Canucks 2013 NHL Draft Preview: Fishing Holes

Thomas Drance
June 24 2013 03:57PM


Conventional wisdom dictates that Mike Gillis has a better record fishing than drafting.
Image via @GMMikeGillis.

Six days from now the NHL Draft will unfold in Newark, and for a variety of reasons it promises to be a memorable, fascinating and extraordinarily hectic day. The draft will take place, all seven rounds of it, on June 30th and most prospect writers, scouts and others in the industry agree that the talent level of the 2013 draft class is through the roof. Between the wash of talent available through the draft and the relative lack of quality free-agents coming to market on July 5th, the 2013 NHL entry draft has the potential to be an especially busy day for player transactions. Sounds fun, right?

Over the coming week we'll be rolling out our draft preview coverage series. Some of our preview posts will evaluate the upcoming draft class while others will take a more detailed, analytical look at Mike Gillis's drafting record and tendencies. Last year we did a post on Mike Gillis's "fishing holes", and we'll update that work there today. The concept of "fishing holes" was first introduced to me by Scott Reynolds, but the phrase was originally minted by our pal (and boss) Kent Wilson, who explained "fishing holes" as such:

Clubs [may] develop what I call "fishing holes", by which I mean they concentrate their scouting in certain amateur/developmental leagues (for the Flames, it's the WHL/CHL) - they can become familiar with the relative degree and value of the competition and therefore can more capably gauge a prospects level of performance.

Read past the jump for more.

In an interview Laurence Gilman recorded recently for Canucks TV, Vancouver's Assistant General Manager vaguely broached how "regionalism" in scouting can impact the makeup of the club's draft board (or the list of prospects that the team goes off of on draft day). Here are Gilman's specific comments on the subject (transcription my own):

"It is extremely important to be as detailed as possible when we build a list of as many as 200 players. People would be surprised at the amount of detail and time and sweat and blood and tears goes into deciding whether a guy should be placed at number 68 or at 67. You have scouts from our Quebec region arguing with scouts from the Western region, arguing with the guys from Ontario and Europe as to why a player should be placed above a player in another region."

That's kind of a fascinating quote. It might suggest to us, perhaps, that Vancouver's regional scouts in Sweden and Quebec are better debaters than the club's local, British Columbia based scouts...

During the Mike Gillis era the Canucks have rarely selected local talent at the NHL draft, despite the General Managers early boasts about trying "to stick with Western Canadian kids." On some level I think the club is wise to avoid using draft picks to pander to the "Moar Giants!" or the "Sea-to-Sky Boner" crowd, but it's also admittedly pretty remarkable how few Western Hockey League players the Canucks have selected over the past five drafts - especially considering that the WHL is the second biggest source of NHL draft picks (behind only the Ontario Hockey League) since 2006.

This observation is nothing new, in fact the lack of Western Hockey League picks over the years is something of a sore spot for some of the local sports media bleeters and a wide swath of the team's fans as well. It's also a scouting issue to hear the Canucks tell it, and apparently one that they've have taken steps to try and remedy. As Laurence Gilman told Iain Macintyre this past winter:

"We felt we had been systemically undervaluing players in the western region. The moves that were made were not done specifically to draft more players from the west. It was done after an analysis of where players (to the NHL) were coming from and where we were devoting our resources. We felt we needed to improve our coverage in the west. It is our backyard, but it's also a very big yard and we needed to scout it more efficiently.”

To that end, the Canucks re-assigned Harold Snepsts, who had been in charge of the Western Region, to work with Stan Smyl on scouting NCAA players. They replaced Snepsts with Ron Delorme who is still listed as the chief of amateur scouting (a position he's held since 2000). The club insisted to Iain Macintyre that it wasn't a demotion for the oft-criticized Delorme, but they summarily expanded the duties of director of player personnel Eric Crawford so yeah, we'll take that with a heap of salt. Macintyre was also told that Thomas Gradin will be focussing more on Europe, which is good news, and that the club has further bolstered their scouting in Ontario (where in Hodgson, Corrado, Jensen and Gaunce, the club has been relatively successful in the recent past).

So far in the Mike Gillis era, the Canucks have eschewed Western Hockey League players while using nearly 45% of their thirty draft picks on players from the Quebec Major Junior Hoceky League or from Sweden. In fact the Canucks pick prospects from Sweden and from the Q at a rate double the league average over the past six drafts. With Mike Gillis as the club's General Manager, the Canucks have also selected an above average number of NCAA players, and players from US high-schools bound for the NCAA. That's particularly true in later rounds, as Mike Gillis explained after the 2012 draft in Pittsburgh.

Here's how Mike Gillis's "fishing holes" break down when compared with the rest of the league:

A couple of quick notes on the below table. Every draft since 2006 is reflected in the right-side of the table, with my piggybacking off of Scott Reynolds' work from a 2011 NHL Draft preview. In addition to the picks featured under "% of Gillis picks" the Canucks have selected one player from the CJHL and another from the CCHA, two leagues that rarely produce NHL draft picks. Both of those prospects (Ben Hutton and Jeremy Price) were NCAA bound.

Fishing Holes % of Gillis Picks % of League Picks since 06
Sweden 20% 9.8%
WHL 6.6% 16.1%
QMJHL 23.3% 10.9%
OHL 16.6% 19.7%
NCAA 10% 4.9%
High-School 10% 8.6%
BCHL 3.3% 2.2%
Finland 3.3% 3.8%

This years draft will mark the first such event since the Canucks decided to re-emphasize the Western region in terms of their amateur scouting apparatus. Has the club fixed the issues that led to their organization "systematically undervaluing" WHL talent? That's a quesiton that we won't have a good answer to for several years yet, though we'll have more information to go off in a weeks time....

For now I'd just quickly point out that using a higher proportion of the teams draft picks to select draft eligible players from the Western Hockey League is well and good, but only if those players legitimately and objectively represent the best talent left on the board in Vancouver's estimation. Picking a couple of additional Western Hockey League grinders might make some segments of the fanbase happy, but the truth is that the Canucks just don't have a deep enough pool of quality prospects to go wasting draft picks on public relations.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Brian
June 24 2013, 04:25PM
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I think there is more value to picking local guys than just the public relations aspect. They also are often more likely to re-sign when they become a UFA.

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#3 Ruprecht
June 24 2013, 05:10PM
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Every time I see that picture I chuckle because if you hung Gillis by his feet beside the Tuna, they'd be the exact same shape.

Seriously though, Western, and in particular BC, drafting has been incredibly brutal when you watch what some of the local boys are doing every year throughout the league. Especially Cup time. You'd have to think taking a more local view would have worked out just as good, if not better than what we have going on elsewhere...and cost a lot less to scout. It's never made sense to me. Not because I've got a "Sea to Sky Boner" (BTW the cool kids are using Woody these days), but because it's our own fricking back yard talent that's eluding us, and the list is long.

There's a point where it just stops being a fluke and becomes brutal. I have to wonder if it's because he is still clinging on to some of the idioms from being an Ontario based player and agent himself. Either way, hit the nail on the head here with this article, aside from some of the High School-esque rhetoric you used to get your point across. Mommy not looking over your shoulder today?

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#4 NM00
June 24 2013, 05:56PM
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Keith Law has talked about how former Toronto Blue Jays GM JP Ricciardi wouldn't listen to his assistants and scouts when they advised he not be so fixated on college players.

Other teams had caught onto the college player rage and by the time the Blue Jays turn to draft came up, the talent level of college players had been diluted.

Similarly, Gillis strikes me as a "percentage" drafter. To date, this hasn't exactly worked well for the organization.

It's fine to be aware of the fact that forwards are the safest bet in the first round. But by limiting the risk, Gillis has also limited the reward, I'd argue.

It will be interesting to see if there are any changes to the organizational philosophy in this draft.

Hopefully, if nothing else, the team stops dedicating so many draft selections on older players. I have no idea what the motivation behind that was in the first place.

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#5 orcasfan
June 24 2013, 06:12PM
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Yeah, it will be interesting to see if they can actually get their act together about scouting and drafting from the WHL. This could be Delorme's last chance. Obviously, Snepts has been hopeless, either at the actual scouting, or advocating for his guys. Glad he's gone. Too much of an "old boys club" mentality has really held this club back (until Gillis started expanding the scouting department).

I still remember Delorme raving on about their pick of Grabner at the time. He seemed like he really had very little knowledge of the kid.

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#6 NM00
June 24 2013, 06:15PM
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@orcasfan

"I still remember Delorme raving on about their pick of Grabner at the time. He seemed like he really had very little knowledge of the kid."

Couldn't have been any less knowledge than Gillis...

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#8 NM00
June 24 2013, 07:44PM
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@Thomas Drance

IIRC, when Gillis insisted Oreskevich be included in the Ballard trade, he praised Oreskevich for dropping hockey and focusing on school for awhile. Gillis said he wanted "smart" kids. Of course, it is more important for a prospect to be playing hockey during his key developmental years.

My theory is that the Canucks target older/college players in large part because they may be more receptive to their new age ideas. In regards to prospects in particular, it may very well be that they put more emphasis on psychological testing than other NHL teams. Which may very well be detrimental to finding quality hockey players.

Two guys in Tanev & Corrado hardly suggests the club has shown an ability to identify pro attributes when it comes to defenseman prospects.

Espescially since we are talking about defenseman who, in all likelihood, are middle-bottom of the roster players.

Not to mention that Tanev just completed his first season as an NHL regular and Corrado has only played a handful of NHL games.

And let's not forget that KConn was supposedly traded because the club thought he may fit better as a forward. Dallas clearly doesn't think so and I guess we will see which team made the correct talent evaluation...

Taking forwards exclusively in the first round sounds as logical as drafting college players in baseball. It may be playing the percentages in the abstract.

But the Canucks aren't the only team aware of this. Jim Rutherford in Carolina prefers to do the same thing. Being married to a principle may be part of the issue with the Canucks drafting to date.

It is good that Gillis appears to be aware of the percentages. By the same token, it was good that Ricciardi was aware of the value of college players with track records.

However, that does not mean it makes sense to take a forward irrespective of what else is available. It should be part of the decision making process. It shouldn't necessarily usurp what Gillis' scouts are saying, though.

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#10 NM00
June 24 2013, 08:45PM
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@Thomas Drance

If that is the primary reason, it doesn't seem like a very good idea.

After all, what exactly is the value of delaying an evaluation of a lesser/non-prospect for an extra 2 years?

Surely there is more to it than that...

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#11 Chinook
June 24 2013, 10:05PM
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Drance wrote, It's not like player retention is an issue for this club anyway though...

With Coach Tortorella, expect that to change.

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#12 JCDavies
June 24 2013, 10:23PM
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Thomas Drance wrote:

@NM00 I think the college kid thing has more to do with maintaining their rights for longer (4 years as opposed to 2 following their draft year for CHLers) than it does intelligence.

I agree, but I think there is more to it than that. By drafting players that are committed to college, Gillis is essentially trying to delay the start of two contracts: the ELC and the 2nd contract and the decisions the contracts would require the team to make.

By drafting college-committed players, Gillis is buying the team extra time to scout and evaluate the player before deciding to spend team resources (money/roster spot) on retaining them. If the player isn't meeting expectations, he can be let go and the team resources can be spent elsewhere.

I don't have the quote but I remember Gillis talking about having more time to evaluate players before making decisions. He is trying to improve the team's ability to make decisions by increasing the amount of information the team has when it makes those decisions.

I'm generally OK with this in the later rounds because they are pretty much a crapshoot but I would prefer if Gillis didn't do this in the earlier rounds.

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#14 @Jyrki21
June 25 2013, 09:52AM
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I always assumed their leaning toward older players was the same logic as drafting college baseball players -- they are farther along their development curve and you have a more accurate picture of how they'll pan out, versus a more boom-and-bust younger player just starting out.

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#15 NM00
June 25 2013, 10:41AM
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@Jyrki21 wrote:

I always assumed their leaning toward older players was the same logic as drafting college baseball players -- they are farther along their development curve and you have a more accurate picture of how they'll pan out, versus a more boom-and-bust younger player just starting out.

That is what I figured as well. However, that is going to limit the upside of the players coming into the farm system.

And that's pretty much what the farm system is. A collection of players who can fill out the middle-bottom of an NHL roster.

That is a terrible strategy, in my opinion.

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#16 NM00
June 25 2013, 10:43AM
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@JCDavies

As Drance has said earlier, the Canucks haven't had issues with player retention.

I'd much rather the Canucks shoot for the stars with their draft picks as opposed to the method they appear to have employed in the Gillis era.

It is much easier to fill out the middle-bottom of the roster than the top of the roster.

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#17 james mcguire
June 26 2013, 10:18AM
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if we had the number one pick, mike gillis would bypass mckinnon, drouin , and jones. he would say to the press. "were looking to the future", then go an draft someone obscure from the "q" or from sweden.saying "we got a gem" time to overhaul your scouts and scouting system, ex nhl players make poor nhl draft scouts, the proof is in canucks scouting staff. hire hockey people who know the game of scouting!

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