Finding Milan, Part I

The times that we, as a blogosphere, spend searching for “the next Milan Lucic” may be better off understanding who the first Milan Lucic is. He’s a relevant topic of conversation, since he is generally the first player brought up in those insane “the Canucks need to draft more Giants” discussions.

And why not? Lucic is 6’4″, 200 lbs and a legitimate crazy person on the ice. He’s scored 56 goals over the last two seasons, hits everything that moves and fits the rugged “bull-in-a-china-shop” descriptor. But just what the heck is so valuable about Milan Lucic that makes him such a desirable, and rare, character?

For that, I think we need to look a bit more at Lucic’s history.

From BCHL Cast-Off to Prototypical NHL Powerforward

In 2003, 223 players were selected in the Western Hockey League’s Bantam Draft, and Milan Lucic was not one of them, skipped over and overlooked for various reasons. One of which, I can only assume by looking at Lucic’s progression through the years, is the belief that Lucic would never be able to skate quickly enough to be a legitimate hockey player.

Then he was cut from the Coquitlam Express of the BCHL, and used Junior B to work his way up to Junior A, and used Junior A to work his way into the WHL. In his rookie WHL season, also his draft year, he scored 9 goals in 62 games and added 10 assists, with 149 penalty minutes. The Vancouver Giants won the WHL Championship that season, but had a disappointing Memorial Cup showing, finishing third.

Then what happened? Well, he was expected to be selected at the upcoming NHL Entry draft, but not too high. McKeen’s had him ranked 82nd on their overall list behind other WHL luminaries such as Riley Holzapfel and Ondrej Fiala and Codey Burki. Why the low ranking? Hockey’s Future, a resource that essentially compiles various scouting reports via the Google machine, questioned his “commitment to fundamentals”.

It’s not that any team really passed on Lucic here. He was slotted to go sometime in the late third round or the early fourth. The Boston Bruins took a long, hard look and decided to take him with the 50th overall selection, one that surprised him. “I didn’t know they were this interested,” he told reporters.

It’s not like at any time this was a player we’d look upon as a key member of a National Hockey League team, but Peter Chiarelli disagreed when he signed him to an extension that would kick in at the 2010-11 season that would pay Milan $4M for two seasons, then $4.25M in the third year. Before that slight 250k raise kicked in, Chiarelli decided that Lucic was worth $6M per season.

And there’s the record scratch.

A Crisis of Expectation

Here’s McKeen’s writeup of Lucic from last offseason. Thanks to Gus Katsaros for sending this over:

“Rigid puck carrier, little stickhandling, more about brute strength .. seemed quicker off the mark in ’11-12 .. liked to carry it more too, rigidity aside .. showed extensions of his playmaking ability .. much improved identifying passing opportunities .. doesn’t protect the puck well while rushing, especially wide, instead relying on a bull mentality to outmuscle and strong arm defenders .. remarked how he still felt slight effects of the high ankle sprain he suffered two seasons ago ..”

And here is this season’s:

“Unable to step up in Nathan Horton’s absence – and even failed to score a single goal in a surprisingly flat playoff performance… laboured to keep the engines full throttle – in spite of dishing out a team-high 3 hits in the series – as witnessed by a careless turnover and lazy recovery – that handed Washington the opening goal in Game 7… mean, uncompromising winger generates chances with determination and strength…”

There are notes about Lucic’s improved fundamentals, particularly his skating and playmaking, but for the most part, the difference in tone between 2011 and 2012 is staggering.

I’m debating that some of this could be attributed to swings in Lucic’s PDO. PDO is the addition of save and shot percentage while a player is on the ice. Players with a number that is too high or too low can expect to regress towards 1000:

Season PDO
2008 991
2009 1043
2010 977
2011 1045
2012 997

(via Behind the Net)

That’s the problem with Lucic. He’s a fundamentally-flawed hockey player and thus impossible to predict or replicate. He’s made his living not by the traditional skills of skating, shooting and stick handling, but through brute strength and force of will. When his percentages are high, people expect a lot more out of him than I think they should.

It’s not a flaw that Lucic was unable to step up in Nathan Horton’s absence. Nathan Horton is a fantastic hockey player. Rather, it’s a crisis of expectation.

When Lucic had a 30-goal season in 2010-2011, it went underreported that he had five empty net goals. When he scored 26 goals in 2011-2012, he was theoretically improving on his offence with less freebie production. He didn’t score a single empty-net goal (unless you count his five goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs).

This is where statistics may have a leg-up on actual viewings. If I was sitting in the stands next to you watching those 2006 Vancouver Giants and told you that Lucic would go on to have a more successful NHL career than Gilbert Brule, you would have said I was crazy. Lucic was fierce and intimidating, but he was exceptionally slow and clunky, and with his natural hunch, he looked awkward.

Yet the way he’s looked has been the reverse of how he’s translated to the NHL. He’s not the perfect hockey player and his game still has some flaws, but he’s a 25-goal scorer in consecutive years and he’s yet to play a season with a minus-possession rate.

His breed is rare, but there’s another power forward out there who is arguably better, albeit much less heralded, and won’t be as rich when the NHL season starts up again.

And coming into the fray is Zack Kassian. These are players we’ll look at over the next two weeks.

Related Articles from CanucksArmy

  • Pinch

    A few thoughts.

    1. Part of what made Lucic such a desirable draft pick (for the Bruins) was the fact that Lucic is exceptionally strong and a very good fighter. When the Bruins drafted him, we expected he’d end up as a 4th line goon who would punch people out. The Bruins may have expected more from him, but the general groupthink (And his actual play) suggested he’d be an enforcer. Lucic’s fight win% in the WHL had to be close to 100%.

    2. Lucic had an amazing leap the following season. Junior players often will, but Lucic had to be the most surprising one I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just his brute strength that helped, but a noticeable improvement in his skating speed and confidence with the puck.

    3. Kassian, from what I’ve seen, lacks a lot of the nasty streak and strength that Lucic has. If Lucic took that many nights off, he wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Lucic had a tough road to climb to get where he is, while Kassian never did.

    4. You are right that people expect far too much of Lucic. He’s a very fine player, and is very good at playing a relatively simple game. Can’t people be happy with 25-30 goals, lots of big hits, and a player that is fun to watch? He provides a lot of value, even if he doesn’t up his offensive totals.

  • Pinch

    While I disagree with Cam on quite a lot of things, I have to say that as a Canucks fan who proudly lists Lucic as his favourite player, this assessment is bang-on. Lucic is a freak in every sense of the word – he’s physically massive, tough as nails, strong despite a spinal deformity, and appears to have low-level offensive tools at best. Yet, he still produces at a top-level rate for a winger.

    The folly with looking for the “next Milan Lucic” is that Milan Lucic was never supposed to develop into Milan Lucic. You’re better off searching for the next Todd Bertuzzi, meaning a player with size and nastiness but also more traditional tools like strong puckhandling skills, creativity and passing ability to name a few.

  • Pinch

    “His breed is rare, but there’s another power forward out there who is arguably better, albeit much less heralded, and won’t be as rich when the NHL season starts up again.”

    Gonna say this is probably one mr. backes of the blues?

  • Finding Milan Lucic is a fool’s errand. As Cam notes, his improvement and development from WHL to NHL has been almost unheard of.

    Kassian – he’s not really like Lucic at all. Kassian is a skilled playmaker who happens to be 6-3, 220 pounds, and mean.

    Lucic is a mean, physical forward who happens to have good hands.

    I feel like the two players prioritize their games differently. That isn’t to sell Lucic’s skill short or Kassian’s toughness short.