeing the development of their depth prospects, or making decisions to appease local fans. 

After years of poor success at the draft floor, Gillis changed the approach, instead looking for players at big American programs. It was an approach almost straight out of Moneyball

“If you look at baseball, historically high schoolers never pan out. College kids almost always do,” said Gillis. “I apply a philosophy from the fourth round onward, that we’re going to select players who are going to go to big programs in the US and develop their skills at a pace that is much more easy to watch.”

It's almost as if Gillis looked to Laurence Gilman and Dave Gagner one day and said "You know what? However we do it we're never going to be more wrong than the way we did it before."

This strategy will take a couple of years to reveal whether it's a pass or a fail. For now, a big contention among Canucks draft critics is that they fail to secure WHL talent. The Canucks I think see it differently—they want to be far enough away from their prospects while they develop, but gain a greater control of them as they make their way to the pro ranks. The Canucks have tried to reign in the Chicago Wolves, who operated as a fairly independent franchise when they were affiliated with Atlanta, but the Canucks have reasons to install their own men there.

Remember, it's not only Vancouver that gets criticized for not drafting guys from their own backyard. At the end of the day, Alexandre Mallet has just as good of an NHL shot as Jordan Martinook and Marek Tvrdon's shot is just as good as Joseph Labate's. It's a very slim chance either will see NHL action, but the Canucks are focusing their development efforts where players are easier to control: In the pro ranks.

As skeptical I am of the Canucks' drafting in the last few years, I think it's better to create your own approach than to follow the lead of the Edmonton Oilers.

Hattip to the fantastic Drunk Jays Fans blog who we blatantly rip off whenever we discuss "Sea-to-Sky Boners."

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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