The Canucks were manhandled physically in the latter stages of the Stanley Cup Final against Boston. As much as the stellar play of Tim Thomas ultimately cost them the Stanley Cup, the constant physical play from Boston completely wore Vancouver down. Only a few short weeks later, the Canucks placed an emphasis on size at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. This drafting strategy may have just been by coincidence, but I think the two (losing to a bigger team and picking big players) had something in common. With the 101st pick, Vancouver picked Joseph LaBate, a rangy 6’4” center from the much-heralded Minnesota high school hockey system.
Picking high school players is often thought of as a risk, as it is hard to get an accurate assessment on a player when the competition quality isn’t as good as in many European leagues or the CHL. Vancouver hit a home run with their 2004 top pick out of high school (Cory Schneider), but he only emerged as a legitimate professional goaltender four or five years after his draft year.
LaBate has a lot of size and strength to add (he currently plays at 190 pounds), but the upside is tantalizing. A big, lanky American center known for his active stick and powerful stride when carrying the puck sounds a lot like a current Canuck, and LaBate has also earned comparisons to Joe Thornton. However, LaBate himself wasted no time in tossing out a David Backes comparison when talking to McKeens hockey last season. LaBate likes Backes’ combination of size, skill, leadership, and toughness.
During his final season of high school hockey, LaBate dominated to the tune of 27 goals and 49 points in 25 games. Backes also dominated in his final year of hockey before college, with 69 points in 57 games (while playing in the USHL). Backes went on to play three years at Minnesota State – Mankato before turning pro, and LaBate will likely spend at least three years in college as well. Backes was close to 220 pounds when he left for the NHL, so LaBate has a lot of catching up to do in the weight room and kitchen.
LaBate’s early season start at the University of Wisconson should have Mike Gillis and his management team very, very excited. With six points in six games, he is second on the Badgers in scoring, an extremely impressive feat for a freshman (first year). He was recently promoted to Wisconsin’s top line, an equally impressive feat. For comparison’s sake, Backes had 37 points in 39 games during his freshman year, although he was a year older than LaBate at the time. LaBate doesn’t even turn 19 until next April.
Looking at the next few years, and it is easy to see why LaBate is likely to remain with Wisconson. Kesler turned pro after his freshman year at Ohio State, but he already had the speed and strength for the pro game, while LaBate has to work on both of those things. Kesler also saw a few potential openings ahead of him at the AHL and NHL levels, but the Canucks are pretty well set up the middle right now, and they are in no position to need to rush any of their project prospects.
However, LaBate has a game that may allow him to transition over to the wing, much like Backes did. He’s strong on the puck and in the corners, and he has a very heavy and accurate shot. The biggest difference between the two is Backes and his penchant for physical play (seeking it out versus not shying away from it, there are many kinds of ways to be a physical player). LaBate has expressed a desire to become more assertive on the ice, and it has been a case of so far so good during year one of college hockey.
As mentioned above, the main risk with high school players is the lack of quality competition they face. It sometimes makes a young offensive player look better than he is (Kyle Turris playing in the BCHL is an example of this), but there are also gems to be uncovered. If the quick start to his college career is any indication, the Canucks may have found one in Joseph LaBate.