Canucks 2013 NHL Draft Preview: “Lottery picks” and Mike Gillis’ draft strategy

The Canucks selected 20-year-old Alexandre Mallet in the 2nd round last season (via Youtube)

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Doubt I’ll get away with saying it on this blog, but one of the reasons I wanted the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup is because I respect how their organization was built. The core players on the team, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask and David Krejci, weren’t acquired because the team was bad for several years in a row and earned a bunch of lottery picks.

Chicago has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Los Angeles had Drew Doughty. The Pittsburgh Penguins had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal (who they turned into other stuff). One of the issues afflicting the NHL right now is that it’s really tough to win without top talent, and it’s tough to acquire top talent without being terrible for a few years in a row without getting very lucky at the draft table.

(Yes, Boston has Tyler Seguin, but he wasn’t drafted with the Bruins’ pick, nor was he a real core guy throughout the playoffs, scoring a single goal).

I have to credit Mike Gillis for looking for a way around this core “rewaring failure issue.” While his team was picking low in the draft each season, he had the idea of drafting older players that better fit into the team’s minor league system. Now on the organization’s third AHL team in four seasons, Gillis’ vision of a powerful AHL team that quickly fit NCAA grads hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Rather than look for younger, high-risk, high-reward players, Gillis wanted immediacy.

He expressed his thoughts to me last year in Pittsburgh:

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“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.”

While Gillis said he prefers for his philosophy to be enacted from the fourth round onward, it was more prevalent earlier due to the weak 2012 class. Alexandre Mallet was selected in the 2nd round with the 57th overall pick. “He’s more mature,” said Gillis, who admitted that his age worked for him. He’ll be eligible to play with the Chicago Wolves next season, unlike other 18-year old Canadian Hockey League players, allowing the team to get a good look at him.

“It gives you more opportunity and more development time. We have a team right now that we’re not going to make a whole lot of changes to over the next couple of years.”

The Canucks’ minor league system isn’t exactly gangbusters at this point, nor is there a prospect pipeline ready to supply Gillis and his new coach John Tortorella the type of young talent Torts was used to in New York. Headed into his 23-year-old season, the Canucks’ top prospect Zack Kassian has just 11 goals to his name, dangerously close to his NHL peak.

But Kassian wasn’t drafted by the club. The Canucks haven’t had a regular player from their own draft class since before Gillis’ time—Mason Raymond is a regular player for the club and he was taken in the 2nd round of 2005. Two regular NHLers have come from the Canucks’ draft ranks: Cody Hodgson and Michael Grabner, but Hodgson was shipped out after the team couldn’t find a spot for him in the lineup and Grabner was traded in the Keith Ballard deal.

Is there potential? Well, Jordan Schroeder played 31 games for the Canucks this past season. Frankie Corrado came to play in the playoffs and burned a slide year on his entry-level contract. Nicklas Jensen left the OHL to join AIK of the Swedish Elite League and scored 17 goals in 50 games to lead his team.

The problem with Gillis’ strategy is that the most eligible-looking guys (including last year’s first rounder Brendan Gaunce, who led the Belleville Bulls in goal scoring with 33 in 60 games and was also named the top defensive forward in the OHL’s Eastern Conference) are not the older players like Henrik Tommernes, Alexander Grenier and Alex Friesen, who were all drafted later than their first year of eligibility, but simply young, ranked CHLers.

The 2013 draft crop is not only regarded as top-heavy, but also very deep. Most teams should come away with two quality players if they have a couple of picks in the Top 40. Canada had a very good U-18 crop, with a team that not only won the Ivan Hlinka last summer but also the IIHF U-18 this spring (although much of that was thanks to Rimouski Oceanic goaltender Philippe Desrosiers).

I think, that while the thinking behind Gillis’ drafting was pretty secure, in the end it didn’t work out as it hoped. At least it hasn’t at the time of our writing. Obviously, the Atlanta Thrashers relocation to Winnipeg killed the 10-year relationship between the Canucks and an AHL affiliate. That was a difficult relationship to replace, and presented challenges in turning Gillis’ late-round picks into NHL players…

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This is a two-year old study, but I still think it’s relevant. Friend of the blog Rob Pettapiece wrote a fantastic bit of research concluding that younger players were more likely to perform at a higher rate than expected than older players. Drance summarized it last June. You don’t need to be named Malcolm Gladwell to recognize that older players have a competitive advantage at the junior level, or a mathematician to come to the conclusion that younger players age.

One observation I’d make is that NHL teams tend to leave a lot of raw talent on the table in favour of immediacy. At the draft, I’d prefer to see more teams look for home run swings rather than base hits up the middle. Being how difficult it is to turn players into superstars you want as many chips on the roulette table as possible.

While a player like Jean-Sebastien Dea or J.C. Lipon may be enticing due to their scoring rates as 19-year-olds, I think that Gillis should concentrate on drafting eligible players born in 1995. The clock is ticking on Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows and if the Canucks intend to win with this group they need an injection of talent that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

  • Mantastic

    I agree and tend to cheer against the teams that were pretty bad for years, and built up their core with top-5 picks. That being said, I hate Boston more than Chicago right now, so I was “cheering” (booing less) for Chicago.

    It especially gets to me when I perenially see top-teir talent being drafted by clubs like Columbus and Florida. Teams that never get good, are horribly managed, and like to sit around the cap floor.

  • Mantastic

    The Canucks have not drafted well. There are some horrid, horrid years in there and a couple of OK ones. I guess we have to wait and see in regards to the Gillis draft years but nothing wonderful yet.

    I think Gillis really should’ve cleaned house in the scouting or upgraded. We’ve been doing better but the farm has very little to offer. Something needs to be done.

  • orcasfan

    Well, I think you’re being a little unfair, Cam. When Gillis said he was looking at drafting older players, he was definitely talking about the later rounds (granted, with the exception of Mallet, in a weak draft). And while the most eligible prospect guys are not those older players, they were, in fact, taken in the 1st round, rather than later rounds. I think it may be a little too early to judge his strategy of drafting college-bound kids in later rounds. That crop is just starting to enter into the AHL. We will have to wait and see how guys like Price, Cannata and Tommernes pan out.

    And, in fact, Gillis & Co have gone for the high risk/high reward young guys in later rounds. Remember Prab Rai? Or how about Steven Anthony? They have definitely not worked out! The reality is that drafting in the later rounds is way beyond a crap shoot! So, it takes some creativity and daring to try out different strategies that might give you an edge.

  • Mantastic

    ““If you look at baseball, historically high schoolers never pan out. College kids almost always do,” said Gillis.”

    Another piece of evidence that Gillis read Moneyball without actually understanding its practical use.

    His efforts to give the Canucks a competetive advantage have had the opposite effect.

    There is a reason older players often get passed up at the draft table until it is the Canucks turn to draft. And it’s not because Gillis has ever been ahead of the curve.

    It isn’t even remotely surprising that the Canucks have a farm system full of low-medium ceiling prospects. Gillis’ logic at the draft table has never been sound and it shows.

    Henrik, Daniel, Kesler, Lou & Schneider are Gillis’ Halladay, Wells, Rios, Delgado and Green.

    Gillis has filled around the edges until he has sucked every inch of blood from the core he inherited.

    By the time he gets fired the team will need to rebuild for the first time in over 15 years.

    • JCDavies

      “”“If you look at baseball, historically high schoolers never pan out. College kids almost always do,” said Gillis.”

      Another piece of evidence that Gillis read Moneyball without actually understanding its practical use.

      His efforts to give the Canucks a competetive advantage have had the opposite effect.

      There is a reason older players often get passed up at the draft table until it is the Canucks turn to draft. And it’s not because Gillis has ever been ahead of the curve.”


      Many college baseball players chosen at the top of the MLB draft have been drafted before – at least once, sometimes twice. It’s the player’s decision to pass up the opportunity to sign a pro contract and go to, or stay in, college. Lack of MLB interest is not the reason good college players are available to be drafted.

      Gillis should be asking himself why over-age players like Alexandre Mallet are still available.

      • JCDavies

        Well said.

        High upside high schoolers are often taken in the later rounds of the MLB draft and refuse to sign. 2-3 years later they are drafted in a higher spot with a bigger signing bonus.

        The goal of the NHL draft after the first 5-15 picks is to find players that can take that step forward AFTER being drafted. Recent examples include Alex Edler & Cory Schneider.

        Nothing in Gillis’ 5 years has shown the Canucks will draft that kind of player without the benefit of ultra high draft picks.

  • Fred-65

    Other than blind stupidity the Canucks should come away with a quality pick and maybe would have had 2 had not the second round draft pick being traded away. I’d sure like to see Morin come our way, I’ve been on about this kid since he was in the 2nd round area but I’m thinking he’ll be gone when our pick comes around