NHL Draft: Mike Gillis’ Fishing Holes

In nine short days the NHL draft will begin in Pittsburgh, and it promises to be a very interesting day or two for the Canucks and their General Manager Mike Gillis. As usual, the Canucks don’t have any high picks (they select 26th and 57th) and the 2011-12 draft class is not seen as particularly deep, but that hardly matters to Canucks fans, who are more interested to see what Gillis does on the trade market anyway!

Over the next week we’ll take some looks at the Canucks’ drafting record since Gillis took over the reigns (June 22nd will mark his fifth time at the draft table) and see if we can ferret out any trends in his approach to selecting players. Today’s topic concerns Gillis’ favorite draft prospect "Fishing Holes." This is a concept that was introduced to me by Scott Reynolds, but was originally coined by our pal Kent Wilson, who explained it 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.

Over the past decade, the Canucks have selected an above average number of prospects from the WHL, QMJHL and from Sweden at the draft, while shirking players from the US National Development Team Program and the OHL. Under Gillis, those trends have changed somewhat. The Canucks continue to draft players from Sweden and the Q at a higher than average rate, however, in 25 picks, Gillis has only taken two players from the WHL and both of those players were picked in the late rounds of his very first draft as General Manager (2008). Those two picks were local winger Prab Rai, who is unlikely to remain in the system for much longer, and goaltender Morgan Clark who the team never signed. 

It’s interesting that Gillis has avoided selecting players from the WHL, and has yet to dip into the BCHL with any picks considering his: "we’re going to try and stick with Western Canadian kids" comments in the summer of 2010. Those comments seem to have been hollow pandering, which, is a good thing really. There are voices in the Vancouver media who’d like to see Gillis refocus on selecting more local talent, but from my perspective, disregarding the regionalist, sea-to-sky maple boner sentiments of the Canucks fanbase is probably the right policy when evaluating talent. As Ryan Kesler might say: "If you can play, you can play."

The Canucks have continued to mostly ignore the US National Development Team under Gillis’ stewardship, however, they’ve picked significantly more players from the Ontario Hockey League than the club used to when Brian Burke and Dave Nonis were at the helm. Two of those picks have been first round selections (Nicklas Jensen and Cody Hodgson), while the other two (Alex Friesen and Frank Corrado) have been signed by the team, and look to have a promising future within the organization. While Gillis has reversed the trend of the Canucks largely ignoring OHL prospects, the team has still selected draft eligible prospects playing in the OHL at a rate below league average over the past four drafts.

I’ve broken down the rate at which Gillis has drafted prospects from various leagues, and compared it to the league average (past 6 years) to give you an idea of where the Canucks have seemingly focussed their scouting attention during Gillis’ tenure. Because Mike Gillis has only made 25 picks in his time in Vancouver (Gillis has never really valued mid-round picks), each Canucks pick is equal to 4% in the table below:

  Fishing Hole % League %
QMJHL 24% 11.2%
Sweden 24% 9.6%
OHL 16% 19.2%
NCAA 12% 5%
USHS 8% 8.5%
WHL 8% 16.2%
Finland 4% 3.8%
CJHL 4% 0.04%

Obviously the above table isn’t scientific or necessarily predictive. It’s just as likely that Gillis will draft a player from the WHL with his first round pick as he is to take a prospect who spent this past season in the QMJHL or in the SEL. What’s interesting about analyzing Gillis’ drafting record in terms of "fishing holes," however, is what it suggests about where Canucks scouts direct the bulk of their attention.

For example, it’s pretty clear that Vancouver’s front-office invests a fair bit of time and resources into scouting prospects in Sweden, something that the club’s draft record, and the signings of undrafted free-agents Eddie Lack and Sebastian Erixon speaks to. This trend precedes Mike Gillis, but it looks as if it has continued under his watch. In all likelihood, the club believes that with Thomas Gradin scouring Scandanavia for undiscovered talent, they have an exploitable "knowledge edge" over other NHL teams (except for Detroit) in those leagues. As such, the Canucks tend to select a player out of one of the Swedish leagues a couple of times per draft, often in later rounds, and I’d expect that to continue.

It’s hard to imagine that the club’s recent record of ignoring prospects in the WHL, however, reflects a lack of attention being paid to that league. Gillis’ track record at the draft is still too small for us to infer a trend from the available data and it’s probably just a coincidence. I guess we’ll know more in 10 days!

  • Graphic Comments

    Also interesting: The most likely drafted ‘position’. From what I’ve gathered, Gillis has drafted more d-men and centres than any other position (around 9 d-men and 7 centres). He’s also drafted 3 goalies. He’s only drafted a 4 LWers and 1 RWer (total of 5 wingers).

    I think it’s safe to say there’s a pattern here. He prefers to build his team from the goalie, to the defencemen, then down the middle. I think it’s very smart, those 3 positions are the hardest to trade for (most lucrative).

    Technically speaking, there are more wingers in the NHL. Generally, there are 8 wingers per team. Where there are generally only 4 centres per team and 6 d-men. So statistically speaking, if there are more wingers in the NHL there’s likely to be more of a saturated market for this service vs. centres or d-men. You’d hope to replenish your teams d-men, centres, goalies through you own system, then use the trade/free agency market to obtain wingers. Makes sense to me, unfortunately the centres and d-men he’s drafted haven’t really lived up to expectations. Not sure if we’ll see any of them play in the NHL (maybe Connaugton?) He seems to have better luck with FA signings like Tanev & Lack.

    Either way, I like his ‘strategy’ for drafting ‘positional’ players. But he needs to draft better players.

  • NuckfiSh

    “There are voices in the Vancouver media who’d like to see Gillis refocus on selecting more local talent, but from my perspective, disregarding the regionalist, sea-to-sky maple boner sentiments of the Canucks fanbase is probably the right policy when evaluating talent.”

    I respectfully disagree. When Milan Lucic, who grew up 10 minutes from GM Place and played major junior at the Pacific Coliseum, lifts the Stanley Cup at Rogers Arena wearing a Boston Bruin sweater because he was drafted in the 2nd round after the Canucks passed on him – i get a little chapped. Especially when you consider he was overlooked to draft Grabner who was traded for Ballard who watched Lucic do a victory lap from the press box =(

    I’m not saying draft every local kid at the expense of other great players, but before they draft Patrick White 27th overall, maybe they should make an extra trip out to Victoria and take another look at Jamie Benn – who went 129th the same year.

    There’s lots of great hockey players who come from BC, as evidenced by Willie Mitchell & Colin Fraser winning the cup this week. I personally feel that more then just one at a time (Dan Hamhuis) should have the chance to play for the Canucks.

  • NuckfiSh

    NuckfiSh, keep in mind the article is about Mike Gillis’ drafting tendencies. You bring up Grabner, Lucic, Patrick White, but they were all before Mikes time.

    I think teams should grab the best player that are available. Making emotional decisions when you draft sets you up for the possibility of making terrible mistakes.

  • NuckfiSh

    Why does the league not stop rewarding the quitters like Edmonton (or previous quitters like LA) and at least reverse the 2nd, 4th and 6th rounds?

    Vancouver would be picking 26th and 34th this year and teams that manage properly and/or actually try and win consistently would get a bit of a reward.

  • NuckfiSh

    Good point Kyle, and your right i don’t put those ‘misses’ on Gillis. My point rather is about not overlooking local talent…

    As a lifetime Canucks fan since the early 90’s, it’s my observation that while the organization has been great at scouting players oversea’s and even in Alberta, the track record for drafting quality BC talent is very poor. As the article eludes to, this is something Gillis spoke about a few years back, and something i was very excited for. So far it hasn’t happened… right now the only BC born player on the Canucks was signed as a free agent, and i hope in the future we can draft these kids instead of having to pay big money on the open market. (ala Hamhuis & possibly Schultz & Weber)


  • NuckfiSh

    One thing I’d like to see, and maybe I will find the time to do it, is break down the rosters from recent Stanley Cup Champions and the leagues from which they came…I have a feeling the Dub would show much better than in the above data.

    Also look at the draft rankings. There are a ton of elite WHL’ers available, especially on defense.

    It’s not a “regional” thing for me…I’m born and bred Ontarian. But the Dub is spitting out elite NHL players that know how to win…at a much higher rate than the Q or NCAA, though the latter is certainly rising fast while the former has declined over the years.

    Right now at 26, I’m looking at North Vancouver born Dalton Thrower or Colton Scissons. Not because of their birthplace, but both are the type of industrious, gritty forwards that are needed to win in the NHL.

    At 56, I like Damon Severson (Kelowena sure knows how to produce elite defensemen) and Emil Lundberg (gritty crease-crasher).