Part of me wonders attributing which recent Vancouver Canucks misjudgments to ownership rather than management would prompt receiving a letter from Francesco Aquilini. One thing I’m quite confident ownership had no control over was the Canucks’ brutal draft record from 2008 to present. Of the 37 young men selected by the Canucks during Mike Gillis’ tenure, only one has made the Canucks in a regular capacity, being Jordan Schroeder, and even then it’s debatable.
I can kind of give credit to Gillis for attempting to think outside the box and draft older, more developed prospects, but that strategy turned out to not be a calculated move structured at replenishing the minor league rosters more quickly; all it wound up doing was taking away lottery tickets for the Canucks to hit on some 5th or 6th rounder that hit a development spurt midway through his 18th year.
But there’s one pool that Gillis failed to consider, one that I think was a big downfall of his as general manager and no, it isn’t the Vancouver Giants.
There was a great piece written by Tal Pinchevsky that went up on NHL.com on Sunday. It’s a fascinating look at the story of Troy Gamble and Jack McIlhargey, one a Canucks minor-league goaltender and the other a front office assistant, visiting the Soviet Union in an attempt to forge relations with Russian hockey executives and eventually woo Igor Larianov and Vladimir Krutov to the NHL.
It really is fascinating, and it makes you appreciate the effort that went into acquiring two players, one of which built a Hall of Fame career elsewhere in the NHL, and the other who was a massive (literally) disappointment in Vancouver.
But in the Pat Quinn years, the Canucks weren’t strangers to Russians. Pavel Bure built up his own Hall of Fame career in Vancouver, and the team earned contributions from Anatoli Semenov and John Namestnikov around the time I was starting to get into hockey. In the summer of 1995, the Canucks traded for Alexander Mogilny, and as an seven-year old I was friggin’ ecstatic. Mogilny played just four-and-a-half seasons in Vancouver, but he was the Canucks’ leading scorer in both goals and points in his brief career here.
I’ve talked with my Russian buddy Andrey Osadchenko about this over a few beers on several occasions, and there were a lot of Russian kids in our generation who were big Canuck fans due to the influence of Bure. You cheered for the Red Wings or you cheered for the Canucks if you were in Russia, presumably.
And now, a generation of Russian fans have likely deserted the Canucks. Not only do they not have Russian players, but it seems they don’t make that effort to reach out to a different part of the world. I get that Russia is old and scary and they speak a different language and have that hockey league that has managed to retain the odd homegrown star, but that’s no reason to deliberately cut yourself off from one of the premier pipelines of hockey talent.
During Gillis’ tenure, the Canucks got just 8 games from Russian- or Soviet-born players: eight games, one measly goal, and ten shots on goal from Sergei Shirokov in 98 minutes of action. I don’t think that Shirokov would be a star player if he were still with the Canucks, let alone still in the league, but it bugged me he never got a second look after putting up a decent shot rate in his small six-game appearance in 2010-11.
The Canucks qualified Shirokov that summer, but it never sounded like they made a pitch to keep him around despite losing several valuable pieces from the fourth line. Shirokov wound up signing with CSKA, and the Canucks dealt his NHL rights for Mike Duco. The Canucks began the next season with Aaron Volpatti and Dale Weise on their fourth line. Not as good, but easier to deal with, I’m sure.
Draft Day 2013 was a hell of a roller coaster. I was watching with Dimitri and another friend of ours, eating pizza and drinking beer and getting indignant. When the Canucks traded Cory Schneider for the No. 9 pick, the obvious candidates for the selection were Hunter Shinkaruk or Valeri Nichushkin.
Instead, the Canucks took Bo Horvat, who is an excellent OHL player and has an NHL future, but isn’t a game-breaker like Nichushkin. As a rookie, Nichushkin would be 3rd in goals and 5th in points on a Canucks team struggling for offence and lacking that potential top six scoring forward.
During his tenure as general manager, Gillis selected OHLers, WHLers, QMJHLers, Canadian Junior “A” players, American college kids, American high school kids, kids from Finland and Sweden, but no Russians. It’s as if the country didn’t exist to Gillis, as if he wasn’t willing to put in the extra effort to play nice with the agents and teams that control the junior pipeline in Russia.
It is a bit different, and Russia is nothing if not protective of its talent, a matter that is complicated by the lack of transfer agreement between the NHL and the KHL, but there was a lot of talent left on the board by the Canucks at the draft table, which was ultimately Gillis’ downfall.
It’s easy to say “oh, well how did he miss Brendan Gallagher, or Jason Demers, or Ondrej Palat” or whatever late rounder has become a key NHL player. Signal is a lot easier to find when backtracking. My issue is that the draft has become a lottery zone, where the potential rewards of drafting a high-value player in the late rounds outweighs the risks of not taking somebody in the NHL. Talented players like Nikolai Prokhorkin and Anton Slepyshev weren’t even on the team’s radar. They’re difficult to work with, but of the teams that are comfortable selecting Russian players and willing to put in the time with the agents and the complicated transfer process, it’s clear the Canucks aren’t one of them.
Well… there aren’t any meaningful games left in the season, so it’s time to start talking up some draft prospects. Meet Vladimir Tkachev (or Tkachyov), the somewhat-undersized, smooth skating, talented forward who can do this:
Tkachev was ranked 60th among European skaters in the final NHL CSS rankings, a huge drop from 14th. That’s odd, since Tkachev was considered a European skater at the midterm rank, but after transferring from his Russian junior club to the Moncton Wildcats at the midseason mark, he ought to qualify as a North American skater.
Tkachev was sixth on the Wildcats in scoring despite having played only half the season, getting 30 points in 20 games with teammate and fellow Russian Ivan Barbashev. In the playoffs, Tkachev kept that rate of 1.5 points per game going, scoring nine in six games with seven goals, second to Barbashev by a point in team scoring. Barbashev is expected to be drafted sometime in the first round, ranked 18th among North American skaters.
Tkachev wasn’t on the Russian world junior squad. His coach claimed that the young sniper didn’t score enough goals during the Quebec portion Subway Super Series, which seems like an arbitrary reason to leave a goal-scorer off the roster and also a huge misunderstanding of sample size.
If the Canucks are looking for mid-round gems, I’d like to see Tkachev. The only knock appears to be size, plus the inevitable “flight risk” attached to quite literally every Russian player selected at the draft, even the ones who come over at a young age to play junior. The Canucks need an injection of young talent, and the best way to do that is to exploit undervalued traits at the draft table. Tkachev is Moneyball, Moneyball is Tkachev. He’s a small and talented scorer (a plus) who other teams might stray away from (double plus).
I could be talking completely out of my ass, but I’d like for the new organization to go the distance and put in the work to lure a couple of talented Russians to Vancouver. The Canucks have gone a long way from sending two of their own beyond the Iron Curtain to going six drafts without touching a Russian. By design or not, the Canucks are effectively cut off from a big chunk of the hockey world in the current set-up, and I’d like to see that change.